UW News

July 16, 2001

Dr. Robert Rushmer, diagnostic ultrasound pioneer, dies at age 86

UW Health Sciences/UW Medicine

Dr. Robert F. Rushmer, a pioneer in applying engineering advances to the creation of new instruments for medical research and patient care, died in Redmond, Wash., Friday, July 13, after a long illness. He was 86.

When Rushmer began his research on the cardiovascular system in 1947 at the University of Washington in Seattle, there were few ways to study heart function in animals except under anesthesia or by removing the heart. Rushmer and his team of students in physics and engineering developed a battery of equipment to study the heart in healthy animals under normal conditions — waking, sleeping, eating, walking — without inflicting pain or discomfort. This equipment enabled researchers to record the function of the heart in engineering terms — changing dimensions, pressure, flow, and derived variables such as acceleration, power and work — and to understand how the heart functions as a pump.

Rushmer’s groundbreaking research on heart function opened many new areas of cardiovascular research that used his team’s concepts and methodologies. Many consider his contributions significant in reducing premature deaths from circulatory disease.

The use of Doppler ultrasound to study the movement of heart valves and the pulsation of blood vessels began in Japan in 1955. Soon thereafter, in 1958, Rushmer, who was trained as a both a pediatrician and physiologist, began working with engineers to develop clinical applications for Doppler ultrasound — using sound waves to visualize the pumping heart and measure blood flow. They wanted a device that could be placed on top of the skin, not one that needed to be implanted and attached to a blood vessel wall. Rushmer worked closely with cardiovascular surgeon Dr. Eugene Strandness to develop quieter, portable Doppler ultrasound instruments and to test their usefulness in diagnosing heart disorders. Many of the earlier portable devices were put on exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C.

Other clinicians working with Rushmer used the continuous wave Doppler and in 1964 reported detecting heart pulsation in a 10–week–old fetus still in the womb. The use of this technology was initially confined to detecting early fetal life by detecting a pulse, and to continuously monitoring the fetal heart rate.

Rushmer’s work was also important to the development of control systems for artificial hearts and for the early application of computers to medicine.

He realized the need to assemble an interdisciplinary team of mathematicians, physicists, engineers and physicians to find technological solutions to clinical questions. In 1967, Rushmer founded and directed the Center for Bioengineering, which is now a department jointly operated by the University of Washington’s School of Medicine and College of Engineering. Rushmer was among the nation’s leaders in understanding the importance of translating engineering research advances into practical instruments for the care of patients.

Rushmer was also interested in the appropriate uses of medical technology. He once said, “We’re confronted with the ethical, political and technological consequences of our medical triumphs. We have to learn quickly how to deal with these profound problems by looking ahead to recognize and avoid complications of our technical breakthroughs.” Rushmer was not only an inventor in medical technology, but a respected teacher who drew students from around the world who later went on to illustrious careers.

Rushmer was born Nov. 30, 1914, in Ogden, Utah. His grandfather was a physician and his father was an optometrist. Rushmer graduated from the University of Chicago, and earned an M.D. degree from Rush Medical College in Chicago. He completed his residency at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. There he met and married his wife, Estella “Dixie” Dix in 1942.

During World War II, Rushmer conducted research on aviation medicine with the Army Air Corps at Randolph Field in Texas. After the war, he joined the University of Washington faculty in physiology and biophysics.

Outside of work, Rushmer was a skier, scuba diver, sailor, and traveler. He liked spending time with his family at their beach home on Whidbey Island.

Rushmer had a humble manner, a pleasant demeanor and thoroughly enjoyed his work. He met with his long-time friend, Dr. Robert Van Citters, former dean of the UW School of Medicine, shortly before his death. Rushmer smiled and said, “We had fun, didn’t we?”

At the time of his death, Rushmer and his wife lived at the Emerald Heights Retirement Center in Redmond. He is survived by his wife of 59 years, his son Donald, a neuroscientist in Oregon; his daughter Anne, an emergency-room social worker of Whidbey Island; his daughter Elizabeth Harris, an optometrist; and many grandchildren.

His memorial service will be at 2 p.m., Wednesday, July 18, at Emerald Heights Retirement Center in Redmond, Wash. The family suggests memorial contributions to Children’s Hospital and Regional Medical Center in Seattle.