Richard Schuessler, PhD, Director of the Cardiac Surgical Research Laboratory, retired after an accomplished 35-year career at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. As a professor of Surgery & Biomedical Engineering, Schuessler’s focus was on the surgical treatment of cardiac arrhythmias. His contributions were instrumental in the development of the Cox-Maze procedure—the first cure for atrial fibrillation. As laboratory director, Schuessler also served as a teacher and mentor for the many students, residents and research fellows who worked in the Cardiothoracic Surgery Research Laboratory over the years.
Schuessler grew up in St. Louis, the son of a mechanical engineer, and studied mathematics at the University of Missouri—Rolla in the 1970s, earning a BS and MS in Computer Science. His interest was not in “computers for computers’ sake,” but in numerical analysis and differential equations. The math Schuessler took became so complex and abstract that it was difficult to explain it to peers outside of his classes. As he completed graduate school at Rolla in 1974, Schuessler craved something more applied. He was still interested in solving complex math problems but wanted to use that knowledge for a more practical application.
Around that time, Schuessler saw a brochure for a PhD program in bioengineering at Clemson University in South Carolina. Much of the foundation for bioengineering and electrophysiology was rooted in mathematics similar to what Schuessler had studied at Rolla, but this program would allow him to work on research that could help improve
lives. Schuessler applied and was accepted and began a summer assistantship immediately. As part of his work, he traveled from Clemson to the Medical College of Georgia, where he met John Boineau, who would become his long-time mentor in cardiac research. Boineau was at the forefront of the surgical treatment of Wolf-Parkinson-White
syndrome, a condition affecting the electrical conduction system of the heart. Because of Schuessler’s interest in electrophysiology, joining Boineau’s laboratory after graduation was a natural fit. Schuessler received a National Research Service Award (NRSA) from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), funding his research with Boineau.
Schuessler, together with Boineau, came to Washington University in 1984. The two were recruited by the new Division Chief of Cardiothoracic Surgery, James Cox.
This all-star team of researchers focused on finding a surgical cure for atrial fibrillation (AF). Schuessler used new developments in mapping and imaging technology to better understand what AF looked like in the heart, and what it would take to make the heart beat normally again. The treatment, known as the Cox-Maze Procedure, involves making a series of safe and effective scars to permanently block the electrical signals triggering the irregular heartbeat.
The breakthrough moments in Schuessler’s long and accomplished research career have led to a greater understanding of the heart’s electrophysiology and the surgical treatment of problems with cardiac arrhythmias. Over the next 20 years, he continued to innovate and modify the pioneering work of the Cox-Maze procedure.
This development led to the Cox-Maze IV procedure, a less invasive, more widely used procedure that is now the gold standard for the surgical treatment of atrial fibrillation, and the only operation to receive an FDA indication for the treatment of atrial fibrillation.
One of the proudest moments of Schuessler’s career was finding that the surgical treatment of AF led to patients living longer. Now in retirement, Schuessler spends time with his wife—who was an administrator for the laboratory—traveling, visiting national parks, practicing photography, and staying busy with his grandchildren.