Origins of the Institute of Biomedical Engineering
Dr. R. N. Scott. Professor Emeritus in Electrical Engineering, University of New Brunswick
Note: Dr. Scott passed away in December 2014. Bob was a dear friend to the close community at the Institute. As founder of the Institute, he touched many lives and inspired many minds by his passion and vision of helping amputees. He was an extraordinary person: he showed tremendous academic and professional dedication and was intimately involved in many community services. He is missed greatly.
The origins of UNB Institute of Biomedical Engineering are possibly unique among university research institutes, and all IBME programs to this day have been affected by this unusual background.
In 1957 the first rehabilitation hospital in the province of New Brunswick, the Forest Hill Rehabilitation Centre, was opened in Fredericton. By 1961 the Medical Director, Dr. Lynn Bashow, aware of reported technological advances in the USA, asked the Dean of Science at UNB whether someone there might be interested in the technological challenge presented by two patients with high-level spinal injuries. Among faculty members who were introduced to the complexities of quadriplegia was Bob Scott, then Assistant Professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering. He invited several individuals with varied backgrounds, from the University and the wider Fredericton community, to a second meeting, from which was formed in 1962 The Technical Assistance and Research Group for Physical Rehabilitation (TARGPR). This Group was able to provide some “low tech” assistance to patients at the Rehabilitation Centre, but quickly determined that more research was needed to make any significant impact. The Group decided to focus on the need, of persons with quadriplegia, for enhanced ability to communicate with and control their environment. What is now called myoelectric control seemed most promising, and became the Group’s focus. But progress was very slow as the Group had practically no financial resources beyond donations from members and from that year's Electrical Engineering graduating class.
While this was happening, the use of the new drug Thalidomide resulted in severe congenital abnormalities among hundreds of infants in Europe and roughly 30 in Canada, where the drug was approved only for limited clinical trials. The Government of Canada announced an initiative to address this crisis, including the establishment of “Prosthetics Research and Training Units” (PRTUs) in Montréal, Toronto and Winnipeg. At the same time, it sought existing research in Canada that might be relevant, and invited TARGPR to re-focus its efforts toward the Thalidomide problem, offering very significant levels of funding. The Group agreed to investigate means of enhancing communications and control for persons with congenital limb deficiencies, with emphasis on myoelectric control. (It was noted that any advances there would also be helpful to arm amputees.) A condition of the related funding was that TARGPR would collaborate with the three PRTUs. This was important, as the group in Fredericton otherwise had no direct access to any medical research centre or, indeed, to any significant caseload from the Thalidomide victims or limb amputees. Through the newly mandated collaboration, access was provided to all Canadian Thalidomide victims, to medical centres in major Canadian cities, and as well to international prosthetics research and development activities through the Committee on Prosthetics Research and Development of the US National Research Council. It would be impossible to overemphasize the importance of this collaboration to the development of the work in Fredericton. As was the case with the PRTUs, all of the research was directed toward practical clinical application in the short term. Indeed, the complaint was made from time to time that the work was too practical to constitute academically respectable research.
By 1965 it had become evident that TARGPR, informal, unincorporated and with only tenuous affiliation with the University, was not the most appropriate vehicle for the program in Fredericton. A research institute within the university offered several clear advantages, not least an appropriate infrastructure for handling a growing budget. A new organization, the Bioengineering Institute, (later to be re-named the Institute of Biomedical Engineering), within the University of New Brunswick, was the result. In defining the Institute’s mandate, it was noted that UNB, its host, had a three-fold mandate to undertake teaching, research and community service. This matched nicely TARGPR’s existing orientation, which was to carry out research that had immediate clinical applicability and to facilitate that application. The coming years saw the Institute collaborating in the fitting of myoelectrically controlled prostheses, and even for a few years operating a small manufacturing plant to make the necessary electronics available for clinical use in Canada and the USA. Not only was the Institute’s research program attractive to undergraduate and graduate students, but also the Institute offered from time to time courses on powered prostheses and international conferences on related topics.
Meanwhile, the Thalidomide victims were very poorly served by the research efforts initiated on their behalf. Powered prostheses of sufficient versatility were beyond the state-of-the-art, and despite heroic efforts with a few youngsters neither the Institute nor the PRTUs made any significant contribution to their welfare. Where there was progress, however, was in the field of electrically-powered limb prostheses with myoelectric control—dubbed by the media “bionic arms”.
Fortunately, university folk are curious, and, despite the glamour of the clinical application, serious research into bioelectric signal processing came to be one of the chief program elements at UNB. Over the years, commercial firms gradually responded to the demand for “bionic arms” and the Institute was able to terminate its manufacturing activity. By that time, however, it had added a clinical prosthetics facility which met a growing need in the Atlantic Provinces and provided a welcome venue in which to carry out clinical research.
New programs have been added as the Institute has matured, but these have continued the emphasis on clinical relevance that characterized the early days of TARGPR. Clinical Engineering service for all New Brunswick hospitals was introduced in 1972. New educational initiatives, particularly in Cuba, have been exciting. New clinical research collaborations have been developed, replacing the early dependence on affiliations that grew out of the Thalidomide program. What began as a naive activity by a young electrical engineer has become a truly interdisciplinary research program recognized internationally. It is an honour to have been a part of this process.