In 1951, fresh out of engineering school, Robert E. Fischell was taking a shortcut across the lawn at the Washington-area offices of his first employer when he tripped on a sprinkler head.
“I immediately envisioned pop-up lawn sprinklers, though I had no idea how to get a patent” and never gave it another thought, he says.
Eight years after literally stumbling on that idea, he was working at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in North Laurel when a similar scenario unfolded. He was shown an X-ray that revealed an implanted pacemaker that would have to be surgically replaced within two years when its batteries died.
“Within a minute -- which is my typical time frame -- I had invented the rechargeable pacemaker,” he says. His design for a device with lifetime batteries was ready in four days and is one-tenth the size of its predecessor.
That was the moment his life as an inventor of revolutionary medical instruments began, says Fischell, who holds more than 200 U.S. and international patents. He is known as the father of modern medical stents and implantable insulin pumps.
Some of his latest projects, which are all on the verge of FDA approval, include three life-changing devices. One stops an epileptic seizure before it starts, another warns of an impending heart attack before symptoms occur, and the third (which is already in use in Europe) eliminates a migraine headache.
But it’s not only the remarkable caliber of what Fischell invents, it’s how he goes about it — a unique process that he says makes him “a little different.”
“When I see a problem, my mind ‘sees’ a solution, often within 30 seconds,” he explains. “It’s a blessing and a curse. I feel very lucky to be born this way. But once I see the device I feel compelled to work on it.”
That’s why at age 84 he still puts in 10- to 12-hour workdays in the award-filled office of his Dayton home, which he designed in 1987. He lives on the seven-acre wooded property called Willow Oaks with his second wife, Susan, and their rambunctious goldendoodle puppy, Buddy, who is a cross between a golden retriever and a poodle.
Yet, Fischell remains “somewhat embarrassed” by his accomplishments, he says.
“Who am I? I was a poor kid growing up in the Bronx. The last thing I want is to be considered arrogant, or to lord my success over anyone,” he says. “But the harder I work, the luckier I get.”
Luck, of course, has nothing to do with his talent for devising lifesaving medical instruments, despite his humility. Neither, apparently, did his upbringing.
Fischell was the youngest of three children whose Lithuanian father was a shoemaker who didn’t finish eighth grade. His uneducated mother was born in Belarus. As a boy he got some C’s and D’s on report cards, and his parents made him sit still for hours without flinching as punishment.
“My father asked me for the first time what I had studied in college at my graduation,” he recalls. “After I answered, he said I’d never succeed as a physicist.
“I had no role model growing up,” he laments. “I was totally ignored by both of my parents as a child, so I set out to prove I was going to be OK.”
Obviously, Fischell has more than surpassed that adolescent desire.
He graduated cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Duke University in 1951. Two years later he earned a master’s degree in physics from the University of Maryland, College Park, which also awarded him an honorary doctoral degree in 1996.
After an eight-year stint as a civilian engineer with the Navy, he worked as chief engineer in the space department at the Applied Physics Lab from 1959 to 1984. He then became a part-time employee at APL and ended his career there in 1997 as chief of technology transfer, a department that focuses on transferring space technology to the design of medical devices.
“He is one of the most ingenious and smartest individuals I have ever met,” says William Bentley, chairman of the Fischell Department of Bioengineering, which opened at the University of Maryland in 2006. “Bob has an amazing mental acuity that allows him to just parse the noise and cut to the chase.”
Fischell and his family had donated $31 million to the university a year earlier to create the department, which is part of the A. James Clark School of Engineering, and to establish the Robert E. Fischell Institute of Biomedical Devices.
This fall, Fischell and his wife also pledged $1 million to the Howard Hospital Foundation to support Howard County General Hospital’s expansion and renovation projects. In thanks, hospital leaders have christened The Susan and Robert Fischell Cardiac Monitoring Unit.