Alumni Profile: Robert E. Fischell
Originally published in DukEngineer, the student-written magazine of the Pratt School of Engineering.
What do you call a man who provides advice to the federal government, is chairman of the boards of directors of two companies, has 49 technical publications to his name, and holds 50 U.S. patents on everything from a satellite attitude detection system to a rechargeable body tissue stimulator to a friction-less gyroscope? An engineer? An inventor? A physicist? A consultant? Robert E. Fischell is all of those things, and many, many more.
Fischell began his collegiate career at Duke in 1947 and graduated cum laude with a degree in mechanical engineering in 1951. Duke was a “great, well-rounded university” back then, as he recalls. It was not just a technical school, but a place where one could “... grow up with people of all disciplines.”
He enjoyed sports very much, and was a member of the swimming team and manager of the lacrosse team while at Duke. The biomedical engineering department did not exist back then, and the courses of study were narrower. The university is considerably larger now according to Fischell, and it has a much better reputation than when he entered.
After leaving Durham, Fischell’s next stop was College Park, Maryland. In 1953, he graduated from the University of Maryland with a master’s degree in physics. Although very well educated, he feels that most of his knowledge has come from work experience. He often uses bits and pieces of information he learned in thermodynamics, physics, and other subjects. “Any education teaches you how to think and how to meet challenges”, as he says, but Fischell believes that his formal schooling was only the beginning of the learning process.
Along with Fischell’s first job at the Naval Ordinance Laboratory in White Oak, Maryland, began the story of a long and successful string of inventions and patents. At the beginning of his career, he worked as a physicist and mechanical engineer from 1951 to 1956, and then as Principal Physicist and Program Manager at Emerson Research Laboratory for three years. His early experience led to the development of a magnetic recording device, for which he was awarded Outstanding Young Engineer in the Washington Area in 1963. From Emerson, he went on to the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, in 1959, where he still works one day a week. There, Fischell developed his career and held many different positions over the years.
After arriving at the Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), Fischell advanced rapidly. In 1960, he was promoted to Section Supervisor, meaning that he supervised a group responsible for the power, attitude control, and thermal design of satellites developed by the Space Department of the APL. Using experience gained from this position, Fischell managed to launch a series of inventions dealing with the attitude control of satellites. He received patents for such devices as a magnetic despin mechanism, a satellite attitude detection system including cosine and spinrate detectors, and a satellite spin control system. His attitude control work culminated in the development of the Small Astronomy Satel lite (SAS-C), which included a dual spin control system. Fischell also headed the APL work with Daniel DeBra of Stanford University for a drag-free device utilized in the satellite and known as TRIAD. Mr. Fischell had quite an impressive start to his career!
In the wake of his work at the APL came numerous awards and honors. Among them was an award given in 1967 by Industrial Research Magazine for Fischell’s magnetic spin control system for satellites. This award, known as the IR-100 Award, is presented annually for the 100 most significant inventions in the country. Fischell received this honor twice more; once in 1970 for a rechargeable pacemaker, and again in 1973 for the drag-free satellite.
How did a pacemaker get onto this man’s resume? The answer to this question opens up yet another chapter to Fischell’s amazing career.
“For the first 15 years of my career, I invented spacecraft”, he says. “There were electrical inventions and physics inventions; they were not just mechanical. Then I shifted over to medicine, and that’s when I started making medical devices.”
Now wait a minute, hold on! People don’t just change fields like that. How can you simply jump from mechanical engineering and physics to medicine?!
You can. Robert Fischell did.
“I always express it this way: it takes about five minutes for a doctor to tell you of a problem he has where he can’t get the right treatment or he doesn’t have the right device, it then takes five or 10 years to make the invention," Fischell said. "It really does not require a lot of knowledge of biology or medicine to invent medical devices. It takes some, but that is not the difficult part. The difficult part is making the invention which will be of such value that people will say, ‘I will build it and manufacture it.’ Learning the medicine part of it ... it doesn’t take very long to learn what little you have to know about biology and anatomy.”
And what little biology and anatomy Fischell had to learn, he mastered. Forty of his U.S. patents and 20 foreign ones are in the field of biomedical engineering. In addition, he has 20 technical publications in the same field and six pending patents for atherectomy catheters. There is one medical invention that stands out from all the rest, and in 1986, Fischell witnessed his brainstorm-turned-reality being surgically installed into a patient at Johns Hopkins Hospital. This device is the implantable insulin pump.
The Programmable Implantable Medication System (PIMS) allows a patient to self-administer doses of insulin when needed by commanding a pump inside the body. Insulin is a liquid secreted by the pancreas and used by the body to utilize sugar and other carbohydrates. Diabetics suffer from a lack of natural insulin, and as a result have to rely on outside injections of insulin to sustain a normal lifestyle. These insulin injections come by way of needle (two to four times a day) or by an externally worn pump.
Both of these methods are extremely inconvenient and uncomfortable. With PIMS, a diabetic patient has an internal three month supply of insulin and a way of controlling dosage all in a device the size of a hockey puck. PIMS actually consists of the patient’s equipment and physician’s equipment that allows a physician to reprogram the device by telephone. The internal unit itself is called the Implantable Programmable Infusion Pump (IPIP). In addition to the insulin reservoir, IPIP contains a computer, a pump, valves, an antenna to receive signals, and a command and telemetry system. The insulin reservoir is filled every three months by hypodermic injection.
