William H. Dobelle

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William Harvey Dobelle
Born (1941-10-24)October 24, 1941
Pittsfield, Massachusetts, USA
Died October 5, 2004(2004-10-05) (aged 62)
New York City, USA
Nationality American
Alma mater Johns Hopkins University, Vanderbilt University, University of Utah
Spouse(s) Claire Dobelle
Children 3

Dr. William Harvey "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.[1]

Childhood and family[edit]

William Harvey Dobelle was the son of Martin Dobelle and Lillian Mendelsohn Dobelle, born in Pittsfield, MA on October 24, 1941. Dobelle's paternal grandparents, Harry and Ida had immigrated to the United States from Lithuania. His maternal grandparents were William Mendelsohn and Ida (nee Greenberg) who were immigrants from Barstyciai, Lithuania. His mother Lillian was born the youngest of ten children to the immensely wealthy and politically powerful Mendelsohn family. The family name was formerly Mendelovitz, descendants of Menachem Mendel. They were the richest merchants in Riga Latvia. William's younger brother Evan Dobelle, an American politician and educator, was born in 1945. His father Martin Dobelle, a major orthopedic surgeon whose patients included US astronauts, sparked William Dobelle's original interest and early experience in medicine. At the age of 13, Dobelle designed improvements for the artificial hip for which he received patents. He started college the following year at Vanderbilt. At 15, he won the State of Florida science fair for construction of an original concept X-ray machine, and later moved on to win the National Science Fair.[2]

Education and youth[edit]

Dobelle graduated high school at the age of 14 to attend college at Vanderbilt University.[3] After taking time off to travel, he transferred to Johns Hopkins University and quickly immersed himself in Hopkin's leading science community. He earned his bachelor's and master's degrees in biophysics at Johns Hopkins University where he worked on the development of medical tests. He finished his Ph.D. in neurophysiology at the University of Utah.[4] Throughout his youth, he frequently took time off from his studies to explore other areas of interest. Two of his most notable expeditions were to South America, one of which was responsible for tracking the original route of Vasco Núñez de Balboa. In his youth, Dobelle had briefly worked on a whaling boat and as a Porsche mechanic.

Career and artificial vision[edit]

Dobelle was the CEO of the Dobelle Institute, headquartered in Lisbon, Portugal, which concentrates on artificial vision for the blind. He was associate director of the Institute of Biological Engineering at the University of Utah and director of the Division of Artificial Organs at the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center.[5] He was a founding fellow of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering. He was also inducted as a Founding Fellow of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering in 1993, one of the highest honors available to an American scientist.[6] It has been reported that Dobelle was nominated along with Dr. Willem Johan Kolff for the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2003, though the official list of nominees remains sealed for fifty years following the announcement of the winner.

He bought Avery Laboratories (now Avery Biomedical Devices) in 1983, where he worked on neurostimulation and the artificial eye. Dobelle led one of several teams of scientists around the world seeking to develop technology for artificial vision.[7] Dobelles' teams developed a brain implant which films the visual field in front of the patient and transmits it to the brain's visual cortex, allowing the patient to see outlines. He received widespread publicity on January 17, 2000, when was announced that a patient known as "Jerry", blind after a blow to his head 36 years previous, had regained his ability see thanks to the artificial eye Dobelle had spent over 30 years developing.[8] Jerry "sees" by wearing spectacles attached to a miniature camera and an ultrasonic rangefinder. They feed signals to a computer worn on the waistband, which processes the video and distance data, which is then sent by another computer to 68 platinum electrodes implanted in Jerry's brain, on the surface of the visual cortex. He sees a simple display of dots that outline an object. Jerry's vision is the same as a severely shortsighted person - equivalent to 20/400. He is able to read two-inch letters at five feet. Dobelle's "vision project" has been experimented in several people, allowing individuals who were once completely blind to see the outlines of images in the form of white dots on a black background. In 2002, his creation even allowed 38-year-old Jens Naumann, a blind man, to drive a car at the 48th annual American Society for Artificial Internal Organs conference. Cheri Robertson, a 41-year-old woman who was also implanted with the system, was profiled in the documentary "Extraordinary People" in 2008.

Portable breathing pacemaker[edit]

Dobelle's Avery Biomedical Devices also created the portable breathing pacemaker, which has been used by patients with quadriplegia, central apnea, and other respiratory ailments.


