Downton Abbey: The medical device industry's unique connection to a hit television show

January 30, 2013 by Brian Johnson

Some of the biggest names in the medical device industry have helped PBS through tough times.

Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey, the hit PBS show about the aristocracy in post-Edwardian-era England, makes millions of viewers' hearts soar, but it might not have happened without the timely support of a heart valve and the generosity of a few prominent medical device industry folks.

In 2004, Masterpiece (formerly Masterpiece Theater) was on life support when its single-largest corporate sponsor, Exxon Mobil, pulled the plug after more than 3 decades. After years of trying to replace the oil company's backing, Masterpiece executive producer Rebecca Eaton helped launch the Masterpiece Trust, a private fund "for individual philanthropists and families who care deeply about the series to support it in a substantial way: with gifts of $25,000 or more," according to PBS.

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In 2012, the fund was buoyed by a $1 million donation from San Diego, Calif., philanthropist Darlene Shiley, wife of the late medical device inventor Donald Shiley (who revolutionized the heart valve industry with his Bjork-Shiley tilting heart valve).

Shiley, an engineer from Oregon, began his career at Edwards Laboratories, the pre-cursor to Edwards Lifesciences (NYSE:EW), working with Lowell Edwards on what would become the Starr-Edwards mechanical mitral valve. He famously branched out on his own in 1971, forming the Shiley Co. to release the aforementioned heart valve, revolutionizing the field and bringing great fortune to its inventor.