Paul Winchell (né Wilchinsky) was born in New York City. He had wanted to be a doctor, but the Depression eliminated any chances of continuing his education. At age 13, he contracted polio. As fate would have it, polio would have a great influence on shaping his two careers.
Paul purchased a ventriloquism kit thinking it was something he could learn while recovering from polio. He created a dummy who he called Jerry Mahoney and developed a comedy routine. After winning the Major Bowes Amateur Hour, he was offered to become a professional ventriloquist. He accepted, and his education ended at age 14.
Paul’s career as a ventriloquist led to radio and TV shows. He was also the voice for a number of cartoon characters, including Tigger in Winnie the Pooh and Sam-I-Am.
But Paul had a second career as an inventor. He and Dr. Henry Heimlich (the Heimlich maneuver) developed the first artificial heart. While Robert Jarvik is generally considered the developer of the artificial heart, his design incorporated many of the features that Paul had in his design. What Jarvik had that Paul didn’t have were the credentials for acceptance.
Paul did receive a patent for his artificial heart, but it was Jarvik’s design that became the first artificial heart implanted in a patient. Paul went on to receive more than 30 patents in his invention career. Many of those were while he was working for the Leukemia Society. At his death, he donated many of his patents to the University of Utah.
It’s ironic that many innovations come from people who don’t have the credentials that one would expect for such innovations. As a result, the acceptance of their ideas is a struggle. But their innovations do spark others with credentials to build on their ideas. Those who have provided the creative spark remain as hidden heroes. Paul struggled with depression due in part to his lack of acceptance, but also the result of an abusive childhood. All too often we have, as a society, rejected or delayed the acceptance of innovations based upon the background of the innovator.
* * *
“Your work is to discover your world and then with all your heart give yourself to it.”– Buddha