The man credited with changing the course of biology and revolutionizing our understanding of genetics has received the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize. The man who designed New England's first residential snow blower and went on to invent medical instruments and surgical equipment received the $100,000 Lifetime Achievement Award for Invention and Innovation.
Leroy Hood and William P. Murphy Jr. were presented with the Lemelson-MIT Program awards on April 24 at a gala in the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum in Boston.
"Technological innovation affects every aspect of our lives, but the face of the inventor is all too often invisible, and the process of invention ignored," President Charles M. Vest said at the ceremony.
In 1986, Leroy Hood of Seattle invented the automated DNA sequencer, which allows scientists to do large-scale, high-speed sequencing of genes. This single piece of equipment was central to efforts by the Whitehead Institute/MIT Center for Genome Research and other research centers to map and sequence the three billion letters comprising the human genome.
Hood, 64, also invented a device to sequence proteins and another to synthesize proteins, as well as an automated tool for synthesizing DNA.
After serving on the Caltech faculty for many years, Hood co-founded the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle in 2000 to integrate biology, medicine and technology to analyze all the elements in a biological system at once, rather than a single gene or protein at a time.
"My prediction is that in 10 to 15 years, we will have identified hundreds of genes that predispose humans to virtually all of the common, late-onset diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, neurological diseases and the like," said Hood. "We will be able to take a blood sample, interrogate the possibility of defects in hundreds of genes, and write out a probabilistic future health history of what is likely to happen to individuals. This is the predictive approach to medicine."
William P. Murphy Jr.
Murphy, 79, is a pioneer in the application of engineering to medicine. He holds 17 patents for devices ranging from the first disposable medical procedural trays to the first physiologic pacemaker and hollow-fiber artificial kidney. In collaboration with Carl Walter, Murphy developed impermeable plastic blood transfusion bags first used by Murphy on the front lines during the Korean War.
"I think from the word go I had an interest in medicine," said Murphy, who also had a natural proclivity for machinery and invention. His first machine was a snowblower that he modified from one used by the railroads. After shoveling snow during the long New England winters, a high-school-age Murphy made the snowblower in his home workshop and sold it to a local lawnmower company for $1,500 in the late 1930s.
After earning a bachelor's degree and an M.D., he attended classes at MIT as a nondegree student in the life sciences. He practiced medicine for a few years before founding his first company in 1957, Medical Development Corp., which later became Cordis Corp. Murphy and a team at Cordis invented the first physiologic cardiac pacemaker that operated by responding to the heart's rhythms rather than at a fixed rate.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 30, 2003.