Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Andreas Roland Gruentzig

Mahesh Raju
Chicago, Illinois, United States

Andreas Roland Gruentzig was born at the start of World War II on June 25, 1939 in Dresden, Germany.1 His mother, Charlotta, raised both him and his older brother after their father had failed to return from the war. His mother, a teacher, had difficulty supporting her family while living in East Germany. The regime had a policy that children of working class parents could not attend universities and thus Gruentzig was destined to a future of manual labor as long as he stayed there.1 At the age of 18, given his curiosity and desire for knowledge, he decided to follow his older brother to West Germany (the German Federal Republic), which many young talented people had done before him. The West would give him a scholarship and provide him with the knowledge needed to succeed.1 Gruentzig took advantage of the opportunity and began medical school at Heidelberg University. He worked very hard as all the immigrants from the East did to prove themselves. Graduating in 1964, he took a position at the University Hospital in Zurich in the Division of Angiology.1 His fiancée, Michaela Seebrunner, was a psychologist at the same hospital. This is where Gruentzig proclaimed that “I have dedicated my life to vascular disease.”1

In 1971, Gruentzig visited the Aggertal Clinic in Engelskirchen, Germany to watch Dr. Eberhart Zeitler use dilating catheters to reestablish blood flow to the lower extremities of patients.1 The catheters being used were the Dotter catheters, developed by a radiologist from Portland, Oregon. He was fascinated by the catheter design and especially about the possibility of adding a soft balloon to the tip.1

He brought those thoughts back with him to Zurich. There he discussed them with Maria Schlumpf, a research assistant in his department who also had a passion for developing catheters.1 Together they drew up plans for taking the Dotter peripheral artery technique to the heart. In Gruentzig’s kitchen they would spend many nights making catheters. They got engineering assistance from Helmuth Schmid, who helped develop the double lumen catheter concept, which Gruentzig so badly needed to make his catheter idea become a reality.1

At the America Heart Association’s annual meeting, Gruentzig presented the results of his first balloon angioplasties in peripheral vessels; and told the audience that he intended to take the balloon tipped catheter next into the heart.1 Many were skeptical, but some were intrigued. One physician, Dr. Richard Myler, assisted with the first few angioplasties using a direct method on patients with their chests already open during coronary artery bypass surgery.2 Many others went to Zurich to see Gruentzig work in his own laboratory.

On September 16, 1977, Gruentzig performed the first coronary angioplasty on Adolph Bachman, a patient with an 80% stenosis, of an expanded short, non-branching section of the left anterior descending artery.3 Many were amazed at what they had witnessed. Mason Sones, who performed the first coronary angiogram, supposedly cried out, “It’s a dream come true!”1 Despite all the accolades that Gruentzig had received, the Swiss failed to support his work. Tired of the bureaucratic limitations imposed on him, Gruentzig decided to immigrate to the US. After one of his conferences outside Zurich, he was on train sitting next to Dr. Spencer King, who knew of Gruentzig’s plans. In 1980, after a lengthy courtship, Gruentzig was brought to Emory University Hospital as head of Interventional Cardiology.4

At Emory, he held many live demonstrations, for he felt that the technique for his revolutionary procedure had to be learned properly to avoid it being misused and discredited. On the tenth anniversary of his first angioplasty he included Mr. Bachman, his initial patient from Zurich, showing that the blockage had remained open and that the patient was still angina-free.1 Gruentzig also had to battle with the cardiac surgeons, whose cases he was taking away.

Over the next few years, Gruentzig enjoyed great success both in and out of the cath lab. While he enjoyed his new life in America, his sports cars, an airplane, and a hectic social life, his wife Michaela did not. In 1981, as Gruentzig was spending most of his time with a medical student, Margaret Anne Thornton, Michaela decided to take their daughter Sonja and return to Zurich.1 Gruentzig and Thorton married in 1983. Over the next few years he kept close to himself, as he was under had incredible pressure both academically and socially. Some say he was torn between his first wife, Michaela, and his life in America.1 Unfortunately, on October 27, 1985, his life tragically ended as he and Thornton were killed crashing his plane during stormy weather near Forsyth, Georgia. He was only forty-six years old at the time.1

The pioneer of balloon angioplasty left behind a legacy that would not have been possible without his skill and ingenuity. His balloon tipped catheter has led to major improvements, including stenting and intravascular ultrasound. His procedure became known as percutaneous transluminal coronary angioplasty (PTCA). None of these would have been possible without a double lumen catheter; and his catheters led to new ways of avoiding major surgery in the treatment of diseases of the kidneys, brain, carotids, kidneys, legs, and aorta.2 As Spencer King had once said, “He drove fast, he lived fast, and he accomplished a lot in a short period of time.”1,3


  1. “European Perspectives” Circulation. 2007;116:F49-F54.
  2. www.ptca.org/archive/bios/gruentzig.html
  3. Monagan, David and David O. Williams. Journey into the Heart: A Tale of Pioneering Doctors and Their Race to Transform Cardiovascular Medicine. New York: Gotham Books, February 1, 2007.
  4. Emory HealthCare: History: Andreas Gruentzig (http://www.emoryhealthcare.org/heart-center-atlanta/history/andreas-gruentzig.html)

MAHESH RAJU, MD, is a cardiology fellow at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, Illinois.

Highlighted in Frontispiece Volume 5, Issue 2 – Spring 2013

Spring 2013



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