Biomedical Engineering Willed Into Existence

Uncas Whitaker had an unusual combination of expertises: He was both an engineer and a lawyer. Each came in handy as he expanded electronics parts maker AMP from a small New Jersey workshop to a company with 45,000 employees in 50 countries, and annual sales of nearly $6 billion. And he knew how to focus on one product (terminal connectors in the case of AMP) and become the best in the world at it.

Both of those traits showed up powerfully in the philanthropy he established at his death in 1975. He and his wife ultimately devoted more than $700 million to one cause: developing biomedical engineering as a legitimate and thriving field. To maximize their impact on this embryonic specialty, the trustees of the Whitaker Foundation decided to spend not just the interest on their bequest but the entire principal as well, sunsetting the foundation in 2006. By propelling the entirety of its funds out the door in three decades, and doggedly following a tight and savvy strategy, the Whitaker Foundation essentially invented biomedical engineering as a freestanding and highly productive discipline.

In the 1960s and ’70s, there was very little engineering in medical research. The National Institutes of Health was focused on biology and regularly rejected proposals that involved lots of engineering, which it viewed as the domain of the National Science Foundation. Meanwhile, the NSF believed that engineering proposals with a heavy medical component should be brought to NIH. Most universities opposed moves toward a blending of the disciplines. So biomedical engineering languished until Uncas Whitaker filled the gap. A great believer in the ability of engineers to solve serious problems, he began with personal gifts to Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which enabled Harvard medical students to simultaneously earn a medical engineering degree at MIT.

The Whitaker Foundation made its first research grant in 1976, to an M.D. who had invented a device to wean patients off heart-lung machines. The foundation went on to support a wide range of research at the crossroads of engineering and medicine. In addition to supporting direct research, the foundation set up programs to draw talented young investigators into the field. It offered universities funds to hire faculty. It paid for the development of curricula. It established internships at 33 universities that placed students in real-life work at companies. It paid for the construction of new classrooms, labs, and 13 entire buildings. It spawned several professional societies.

Together, these efforts institutionalized the field of biomedical engineering—it became the fastest-growing engineering specialty. Artificial hearts, lab-grown organs and skin, commonplace joint replacement, cochlear implants, laser surgery, new drug-delivery methods, image-guided surgery, and hundreds of other breakthroughs now dominate hospital suites.

Whitaker funding directly launched the careers of 1,500 biomedical engineers who invented more than 200 significant products or devices, started more than 100 companies, and accumulated 278 patents and 125 intellectual-property licenses. The foundation instigated the creation of many dozens of academic departments. In the early 1990s there were 22; now there are 80. “From a fledgling field to a mature discipline that has gained the recognition and respect of all,” observed University of California professor of bioengineering and medicine Shu Chien, “the extent and rapidity of the development of a field by the effort of a single foundation is unprecedented.”