Dr. William H. "Bill" Dobelle (October 24, 1941 – October 5, 2004) was a biomedical researcher who developed experimental technologies that restored limited sight to blind patients, and also known for the impact he and his company had on the breathing pacemaker industry with the development of the only FDA approved device for Phrenic nerve pacing. He was the former director of the Division of Artificial Organs at the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center.
Dr. William Harvey Dobelle, "Bill", was the son of Martin Dobelle and Lillian Mendelsohn Dobelle, born in Pittsfield, MA on October 24, 1941. William Dobelle's paternal grandparents, Harry and Ida, had immigrated to the United States from Lithuania. His father Martin Dobelle, a major orthopedic surgeon whose patients included US astronauts, sparked William Dobelle's original interest and early experience in medicine. At the age of 13 Dobelle designed improvements for the artificial hip for which he received patents. He started college the following year at Vanderbilt. At 15 he won the State of Florida science fair for construction of an original concept x-ray machine, and later moved on to win the National Science Fair.
William graduated high school at the age of 14 to attend college at Vanderbilt University. After taking time off to travel, he transferred to Johns Hopkins University and quickly immersed himself in Hopkin's leading science community. He earned his Bachelor's and Master's degrees in biophysics at Johns Hopkins University where he worked on the development of medical tests. He finished his Ph.D. in neurophysiology at the University of Utah. Throughout his youth, he frequently took time off from his studies to explore other areas of interest. Two of his most notable expeditions were to South America, one of which was responsible for tracking the original route of Vasco Núñez de Balboa. In his youth, Dobelle had briefly worked on a whaling boat and as a Porsche mechanic.
Dobelle was the CEO of the Dobelle Institute, headquartered in Lisbon, Portugal, which concentrates on artificial vision for the blind. He was associate director of the Institute of Biological Engineering at the University of Utah and director of the Division of Artificial Organs at the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center. He was a founding fellow of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering. 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. It has been reported that Dr. Dobelle was nominated along with Dr. Willem Johan Kolff for the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2003, though the official list of nominees remains sealed for fifty years following the announcement of the winner.
He bought Avery Laboratories (now Avery Biomedical Devices) in 1983, where he worked on neurostimulation and the artificial eye. Dr. Dobelle led one of several teams of scientists around the world seeking to develop technology for artificial vision. Dobelles' teams developed a brain implant which films the visual field in front of the patient and transmits it to the brain's visual cortex, allowing the patient to see outlines. He received widespread publicity on January 17, 2000, when was announced that a patient known as "Jerry", blind after a blow to his head 36 years previous, had regained his ability see thanks to the artificial eye Dobelle had spent over 30 years developing.
Jerry "sees" by wearing spectacles attached to a miniature camera and an ultrasonic rangefinder. They feed signals to a computer worn on the waistband, which processes the video and distance data, which is then sent by another computer to 68 platinum electrodes implanted in Jerry's brain, on the surface of the visual cortex. He sees a simple display of dots that outline an object. Jerry's vision is the same as a severely shortsighted person - equivalent to 20/400. He is able to read two-inch letters at five feet. Dobelle's "vision project" has been experimented in several people, allowing individuals who were once completely blind to see the outlines of images in the form of white dots on a black background. In 2002, his creation even allowed 38 year-old Jens Naumann, a blind man, to drive a car at the 48th annual American Society for Artificial Internal Organs conference. Cheri Robertson, a 41 year-old woman who was also implanted with the system, was profiled in the documentary "Extraordinary People" in 2008.
Dobelle's Avery Biomedical Devices also created the portable breathing pacemaker, which has been used by patients with quadriplegia, central apnea, and other respiratory ailments. Dobelle died in 2004 from complications related to Diabetes.
A visual prosthesis, often referred to as a bionic eye, is an experimental visual device intended to restore functional vision in those suffering from partial or total blindness. Many devices have been developed, usually modeled on the cochlear implant or bionic ear devices, a type of neural prosthesis in use since the mid-1980s. The idea of using electrical current (e.g., electrically stimulating the retina or the visual cortex) to provide sight dates back to the 18th century, discussed by Benjamin Franklin, Tiberius Cavallo, and Charles LeRoy.
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