William Kouwenhoven was an engineering professor and prolific researcher during his lengthy engineering and science career. His major accomplishment among several others is the development of the cardiac defibrillator which today is the most prominent resuscitation instrument for reviving people with cardiac arrest.
Kouwenhoven was born on January 13, 1886 in Brooklyn, NY. He did his college work at Brooklyn Polytechnic University and received his B.E. in Engineering in 1906. He then enrolled for doctoral work in engineering at the Karlsruhe Technische Hochschule in Germany and graduated in 1913 with his doctoral degree.
Kouwenhoven joined the engineering faculty of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Engineering in 1914 as a professor of electrical engineering and remained there until well after his retirement. His major area of research interest was the study of the effects of electricity on the human body.
When Edison Electric decided to fund research into the sudden deaths by electrocution of their linemen, it was an opportunity for Kouwenhoven to find funding for his research in the sudden death problem from electrocution. Although he did not have any formal medical education, he was able to launch a research project on the effects of electricity on the heart.
Kouwenhoven’s laboratory used animal testing to find the causes of the cardiac deaths. He used both rats and dogs and discovered that a dog’s heart could be restarted after arrest but only by opening the animal’s chest. This was of course not a desirable method to be used on humans, but it was used until the late 1940’s.
It was not until 1957 that Kouwenhoven’s laboratory was able to develop and perfect the actual defibrillator which is currently still in use. It is the device to restart the heart of people with cardiac arrest from electrical or other shocks. One of his doctoral students and laboratory assistant was G. Guy Knickerbocker, another Dutch American. Kouwenhoven gave extensive credit to Knickerbocker for his assistance on the project.
During the time his laboratory worked on cardiac arrest, Kouwenhoven also was able to develop methods to resuscitate people by restarting the human heart through compression of the heart and the lungs. Forceful and rhythmic chest compressions cause blood to move through the body and keep vital organs alive.
It is typical for a successful researcher to be also tapped for an administrative position in academia. Kouwenhoven did his share. He served as Dean of Johns Hopkins University’s Engineering School from 1938 until 1954. During that time he also accomplished the major research projects discussed above.
When Kouwenhoven reached the age of 68, he retired from his full-time academic position. Even as a retired professor he kept up his research in medical issues for a number of years.
In 1969 Kouwenhoven received the first honorary doctoral degree ever awarded by the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Earlier, in 1961 he was awarded the IEEE Edison medal and during his career he was elected a Fellow in the IEEE Engineering Association. Much of his research also resulted in numerous academic publications.
Kouwenhoven passed away on November 10, 1975 at the age of 89. He had led an extremely productive research life and clearly deserves our respect for the advances he was able to make in the maintenance of health for mankind.
Kouwenhoven, William B., information drawn from several web sites including:
Wikipedia, scienceheroes, hopkinsmedicine, and emsmuseum.
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