Paul M. Zoll: Father of Cardiac Electrotherapy

By , July 7, 2014
Paul M. Zoll

Stafford I. Cohen’s new biography of Paul M. Zoll

In his newly-published biography of Paul M. Zoll, Stafford I. Cohen provides a lively and absorbing narrative of the life of a physician and his momentous contributions to medicine and physiology.

Paul M. Zoll (1911-1999; A.B. 1932, Harvard College; M.D. 1936, Harvard Medical School) studied the relationship between alcoholism and heart disease with Soma Weiss before beginning a clinical internship at Boston’s Beth Israel Hospital. World War II found him serving as cardiologist and Chief of Medicine at the 160th U.S. Army Station Hospital in Cirencester, England, where his Harvard classmate, Dwight Harken, was doing pioneering work in cardiac surgery. Zoll assisted him in hundreds of procedures and developed an abiding interest in the irritability of the heart when subjected to surgical manipulation.

Zoll returned to Boston in 1945 and resumed his research, with a new focus on electrical stimulation of the heart, conversion of cardiac arrhythmias, as well as cardiac stimulation and monitoring. In 1952, Zoll made the crucial discovery that electrical stimulation to the chest could produce and maintain an effective cardiac rhythm in patients suffering ventricular standstill. In 1956, he developed a safe technique for external stimulation of the heart in cardiac arrest, and later expanded its use to correct supraventricular and ventricular tachycardia and atrial fibrillation. He also contributed to the development of cardiac monitoring and implanted pacemakers. Zoll’s contributions to the prevention of sudden cardiac death  as well as the understanding of cardiac pathophysiology cannot be overstated.

A painting of Zoll by American artist Joel Babb (1947- ), commissioned by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, was given to Harvard University in 2002 and now hangs just opposite the Center for the History of Medicine, Lower Level 2, in the Countway Library.


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