William H. Dobelle, PhD(he/him)

William H. Dobelle, PhD(he/him)

Affiliated institution

CEO (1983 - 2004)

Dobelle Institute

Birth date/year

October 24, 1941

Death date/year

October 05, 2004

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Dr. Bill Dobelle (October 24, 1941 – October 5, 2004) was a biomedical researcher who developed experimental technologies that restored limited sight to blind patients, and also known for the impact he and his company had on the breathing pacemaker industry with the development of the only FDA approved device for phrenic nerve pacing. He was the former director of the Division of Artificial Organs at the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center.

Born in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, Dobelle was raised in Massachusetts and Florida. His earliest research on the artificial hip, conducted with his orthopedic surgeon father, resulted in a series of patents at age 13. A Vanderbilt University senior at age 18, Dobelle dropped out of school to conduct independent research on visual physiology, supporting himself as a Porsche mechanic and commercial fisherman.

Supporting himself with a full time job on the research staff at Johns Hopkins University, Dobelle completed BA and MA degrees in biophysics. During this period (1960–1967), he coauthored an important series of papers characterizing human cone pigments, thus elucidating the physiologic basis for human three color vision. To provide human retinas for this research, he organized the Medical Eye Bank of Maryland, which quickly became the world’s largest.

From 1969 to 1975, Dobelle was the Associate Director of the Institute for Biomedical Engineering at the University of Utah under the guidance of Dr. Willem J. Kolff. While there, he initiated and directed research on artificial vision for the blind (electrical stimulation of the visual cortex) and artificial hearing for the deaf (intracochlear stimulation). Dobelle completed a PhD in physiology while working as a full time faculty member. He also organized and directed both the University’s Microelectronics Laboratory and the Intermountain Organ Bank.

In 1975, Dobelle became the Director of Artificial Organs for the Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center. The Division, which Dr. Dobelle organized, involved approximately 50 full and part time investigators, including collaborative programs with colleagues at other institutions in the United States, Japan, Canada, and Europe. Research included artificial vision for the blind—the project with which Dobelle is most publicly identified—as well as cardiac assist devices in humans, organ banking including human heart transplantation, hybrid and mechanical artificial pancreas for diabetics, and artificial hearing for the deaf via electrical stimulation of the skin.

Avery Laboratories was founded by others in 1969 and acquired by Dobelle in 1983 when he turned his focus to the commercial applications of artificial implant devices and to the development and refinement of ever more useful artificial vision devices.

From 1983 through 2001, Dobelle maintained facilities in Zürich, Switzerland (Institut Dobelle, AG), and from 1995 through 2001 he also had a laboratory at the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York City. Both of these operations were closed in favor of a facility in Lisbon, Portugal, to facilitate commercial introduction of Artificial Vision systems. Because the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had not approved the Artificial Vision System for clinical investigation or commercial distribution in the United States, Dobelle sent his patients to a surgeon in Lisbon, Portugal. Dobelle served as Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of the Dobelle Institute (Portugal) Lda. from 1983 until his death.