Robert H. Bartlett, MD, FACS, received a BA from Albion College, Albion, Michigan, in 1960 and a MD, with honors, from the University of Michigan Medical School in 1963. He moved to Boston, where he served as an Intern, Resident, and Senior Resident in Surgery at Peter Bent Brigham and Children’s Hospital. In 1968, he was the Chief Resident in Thoracic Surgery at that institution and the following year served as its Chief Resident Surgeon. While at Brigham, he was a Research Fellow in Surgery, named the Arthur Tracy Cabot Teaching Fellow in Surgery, and became a Harvey Cushing Fellow. He also was a National Institutes of Health Trainee in Academic Surgery at Harvard Medical School.
In 1970, he joined the faculty at the University of California, Irvine, as an Assistant Professor of Surgery. Over the next decade, Dr. Bartlett served as the Assistant Director of Surgical Services and the Director of the Burn Center and rose to the rank of Professor of Surgery.
In 1980, he returned to the University of Michigan Medical Center, where his illustrious career continued. He became the Director of the Surgical Intensive Care Unit, Director of Graduate Education, and Chief of the Trauma/Critical Care Division. As Professor of Surgery in the Sections of General and Thoracic Surgery, he developed a Surgical Critical Care Fellowship and the Extracorporeal Life Support Program. Dr. Bartlett is currently Professor Emeritus of Surgery.
Robert Bartlett’s professional life has been characterized by exceptional vision, creativity, persistence, and energy. When Dr. Bartlett began his work at Brigham, cardiopulmonary bypass was limited to a few hours, because direct exposure of blood to oxygen for prolonged intervals was lethal. This observation led to the development of gas-permeable membranes that were interposed between the blood and the gas. In 1969, Dr. Bartlett published an account of a membrane oxygenator that allowed partial bypass in animals for up to four days. The following year he described a simple, reliable membrane oxygenator for organ perfusion. In 1975, Dr. Bartlett successfully treated the first infant, a little girl named by the nurses Esperanza, meaning “Hope,” with extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, or ECMO. Five years later the neonatal ECMO project moved with Dr. Bartlett from the University of California, Irvine, to the University of Michigan, where experience gradually increased from a few cases each year to several cases each month. He standardized the technique and exported his ideas throughout the world. By virtue of his extraordinary perseverance, many varieties of neonatal lung failure were changed from 90 percent mortality rate to 90 percent survival rate. Many thousands of infants have been saved by his extraordinary bioengineering and clinical innovation.
Since 1982, the technology has been adapted to pediatric patients with respiratory failure. Seventy percent have survived, and none have had long-term pulmonary disability. Extension to adult respiratory distress syndrome was much more difficult. The original randomized studies showed only a 10 percent survival rate in both treated and control groups. In spite of these discouraging results, Dr. Bartlett persisted and eventually achieved survival in more than 50 percent of adult patients. He has also pioneered the use of both arterial venous and venovenous hemofiltration.
Dr. Bartlett’s talents as an extraordinary investigator have been recognized throughout his career with 26 separate research grants, 14 from the National Institutes of Health, including an RO1 grant for the development of a totally artificial lung. His research interests continue to expand. Under his guidance, the University of Michigan Cardiopulmonary Physiology and Extracorporeal Circulation Research Laboratory is pursuing projects studying blood clotting in extracorporeal circulation, liquid ventilation, implantable lung devices, pulmonary fibrosis in acute lung injury, and many more techniques for prolonged extracorporeal circulation. Dr. Bartlett’s team is also developing an artificial liver system for use in patients who are waiting for liver transplants.
Dr. Bartlett has held leadership roles in most of the professional societies associated with critical care and the development of artificial organs. He has been president of both the American Society for Artificial Internal Organs and the International Society for Artificial Organs. He has served on the editorial boards of 10 major medical journals and written more than 300 articles in peer-reviewed publications.
His commitment to the American College of Surgeons includes being Co-Chair of the Postgraduate Course on Fluids and Electrolytes and a key member of the Pre- and Postoperative Care Committee. In 1996, the received the College’s prestigious Sheen Award for Research, and two years ago he gave the I.S. Ravdin Lecture in the Basic Sciences.
His contributions to surgery have been recognized by numerous awards, including a Medial of Special Recognition from the National Academy of Surgery of France, the McGraw Medial of the Detroit Surgical Association, the Medallion for Scientific Achievement from the American Surgical Association, and election to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Science..
The Jacobson Award recognizes innovation, a special type of scientific contribution epitomized by Dr. Bartlett’s efforts. However, his interests include a full range of general and thoracic surgery clinical problems. In addition to being a skilled surgeon, consummate investigator, charismatic teacher, and dedicated bioengineer, he has lectured throughout the world. His students in both critical care and bioengineering continue to carry on his tradition of excellence.