Chance Encounters Key to BME Creation

October 13, 2010 | By Mary-Russell Roberson

“It is a story of chance encounters, faculty pushing, administrators balking, bold visions, turf wars, and some good old-fashioned luck. In other words, business as usual for a university.”

This is how Professor Craig Henriquez describes the founding of the biomedical engineering department. Henriquez has been a part of the department for 31 of its 40 years, making him its unofficial historian. He earned a BS and a PhD in biomedical engineering at Duke and is now a professor in the department with a secondary appointment in computer science.

Biomedical engineering was officially approved as a department by the Board of Trustees on December 11, 1970. But the story began years earlier, Henriquez said, with two important chance encounters.

In 1964, Theo Pilkington, a young faculty member in electrical engineering, was approached by John Boineau, a young cardiology fellow from the School of Medicine. Boineau was interested in the relationship between the heart’s electrical activity and the body’s surface potential, and had been looking all over the university for help with modeling. Pilkington’s expertise in electrical engineering made him a perfect collaborator, and his interest was heightened by the fact that his mother had died at age 57 following a heart attack. He and Boineau began working together, and in 1965, Pilkingon published a paper titled “On the electrocardiographic field equation.”

Craig HenriquezThat same year, Madison Spach, chief of the division of cardiac physiology, met physics major Roger Barr, who happened to be a roommate of one of Spach’s medical students. Barr spent the summer working in Spach’s lab at the medical school, where he met Boineau, who introduced him to Pilkington. Barr decided to pursue a PhD in electrical engineering, doing research combining medicine, engineering and physics, under the mentorship of both Pilkington and Spach.

In 1965 -- the year the Beatles invaded America, Edward White walked in space, Medicare was established, and the Research Triangle Park was blossoming -- Bill Anlyan, the dean of the School of Medicine, wrote President Douglas Knight to request that a committee be established to look at research and education opportunities in biomedical engineering at Duke.

“Duke was well known for its medical school,” Henriquez said. “And Anlyan realized medicine was increasingly becoming technical.”

The committee, which included Pilkington, spent a year and a half studying the issue, then recommended that BME be located as a division in engineering rather than in the medical school. The committee also recommended that Pilkington, age 32, be chair of the division. This recommendation may have been due to the fact that Pilkington was already bringing in outside money: in 1966, Pilkington and Spach got an NIH training grant in cardiovascular biomedical engineering.

On March 1, 1967, the biomedical division of the engineering department was born.

“There are some folks with type A personalities,” Henriquez said. “Theo had a type A plus personality. Six days after the division began, he sent a message to all faculty to develop a new program for undergraduate students.”

Pilkington also began recruiting faculty, including Howard Wachtel, an electrical engineer interested in neurophysiology; Frederick “Fritz” Thurstone, a pioneer of ultrasound imaging; Ed Hammond, a pioneer in the field of medical informatics; Roger Barr; and Howard Clark. Clark was the first faculty member who was not an electrical engineer—he was an organic chemist interested in developing biocompatible materials.

While Pilkington was recruiting faculty, the university was in a turmoil, with sit-ins and demonstrations over race relations and employee conditions. In 1969, President Knight resigned. He was replaced by Terry Sanford in 1970.

Pilkington was also working hard to transform biomedical engineering into a department, because he thought it would be easier to win grants from NIH as a department, and he thought it would be good for faculty morale.

There was resistance at various levels, in part because it would be the first department with the word “medical” in its name that was not in the School of Medicine.

Pilkington enlisted the support of Harold Lewis, a physicist who was dean of the faculty of Arts and Sciences. On November 9, 1970, John Blackburn, the provost, wrote a letter to George Pearsall, dean of engineering, recommending departmental status. On December 11, 1970, the Board of Trustees voted to approve the move.

In 1972, the biomedical engineering department moved out of its quarters in the Old Chemistry building into the new engineering annex. Also that year, the BME undergrad program became accredited by what is now the Accreditation Board for Engineering Technology. Another undergraduate BME program was approved that year as well, but Henriquez said, “It is widely believed that Duke was the first.”

The next several years saw the hiring of Jim McElhaney (1973), Evan Evans (1973), Olaf Von Ramm (1974), and Bob Hochmuth (1977).

Today, there are more than 90 biomedical engineering departments in the country, and Duke consistently ranks number 2 among undergraduate programs, and number 4 among graduate programs. And according to the Faculty Scholarly Productivity Index put out by Academic Analytics, Duke’s faculty are the most productive of the country’s biomedical engineering departments.

In pondering why the department has continued to be successful for 40 years, Henriquez came up with a list of six reasons:

  • the location of the engineering department encourages collaboration with nearby scientists and physicians;
  • faculty has grown strategically over the past two decades due to nicely spaced NSF and Whitaker grants;
  • the faculty are willing to reinvent themselves;
  • the department attracts great students;
  • the department has had outstanding leadership;
  • there is a collegial environment of excellence.

“This is a group that works well together,” Henriquez said. “We write grants together, we go to lunch together, we talk about the curriculum together. Several of us grew up together. BME has retained its faculty for a long time. People don’t like to leave here.”

At the close of his talk, Henriquez thanked someone who has been with the department for almost 35 years, and has assisted all six chairs: Business Manager Ellen Ray.

He then summed up with these words: “We’re all here today because Theo Pilkington decided to take a risk and build a department. Theo Pilkington died, like his mother before him, at age 57 of heart disease. His death reminds us that the problems we work on are really hard and complex and the work continues on.”