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From the Archives: Drexel Graduate Studies

June 22, 2012

Ask the Archivist

In the 1970s, you may remember when the notion of bionics ("the designing and creation of inanimate systems to simulate human systems") entered popular culture in the persons of Steve Austin and Jamie Sommers, the fictional Six Million Dollar Man and Bionic Woman. Even if you never saw the original TV shows, perhaps you caught the 2007 remake of The Bionic Woman. More than a decade before the notion of technologically enhanced humans captured the popular imagination, Drexel graduate students were leading the way.

Bionics was one of the key areas of Drexel's biomedical engineering program, the second in the nation, established in 1959. Soon after, a master's program in medical instrumentation was offered since 1961, a collaboration with Presbyterian Hospital.

"Biomedical engineering is a space-age term indicating a marriage of convenience between the medical and engineering professions," began a 1964 Philadelphia Medicine article announcing the new partnership of the Drexel Institute of Technology and Jefferson Medical College: a joint doctoral program in this new discipline. The biomedical engineering Ph.D. program, according to Drexel's press release of April 26, 1964, sought to apply modern technology to solving problems in the life sciences. Under the leadership first of Dr. Melvin W. Thorner and then Dr. Hun H. Sun, Drexel soon claimed the nation's largest biomedical graduate-degree granting program.

The Triangle of the 1960s and 70s is full of stories of biomedical engineering collecting million-dollar grants for research in cardio and pulmonary areas, while Sun was recognized for his work by being named editor of the IEEE Transactions in Biomedical Engineering. The general public remained interested in this new discipline—newspapers reported on Sun demonstrating such innovations as a voice-controlled wheelchair—while popular stories about the program featured titles like "Someday, liquid breathing could save your life!"

We cannot know if the Drexel biomedical graduate students featured in the above photo were conducting research worthy of a science fiction novel, but surely they were benefitting from Drexel's leadership in this interdisciplinary area.