This Day In History

Lewis and Clark Depart Fort Clatsop

March 23, 1806

After passing a wet and tedious winter near the Pacific Coast, Lewis and Clark happily leave behind Fort Clatsop and head east for home.

The Corps of Discovery arrived at the Pacific the previous November, having made a difficult crossing over the rugged Rocky Mountains. Their winter stay on the south side of the Columbia River-dubbed Fort Clatsop in honor of the local Indians-had been plagued by rainy weather, thieving Indians, and a scarcity of fresh meat. No one in the Corps of Discovery regretted leaving Fort Clatsop behind.

In the days before their departure, Captains Lewis and Clark prepared for the final stage of their journey. Lewis recognized the possibility that some disaster might still prevent them from making it back east and he prudently left a list of the names of all the expedition’s men with Chief Coboway of the Clatsops. Lewis asked the chief to give the list to the crew of the next trading vessel that arrived so the world would learn that the expedition did reach the Pacific.

The previous few days had been stormy, but on March 22, the rain began to ease. The captains agreed to depart the next day, and they made a parting gift of Fort Clatsop and its furniture to Chief Coboway.

At 1 p.m. on this day in 1806, the Corps of Expedition set off up the Columbia River in canoes. After nearly a year in the wilderness, they had severely depleted the sizeable cache of supplies with which the expedition had begun–they set off on their return trip with only canisters of gunpowder, some tools, a small cache of dried fish and roots, and their rifles. The expedition had expended almost all of its supplies.

Ahead loomed the high, rugged slopes of the Rocky Mountains that had proved so difficult to cross in the other direction the previous year. This time, however, Lewis and Clark had the advantage of knowing the route they would take. Still, they knew the passage would be difficult, and they were anxious to find the Nez Perce Indians, whose help they would need to cross the mountains.

The months to come would witness some of the most dangerous moments of the journey, including Lewis’ violent confrontation with Blackfeet Indians near the Marias River of Montana in July. Nonetheless, seven months later to the day, on September 23, 1806, the Corps of Discovery arrived at the docks of St. Louis, where their long journey had begun nearly two and a half years before.


Artificial Heart Patient Dies

March 23, 1983

On March 23, 1983, Barney Clark dies 112 days after becoming the world’s first recipient of a permanent artificial heart. The 61-year-old dentist spent the last four months of his life in a hospital bed at the University of Utah Medical Center in Salt Lake City, attached to a 350-pound console that pumped air in and out of the aluminum-and-plastic implant through a system of hoses.

In the late 19th century, scientists began developing a pump to temporarily supplant heart action. In 1953, an artificial heart-lung machine was employed successfully for the first time during an operation on a human patient. In this procedure, which is still used today, the machine temporarily takes over heart and lung function, allowing doctors to operate extensively on these organs. After a few hours, however, blood becomes damaged by the pumping and oxygenation.

In the late 1960s, hope was given to patients with irreparably damaged hearts when heart-transplant operations began. However, the demand for donor hearts always exceeded availability, and thousands died every year while waiting for healthy hearts to become available.

On April 4, 1969, a historic operation was performed by surgeon Denton Cooley of the Texas Heart Institute on Haskell Karp, a patient whose heart was on the brink of total collapse and to whom no donor heart had become available. Karp was the first person in history to have his diseased heart replaced by an artificial heart. The temporary plastic-and-Dacron heart extended Karp’s life for the three days it took doctors to find him a donor heart. However, soon after the human heart was transplanted into his chest, he died from infection. Seven more failed attempts were made, and many doctors lost faith in the possibility of replacing the human heart with a prosthetic substitute.

In the early 1980s, however, a pioneering new scientist resumed efforts to develop a viable artificial heart. Robert K. Jarvik had decided to study medicine and engineering after his father died of heart disease. By 1982, he was conducting animal trials at the University of Utah with his Jarvik-7 artificial heart.

On December 2, 1982, a team led by Dr. William C. DeVries implanted the Jarvik-7 into Barney Clark. Because Jarvik’s artificial heart was intended to be permanent, the Clark case drew worldwide attention. Clark spent his last 112 days in the hospital and suffered considerably from complications and the discomfort of having compressed air pumped in and out of his body. He died on March 23, 1983, from various complications. Clark’s experience left many feeling that the time of the permanent artificial heart had not yet come.

During the next decade, Jarvik and others concentrated their efforts on developing mechanical pumps to assist a diseased heart rather than replace it. These devices allow many patients to live the months or even years it takes for them to find a donor heart. Battery powered, these implants give heart-disease patients mobility and allow them to live relatively normal lives. Meanwhile, in the 1990s, the Jarvik-7 was used on more than 150 patients whose hearts were too damaged to be aided by the mechanical pump implant. More than half of these patients survived until they got a transplant.

In 2001, a company called Abiomed unveiled the AbioCor, the first completely self-contained replacement heart. Although patients implanted with the AbioCor have still eventually died, Abiomed has shown it is possible to live as long as 500 days with the implant. Scientists continue to look for ways to improve artificial hearts for long-term use.


James Cameron’s “Titanic” Wins 11 Academy Awards

March 23, 1998

By the time James Cameron took the stage to accept his Academy Award for Best Director on the night of March 23, 1998, the Oscar dominance of his blockbuster film Titanic was all but assured. Titanic tied the record for most Oscar nominations with 14—joining 1950’s All About Eve—and by night’s end would tie with Ben Hur (1959) for most wins by sweeping 11 categories, including the coveted Best Picture.

