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Would any of the top medical devices of all time be possible without plastics?

Recently, PlasticsToday's sister publication QMED, asked its readers to vote on the top medical device of all time. It was interesting to see the results: eyeglasses came in at #1; the hypodermic syringe was voted #2; and the X-ray machine at #3.

I was reminded about the time I met and interviewed three of the most notable people in the medical device industry and were largely responsible for Salt Lake City's notoriety as a medical device hub. Those three men were Dale H. Ballard, James L. Sorenson, and Victor I. Cartwright.  Interviewing these three men in the early 1990s was an honor and it taught me a lot about the role of plastics in medical devices.

Ballard and Cartwright met each other while working as pharmaceutical reps for Parke Davis, and became close friends. Sorenson was also a pharmaceutical rep for Upjohn. I recall in my interview with Sorenson that he laughingly called himself, Cartwright, who was a pharmacist, and Ballard, "snake-oil salesmen."

In 1957, the three men co-founded Deseret Pharmaceutical Company, a disposable medical device manufacturer. A few years later in 1960 Sorenson sold his interest in the company, and left the medical field for a few years. However, he had a passion for the medical device industry. Noticing the problems physicians had in medicine delivery, he invented numerous medical devices including the modern-day intravenous catheter, a thin-walled stainless steel needle through which a tiny plastic catheter could be threaded into a vein.

In 1962, he launched Sorenson Research and resumed his medical innovation business. Sorenson research spawned 32 corporations in medicine, bioscience and manufacturing. In a bio of Sorenson, it was said that many of his inventions "revolutionized the healthcare industry." He amassed a total of 40 medical patents, and co-developed the first real-time computerized heart monitor.  

Ballard, also pioneer in disposable medical products, eventually founded Ballard Medical, and his name is on several US patents for the hypodermic needle. In patent US 2902034A published Sept. 1, 1959 the device is described as an "invention related to a hypodermic syringe of plastic material and more particularly to a molded syringe barrel of relatively non-flexible plastic material and a co-operable hypodermic syringe plunger integrally molded from a relatively flexible plastic material." The patent information notes that this hypodermic syringe is better because the ones then being used were made from glass and were "subject to breakage during manufacture and usage." It also mentioned the additional costs of cleaning and sterilizing these glass syringes, making single-use plastic syringes a more cost effective alternative.

All three men worked actively to develop products that utilized plastics in medical devices, creating the pathway for plastics to become a leading material for medical devices. The companies they founded, both together and separately, were all extremely successful. Ballard sold Ballard Medical in 1999 to Kimberly-Clark for $764 million, and made the new buyers sign a stipulation that Kimberly-Clark could never move the company outside the U.S.

Sorenson Research, which by 1972 was offering nearly 500 healthcare products, was sold to Abbott Laboratories in 1980, and Sorenson Research became Abbott Critical Care Systems (now Hospira).

All three men are gone now: Ballard passed in June 2005; Sorenson in January 2008 and Cartwright in 2011. They were all successful men and paved the way for many medical startups in Salt Lake City, and for the use of plastics in many medical devices. While hypodermic needles may have come in second in the QMED survey of its readers, I guess you could say that they were #1 for these three device pioneers.

Perhaps instead of naming a single product as the Top Medical Device of all time, we could say that plastics tops the charts, making so many of these single-use disposable medical devices - and the safety and freedom from disease contagion they brought to healthcare - the best inventions we could ever imagine.

To borrow a phrase from the American Plastics Council: "plastics makes it possible." And the real winners are people around the world that benefit from this miracle material in medical devices.

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