Biomedical Engineering at 50

Fall 2011

As the first Chair of Biomedical Engineering at Hopkins, the School of Medicine’s Dick Johns started with five faculty members and 15 graduate students. (Photo: Mike Ciesielski)

Even as a teenager, Roger Hajjar ’86 thought big, 
and those grand thoughts brought him to Johns Hopkins in the early 1980s.

Planning on a career in medicine, Hajjar chose Johns Hopkins’ Biomedical Engineering program based on its stellar national reputation and perennial No. 1 ranking. While just a decade old at the time, the undergraduate BME program at Homewood was built upon 20 years of groundbreaking work by School of Medicine faculty-work that essentially gave birth to the field.

“I knew Johns Hopkins was a big player,” says Hajjar, a heart failure specialist who is now research director of the Wiener Family Cardiovascular Research Laboratories at the Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York and the founder of several successful startup companies. “They offered a superior learning environment and the academic rigor I was after.”

For decades now, the Biomedical Engineering Department has attracted the best and brightest, like Hajjar, from the United States and abroad.

The department traces its roots to the 1950s and Samuel Talbot.

Talbot, who earned his doctorate in physics from Harvard, joined the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine to continue his work in biophysics. In his lab, Talbot fabricated devices that could measure the electrical potential in muscle fibers and the human heart. He also advanced physiological optics, including the invention of the optic stimulator to observe retinal cells and neurons. His pioneering work would lead the Department of Medicine to create a biophysical division to produce more clinical tools.

In the 1950s, Johns Hopkins doctors and scientists developed the first cardiac defibrillator, based on the work of School of Engineering dean and electrical engineer William B. Kouwenhoven. Realizing the potential for even more advances, Talbot championed the creation of a biomedical engineering division, launched in 1962 as part of the Department of Medicine.

In 1965, Talbot departed for the University of Alabama to start a new biomedical engineering program there. A committee, led by famed neuroscientist Vernon Mountcastle and Department of Medicine chair A. McGehee (“Mac”) Harvey, recommended that the school look for a successor to Talbot and create an independent biomedical department.

The university tapped Dick Johns (Med ’48), who joined Johns Hopkins in the 1950s and had worked alongside Talbot as a medical student and later became the first professor and chairman of the new sub-department of biomedical engineering. It started out with five faculty and 15 graduate students.

In 1970, biomedical engineering became a full and separate department in the School of Medicine, and Johns was named its founding director. A full-time undergraduate program in biomedical engineering would go on to be introduced on the Homewood campus, one of the first programs of its kind in the nation. The program was championed by Moise H. Goldstein Jr. and Stanley Corrsin, a pioneer of fluid mechanics who had previously chaired the Department of Mechanical Engineering.

Under Johns’ leadership, the department would expand to encompass research in speech and hearing, cardiovascular control, and myocardial mechanics. In 
his own research, Johns helped develop a 3-D radiography system that would give physicians a “real” image and allow for structures behind dense organs to be observed; it proved revolutionary.

“From the beginning, the essence of what we do is combine quantitative physics and math to solve real-world biomedical problems,” says Johns today.