There's Nothing Artificial About the Way Robert Jarvik's Heart Beats for His Brainy Bride-to-Be

Thump, THUMP. Thump, THUMP. Robert Jarvik is in love. The man who developed the artificial heart has had his own heart stolen by a beauty best known for her brains. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Jarvik’s fiancée, Marilyn vos Savant, has the highest IQ in the world: 228.

It was that astounding figure—88 points higher than ordinary genius—that captivated Jarvik when he read a story about vos Savant last year. “An IQ that high seemed incomprehensible,” he says. “I had to meet her.” Jarvik badgered acquaintances to get her unlisted New York number and sheepishly admitted to her secretary that he wanted a date. Vos Savant was intrigued, but she’s not one to act on impulse. Before responding, she investigated Robert K. Jarvik at the public library. “I was familiar with his name,” she explains, “but I wanted to be sure he wasn’t 110 years old.” After reading a profile of the physician, the woman with the world’s highest IQ blurted, “Ichhhh.” She did not fancy “dull, research types.”

Then vos Savant happened upon a photograph of Jarvik bare chested. She called him. “Marilyn put me right at ease,” says Jarvik, who was as tongue-tied as a teenager asking for a first date. “She said, ‘I know you’re very nervous and you don’t have anything to say, but be cool. Maybe we’ll get married and maybe we won’t.’ ” Vos Savant laughs at Jarvik’s fanciful recollection, but she didn’t laugh at his marriage proposal, which came just five days after they met last August. “I thought perhaps I should assess my decision further, but Rob seemed too good to be true.”

Jarvik, 41, is miscast in the role of romantic bumbler. As principal architect of the Jarvik-7 artificial heart, he has established an international reputation in the field of biomedical engineering. His transformation from obscure research scientist to famous face (he is currently one of the men beneath the eye patches in the Hathaway Shirt ads) began in 1982 when Barney Clark, a retired dentist near death, became the world’s first recipient of a mechanical heart. “From that moment my life changed,” says Jarvik, who divorced his wife of 17 years in 1985. “I was emotionally involved in the lives of the patients, and I was also traveling all over to promote the program. Even though I had a general purpose, I felt quite scattered.”

Vos Savant, who is 40 and twice divorced, also had changed her life just before she met Jarvik. Until 1985 she was leading a “quiet, secluded” existence in St. Louis. Then her IQ, based on the results of a Stanford-Binet intelligence test she took at age 10, was made known to the Guinness people by the founder of the Mega Society, a club for supergeniuses, more elite than Mensa. With her two children in college, she moved to New York to begin a writing career; she has published The Omni IQ Quiz Contest and produces a regular column, Ask Marilyn, for Parade magazine. She also has become something of a talk-show curiosity, politely putting up with studio audiences who seem disappointed that she does not know when the world will end. Fumed one furious former fan: “Anyone with a third grade education knows that the world will end when Christ comes again!”

While Jarvik is passionate, playful and pompous, vos Savant is logical and gracious, but guarded. Their interests, though broad, are far from mainstream. “Without Rob I would be more inclined to lead a life outside the real world,” says Marilyn. “I was already socially reclusive. With him I meet and talk to more people.” She is bored by movies made after 1940, she owns three televisions but has never seen The Cosby Show, and she subscribes to just one publication, Scientific American. On a one-to-10 scale (one being the lowest) she rates the couple’s curiosity about current news events as follows: the Gary Hart affair (1), the Iran-contra hearings (5) and the AIDS epidemic (6). “But the Superconducting Super Collider,” she offers, “was a 10. Oh, and how about the nucleosynthesis of lithium, beryllium and boron and how they related to the Big Bang? That was definitely a 10.”

In the past year professional engagements—medical conferences, lectures, media events—have taken the couple to Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai, Caracas, Lyons, London, Brussels and more than 20 cities in the U.S. They never travel without their various notebooks: Rob’s on the artificial heart and his unified field theory; Marilyn’s on her investigations into the nature of consciousness. Probing one another’s minds is a favorite pastime. Marilyn recalls a particularly blissful trip over the Midwest when the two were lost in a peppery discussion on the origins of the universe. Their notebooks were out and “we were drawing on each other’s drawings and talking about pools of energy. Rob was making points on a graph, and I said, ‘I think I’ve got it.’ We got so excited, wondering whom we could tell, and then,” she says with a sigh, “we just got interested in something else.”

This is not a couple who quibble over capping the toothpaste—or anything else for that matter. “It’s hopeless to argue,” says Jarvik, “because Marilyn is always right.” They are, in fact, quite tolerant of one another’s quirks. Since sleeping bores Marilyn, she may rise after four hours to do something diverting, like work on her theory explaining “the missing link between the physiology of the brain and the feeling of awareness.” On the other hand, Rob may tune out for days when caught up in a scientific conundrum. “He won’t notice if the phone rings,” she says, “or even be interested in eating,” which is just as well, since Marilyn does not cook. (“For humanitarian purposes,” she explains wryly. “I save lives that way.”)

