The History of the Defibrillator

With AEDs starting to become as popular as first aid kits in many places around the world, have you ever wondered how these life saving devices first came to be?

There are many theories as to when defibrillators were first invented; however one of the first known uses of a defibrillation device was documented in 1899 in Switzerland. Physiologists J.L.Prevost and F.Battelli were conducting tests on dogs and discovered that a weak electrical stimulus could fibrillate a heart, whereas as stronger one could reverse it. At this point however, there was no intention to use this information to save a human life.

This didn’t happen until 1947, when American surgeon Claude Beck successfully used an experimental defibrillation device on a 14 year old boy who was being operated on for a congenital chest defect. Ironically, the device was once again developed for animal testing, and it was only out of sheer desperation that Beck used it to restart the boy’s heart – can you imagine where we would be if he had never had this idea! The successful defibrillation of the boy soon caught the attention of the national media, and as such paved the way for more research into the development of defibrillators.

The next major breakthrough came in 1956 when physician Paul Zoll used a more powerful unit to successfully perform closed-chest defibrillation. However, this device was still only suitable for use by trained professionals within a hospital environment.

It wasn’t until 1965 that portable external defibrillators that could be used outside the hospital environment were developed and began to gain popularity- pioneered by Professor Frank Pantridge. The defibrillators were originally fitted in Ambulances and ran off car batteries – however this particular version today wouldn’t have been considered very portable at all, with the device weighing a massive 70kg!

The gradual improvements and attention to defibrillation technology (including the reduction in weight) led to the development of Automated External Defibrillators (AEDs) that could analyse and diagnose heart rhythms, allowing people with very basic training to use the devices correctly- very similar to what we see in many public places today.

Of course, development of defibrillators does not stop there and there is continual research taking place on how to make these lifesaving devices more effective. Wondering what could come next? We will certainly be
eager to see!