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John T. Watson Papers 1964-2003
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Biographical and Historical Notes

John Thomas Watson -- mechanical engineer, physiologist, and administrator -- was born on January 9, 1940 in Indianapolis, Indiana. His career has centered on the research, development, and validation of biomedical technologies for assisting the ailing heart.

Watson began his career in the private sector, working as a student engineer at the Indianapolis Power and Light Company in the late 1950's. He relocated to Ohio in 1959 and studied for his bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Cincinnati. Meanwhile, he worked as an advanced design engineer on business and computer systems at the National Cash Register Headquarters in Dayton, Ohio. After earning his B.S.M.E. in 1962, Watson attended the Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas and graduated in 1966 with a M.S.M.E. He also worked for four years as a systems engineer on the Ling-Temco-Vought XC-142 Vertical Takeoff Transport and contributed to designing its revolutionary hydraulic system for controlling horizontal and vertical flight.

For the next ten years, Watson remained in Dallas while taking various teaching positions at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School. He earned a Ph.D. in Physiology from that institution in 1972; his dissertation was on the regulation of hormone release during reproduction. In 1974, Watson was appointed Chairman of the Graduate Studies Program in Biomedical Engineering at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center. His interest in studying and treating heart failure developed during his clinical work at the Parkland Hospital. There he treated hundreds of patients using mechanical aids such as the intra-aortic balloon pump to augment cardiac functions and restore circulation.

In October 1976, Watson was appointed Chief of the Devices and Technology Branch (DTB), a research contract program within the Division of Heart and Vascular Diseases at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI). He remained at this institute -- one of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) located in Bethesda, Maryland -- until 2003, eventually becoming Acting Deputy Director of the NHLBI in 1998 and Director of the Clinical and Molecular Medicine Program in 2000. As Chief of the DTB, Watson was responsible for administering a variety of contract-supported research programs devoted to researching and developing mechanical devices and system components for replacing or augmenting the heart. His duties included establishing long-term program goals, financial planning, overseeing clinical trials, and advocating new research areas such as bioengineering. Under his leadership, the DTB made significant overall progress and technological breakthroughs in the development of temporary ventricular assist devices, total artificial hearts, implantable biomaterials, and cardiovascular imaging systems. Watson also served as Head of a Bioengineering Scientific Research Group and a major facilitator of the federal small business innovation research (SBIR) program during his tenure at the NHLBI.

After twenty-seven years at the NIH, Watson relocated to the University of California in San Diego to become Professor of Bioengineering and Associate Director of the William von Liebig Center for Entrepreneurism and Technology Advancement. He currently is focusing his efforts on devising ways to accelerate the process for allowing new medical therapies to be used in clinics, believing that it takes too long for treatments to progress from the conceptual to the clinical stage.

Historical Note

The following is a brief account of the genesis of artificial heart research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) before John T. Watson's arrival in 1976.

In the late 1950's and early 1960's, health care professionals grew increasingly aware of the large number of American deaths being caused by heart disease. The National Advisory Council held a meeting in November 1963 to discuss options for reversing heart disease. One option seized upon as high in priority was the development of a permanently implantable artificial heart to replace the ailing natural heart. Ralph Knutti, director of the NIH's National Heart Institute (NHI), decided to pursue this possible research area and organized a meeting of leading thoracic surgery professionals in February 1964 to discuss how to proceed. These professionals advised Knutti to establish a contracting office at the NHI devoted to artificial heart research. Their advice led to the establishment of the Artificial Heart Program (AHP) and the appointment of John R. Beem as Acting Chief. Frank Hastings took the position of Chief in 1965.

The original goal of the AHP was to achieve the development of a working artificial heart by the end of the decade. A series of parallel analytical studies were conducted in 1965 to explore the practicality of a systems analysis approach to the research. The studies were summarized and analyzed in a 1966 report prepared by Hittman Associates entitled "Final Summary Report on Six Studies Basic to Consideration of the Artificial Heart Program." That same year, the Myocardial Infarction Program was established as an outgrowth of the AHP. Soon research contracts were being awarded; over the next few years, contractors worked on the development of blood pumps, implantable fuel cells, endogenous heat in animals, control systems for circulatory assist devices, biomaterials, thermal engine studies, percutaneous leads, and improved oxygenators for circulatory support. Over time it became apparent that total cardiac replacement by 1970 would not be feasible. As a result, the AHP began placing greater emphasis on cardiovascular instrumentation and temporary ventricular assist devices, particularly a left ventricular assist device augmenting the natural heart's ability to pump blood into the aorta.

Brief Chronology

1940 Born January 9 in Indianapolis, Indiana to Myron and Catherine Watson
1956-1959 Student Engineer, Indianapolis Power and Light Company
1959-1962 Advanced Design Engineer, National Cash Register Headquarters
1962 B.S., M.E. (Mechanical Engineering), University of Cincinnati
1962-1966 Systems Engineer, Ling-Temco-Vought
1966 M.S., M.E. (Mechanical Engineering), Southern Methodist University
1966-1974 Various teaching positions, University of Texas (UT) Southwestern Medical School
1972 Ph.D., Physiology, UT Southwestern Medical School
1974-1976 Assistant Professor, Departments of Surgery and Physiology, UT Southwestern Medical School
1974-1976 Chairman, Graduate Studies Program in Biomedical Engineering, UT Health Sciences Center
1976-1994 Chief, Devices and Technology Branch; Division of Heart and Vascular Diseases (DHVD); National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI); National Institutes of Health (NIH)
1984-1990 Deputy Associate Director for Cardiology, DHVD, NHLBI, NIH
1994-2000 Head, Bioengineering Scientific Research Group, DHVD, NHLBI, NIH
1998-2000 Acting Deputy Director, NHLBI, NIH
2000-2003 Director, Clinical and Molecular Medicine Program, DHVD, NHLBI, NIH
2004-present Associate Director, William von Liebig Center for Entrepreneurism and Technology Advancement, University of California in San Diego (UCSD)
2004-present Professor and Vice-Chair of Bioengineering, UCSD

Selected Awards

1995 Laufman-Greatbatch Prize, American Association of Medical Instrumentation
1996 NIH Director's Award
1998 First NIH employee elected to the National Academy of Engineers
1998 NIH Director's Award
2000 C. William Hall Award, Society for Biomaterials
2000 Distinguished Alumnus Award, University of Cincinnati
2001 Pierre Galletti Award, American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering
2006 Living Legend, World Society of Cardio-Thoracic Surgeons

Artificial Heart Program Hierarchy and Administrators Prior to 1976

1964 Artificial Heart Program (AHP) established at the National Heart Institute (NHI); John R. Beem appointed Acting Chief
1965 Frank Hastings appointed Chief
1966 Myocardial Infarction Program added to the AHP
1969 NHI renamed the National Heart and Lung Institute (NHLI)
1970 AHP renamed the Medical Devices and Applications Program
1971 Lowell Harmison appointed Acting Chief after Hastings's death
1972 Clarence Dennis appointed Chief; MDAP restructured and renamed the Division of Technological Applications (DTA); Biomaterials Program transferred to another division
1973 DTA replaced with the Cardiovascular Devices Branch within the Division of Heart and Vascular Diseases (DHVD); Peter Fromer appointed Acting Chief
1975 Cardiovascular Devices Branch renamed the Devices and Technology Branch (DTB); Frank Altieri appointed Acting Chief; Biomaterials Program reintegrated into the DTB
1976NHLI renamed the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI); Cardiology Advisory Committee began evaluating the DTB; John T. Watson appointed Chief