Time Well Spent: The Life and Legacy of Les Geddes

Author: Emil Venere
Not long before his passing on Oct. 25, 2009, at the age of 88, Leslie Geddes dutifully arrived at Purdue every day at 5 a.m., working on his three ongoing projects, including research to improve cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

Leslie GeddesA distinguished biomedical engineering professor, Geddes was, by all accounts, a brilliant researcher and a prolific inventor. Over more than three decades at Purdue, his work resulted in a plethora of patents. Innovations included burn treatments and ligament repair, miniature defibrillators, a new type of pacemaker and a tiny blood pressure monitor for premature infants.

He once explained his considerable achievement this way: “I’ve been around a long time. I’ve had lots of time to do things.”

Such expressions of humility were typical of Geddes, said longtime colleague Robert Hannemann, a pediatrician and visiting professor of biomedical and chemical engineering.

“He knew what he had accomplished, but he never advertised it,” said Hannemann, a member of the search committee that brought Geddes to Purdue in 1974. “He always talked up the contributions of others.” This was true even while President George W. Bush was presenting him with the National Medal of Technology in a 2007 White House ceremony. The award is the nation’s highest honor for technological innovation.

“The president said something to the effect of, ‘Congratulations on receiving this award,’ and he said, ‘Well, you know, receiving this award reminds me of the story about a turtle perched on the top of a fence post. He didn’t get there without some help.’ ”

Geddes carried his unassuming character into the classroom. “He had an innate ability to understand why students weren’t comprehending a particular concept, and he would explain it in such a way that they would not feel intimidated or afraid to ask questions,” says George Wodicka, head of Purdue’s Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering. “He was an extraordinary teacher.”

Born May 24, 1921, in Port Gordon, Scotland, he was the son of a telephone company technician who moved his family to Canada. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering from McGill University in Montreal. He received a doctorate in physiology in 1959 from the Baylor University College of Medicine, where — among other accomplishments — he developed physiological monitoring systems for early astronauts.

Geddes was recruited to Purdue to help the University develop an organized biomedical engineering research center and create new technologies in the field. His work laid the foundation for a department of biomedical engineering in 1998. He officially retired in 1991 but continued his teaching and research.

In 2004 he received Purdue’s Outstanding Commercialization Award to recognize his numerous patents, many now licensed by Indiana companies. Patents and technologies emerging from Geddes’ laboratory have generated millions of dollars in royalties for Purdue.

“Our last research conversation concerned a miniature cuff small enough to fit over the tiny limbs of premature infants to measure blood pressure,” Hannemann recalled. “We discussed the possibility of incorporating my work into this device. I hope we can do that and the other things he envisioned, but it certainly won’t be easy without his guidance and assistance.”