Editor's note: The Innovators is a new, occasional series that features inventors who have significantly impacted the world of medical technology.

Growing up in Brookline, Massachusetts, William Murphy Jr. was faced with the regular task of shoveling snow from a 100-foot-long driveway. He grew tired of the chore and decided it was time to speed up the process.

"I had seen the things that railroads did to get through passes of snow and that gave me an idea to design and build a snowblower," he told Medical Device Daily. So he gathered spare parts and fashioned one of the first such machines. "I ended up selling it to a lawnmower company for $1,500. For me, at the time, it was more money than I'd ever seen. After that, I grew up satisfying needs that I envisioned."

As the son of the American physician William Parry Murphy, who shared the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in 1934, Murphy's inventive nature was greatly influenced by a man whose life's work was focused on medicine.

"Dad was a Nobel laureate in the anemias," he said. "Mother was the first licensed female dentist in the state of Massachusetts. My family was in the medical world in a big way. While I loved building things, I was also into medicine."

Murphy, who founded what is now $3.1 billion Cordis (Miami Lakes, Florida), a company that touches an estimated 1 million patients per year, started it in his home garage in the late 1950s not because he was so impressed with the money new inventions could bring, but because "I was educated in medicine and I had a natural talent for the engineering part of things. I thought it was my responsibility to put those abilities to work and be creative."

Over the course of his career, Murphy invented and reinvented several key technologies that have dramatically changed certain aspects of medicine, including major improvements in early cardiac pacemakers, dialyzers, cardiac catheters, blood bags and disposable medical trays. The 86-year-old retired innovator spoke about his inventions and career from his home in South Florida.

First, a glance at some of his most significant contributions:

Single-use medical trays. During a medical internship, he was dismayed to find only dull needles available when trying to do a lumbar puncture.

"I'm pretty good at sticking needles into people," he said. "So I was the one called on whenever there was a difficult lumbar puncture or to start a transfusion where the veins were deep and obscure. I was called on one day to do a lumbar puncture on a not-very-helpful 6-year-old child. I was given a tray of instruments with a dull needle. I sent for replacements and they weren't any good either. I was unable to do the lumbar puncture on that kid. I was so distraught that I thought I'd do something about it."

That frustration led him to later design a tray of lumbar puncture instruments that were, of course sharper, but more importantly all disposable so that they wouldn't dull from reuse. The tray design was sold to Mead Johnson (Evansville, Indiana) and then ultimately purchased by Baxter (Deerfield, Illinois).

"It changed the whole system of doing that kind of procedure," he said. "Today, nobody reuses stuff."

Flexible sealed blood bags. While collaborating with another noted inventor, Carl Walters, MD, during the late 1940s, he developed a flexible sealed blood bag used for blood transfusions. It was used for the first time during the Korean War when Murphy took it to the battlefields and created a system for rapid, air-free transfusions. He performed multiple transfusions on soldiers right at the front lines of the war.

"When I was at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital [now Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital], I was invited to take a trip to Korea with the military. I was then invited to join the military to introduce blood bags during the Korean operation," he said. "By that time I knew a lot about the blood transfusion world. I used to be a donor for my father (whose work was focused on anemia)."

A better dialysis machine. Willem Kolff, MD, invented the first practical artificial kidney during World War II. He was invited to Peter Bent Brigham Hospital to meet Carl Walters, MD, and John Merrill, MD, to redesign and modify that original Kolff Rotating Drum Kidney.

Murphy was there too.

"I was invited to be the mechanic to make sure the machinery worked," Murphy said. "Kolff made a rotating drum dialyzer and he treated the first human patient with dialysis during German occupation. It was a fantastic success on his part and we took up his technology and changed it a little bit. It's interesting that the membrane that the dialysis took place through was cellulose and it was quite cheap because it was sausage casing. It was a brilliant idea. It was a big nuisance to handle, but it worked. That rotating drum dialyzer was the first in the U.S. We treated acute cases because the technology wasn't up to being used repeatedly. We saved quite a few patients."

