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The Passing of a Giant

First, I need to start with a disclaimer:  The following is my personal account and thoughts, and in no way represents the official position of Purdue, the Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering, the College of Engineering, Marketing & Media, or any other person, entity, or institution. 


In this life, we are sometimes blessed to know people who are more than simply unique.  These are people who challenge the status quo, our assumptions about the world and even about what we can do, and do so in a way that is a joy to watch and be a part of.  These are people who literally change the world, and the greatest of them also change those around them in powerful and positive ways as well. 

For the last five years, I've had the honor to be a colleague of one such person.  Made frail by time, effectively blind, he still showed up for work every morning at 0430 for the majority of the time I knew him.  A man who did not care what position or title you held, but what ideas you held and how hard you were willing to work.  Focused on one thing and one thing only:  changing the world for the better by improving the lives and health of people.  Doing that one thing, he changed the face of modern medicine and made possible the modern implantable medical device industry.  More than that, he shaped the minds of those around him and somehow, someway, taught others to think outside the box.

That man, was Leslie Alexander Geddes

Purdue has an official release that details a few, and just a few, of his accomplishments.  I say a few because they were legion and include more than 30 (closer to 50 I think) patents, numerous books and articles, and a drive that had to be seen to be believed.  

To give you an idea of the man, his research career came from an incident that was somewhat embarrassed to discuss with me early on, as "It nearly got me court martialed." Born in Scotland, not far from Glasgow, his family had moved to Canada and during WWII a very young Les Geddes was a member of His Majesty's engineering corps.  That is, until a commanding officer bet the young engineer that he could not blow up the commander's favorite bunker with X amount of explosives (as the tale was related to me by another).  Being Les, he was sure he could and did so, rather spectacularly from the account given to me.  It was then that the commander decided that research was a better place for him, putting that ingenuity to work on other issues.  

That research was in doing nerve damage mapping in the wounded, and finding ways to help them.  An electrical engineering degree in 1945 was just the first step of a career dedicated to helping others and finding new and innovative ways to do things.  A Doctorate in physiology soon followed, and led to work developing the physiological monitoring systems for the first astronauts.  Despite the passage of time and march of technology, some of those systems are still in use today because of how well, and how simply and effectively, they were designed.  

Part of that was because Les Geddes always found a way to approach things from outside the box.  That's not really right, however, because what I always found was that he found a way to move the box and turn it so that the new view was clear and straight.  

One example I witnessed first hand involved CPR.  The fact is, CPR is neither effective nor efficient, and --as Les noted -- if it were a medical procedure instead of an emergency procedure, it would have been shelved long ago.  Les decided that this was not acceptable, and set out to change the success rate by changing CPR.  The first thing he realized was that in all the years people have done and researched CPR, no one had ever done a study to find out how much force was needed to meet the guidelines.  Two undergraduate students, a summer, and the research was done.  Fact is, it takes in excess of 100 pounds of force to meet the current guidelines, and it is very difficult for most people to meet the minimum amount of force needed.  

The undergraduates who did the project under his supervision are a key here, a key to how he operated.  In the academic research game, most people are -- in my opinion -- very hung up on titles, positions, degrees, and such.  Not Les.  If you had a good idea, you had a good idea and it didn't matter if you were the custodian.  If you had an energy and talent he needed, you were part of the team and a full member at that.  If you look at the grant applications and papers from his team(s), you will find people who are not Ph.D's holding key positions, even lead authors and grant recipients.  I can think of a couple of staff members who do not have doctorates, but probably have more NIH and other prestigious grants and significant journal articles than formal faculty at other institutions.  He shared the wealth and put credit where it was due.  


Sharing the wealth was literal too.  When Purdue sharked Les and his team from Baylor back in 1974, one of the first things he did was to force Purdue to revamp how they did patents.  In short order, Purdue found itself sharing patent royalties with not just the inventor/researcher (a novel idea for the time), but with the departments in which they worked.  Les made sure that the researchers had an incentive to not just do research but innovate, and that their departments had good cause to let them do so.  He also stood staid academia on its head by actively seeking out corporate and other similar research funds.  Doing commercial research was an anathema to many in academia (and too all to many today), but he went ahead and did it -- and in the process showed that it was not dirty and why it was necessary.  

He took on many a cherished notion in academia with confidence born of knowing he was doing what was right and proper.  Research for research sake?  Why on Earth would you want to do that.  "Great research, now what are you going to do with it?" was a question he often asked students and others.  What are you going to do with the knowledge?  What good is knowledge if you don't use it for the good?  

This focus on practical results shaped not only his career, but the careers of those he has taught formally and informally.  He had a knack of taking esoteric research results and correlating them to real-world medical problems.  As a result, he and his team(s) formulated all but one of the laws of heart defibrillation, and put the defibrillator on the market.  Not content with that, research he started resulted in improved pacemaker designs and implantable defibrillators -- along with a range of other devices and products.  


