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Khantigger2

Imagine Winnie-the-Pooh’s friend Tigger battling Captain Kirk’s arch-enemy Khan Noonien Singh. On a prototype of Dancing With the Stars. And as a result, meeting The Most Famous Doctor in America. And with his help, inventing and patenting the world’s first bionic heart.

A crazy but true testament to the power of networking.

In the 1920s and ’30s, Arthur Murray became the most famous dance instructor in history, first through his mail-order business –- he invented a system of teaching dance by means of footprint diagrams, an idea that was sparked by a conversation he had had with perennial populist presidential candidate and anti-evolutionist Scopes Monkey Trial counsel William Jennings Bryan, of all people –- and then through the “Arthur Murray Dance Studio”, a chain that still exists today. Through the 1950s, Murray and his wife hosted a TV show, The Arthur Murray Party, which consisted in part of dance competitions between celebrity guests.

One such competition pitted the smoldering Latin actor Ricardo Montalban against the well-known ventriloquist Paul Winchell. Montalban was a star in his native Mexico and had had some success in Hollywood, though nothing like the fame he would achieve some two decades later as the iconic villain Khan in the Star Trek franchise and the mysterious Mr. Rourke on the series Fantasy Island.

Winchell, like Edgar Bergen, had inexplicably found national renown as a ventriloquist on a radio show, and later hosted TV series with his dummies Jerry Mahoney and Knucklehead Smiff. From the 1960s onward, Winchell would be better known for his voiceover work: he gave life to chronic Smurf-hater Gargamel, to the leader of the Scrubbing Bubbles, and, most memorably, to A.A. Milne’s elastically hyperactive feline Tigger. Perhaps his latent inner Tigger gave him an edge in the dance competition, because he defeated Montalban and took home the Buick (which sounds like a euphemism, but the car really was the grand prize).

Talented as he was as a performer, Winchell’s earliest career ambition was to become a doctor; but, when he was a youth, his family could not afford medical school. He retained a lifelong interest in medicine, though, even earning a degree and working in acupuncture in the 1970s. It was therefore quite natural that Winchell should form a connection with Arthur Murray’s son-in-law, Dr. Henry Heimlich, when they met during the taping of the Winchell/Montalban dance-off. Around the time Winchell was going to acupuncture school, Heimlich would be lauded by some (including himself) as the most well-known physician in America, after his article in Emergency Medicine introduced the life-saving technique he termed “the Heimlich maneuver”. But at the time, he was a more-or-less ordinary practicing surgeon, and Winchell was delighted to make his acquaintance.

Over the next several years, Winchell and Heimlich stayed in touch, and Heimlich even invited Winchell to join him several times in the operating room as an observer. It was during one of these operations that Winchell came up with an idea for a functional, implantable mechanical heart, one that could theoretically be used to replace a diseased human heart. He drew up the plans, consulting with Heimlich on the medical details, and in 1956 applied for a patent on the device he had invented. By 1963 he had been granted the first patent in the United States on a fully implantable artificial heart. Eventually, Winchell would contribute this patent to the University of Utah for use in its artificial organ design program — the same program from which Dr. Robert Jarvik (now married to Marilyn vos Savant, record-high-IQ magazine columnist) produced the first successfully implanted artificial heart. That device, the Jarvik-7, formed the basis of the Syncardia temporary Total Artificial Heart, which has been used in more than 800 patients. There is some debate over whether any of Winchell’s design elements were actually incorporated into the Jarvik-7, but at the very least Winchell’s design influenced the thinking of those in the University of Utah program. Thus is the slender connection between William Jennings Bryan’s casual comment to Arthur Murray about teaching dance steps and the extended life of 800+ heart patients over the past eight years.

Less tenuous is the significance of the relationship between Paul Winchell and Henry Heimlich. The results of their warm professional relationship could not have been predicted on that day they met in the dance studio, yet came about because both were receptive to meeting others with whom they shared some interests, even when there was no obvious immediate benefit to the connection. This is the right attitude towards networking; it should not be a series of quid pro quo transactions undertaken only with a specific end in mind, but the organic development of a garden of relationships that may bear fruit in unexpected, even wondrous, ways. The most wonderful thing about networking is that networking’s a wonderful thing.