What Do Downton Abbey, Poldark, and a Heart Valve Have in Common?

How the invention of a heart valve eventually afforded the production "Downton Abbey" through a contribution from the family. Nurses General Nursing Article

What Do Downton Abbey, Poldark, and a Heart Valve Have in Common?

Millions of nurses have enjoyed Masterpiece on PBS as a way to unwind. Was anyone of us thinking of Bjork-Shiley prosthetic heart valve while we watched? Well, Its invention is part of the reason PBS could afford to produce Downton Abbey.

It was first known as Masterpiece Theatre. Then there was Masterpiece Mystery, Masterpiece Classic, and Masterpiece Contemporary. All of the Masterpiece series have one thing in common. That is, at the beginning you hear the announcer say, “Masterpiece is made possible by… (a short list of large donors is announced), …and viewers like you.” Have you ever paid attention to the short list of donors mentioned? Two of my favorite series are Downton Abbey and Poldark.

Downton Abbey, Grandma and Poldark

Are you one of those nurses that relaxed with Downton Abbey after a shift whenever you had the chance?  Millions of us felt elation and relief when Matthew proposed to Mary in that beautiful, snowy, scene. What nurse wasn’t screaming at the TV screen “It’s postpartum preeclampsia you ninnies!  Do something!” when Sybil began to be ill after giving birth to Sybbie. The history of medicine as portrayed in a lot of the Masterpiece series is a whole other article for later. I would probably be willing to buy a book of all of Grandma’s (Victoria Crawley played by Maggie Smith) pithy quotes – or a recording of all of her scenes with those quotes. I give as an example: “Principles are like prayers: noble, of course, but awkward at a party”. There are so many wonderful lines Maggie Smith had. Another: “What do you think makes the English the way they are?  I don’t know. Opinions differ. Some say history, I say it is the weather.” Were you a Poldark fan?  I was late to Poldark. I did not “get it” when it aired, however, I have since binge-watched it. What a wonderful way to get lost in another world and forget the stress of my floor at work. We all rooted for Demelza through all of her trials first as Ross’s kitchen maid, then his wife, and finally as a recognized Lady. I still smile to myself when I remember Prudie angrily saying to Ross Poldark “I don’t know sir, let’s count the ways Miss (Demelza) keeps us all fed and safe”. The final scene has a great cliché in it that did not make me roll my eyes – I thought about it, but to my surprise, I was totally taken in by it. It’s a combination of the acting and the beautiful staging and cinematography. And let’s not forget the writing. You’ll have to watch it – I’m not going to tell you.

Masterpiece is Made Possible By …

Are you like me? One who does read the credits?  Well, then you have often seen “… made possible by the generous contributions of Donald and Marilyn Shiley ...”  This is where the Bjork-Shiley prosthetic heart valve comes in. When I lost myself in these wonderful, absorbing Masterpiece series episodes, believe me, I did not have heart valve on my mind. However, it is key because Don Pearce Shiley is the bioengineer who co-invented the Bjork-Shiley heart valve. It was revolutionary at the time. He had worked at Edwards Laboratories on the first disc heart valve. Earlier devices were in the shape of a ball; the disc needed less space in the heart. Later, with Viking Bjork, a heart surgeon from Sweden, improved the design, which was, of course, the Bjork-Shiley heart valve. This one tilted and made for better blood flow through the valve. He established his own company, Shiley Laboratories. Then the bioengineer took a wife. By the time he met Darlene, he already owned a Ferrari and private plane. She was an actress. When they met, she was playing Eleanor of Aquitaine in a production of “The Lion in Winter” in Berkeley, California. He came from a family of homesteaders in California. During the depression, he and his brother picked apples and pears. He once told Portland Magazine, “I was the one who fixed things…. I liked machines. I liked the way they are ideas that get built.”1. The Bjork-Shiley valve was in full production in 1971. Later it was learned that the valve had flaws and the FDA took it off the market in 1986. Still, it had changed the game in heart surgery. Darlene and Don enjoyed a real-life love story that many said not even “Downton” creator Julian Fellowes could write. They lived in the San Diego area. And it was she who encouraged the philanthropy. They gave away millions. In March of 2007, they gave 12 million dollars to the University of Portland for its school of Engineering. They have also contributed to many other causes, including “Serving Seniors”, The San Diego School of Engineering, and Alzheimer’s organizations.

PBS and Masterpiece Trust

In 2011 Darlene Shiley’s first gift to PBS was $250,000 to the Masterpiece Trust. Darlene said, “My late husband and I have been supporters of KPBS for over 20 years. Knowing that our contribution helps Masterpiece and my local station is the best example of collaboration I know.2” Then, in March 2012, Darlene Shiley made a contribution of 1 Million dollars to the Masterpiece Trust. She made it on behalf of her late husband, Donald. She has been quoted as saying, “Donald and I conceived our goal of the Shiley Awards in Health, Education and the Arts when we married in 1978 and pursued that agenda the entirety of our most wonderful 32 years of marriage…. we had committed to giving away all our assets to charitable causes over and after our lifetimes.”3

Masterpiece Trust was actually founded in 2011. Donald died July 31, 2010. For a long time, the credit on Masterpiece continued to be “Donald and Darlene Shiley,” then sometime during Poldark series (2015-2019), I noticed it was changed to Darlene Shiley, and the latest I’ve seen the credit was Darlene Marcos Shiley.


One of the minor joys of the PBS series is no ads. Just one at the beginning and end where a major corporate donor has a short segment. In recent years that has been Viking Cruises. The Dowager of Downton once said “All this endless thinking. It’s overrated. I blame the war. Before 1914, nobody thought about anything at all”4. Sorry, Maggie, sometimes having a thought-provoking episode is a joy. Or if watching just to get lost in sheer entertainment to forget the pressures of a nursing job, I will always be grateful to donors. And I will not be able to enjoy another Masterpiece presentation without thinking of a heart valve.


1Donald P. Shiley dies at 90; co-inventor of Bjork-Shiley heart valve

2MASTERPIECE Trust Receives Unprecedented $1 Million Donation

3The Shileys vowed to give away all their money, and Darlene Shiley is hard at work doing it

4Donor is San Diego’s Duchess of Downton

Nadine Buchanan is a Licensed Practical Nurse with extensive experience in Home Healthcare and Geriatric care. She now works as a nurse writer.

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Specializes in Psych (25 years), Medical (15 years).

And Dr. Enys was a genius in the treatment of body as well as in the treatment of the mind!

Specializes in Geriatrics, Home Care, Senior Care.

Yes! Thank you for that comment. I so agree.

Specializes in Med/surg, oncology, telemetry staff RN.

I watched a few Poldark episodes, but now I'm going to check out the series. Are you excited for the new Downton Abbey movie that is coming soon? I am!


Specializes in Geriatrics, Home Care, Senior Care.

Hi, Jenni Binford,  I've seen the new Downton Abbey movie already! It's wonderful.

Specializes in Geriatrics, Home Care, Senior Care.

Jenni, have you seen the movie yet? Let us know what you think. Enjoy it?