Between this "outside the box" thinking and grabbing good students and staff no matter what their official major or status, Purdue found itself in a rather unique dilemma because of Les.  It seems that one day Purdue woke up to find it had a nationally ranked biomedical engineering program.  The problem was, there was no formal program.  The easy solution, make it a formal graduate program.  That not only worked well, but led to the creation of an undergraduate program as well.  Today, where once was a lab in the basement of a building, there is a full school with its own dedicated research and education building, a building built with half its cost being paid by private donations.  

Les officially retired in 1991 because Purdue has a mandatory retirement age for administrators.  What happened was typical Les:  "You mean I can keep teaching and keep doing research, but simply don't have to do all the paperwork?  Where do I sign!" was the response he told me he gave.  He cheerfully kept on confounding the academic bureaucracy however.  Fools and roadblocks found Les impossible to deal with, because he either ignored them or went around them in such a way they really couldn't figure out how he did it.

One such item was his cheerful dismissal of certain, er, concerns.  When one does research involving humans, you have to go through the human subjects committee for approval.  Les put out nothing that he had not tried on himself in some way first.  His view, not shared by the administrative types, was that doing to himself did not require such, only if he did it on others.  

One of the most terrifying moments of my life involved once such thing.  I mentioned CPR earlier, and a new method of CPR is in the approval pipelines (about 5-7 years from now given what is required to meet all regulatory approvals).  Roughly 25 percent more effective in terms of oxygenated blood movement, no broken ribs, and no need for rescue breathing since it forces the body to breathe on its own.  This new method was being demonstrated to a VIP group and I had agreed to be the demo dummy for it.  Les, however, decided that such was not to be:  he made me do it to him.  Those who have met me know that I am not 5'4" a la Jimbo, and am somewhat, er, husky.  Les was about 86, and to my eyes quite frail.  I looked calm, but my inner voice was going something like "ohmygodi'mgoingtobreakhimeveryoneisgoingtohatemeohmygodpleasedon'tletmehurthimi'llhateme..."  

This resulted in one of the few times in my life I've flat out lied.  I started compressions on him and he asked how hard I was pushing, so I told him I was pushing 100 lbs of force, which resulted in an immediate bark of "No you're not, HARDER!"  I kept it as light as I could, but still got a lot closer to 100 lbs than I cared to.  I didn't break him, and in talking to his grad student later I mentioned my concerns which got me a look and a comment of "Welcome to my world."  

Those that knew him were not surprised at all when he did something totally outside normal protocol when being awarded the National Medal of Technology by President Bush.  The President was very well aware that Les was effectively blind and starting to have trouble with steps and such.  When it came time for Les to come up to receive the medal, the President came down to him and helped him up onto the dias.  Les, being Les, decided that he needed to impart some words of wisdom to the President and treated him as he would any student:  he reached up, and pulled the President down to him.  President Bush took it in stride, and even with some amusement which he carefully hid from Les.  The Marine guards stiffened, and you could hear the collective gasp from the audience at the lesse.  That is, you could hear it on the television, at Purdue in the conference room, all you could hear were laughs and comments about how Les would be Les and considered the President to be just another student.  

In many respects, we were all just students to him, but that is not a denigration at all.  Les, I think, saw himself as a student as well, always learning, always exploring, and always innovating.  In the last few months, you visited him at your peril.  He knew that his time was short, and if you visited you found yourself being given assignments.  I have a couple myself, though I am not sure that I can do some TBI research at Purdue or if it may have to be done elsewhere.  He also gave me another task that I will do my best to make happen, and soon. 


Les was one of my staunchest supporters when I did my embeds.  He absolutely could not understand why anyone would not be supportive of them, and delighted in my briefing him after I did them.  He wanted me to go again, and I and another have an assignment to try to make that happen.  Les was also quite taken with some of the medical supplies and gear I brought back.  As he examined them, I saw the wheels turning, and I have little doubt that someone has an assignment to try to improve on the emergency combat medical gear.  

Leslie Alexander Geddes never forgot being a soldier.  He worked over the years on many things to try to benefit them.  This included means of monitoring and treating soldiers in early MOPP gear, and a number of other things.  That's all I can say on that, but he never disdained the troops or in doing things for them.  

Yesterday morning, Les left this world for the next.  In true fashion, he asked for no funeral and no memorial.  I honestly believe that any such embarrassed him, and it was his contention that a surprise event we did for him a few years ago was more than enough.  It was really nor surprise that he also gave his body to science, in the hope that it would help medical students and medical research.  

I can tell you that I believe that there are now things in the pipeline that will make regenerative tissue scaffolds, defibrillators, non-invasive neo-natal monitoring units, and other things he did to save lives and invent modern medicine seem to be nothing.  I don't know what all he has initiated, but look forward to that new method of CPR becoming the new standard.  I look forward to new heights of regenerative medicine.  I look forward to a longer and better life because of the research done by Les Geddes and his teams, and because he taught so many how to step outside the box, move it, and twist it.  

Les taught until the end.  This last Thursday was the first day he had not teleconned into his last class.  Yet, even so, he is still teaching us a lesson.  Thank you Les, for doing that.  Pay it forward.