With Aliens, The Abyss and the first two Terminator movies under his belt, Cameron had already proved himself a master of the action-packed science-fiction blockbuster genre. His ambition reached new heights with Titanic, a retelling of the ill-fated 1912 voyage of the unparalleled passenger steamship, which sank in the North Atlantic after striking an iceberg. Cameron’s films were notorious for going long over schedule and way over budget, and Titanic was worse than most. Originally budgeted at $100 million, the film eventually topped out at about $200 million, more than any other film in history; it also missed its original release date, making the studio executives sweat as they envisioned another Heaven’s Gate (the infamous big-budget flop that sank United Artists in the early 1980s).

Personally, Cameron was known for his dictatorial style, hot temper and obsession with detail. For his reenactment of the historic ship’s sinking, the film’s crew constructed a 775-foot (90 percent scale) replica of the RMS Titanic and put it in a tank containing 17 million gallons of water. Production was done in Mexico, and members of the cast and crew later complained about the harsh conditions, including shooting days of more than 20 hours, much of that time spent standing in cold, murky Pacific Ocean water.

Released just before Christmas in 1997, Titanic became a monster hit and continued to earn steadily at the box office over the next six months until it became the first movie ever to gross more than $1 billion internationally. Critical response to the film was divided. Many reviews were positive, but some critics praised the visual effects and action sequences—especially the last hour of the three-hour-plus movie, which depicts the epic sinking of the luxury liner—even while pointing out the weakness of the screenplay, which Cameron penned himself. In one particularly memorable pan, Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times wrote that the film “reeks of phoniness and lacks even minimal originality.” Cameron famously fired back in a letter to the editor, demanding (unsuccessfully) that the Times “impeach Kenneth Turan.”

On Oscar night, Cameron echoed Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in Titanic by shouting “I’m the king of the world!” upon accepting his Best Director statuette. While accepting Best Picture (as the film’s producer), the filmmaker was slightly more subdued, asking for a moment of silence in remembrance of the more than 1,500 people who drowned on the Titanic.


Hollywood Icon Elizabeth Taylor Dies at 79

March 23, 2011

On this day in 2011, actress Elizabeth Taylor, who appeared in more than 50 films, won two Academy Awards and was synonymous with Hollywood glamour, dies of complications from congestive heart failure at a Los Angeles hospital at age 79. The violet-eyed Taylor began her acting career as a child and spent most of her life in the spotlight. Known for her striking beauty, she was married eight times and later in life became a prominent HIV/AIDS activist.

Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor was born in London, England, on February 27, 1932, to an American art dealer and his wife, a former actress. In 1939, the family moved to Southern California, and in 1942 Taylor made her film debut in There’s One Born Every Minute. At age 12, she rose to stardom in 1944’s National Velvet, later moving on to adult roles such as 1951’s A Place in the Sun, for which she garnered strong reviews. As one of Hollywood’s leading stars in the 1950s and 1960s, her credits included 1956’s Giant, with Rock Hudson and James Dean; 1957’s Raintree County, with Montgomery Clift and Eva Marie Saint; 1958’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, with Paul Newman; and 1959’s Suddenly, Last Summer, with Clift and Katharine Hepburn. The latter three films each garnered Taylor Oscar nominations, before she took home best actress honors for 1960’s Butterfield 8, with Laurence Harvey and Eddie Fisher, and 1966’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, with Richard Burton.

Off-screen, Taylor’s colorful personal life generated numerous headlines. In 1950, the 18-year-old actress married hotel heir Conrad Hilton. The union lasted less than one year, and in 1952, she wed British actor Michael Wilding. The couple had two sons before divorcing in 1957. That same year, Taylor wed producer Mike Todd, with whom she had a daughter. A little over a year later, Todd died in a plane crash. In 1959, Taylor married singer Eddie Fisher (who left his wife Debbie Reynolds for Taylor); the union ended in 1964. Days after her divorce from Fisher was finalized, Taylor wed Welsh actor Richard Burton, with whom she co-starred in 1963’s Cleopatra. (Playing that film’s title role, Taylor became Hollywood’s highest-paid actress at the time.)

The public was fascinated by Taylor and Burton’s lavish lifestyle (among his gifts to her was a 69-carat diamond) and tumultuous relationship. The couple, who adopted a daughter, divorced in 1974, remarried the following year and divorced again in 1976. Taylor later called Mike Todd and Burton, who died in 1984, the great loves of her life.

In 1976, Taylor wed Virginia politician John Warner, who went on to become a U.S. senator. The pair divorced in 1982. In the 1980s, Taylor, who battled addictions to alcohol, drugs and overeating, spent time at the Betty Ford Center. In 1991, she married construction worker Larry Fortensky, whom she met at the treatment center. After a wedding ceremony at entertainer Michael Jackson’s Neverland Valley Ranch in California, the couple divorced five years later. In addition to her addiction issues, Taylor suffered from a variety of health problems throughout her life, ranging from hip replacements to smashed spinal discs to a brain tumor.

In addition to her film career (her last silver-screen appearance was a cameo in 1994’s The Flintstones), Taylor’s legacy includes her work as a pioneering activist in the fight against AIDS. Starting in the 1980s, the actress helped raise millions of dollars to combat the disease.

Taylor was buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California, the same place where her friend Michael Jackson was interred.


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