Surgical Precision

Winter 2014

Hailed as the “father of medical robotics,”Russ Taylor marries man and machine to push the boundaries of medicine.

Hailed as the “father of medical robotics,”Russ Taylor marries man and machine to push the boundaries of medicine.
Photo by Dean Alexander

With a thick shock of gray hair, walrus-like mustache, and glasses perched high on his nose, Russ Taylor cuts a more-than-passing resemblance to Geppetto, the woodcarver who brought Pinocchio to life. It is an analogy that verges on metaphor. His lab, like Geppetto’s studio, is a world of magic where machines come to life. Russ Taylor makes robots, but these are not your everyday Roombas. Russ Taylor’s robots perform surgery.

“Well, that’s not entirely correct. It’s easy to hear the term medical robotics and think that we’re creating robots that perform the surgery itself, but what we are creating are robotically assisted devices where surgeon and machine work together to do things no human or machine could do alone,” says Taylor, the John C. Malone Professor in the Whiting School of Engineering.

Russ Taylor is widely known as the “Father of Medical Robotics,” a field that didn’t exist 40 years ago and in which he has become the thought leader over the last three decades.
“I believe that robots are changing medical practice the way they changed manufacturing over the last few decades. We’re creating a partnership between humans and machines that has changed how and where surgeries can be performed,” Taylor says.

An ever-innovating engineer fused with a pure scientist, Taylor is the sort of man who is more interested in solving a difficult technical problem than in managing the day-to-day details of business, so he’s not had much interest in launching a startup company.

But he has been intimately involved in helping others to commercialize the things he creates, and his work is fundamental to many of today’s most advanced medical robots—a multibillion dollar industry. “We like to work with companies because they have the resources and expertise to get things into widespread clinical use,” Taylor says.

While with IBM, Taylor led the early development of Robodoc, the first surgical robot to perform hip and knee replacement surgeries. It was the first robot to perform a significant tissue modification process. Taylor has since played a central role in the development of robots that are used in brain, spinal, eye, ear, nose, and throat surgeries, and in craniofacial reconstructions. There is virtually no area of surgery that has not been touched by medical robotics.

Taylor is the first to dispense credit to his many collaborators over the years. He drops the names of his colleagues at Johns Hopkins liberally in conversation—Peter Kazanzides, Greg Hager, Louis Whitcomb, Iulian Iordachita, and many more. And yet, there is no escaping the fact that Taylor’s engineering DNA is present in almost every major advance in the field.

“Russ Taylor is a giant of medical robotics, a field he virtually created from scratch,” says Louis Whitcomb, a fellow professor at the Whiting School and frequent collaborator. “And he is—with Victor Scheinman, Richard Paul, and a very few others—among the handful of pioneers who created the field of robotics research in the 1970s.”