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Dr. Murray Sachs, longtime Johns Hopkins professor who laid groundwork for cochlear implants, dies

Dr. Murray B. Sachs, a longtime Johns Hopkins University professor whose research laid the groundwork for the creation of cochlear implants, died March 3 at the age of 77.
Dr. Murray B. Sachs, a longtime Johns Hopkins University professor whose research laid the groundwork for the creation of cochlear implants, died March 3 at the age of 77. (Handout)

Dr. Murray B. Sachs, a longtime Johns Hopkins University professor whose research laid the groundwork for the creation of cochlear implants, died March 3 in his Massachusetts home after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease. He was 77.

Born in St. Louis in 1940, his mother was a secretary and his father was a lawyer who eventually left the practice to start a woodworking factory. Before he was born, his mother suffered multiple miscarriages, and Dr. Sachs “grew up with the sense that he had a lot of responsibility,” said his eldest son, Benjamin Sachs.

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“He managed that in really productive ways and became this incredible scientist and this caring father,” said Benjamin Sachs, of Newton, Mass. “In some ways, the world gave him that charge.”

Dr. Sachs worked toward his undergraduate and graduate degrees at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology throughout the 1960s. While still in school, he met the woman who would become his wife, Merle Diener. They married in 1968.

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His postdoctoral research on visual neuroscience took him to the University of Cambridge, though he returned to America in 1969 to serve in the U.S. Navy. He worked on submarine communication as part of the Navy’s underwater sound laboratory.

The next year, his young family moved to Baltimore, where Dr. Sachs joined the Johns Hopkins University biomedical engineering department as an assistant professor. He rose through the ranks, becoming a full professor and then eventually the director of the Department of Biomedical Engineering.

During his tenure, he researched the way the brain receives and processes information about sound. His work provided the foundation for designing and improving hearing aids. The research opened the door for the development of cochlear implants, surgically implanted electronic devices that provide a sense of sound to people with profound hearing loss.

"Murray Sachs was a giant in the field of biomedical engineering," Michael I. Miller, current director of the Hopkins Biomedical Engineering department, said in a news release. He added that modern cochlear implants are “arguably the most successful type of neuroprosthesis in the history of neuroengineering."

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Dr. Sachs received multiple recognitions for his work, including the award of merit from the Association for Research in Otolaryngology and a lifetime achievement award from the American Auditory Society. He was also a member of the National Academy of Engineering.

Throughout his years in the laboratory and the classroom, Dr. Sachs always made it home in time for dinner with his family. He coached his sons’ youth basketball teams and supported his wife’s career as a child therapist who eventually opened her own private practice.

“He absolutely treasured my mother,” said his younger son, Jonathan Sachs, of St. Paul, Minn. “He was an absolutely faithful and steadfast partner to her and to us. Despite all his scientific responsibilities, he was never late to dinner.”

When they weren’t busy watching Orioles or Ravens games, the family of four would often go sailing in the Chesapeake Bay. Dr. Sachs named the family’s boat “The Gratitude.”

“He felt grateful to be out on the water with his family,” said Benjamin Sachs, 46.

Dr. Sachs also enjoyed running, and he completed both the New York and Maryland marathons.

He was named the director of the Hopkins Department of Biomedical Engineering in 1991. A few years later, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

“Parkinson’s didn’t slow him down for years and years and years,” Benjamin Sachs said. “He didn’t let it slow him down until it was just overwhelming. But there were many years where he led an incredibly productive and engaged life while dealing with Parkinson’s.”

Dr. Sachs led the department for 16 years, until his retirement in 2007. He is credited with doubling the size of the department and overseeing the construction of a new building to accommodate that growth. He also established the Whitaker Biomedical Engineering Institute and the Center for Hearing and Balance.

“A lot of people would have been happy taking over this extremely successful enterprise and just keeping it going,” said his longtime friend and Hopkins colleague, Eric Young. “But he knew we had to get bigger and spread into new areas that a lot of other people were nervous about. He saw the future in that sense. … He could see what needed to be done to move the field to the next level.”

His colleagues said that one of his other major accomplishments laid in the way he trained and nurtured young scientists and researchers. Some have gone on to become leaders within the Hopkins biomedical engineering department themselves.

Both of his sons are professors, too: Benjamin Sachs teaches at Harvard Law School and Jonathan Sachs works at the University of Minnesota’s biomedical engineering department.

The latter recently received a grant from the Michael J. Fox Foundation to fund Parkinson’s research.

“He cared deeply about how we were learning and the kinds of people we would become,” his older son said. “He definitely inspired us to take academics seriously and to see the meaning and beauty of them.”

Dr. Sachs and his wife moved to Massachusetts a few years ago so that they could be closer to family as both of them dealt with medical setbacks. Merle (Diener) Sachs preceded her husband in death by three weeks.

“Him dying so soon after she did, you can’t escape the thought that without her, he was ready,” said Benjamin Sachs. “He was ready to go after losing her.”

In addition to his two sons, he is survived by his two daughters-in-law and six grandchildren. Funeral services were held March 5 at Temple Beth Avodah in Newton.

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