William H. Dobelle, Ph.D, considered one of the world's leading experts on artificial vision and pioneer in the development and manufacture of implanted electronics, died on Oct. 5 due to complications from diabetes. He was 62 years old.
Dr. Dobelle was born in Pittsfield, MA on Oct. 24, 1941. He dedicated his life to creating, developing and improving medical devices, most notably implantable neurostimulators, including phrenic nerve stimulators - life-supporting breathing pacemakers - and artificial vision systems for the blind - visual cortex stimulators.
In 2003, Dr. Dobelle was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Medicine (with Dr. Willem Kolff) for his collaborative research on artificial organs, one of many honors garnered. Dr. Dobelle was inducted into the National Academy of Science in 1996. He was also inducted as a Founding Fellow of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering in 1993, one of the highest honors available to an American scientist.
Dr. Dobelle held a number of significant organizational positions, making contributions in a number of medical areas. He was associate director of the Institute for Biomedical Engineering at the University of Utah under the guidance of Dr. Willem J. Kolff. Dr. Kolff, the undisputed father of artificial organs and kidney dialysis, refers to Dr. Dobelle as an organizational genius and one of the most selfless individuals he has ever met. During his time at the University of Utah, Dr. Dobelle directed research on artificial vision for the blind as well as artificial hearing for the deaf. He also organized the university's microelectronics laboratory and the Intermountain Organ Bank.
Dr. Dobelle then became the director of artificial organs for the Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center where he was responsible for the Presbyterian Hospital Organ Bank and the New York Regional Transplant Program. At Columbia, he continued his research on artificial vision, neurostimulators, cardiac assist devices, and other medical device projects.
Dr. Dobelle received a Ph.D. in neurophysiology from the University of Utah. He also holds BA and MA degrees in biophysics from John Hopkins University.
In 1983, Dr. Dobelle turned his focus to the commercial applications of artificial implant devices and to the development and refinement of ever-more useful artificial vision devices. He created a vertically integrated group of companies and institutes to consolidate the research and manufacturing of innovative devices.
Dr. Dobelle acquired Avery Laboratories in 1983. The company, a leading manufacturer of implantable medical devices, is located in Commack NY. Avery markets implantable neurostimulators, primarily breathing pacemakers for patients with quadriplegia, central apnea, and other respiratory insufficiencies.
Despite a debilitating disease, Dr. Dobelle actively continued his pioneering work in the research and development of the artificial vision system through the Dobelle Institute (Portugal) Lda. Dr. Dobelle's companies, including Avery Laboratories, Inc. and the Dobelle Institute (Portugal) Lda., manufacture devices that have been implanted in approximately 15,000 patients in over 40 countries. Through his companies and many friends and colleagues, his pioneering research will continue.
William Dobelle showed his interest and aptitude for science and discovery from a young age. His early experience was sparked by his prominent father, Dr. Martin Dobelle, an orthopedic surgeon whose patients included US astronauts.
At the age of 13, Dr. William Dobelle obtained his first of many patents for improvements to the artificial hip. Dr. Dobelle was also the National Science Fair winner in 1956 for his construction of a homemade X-ray machine.
Dr. Dobelle matriculated at Vanderbilt University at the age of 14, going on to win the Chancellor's Gold Medal for Oratory two years later.
His early achievements included interests that he pursued for the remainder of his life, including fishing - he won the Metropolitan Miami's Annual Fishing Tournament for reeling in the largest tarpon. Dr. Dobelle was a proud member of the Explorers Club where he led an expedition to Panama to find the "lost mountain" where the explorer Francisco Balboa was reputed to have first viewed the Pacific Ocean.
One of his proudest moments occurred at the age of 13 in Pittsfield, MA when he was able to stump Eleanor Roosevelt during question time.
Dr. Dobelle is survived by his wife, Claire, formerly a producer at PBS Television; his son, Martin and his daughters, Molly and Mimi, all at home in Muttontown, and his brother Evan and his family of Honolulu, Hawaii.
Arrangements have been made for a memorial service to take place at a date later this year. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to the American Diabetes Foundation.