Memorial Tributes: Volume 26
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  • WILLIAM NEW JR. (1942-2017)
    WILLIAM NEW JR.

     

    BY NORBERT PELC AND PAUL YOCK

    WILLIAM NEW JR., a former professor of anesthesiology at Stanford and pioneer in diagnostic health technologies, died on December 21, 2017, at the age of 75.

    Bill was born on April 29, 1942, in Beaumont, Texas. His father, William New Sr., was a naval architect and his mother, Dorothy, an educator. When Bill was two years old, the family moved to the San Francisco Bay area so that his father could work in the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard in support of US efforts in World War II. Bill’s family relates that as a young Cub Scout Bill would “experiment” with trans-illuminating his wrist with a flashlight to examine the blood vessels—an experience he related to his later development of pulse oximetry. In school, Bill was a top student, ultimately attending boarding school in Southern California at the Cate School where he sang in the glee club and was known for his sophisticated electronic pranks. Bill’s academic record and perfect SAT test scores led him to Stanford where he majored in electrical engineering. He took a year off to work at Hewlett Packard, which he would later describe as a transformative experience. He went on to receive BS and MS degrees in electrical engineering from Stanford in 1964 and 1966, respectively.

    With the Vietnam War in full swing, Bill enrolled in medical school at Duke. He became fascinated with biological measurements and interrupted his medical education to pursue a PhD in physiology at UCLA, where he focused on electrophysiology, earning his doctorate in 1970. After receiving his MD in 1973 he completed an internship at UCLA and then returned to Stanford for a residency in anesthesiology. He was attracted to this field because of the relative precision of the medical practice and its reliance on electronic instrumentation. During his residency, he joined the Homebrew Club alongside Steve Jobs (NAE 1997) and Steve Wozniak (NAE 2002). As a part of this group, Bill built his own computer and succeeded in finding a new home for the club on Stanford’s campus when it outgrew its initial meeting place in Menlo Park.

    After completing his residency, Bill took a position as an assistant professor in Stanford’s Department of Anesthesiology. Although he enjoyed both the practice of anesthesiology and his research, after several years he became frustrated by the difficult promotion process and decided to leave the faculty to pursue an MS in the Sloan Program at the Stanford School of Business, receiving his degree in 1981. In his research, Bill had been working on a more reliable way of using pulse oximetry to measure blood oxygen levels, and he wanted the business education to allow him to start a company around this opportunity.

    He launched the new business later that year and named it Nellcor, a collection of the initials of the co-founders (New, Lloyd, and Corman). Bill led the company as CEO, and the initial product, the N-100 pulse oximeter, rapidly dominated the clinical marketplace. The company’s approach to the technology reflected Bill’s core philosophy of innovation—that the key to success is to maintain focus on the clinical problem. The N-100 was not only more reliable and accurate than other commercial units, but it incorporated features that were important to anesthesiologists—it was highly portable and gave off an audible pulse that changed in pitch according to the oxygen level, giving a clear and early warning of trouble.

    Nellcor grew into a highly successful business with a profitable initial public offering and, ultimately, was acquired by Mallinckrodt for $2 billion. A deeper source of satisfaction for Bill was the remarkable clinical impact of the technology. Several studies in the operating room demonstrated a significant decrease in anesthesia mortality following the introduction of pulse oximetry. After gaining hold in the OR, pulse oximetry spread to intensive care units, patient wards, and, ultimately, outpatient applications. Today, it is estimated that pulse oximetry is performed on over a billion patients each year. Bill’s overriding commitment to patient care was demonstrated by his insisting that his basic patents be made available to any company that could make a reliable device.

    In 1989, Bill left Nellcor to form a second company in the monitoring space, Natus Medical. Here, again, a major clinical problem provided the central focus: Many children are born with hearing abnormalities that can go undetected for many months or even years. If untreated, these abnormalities lead to speech impairments that are extremely difficult to reverse. Bill’s technology enabled newborns to undergo auditory brainstem response screening with a high degree of reliability, allowing infants with severe hearing abnormalities to be identified and treated early. Subsequent studies demonstrated that early detection and correction can prevent 90% of speech abnormalities. To date, tens of millions of babies have been screened using this technology. As a company, Natus underwent a successful IPO and has maintained a large and relatively stable market cap since 2012.

    From the standpoint of intellectual contributions, Bill’s inventions were seminal—as represented by US patents 4,621,643, “Calibrated optical oximeter probe” (1986), and 5,243,709, “Acoustically sealing earmuff for infant” (1993). But it’s clear that a much more important impact derived from his ability to create a practical understanding of how these technologies could be put into clinical practice—and by his founding and leading the businesses that would make this possible at a large scale.

    Bill received many honors during his career. He was elected to the National Academy of Engineering, the American Society of Anesthesiologists, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the American Institute of Medical and Biological Engineers.

    Bill had many interests outside of his career in medical technology. Foremost among these was secondary education. He felt that his experience at the Cate School was particularly formative, and he was a generous donor to the school from early in his career, ultimately serving on the Board of Trustees. He was on the boards of several other independent schools, including Groton, Putney, Nueva, and the Hill School. He also served as a board member of the National Association of Independent Schools.

    Bill’s interest in education was also reflected in his lifelong devotion to mentoring and advising students at all levels as well as employees in his companies. Bill was known throughout the Bay Area for his willingness and skill in mentoring young physicians and engineers in their early careers as innovators and entrepreneurs—both inside the local universities and in the business community of Silicon Valley.

    Bill’s family relates that he had a particular love for and knowledge of nature. During his early years at Stanford, Bill purchased 26 acres of land in Woodside, California, which became a homestead and a chance to experiment with new farming practices. He was a student of climate change and an advocate for environmental reform.

    Bill was preceded in death by his daughter, Heather New. He is survived by three other daughters, Catherine New of San Francisco, Caroline New of Philadelphia, and Christin New of Redwood City. His former wives are Margaret New of Washington, DC, and Patricia New of Menlo Park. In his later years his partner was Carolyn Wilson, a leader in educational reform.