By Joseph Collins, Staff Writer
Human beings rely on vision as our primary source of information. Recent neurological research estimates that 80% of the information we take in about the world comes to us through our eyes. As a result, losing our sight can be extremely debilitating. And yet, millions of people worldwide struggle with partial or total vision loss. In 2012, it was estimated that 285 million people globally had impaired vision, with 39 million being totally blind. Most would give anything to have healthy sight again. Enter: Dr. William Dobelle.
Dr. Dobelle dedicated his life to inventing experimental technologies that would give the blind sight. Using computers and an artificial eye built into glasses, he was able to give the gift of limited sight to many people. His fascination with artificial organs also led to the development of other important medical devices, including an artificial respirator. His commitment to helping others has earned him widespread acclaim and a place in medical history. This week, Infinite Fire takes a look back on the life and legacy of Dr. Dobelle and his amazing inventions.
A CHILD OF SCIENCE
William Harvey Dobelle was born in Pittsfield, Massachusetts on October 24, 1921 to Lillian Debelle and Martin Dobelle, a prominent American Orthopedic surgeon. From an early age, William had a natural inclination towards science and technology. Even as a young boy, he exhibited a talent for inventing things. At the age of just 8, he was already conducting medical research, sometimes to help his father, sometimes out of sheer curiosity.
Incredibly, William Debelle invented his first medical device at the age of 13 — an artificial hip, which he developed with his father’s help and later patented. At 14, William had already entered college, attending Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. In 1956, at age 15, he had built an original concept X-ray machine which won him the Florida State Science Fair prize. But it was not until several years later, at 18 years old, that he became fascinated with the challenge of restoring vision to the blind.
“I’ve always done artificial organs,” said Dobelle. “I’ve spent my whole life in the spare-parts business. I just inherited it from my father.”
Dobelle soon dropped out of Vanderbilt to pursue independent research on stimulating sight with technology, supporting himself with a job as a Porsche mechanic. By 1960, however, he returned to school, this time attending Johns Hopkins University, where he earned a Bachelor’s Degree in biophysics, then a Master’s Degree. He went on to earn a PhD at the University of Utah, and shortly after became the director of artificial organs at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center. Throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s, Dobelle and a team of researchers traveled to a number of medical centers in North America. At each center, they performed acute stimulation experiments on patients who had to undergo brain surgery. They used these experiments to gain a greater understanding of how sight worked and what areas of the brain were involved in vision. In 1983, Dobelle bought Avery Labs in Hauppauge, New York, and his work to restore sight to the blind truly began.
PUSHING THE BOUNDARIES
During his years at the lab, Debelle focused his efforts on researching artificial vision. His first task was to gather as much information as possible on what kinds of technologies already existed. Dobelle and his team travelled the world in search of new ideas and insights that could help them create artificial sight.
After years of research and experimenting, Debelle finally developed an implantable device that offered limited vision for people who were blind. In 1978, Dobelle installed his prototype into a blind man from New York City. Although the man’s vision improved, the implant never produced true “functional mobility,” a term referring to the ability to navigate the world without the help of a cane or seeing-eye dog. It was a start in the right direction, but was far from what Dobelle hoped to achieve.
Unfortunately, Dobelle’s research suffered a major setback later that year, when the Food and Drug Administration passed a law prohibiting the testing of neuro-prosthesis on human beings. Without the ability to test his devices, Dobelle knew it would be extremely difficult to perfect his work. Despite this new challenge, however, he was determined to move forward and find new ways to continue pushing toward his goal of giving sight back to the blind.
A MAJOR BREAKTHROUGH
With regulations limiting his work in the US, Dobelle decided to look to Europe to continue his work. In 1983, Dobelle established the Dobelle Institute in Lisbon, Portugal, where he could carry on his work. It was there that he conducted much of his ground-breaking work in artificial vision systems. In Lisbon, Dobelle and his team developed a unique type of brain implant. Essentially, the implant films the visual field in front of the patient and transmits it to the brain’s visual cortex, allowing the patient to see pixelated images.
The system, which is still experimental, uses a tiny camera mounted in eyeglasses worn by the blind. The camera images are relayed to a portable computer and transmitted to surgically implanted electrodes attached to the brain’s visual cortex. The camera then captures the scene in front of the wearer, and the processor translates the image into a series of signals that the brain can understand, and then sends the information to the implant. The picture is fed into the brain and the brain will “see” the image. Although their sight is far from perfect (estimated to be 20/400), it allows the recipients to function again in a way they had not been able to before.
Using this approach, Dobelle began to make major inroads. By the year 2002 he had successfully restored a limited form of vision to 8 people, including a patient who had lost his vision due to a head injury. Over time, Dobelle was soon directing a dozen teams spread out over four continents, conducting research and improving technology that gave limited sight to dozens of patients.
Dobelle’s patients were able to walk outside and identify major objects, such as trees, lamp posts, and doorways. Even though their vision was of very low resolution, most patients were excited and hopeful about the results. One patient was even able to drive a car around objects in a private parking lot. Between April 2002 and January 2004 sixteen patients had implant surgery in Lisbon, Portugal, and the results were very encouraging.
PASSING AND LEGACY
While Dobelle was working tirelessly to help the blind, he was coping with health issues and challenges of his own. As a diabetic, he was constantly struggling to maintain his health. In 2001, an ulcerated foot infection spread out of control, and his left leg had to be amputated. Although he was confined to a wheelchair, Dobelle did not let his new condition slow him down. He continued to pour himself into his research to help others and make a difference in the world. Nevertheless, on October 5th, of 2004, at the age of 62, William Dobelle died at a Manhattan hospital due to diabetes-related complications. He left behind his wife, Claire Dobelle, and their three children, Martin, Molly and Mimi.
Dobelle’s commitment is inspiring. He dedicated his like to developing technologies that would help others, in spite of his own physical disability. In the face of funding challenges and regulatory road blocks, he worked tirelessly across countries and continents to bring his dream to fruition.
Although Dobelle never got the chance to perfect his invention for artificial sight, his groundbreaking research and devices have opened the door to whole new technologies that are improving the lives of patients around the world Today, researchers anticipate that Dobelle’s work will one day lead to perfect vision for millions of sightless people worldwide. At present, there are more than 15,000 people across the globe who have either limited vision restored to them, or are benefiting in some way from one of Dobelle’s inventions. As scientists continue to advance Dobelle’s work, we get closer and closer to realizing the vision of a dreamer whose wish was simply to help and improve the lives of his fellow man, one person at a time.