That sausage casing he mentions was wrapped around the drum and connected to latex tubing, which was attached to a patient's bloodstream. The drum would rotate in the dialyzing fluid bath. Blood was propelled through the device by a pulsatile pump. A split coupling connected the tubing to the membrane, a component necessary to prevent the tubing and membrane from twisting. That connected the inlet and outlet of the rotating drum.

That dialysis machine, built in the late 1940s, was used in the very first U.S. transplant program.

Getting there

There's more in the way of inventions, but now you get the idea about the impact of Murphy's work and how it led to the launch of Cordis. But, stepping back, it's fun to take a look at the route he took and the curves in the road along the way.

For instance, this brilliant man – who graduated from Harvard University (Cambridge, Massachusetts) with a major in pre-medicine and a minor in architecture and got his MD from the University of Illinois (Urbana) – was far from being overly confident in his abilities. With a Nobel Laureate for a dad, that's understandable. Hence his hesitation when considering the next step in his education.

"My dad was gracious and gave me an automobile upon graduation from the University of Illinois and I went to Detroit to pick it up. He had arranged this through a patient who was then the treasurer of Chrysler. I stayed at his home and he mentioned that he was taking a couple of other people through the plant and asked if I would like to go. 'That's a silly question,' I said. 'Of course I'd like to go.'

"I went with the other two men. One of the two men always asked the right question and I was impressed with him. It turned out that he was the president of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT; Cambridge). He was curious abut why I was there. I told him that I'd like to learn some engineering."

At the time, MIT was accepting just one out of eight students. Murphy told the MIT president that there was no point in applying because he didn't think he'd get in.

"I applied and was accepted immediately," he said. "My purpose was to learn engineering to do some things in the world of medicine that perhaps others weren't doing. I did my MIT time and then a two year internship."

The MIT experience – along with the lumbar puncture debacle shortly after – further cemented Murphy's desire to "get into the business of making medical things."

In the time that followed came the single-use medical trays, the lumbar puncture tools, the blood bags and then the dialyzer work.

About that time, the entrepreneurial bug took hold.

R&D was a bust

"I moved to Florida and joined an outfit called Dade Reagents [which was later acquired by Siemens (Malvern, Pennsylvania) to become Dade Behring (Deerfield, Illinois)]. That was interesting, but for me, very limiting because I had other ideas to pursue, so I started Cordis.

"When I first started the company, we were trying to do research and development of instrumentation. I soon discovered that was a great way to lose money. We needed to find an instrument that was needed and then produce it," he said.

The original company, Medical Development, quickly gained recognition as a pioneer in innovative products for interventional vascular medicine. But in 1959, Murphy decided to change the company's name to something more distinctive: Cordis (of the heart), indicating its therapeutic focus.

Switching the company's mission plan, too, from general R&D to one that was based on real, current "needs" turned out to be a correct assumption, one that would provide the basic building blocks for Cordis.

The first instrument the company made was a high-pressure contrast media injector. "It was a gadget that would push the contrast material through a catheter into a vessel or chamber in the circulatory system to visualize the circulatory system to detect a blockage in the coronary artery or an aneurysm in ascending or descending aorta. It was developed in Sweden originally and is in use today because surgeons don't like to enter the body without knowing what they are tackling without knowing where it is," he said.

Murphy's ingenuity combined with a small team at Cordis, took a basic invention and improved and refined it for practical use, based on a need.

"The Swedes built an injector of a similar nature but it used carbon dioxide to propel the material," he said. "But we developed an electric motor to push the contrast media. It was a clever injector with 1,000 pounds per square inch and it's absorbed in the resistance of the catheter. The trick is to control it very carefully to the function of the heart. We built those and sold quite a few."

Of course, one thing leads to another.

"It was clear we were selling the injectors to people who were making their own catheters, sometimes doing a good job and sometimes doing a bad job," he said.

Another "need" surfaced.

(Tomorrow, part two of The Innovators: William Murphy Jr. grows Cordis, one "needed" device at a time, but not without a few blunders along the way.)

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