Dr. Melvin J. Glimcher, Prosthetics Innovator, Dies at 88June 5, 2014
As a second-year student at Harvard Medical School, Melvin J. Glimcher was assigned to use textbooks to prepare a report on the mechanics of the foot. He quickly concluded that the textbooks were wrong, and his report said so.
His professors did not believe him, and took the paper to the engineering faculty. The engineers said the student was right.
At the time, Dr. Glimcher — who died on May 12 in Manhattan at 88 — had already earned an engineering degree, and he would study much more engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology after he graduated from medical school with honors and took up orthopedics. Indeed, these dual preoccupations led to a spectacularly diversified career, and his deft combination of insights from the two fields led to major scientific breakthroughs.
One that was reported as sensational news was announced in 1968. As its principal developer, Dr. Glimcher, who had worked with amputees as a consultant to an insurance company, had succeeded in devising an artificial upper arm that moved in response to instructions from the brain.
Activated by electrical impulses generated in the muscles of the natural arm stump, the artificial limb, christened the “Boston Arm,” would move when the user willed the muscles to contract. The invention included a computerized weight-sensing mechanism that adjusted the voltage so that an egg, for example, could be picked up more gently than an iron bar.
Beginning in the 1950s and continuing almost until his death, Dr. Glimcher also developed new and important evidence of how human bones develop. He offered proof that proteins, some of which he discovered, and minute quantities of calcium and other minerals in the body interact in seething movement to become bone. As a description of bone formation, it was a far cry from earlier, more static models, and his discoveries laid the groundwork for advances in the treatment of osteoporosis and other bone diseases.
In other research, Dr. Glimcher advanced understanding of the human gait, the mechanics of running and walking, and the genetics of bones. In 2006, when he was 81, he teamed with his daughter, Dr. Laurie H. Glimcher, a leading immunologist, to publish a paper (their fourth together) on a newly discovered gene that helped control bone mass. Each led a team of researchers in pursuing the implications of the finding.
Dr. Laurie Glimcher, who became interested in science as a girl in visits to her father’s lab, became dean of Weill Cornell Medical College in Manhattan in 2011 after decades at Harvard Medical School. As a student at Harvard, she won the Soma Weiss Award for undergraduate research in 1976, 26 years after her father had won the same prize. They were the first father and daughter to hold endowed professorships at Harvard Medical School.
Melvin Jacob Glimcher was born in Brookline, Mass., on June 2, 1925. His family owned a garment factory, and while in high school he worked as a sportswriter for the local newspaper. He tried to join the Marines at 17, but his mother barged into the recruiting office to retrieve him. In an interview with The Boston Globe in 2006, he recalled telling the recruiting sergeant, “I’ve never seen this woman in my life.”
He ended up in the Marines anyway, but much to his chagrin they sent him not to Parris Island, S.C., for combat training but to Duke and Purdue Universities to study science. “You’re too smart,” he recalled his captain saying.
At Purdue, Dr. Glimcher earned bachelor’s degrees in mechanical engineering and physics, both with highest distinction. He graduated from Harvard Medical School magna cum laude. He decided to become an orthopedic surgeon, he said, because a professor told him that it was a “barren” field.
After his internship and residency, he studied biochemistry, biophysics and engineering for four years at M.I.T. to hone his research skills. He did more than enough work to earn a Ph.D. but chose not to get one.
At 39, Dr. Glimcher was appointed to the first tenured chair in orthopedic surgery at Harvard. “It was the forerunner of many chairs of orthopedic surgery,” Dr. David R. Eyre, who holds such a chair at the University of Washington School of Medicine, said in an interview.
By then Dr. Glimcher had already done much of his acclaimed work in bone calcification using new technology, like the electron microscope and nuclear magnetic resonance equipment.
Eric L. Radin, an expert on joints who teaches at Tufts University School of Medicine, called Dr. Glimcher “an intellectual giant” who intuitively saw a need to bring engineering principles to medicine.
“He understood that from very early on when none of the rest of us did,” Dr. Radin said in an interview.
Dr. Glimcher had long been interested in artificial limbs, in part because of his consulting work for the Liberty Mutual Insurance Company. In 1960, he visited Moscow to see a hand prosthesis that opened and closed by means of electrical charges. He achieved a breakthrough the next year, when he treated Norbert Wiener, the M.I.T. professor who had originated the discipline of cybernetics, for a broken hip.
It was cybernetics, the study of automatic control and communications in both machines and living creatures, that provided the essential understanding to build sensitivity into the Boston Arm. Several hundred of them were sold, fewer than initially expected, but the artificial arm’s principles were incorporated in later prostheses. Today, research in the field focuses on simulating nerves so that prosthetic devices can “feel.”
Dr. Glimcher’s marriages to Geraldine Lee Bogolub and Karin Wetmore ended in divorce. He is survived by three daughters from his first marriage, Susan, Laurie and Nancy Glimcher; six grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.
Dr. Laurie Glimcher, who confirmed the death, said her father had a restless curiosity and energy well into his later years, and would sleep only four hours a night. Four months before giving a series of lectures in Russia, for example, he learned Russian so he could deliver his talks in that language.
Dr. Glimcher drove himself, she said. She recalled once stalking out of her Harvard lab because her experiments were not working and running into her father. He scoffed, saying that 98 percent of experiments fail, and urged her to return.
“It’s when the experiments are not going well that you dig in and you don’t give in and you work and you work,” he told her.