But then Jarvik wasn’t looking for the Galloping Gourmet. He wanted a cerebral soul mate. “I didn’t expect to marry again, because I didn’t think there was anybody complete enough,” he says. “But Marilyn is a person of a special intensity and mental agility that you can’t understand unless you know her well.”

Vos Savant, a native of St. Louis, believes she is a descendant of Ernst Mach, the Austrian physicist who developed a method for measuring the speed of sound. She uses her mother’s maiden name, not because it means “learned scholar,” but because she believes that a daughter should retain her mother’s name. Marilyn’s parents, owners of a small investment and managment company, made little fuss over their daughter’s brilliance. She attended public schools and was placed in gifted classes on the recommendation of the school principal. “Gifted classes make children into walking social disasters, ” says Marilyn. “I don’t believe in skipping grades or any of that garbage.” She is equally disdainful of intelligence tests. “Most of them are wildly inaccurate,” says Marilyn. “I tell people if they don’t have a high score they should pretend they never took the test and pursue whatever interests them.”

Finding college “too narrow,” vos Savant left St. Louis’ Washington University after two years. She wanted to be a writer. While submitting essays and fiction to dozens of publications and having most of them rejected, she managed several of her parents’ small businesses long enough “to buy back my life and withdraw from the world.” Her first marriage lasted 10 years, she says, and produced two children, now pre-med students aged 21 and 22. A second marriage lasted another decade.

Cushioned by the income from her investments, Marilyn moved to Manhattan two years ago and threw herself into writing. Her current works-in-progress include a 420-page futuristic political fantasy, a 200-page play skewering the Royal Family, a “crazy, wild,” screenplay and Brain Building, a guide to more effective thinking, due next spring. Then there are her pop philosophy dispatches in Parade. One woman asked: “Why do men wear blue bikini underwear?” Marilyn was amused but chose not to reply.

“I was very satisfied with my life,” says Marilyn of her first year in Manhattan. “I would go to dinner alone in a nice restaurant, read one of my manuscripts and thoroughly enjoy myself. I wasn’t avoiding dating, but it was almost impossible to find someone who interested me.” Then Jarvik called.

A physician’s son raised in Stamford, Conn., Jarvik describes himself as “a kid who was always mentally disassembling things and putting them back together.” At 8 he was building elaborate model boats. At 16, after watching several surgical procedures at his father’s side, Jarvik invented an automatic surgical stapler that simplified clamping and tying blood vessels. It was the first of his five patents. He enrolled in architecture at Syracuse University and did not switch to pre-med until his father developed cardiovascular disease. After being rejected by more than 15 medical schools in the U.S., Jarvik studied medicine at the University of Bologna before earning an M.A. in occupational biomechanics at New York University in 1971. He then began working in Salt Lake City under the tutelage of Dr. Willem Kolff, a pioneer in the field of artificial organ research. Kolff eased Jarvik’s way into the University of Utah, where, in 1976, he took a medical degree.

When Kolff launched a company, now known as Symbion, Inc., to develop artificial organs, Jarvik joined him. The two men worked more than 10 years to develop an effective man-made heart. “I knew that my father was going to die of heart disease, and I was trying to make a heart for him,” says Jarvik. “I was too late, but I had a lot of hopes riding on Barney Clark and Bill Schroeder. When Bill had his stroke [18 days after his implant], I felt absolutely terrible.” All five recipients of Jarvik’s permanent artifical heart have died, but the Jarvik-7 has sustained the lives of 49 patients until human hearts became available. (Of those 49, 32 are still living.) “The artificial heart is very effective as a bridge to transplant,” says Jarvik, “but the number of people that can be saved with human hearts is limited. A perfect artificial heart could save many more patients.”

The risk of complications has stalled the permanent heart program, but Jarvik is no less committed to improving his device, even though he lost his job with Symbion in April. Shortly after a New York venture capital outfit bought a majority share in Symbion, a deal that Jarvik opposed, the board ousted him as chairman and chief executive. “It was devastating,” he says. “I believe they acted in haste and with very poor judgment. It has been very stressful, not just for me but for Marilyn. But we feel we’re beyond the stress now.”

Jarvik plans to continue his research and design work in New York following the couple’s September honeymoon in Paris. But first there is next month’s New York wedding to plan. Jarvik’s children—Tyler, 13, and Kate, 10—will join 150 guests. Jarvik has designed matching gold-trimmed wedding rings out of pyrolytic carbon, the same carbon he uses in the valves of his artificial heart. His choice of material is as practical as it is symbolic; like a diamond, pyrolytic carbon is forever.

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