The Lemelson-MIT Program announced the winners of its two annual prizes for invention and innovation -- Dr. Thomas J. Fogarty, a pioneer of less-invasive surgery, received the $500,000 prize, and Al Gross, inventor of the walkie-talkie, pager and cordless telephone, was presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award.
The $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize, the world's largest single award for invention and innovation, is awarded annually to a living American inventor-innovator who has significantly contributed to society through invention and who has shown a tireless commitment to stimulating invention and creativity.
Dr. Fogarty is being recognized for his inventiveness and extensive contributions to medicine and enterprise. Over the past 40 years, he has invented medical devices that have saved millions of lives and limbs; developed innovative and vital clinical procedures; founded important medical device firms; and trained countless young surgeons, engineers and scientists.
Dr. Fogarty holds 63 US patents in surgical devices, with additional patents pending. His landmark invention, the Fogartyï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ Embolectomy Catheter, was introduced in 1963 as the world's first balloon catheter used therapeutically in the cardiovascular system.
The balloon catheter revolutionized vascular surgery by allowing doctors to remove blood clots in patients' extremities without resorting to major surgery. Instead of cutting open a large portion of the artery to extract a clot with forceps, the surgeon could make a small incision, insert the catheter (with the balloon deflated), thread it down the artery, inflate the balloon, then retract the whole device, catching and pulling the clot out with it.
The device marked the beginning of less-invasive surgery and was a preamble of the world's first balloon catheter for angioplasty (1965), a technique routinely used today to treat blocked coronary arteries. Catheter-mediated technology has touched nearly 20 million patients worldwide, many of whom would have otherwise lost limbs.
"Dr. Fogarty is the consummate inventor, always tinkering and trying new ways of approaching problems," said Dr. William R. Brody, president of Johns Hopkins University, who trained with Dr. Fogarty. "He has single-handedly changed the face of cardiovascular surgery, and I cannot think of a more worthy recipient of the 2000 Lemelson-MIT Prize."
"Invention is rewarding if done properly and for the right reasons," said Dr. Fogarty. "I've achieved the things I've done by asking one question: 'Can it be done better?' I've tried to improve the application of technology to daily patient care. A technology that works in one segment of medicine can, if thought of appropriately, be applied elsewhere successfully."
Dr. Fogarty has started and assisted more than a dozen companies that produce products based on his ideas. He is also founder or co-founder of more than 25 smaller startups that manufacture products for the medical/surgical marketplace. In 1980, he established Fogarty Engineering to design and develop ideas for new medical devices. Together with colleagues Mark Wan and Wilf Jaeger, he co-founded Three Arch Partners, a venture fund created to further technological innovation. Three Arch, along with other venture groups, collaborates with Stanford's Medical Device Network to support young inventors and companies that are developing medical devices and products that fill specific market needs.
The Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award is given annually to recognize the nation's most talented inventors and innovators and to promote role models in the fields of science, engineering, medicine and entrepreneurship.
Al Gross is being recognized for his contributions as a pioneer of miniaturized portable communications devices and for playing a major role in the wireless personal communications revolution.
Mr. Gross invented the first wireless pager in 1949 for use by doctors away from their offices. But when it was demonstrated at a medical convention in Philadelphia, none of the healthcare professionals was impressed. In fact, many felt the beepers would upset their patients or their nurses, and others fretted that it might disrupt their golf games. But today, more than 300 million pagers are in use, according to wireless industry statistics.
His pioneering work began as a boy's hobby in the late 1920s, when he got his father to buy him a crystal radio set and tuned in to the broadcasts of local amateur operators. "That was it, I became hooked on Hertzian radio waves and on developing ways to use my math and science learnings to make ham radio a moveable, hand-held experience," the 82-year-old Mr. Gross said.
By 1938, he had developed and tested a small portable high-frequency radio, which he dubbed a walkie-talkie. "At the time, I did not see this unit as an invention per se, but I knew I was on to something because all my ham friends liked it and said it was different," he said.
World War II broke out just as a write-up about the invention appeared in a radio magazine, and it didn't take long for his walkie-talkie to catch the US Army's attention. William "Wild Bill" Donovan, head of the Office of Strategic Services, precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency, recruited Mr. Gross and asked him to develop a two-way, air-to-ground system for covert use by advance troops behind enemy lines to communicate intelligence to similarly-equipped RAF Mosquito bomber pilots. The US Joint Chiefs of Staff later placed it among the "most successful wireless intelligence-gathering operations, saving millions of lives by shortening the war."
Many of Mr. Gross's visionary mobile telephony inventions were far ahead of his generation's ability to make practical use of them. By 1949, he was developing and securing patents for a wide array of products, including his wireless pager and a functional forerunner of the Dick Tracy wristwatch transmitter. The wristwatch, equipped with an embedded wireless microphone, caught the fancy of cartoonist Chester Gould.
"In October 1948, Gould called and asked me if he could use the walkie-talkie idea on the wristwatch," Mr. Gross said. "I told him sure. And he gave Dick Tracy that two-way wristwatch."
All through the 1950s and '60s, he invented mobile personal communications devices, securing 12 patents for various cell and cordless phone devices while working for his own company and for the US government. The FCC finally approved his transceivers in 1958, but American telephone companies were much slower to take up his inventions.
"All of my patents pretty much expired before my inventions caught fire. I guess I was born 35 years too soon to be a millionaire today, but the thrill of inventing is not just about the money, it's about having fun and making a difference for your fellow humans," he said.
Mr. Gross is an electrical engineer at Orbital Sciences Corp. in Chandler, AZ, where he is involved with programs for space exploration. He has received numerous awards and honors, including the 1999 Marconi Gold Medal of Achievement from the Wireless Operators Association and the Edwin Howard Armstrong Achievement Award from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.
"The Lemelson-MIT Program is a great concept," he said. "It encourages kids to find role models in the invention process. That's what I love to do, to make them realize that math and science can be great fun, and help them to make a difference through applying their ideas."
The Lemelson-MIT Program was established by one of America's most prolific inventors, Jerome H. Lemelson (1923-97) and his wife Dorothy in 1994. Administered by MIT and based at the Sloan School, the program is guided by Professor Lester C. Thurow.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 3, 2000.