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The unsung hero of medical devices

The recent announcement about the latest batch of new Apple products and accessories was fascinating news for geeks (like me) everywhere. I could not help but contrast the vast “product innovation engine” that is the Apple Corporation with a personal hero of mine, an innovator himself, Dr Martin Wright (1912 – 2001). Whereas Apple’s skills could be said to be taking an existing product and making it better, Wright was a true inventor, and a prolific inventor at that.

Dr Martin Wright (1912 – 2001) was a British bioengineer who invented several notable medical instruments.

Wright, the son of a clergyman, was born in Dulwich, UK, in 1912 and trained as a medical doctor. He was also a self-taught engineer and designer. His inventions included: the portable syringe driver which has revolutionised the care of patients in ICU and palliative care (he invented it to enable children with thalassaemia to receive treatment whilst continuing to go to school, play and get on with their lives in other ways).

He was also responsible for the peak flow meter, from which he developed the breathalyser, still used to test for drunk-driving. Continuing through his list of inventions, he was also the brains behind an apnoea alarm which detects any irregularities in a baby’s breathing which might indicate possible sudden cot death; the respirometer, used by anaesthetists to measure the breathing pattern of patients during an operation; a non-invasive ultrasound-based method for measuring an infant’s intracerebral pressure in meningitis; and the random zero sphygmomanometer (a blood pressure device which overcomes bias). A very early form of varifocal lenses has also been attributed to Wright.
What makes him my hero?

Well, the hallmark of his inventions was simple, compact, precision engineering that could be manufactured economically. Many of his devices became design classics and are in daily use in operating theatres, clinics and surgeries to his day. Wright single-handedly contributed more to the health and comfort of patients than many large and well-funded research establishments and yet, by all accounts, he remained a quiet and unassuming chap.

It’s a pity that Dr Wright’s inventing abilities and Apple’s skills in taking a good idea and making it great were not destined to combine… it may have resulted in great things for the medical devices industry.

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