Dobelle died in 2004 from complications related to diabetes. He was survived by his wife Claire Dobelle, and their three children, Martin Dobelle (b. 1990), Molly Dobelle (b. 1992) and Mimi Dobelle (b. 1993).

Literature and media[edit]

  • Robert Frenay called Dobelle's success "the first meaningful demonstration of artificial vision" in his 2006 work Pulse: The Coming Age of Systems and Machines Inspired by Living Things.
  • Andy Clark mentions the "Dobelle Eye" in Natural-Born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies, and the Future of Human Intelligence (pg. 124, Oxford University Press, 2004).
  • Dobelle is discussed in Ramez Naam's critically acclaimed More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement (Published Aug. 2010).
  • Ross Heaven and Simon Buxton discuss Dobelle and his success with patient Jens Naumann in their 2005 book Darkness Visible: Awakening Spiritual Light through Darkness Meditation.
  • W. Andrew Robinson references Dobelle along with others from Johns Hopkins University in The Last Man Who Knew Everything: Thomas Young.
  • A description of Dobelle's artificial eye provided on page 169 of William Lyon's Matters of the Mind (Published in 2001).
  • Dobelle's methods are explained in the Handbook of Neuroprosthetic Methods (Biomedical Engineering) edited by Warren E. Finn and Peter G. LoPresti.
  • Dobelle's successes are discussed in Brian Clegg's Upgrade Me: Our Amazing Journey to Human 2.0 (pages 228-230, Published in 2008).
  • His research is mentioned in The Posthuman Condition: Consciousness Beyond the Brain by Robert Pepperell.
  • Some aspects of Dobelle's methods are challenged in The Prosthetic Impulse: From a Posthuman Present to a Biocultural Future, by Joanne Morra and Journal of Visual Culture editor Marquard Smith (Published: The MIT Press, December 2005).
  • Dobelle is briefly discussed in Victor D. Chase's Shattered Nerves: How Science Is Solving Modern Medicine's Most Perplexing Problem (Pages 200-201, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004).
  • Dobelle is profiled in Simon Ings' A Natural History of Seeing: The Art and Science of Vision.
  • In Donald G. Oakley's In Search of the Self, the award-winning former newspaper columnist explains how he was personally impacted by an exchange of letters between himself and Dobelle (Chapter 6). The novel chronicles Oakley's journey to deepen his understanding of the burgeoning field known as consciousness studies, as well as explores the evolution of society's understanding of the brain.
  • Neurologist Richard Restak explores how Dobelle's design has shaped the future of artificial vision in The New Brain: How the Modern Age is Rewiring Your Mind (Rodale Books, 2004)
  • Dobelle is profiled in Patrick Yearly's They Were Giants 2006 alongside leaders and pioneers in various other fields.
  • Dobelle's early research and final accomplishments in the field of artificial vision are extensively examined throughout the textbook Visual Prosthetics: Physiology, Bioengineering, Rehabilitation (edited by Gislin Dagnelie).
  • Dobelle is profiled by Hugh Darrow in the popular video game Deus Ex: Human Revolution.
  • In Susanne D. Coates' Neural Interfacing: Forging the Human Machine Connection (Synthesis Lectures on Biomedical Engineering), she claims "[w]ith the passing of Dobelle in 2004, 30 years of work developing the "Dobelle Artificial Vision System" came to a halt. There are a few groups who continue to experiment with cortical vision implants [51] but no system like Dobelle's is presently available" (40).
  • Profiled in several editions of The Guinness Book of World Records under the heading First Artificial Eye.


  1. ^ Tuller, David. "William Dobelle; pioneer in artificial vision; 62". Sign On San Diego. 
  2. ^ Tuller, David. "William Dobelle; pioneer in artificial vision; 62". Sign On San Diego. 
  3. ^ Tuller, David. "William Dobelle; pioneer in artificial vision; 62". Sign On San Diego. 
  4. ^ Tuller, David. "William Dobelle; pioneer in artificial vision; 62". Sign On San Diego. 
  5. ^ Tuller, David. "William Dobelle; pioneer in artificial vision; 62". Sign On San Diego. 
  6. ^ Tuller, David. "William Dobelle; pioneer in artificial vision; 62". Sign On San Diego. 
  7. ^ A bionic visionary for the blind February 19, 2003 Sydney Morning Herald
  8. ^ [1] "Medical Marvals"