Lemelson-MIT Program
Who We Are Awards Outreach News
Invention Dimension Search Site Map Contact Us



“I have a natural bent for mechanical things,” said William P. Murphy, Jr., M.D. “…There are so many things that have to do with the body that are mechanical, that it's a fascination. If you think about your body, it's a combination of mechanics, and chemistry and electronics, etc., and it doesn't take long to get interested in the body and how it works and why.”

Combining a passion for mechanical engineering with his expertise in medicine, Murphy, the 2003 winner of the Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award, has revolutionized the biomedical industry. He improved the lives of millions through his creations, which range from disposable medical procedural trays and catheters to pacemakers and artificial kidneys, most of which are the standard for the medical industry today.

Murphy was born in Boston, MA in 1923 to Pearl Harriett Adams and William P. Murphy, Sr., both recognized figures in the Boston medical community. His mother was the first licensed female dentist in Massachusetts. His father, a consulting hematologist to several hospitals, won the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1934. The elder Murphy's dedication to his patients—he would treat anyone who needed care for just one dollar at his weekly clinic—sparked an early fascination with medicine in Murphy. He was also influenced by his mother and by many family friends, who were also practicing doctors.

“I think from the word go, I had an interest in medicine,” Murphy said. His interest in medicine was rivaled only by a natural proclivity for machinery. Since the age of 12, Murphy had a home workshop where he spent many hours inventing. The earliest invention to come out of his workshop was the region's first residential snow blower, invented while he was in high school. After years of long winters shoveling his father’s driveway, Murphy decided to simplify the job and applied the technology used by the railroads to create something smaller and more versatile. Murphy sold the snow blower to a local lawnmower company for $1,500—what he thought was “a killing” at the time.

Murphy cultivated his interests in both medicine and machinery during his undergraduate studies at Harvard University, where he pursued a major in pre-medicine and a minor in architecture. He continued his education at the University of Illinois School of Medicine, where he received his medical degree in 1947. After graduation, with encouragement from the president of MIT and its treasurer, he enrolled at the university to pursue studies in engineering.

top of page

Advancing Medicine through Invention

Murphy practiced medicine for a short time as an intern at St. Francis Hospital in Honolulu and later, at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston (now Brigham & Women’s Hospital). While at St. Francis, he developed his first medical invention—a projector for presenting full-size x-rays to large audiences. Murphy and the other interns were regularly required to show x-rays of their patients to doctors. To simplify this task, Murphy created a projector that was capable of showing a full-size x-ray on the screen and was easy to use—quite an accomplishment at that time, since a prompt means for converting x-rays to transparencies did not exist.

Murphy's next contribution to the medical world coincided with the Korean War. The U.S. Army first came to Murphy while he was working with a team of doctors in Boston on the first dialysis machines, a program the Army supported because of concerns over exposure to radiation from the Atomic bomb. An offshoot of this work was the refinement of flexible bags to contain blood during transfusions, which offered many advantages to previously used bottles. Developed with Dr. Carl Walter, the bags preserve red blood cells and proteins and ensure that the contents are not exposed to air. In 1952, Murphy joined the U.S. Public Health Service as a blood transfusion consultant, and went to Korea to perform transfusions on soldiers injured in battle.

In 1957, he founded his first company, Medical Development Corporation. The company, which focused on building research instruments, eventually grew into Cordis Corporation, and is now a Johnson & Johnson company. Cordis gave Murphy the resources to create a number of today's standard medical devices, including the first physiologic cardiac pacemaker; the widely used hollow fiber artificial kidney; the first disposable medical procedural trays; the first motor-driven angiographic injectors; and the first disposable catheters.

top of page

Murphy's physiologic cardiac pacemaker—which is used to treat heart block—senses what a patient's heart needs and provides suitable stimulation so that the heart can function normally. As more doctors began to use implantable pacemakers, it became clear that there needed to be a way to alter the function of the pacemakers while they were implanted. This led Murphy and his team to develop pacemakers that could be programmed externally and, ultimately, to develop the first DDD (dual chamber demand) pacemaker (1980s).

Murphy's motor-driven, high-pressure angiographic injectors are used for injecting a small amount of radiographic contrast (a solution containing iodine, which is easily visualized with x-ray images) into select vessels in the body. The images that are produced, called an angiogram, accurately reveal the extent and severity of blockages. The disposable, torque-controlled vascular catheters—a related invention, created with colleague Robert Stevens—allow for easy entry into specific vessels, and are a sterile one-time use product.

According to Murphy, his greatest satisfaction has come from seeing these technologies successfully applied to patients. For example, Murphy's pacemaker was first used in a near comatose patient. The day after the surgical implantation of his pacemaker, Murphy visited the patient, who had shown significant improvement and was even sitting up in bed, complaining about breakfast.

While at Cordis, Murphy found it difficult to obtain the appropriate quantities and types of materials needed to complete his prototypes. To overcome this, he started Small Parts, Inc., a Miami, FL-based company that provides high quality materials and tools to engineers—in any amount—to help facilitate completion of projects. The company, well-known throughout the medical and engineering communities, is one of several companies founded by Murphy and among 30 companies that emerged from Cordis. In 1986, Murphy, together with colleague John Sterner, purchased Hyperion, Inc. Also based in Miami, Hyperion designs, manufactures and markets medical laboratory diagnostic devices. Murphy is currently Hyperion’s chairman of the board and chief executive officer.

top of page

Fostering Invention and Innovation through Education

Though quite busy with his companies, Murphy has always been passionate about education. He said, “People have innovation built into them, but you must foster that innovation by pursuing an education.” He has helped many individuals further their education and even paid the tuition of many Cordis employees who chose to go back to school.

Realizing the need to foster an interest in science and technology among children, Murphy helped friend Dean Kamen (2002 winner of the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize) create FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), a non-profit organization that aims to inspire an appreciation of science, technology and engineering in young people. FIRST is now in its 12th year and Murphy remains involved as a judge during competitions, as a member of the FIRST Executive Advisory Board and as sponsor of the William P. Murphy Vision Scholarship.

“I highly recommend William P. Murphy, M.D. for the Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award for his numerous accomplishments and his inspiration to many hundreds of students both young and old,” said friend and colleague Paul W. Mayer, M.D. in a letter of recommendation. “ …[He] has been an inspiration to many who are now leaders in the Biomedical field, whether they be inventors, engineers, production specialists or clinicians.”

Murphy's contributions to the medical community, and to education, are apparent in his countless successes, including membership in several professional organizations, two of which he is a co-founder—the American Society for Artificial Internal Organs and the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering. Murphy has received several awards, such as the Distinguished Service Award from the International Society for Artificial Organs (1981), the first Jay Malina Award from the Beacon Council in Miami (2003) and others from his alma mater, the University of Illinois (1987, 1994).

Today, at the age of 79, Murphy lives in Miami with his wife, Bev. He says that his three major responsibilities are as CEO of Hyperion, as CEO of Small Parts, and running his steam-powered tugboat—a 66-foot, 100-ton antique steam-powered tugboat that he and his wife purchased nearly 20 years ago and keep in a small town north of Amsterdam, Holland. Both were also helicopter pilots until recently and logged 700 hours up and down the East Coast.

When asked about winning the Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award Murphy said, “When you begin your career, it’s not to win an award. I don’t like to take—I like to give. To be honored in this way is a truly emotional experience and I am wonderfully honored to receive this award.”

top of page