So how does one come up with such innovative ideas? Hard work? Long hours, you say? Fischell’s ideas for probably his greatest invention came together while he was vacationing in the Caribbean!
According to Fischell, he went on that vacation in 1976 with the intention of inventing an insulin pump. He took books on insulin and diabetes with him as well as drafting equipment, and returned with some preliminary drawings. When the vacation was over, he put the drawings away for two years until a medical researcher seeking advice on an insulin pump reminded Fischell of his drawings. After he was convinced to follow up on the idea, it took seven years of ambitious research, hard testing and re-testing, and rigorous fundraising for the project to finally be completed. Fischell and his colleagues encountered numerous problems along the way.
Fischell found that the APL was able to provide the microelectronic circuitry needed for the project, but several other things had to be designed from scratch. The battery for the IPIP needed to have low impedance and a lifetime of at least seven years, so two electronics companies were asked for their assistance. After four years, a suitable battery was developed. A concentrated form of insulin also had to be developed for the pump. Insulin in its normal state deteriorates at room temperature and turns into a jelly if agitated. The insulin for the IPIP had to last for several months at normal body temperature and had to flow freely through the system tubes. An insulin for the IPIP was finally developed after numerous setbacks. Other problems arose as well, but according to Fischell, the hardest part of the entire process was the fundraising.
“I think to invent something is not all that hard," Fischell said. "To get a patent isn’t terribly hard either, but to get someone to, as I put it, put their money where your mouth is, that’s very hard to do.”
Trying to make a living as an inventor is extremely difficult, he said. "Even when you have a track record, when you do it all the time, you’re still turned down five times at least for every time you succeed, and it’s just a matter of sticking with it ...”
And of course, stick with it he did. Fischell’s implantable insulin pump now has roughly $20 million invested into it, and the PIMS system has potential uses for treatment of Parkinson’s, Lou Gehrig’s, and Alzheimers diseases; cancer chemotherapy, and anti-coagulation therapy. The invention is an incredible success, and for his development of it, Fischell received the 1983 Inventor of the Year award. He holds this honor to be among his most prestigious and satisfying ones.
“I think the thing that gave me the most satisfaction, as an award, was to be Inventor of the Year for the United States," he said. "That gave me a lot of satisfaction as an inventor, but the single event, I think, that made me happiest was to be elected to the National Academy of Engineering because this doesn’t happen very often, and to be regarded well by my peers was extremely satisfying to me.”
Despite all the work that Fischell puts into projects such as the insulin pump, he has still found time to do some consulting work. He has worked for the U.S. government by giving advice to the National Science Foundation and the U.S. National Research Council. Congress has also benefitted from Fischell’s expertise as he has testified seven times before congressional committees and acted as a consultant to the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment.
Indeed, Robert Fischell is a mechanical engineer, biomedical engineer, inventor, physicist, researcher, and consultant. What more could he possibly do?
In addition to all the other professional titles that he holds, he can write “teacher” on his resume as well. Fischell taught space technology for 15 years in the graduate school at Johns Hopkins University. Although he found his teaching experiences to be somewhat rewarding, he does not enjoy teaching nearly as much as his other work. Part of the reason for this feeling is that Fischell was teaching the same subject year after year. Fischell does, however, think that he learned his subject inside and out from teaching it to other people.
“I found that [teaching] was okay,” he says. “I didn’t find it as rewarding as inventing or doing research and development. I learned a great deal by teaching because that’s when you really learn your subject, when you’re teaching it to others. It was satisfying; I had very good students in the graduate school, however, I’ve always gotten more satisfaction out of research and development and inventing.”
Of all the things that Fischell has done, he believes that the most rewarding is engineering medical devices. After all, engineering design in general is extremely satisfying. Steering an idea through sketches, building, testing, and finally seeing the final product is special, but even more so when that idea can have an immediate impact on other people’s lives.
“I’ve had a lot of satisfaction in my life seeing my inventions used on patients, and I would meet the patients and they would often say incredibly nice things to me because of how their life was improved by the invention I made," he said. "Whereas a doctor can only treat one patient at a time, by inventing medical devices of which sometimes literally there will be a million of them made, one can have an effect on a million people. It is a very satisfying thing to work in medical devices, not just inventing them, but designing, building, and testing them. It’s a very rewarding field, to engineer medical devices.”
With a career like Fischell’s, anyone would think that he was completely devoted to his work and had absolutely no time for anything else. Not true. He has been happily married for 41 years to Marian, and they have raised three sons. Fischell’s eldest son David is a PhD physicist and president of Cathco, Inc.
David lives in New Jersey and works with his father out of his own house, and Marian Fischell is the secretary and bookkeeper for Cathco. Tim Fischell, MD, is an Associate Professor of Medicine and the Director of Interventional Cardiology for the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. Robert Fischell’s youngest son, Scott, holds an MBA, and is District Sales Manager for Minimed Technologies, Inc. Fischell lives on seven acres in Howard County, Maryland, and he thinks that “... it’s the greatest.” His house contains an office, a conference room, and a laboratory where he does most of his work these days.
“It never occurred to me to become an inventor,” says Fischell, “but it’s something that happened. I think that you need training to become an inventor. You either have to have education, experience, or both; however, I think that real inventors are mostly born."
Who can argue with the man? After 40 years and 70 patents, it would be an understatement to say that Robert Fischell has reached the pinnacle of inventive heights.
By Ron Perera, a senior in Civil and Environmental Engineering.