Honoring the extraordinary life of a medical device inventor
Biosense Webster co-founder Wilton Wells “Will” Webster, Jr. passed away peacefully at his home on November 10, 2018 at the age of 90, leaving behind a far-reaching legacy of innovative medical devices he invented for cardiac doctors.
“Will was a true gentleman, dedicated family man and a pioneer. He had the pleasure of seeing his inventions make a huge difference for so many lives.” – Shlomi Nachman, Company Group Chairman, Johnson & Johnson Medical Devices
Engineering Opportunities in a War-Driven Economy
Will was born on January 29, 1928 in Pasadena, California. At a young age he witnessed not only the economic crisis of the Great Depression but also the recovery that came with WWII as all manner of sleek new war machines had to be produced. Seeing the new planes and aircraft carriers equipped with radar inspired the young Webster to study engineering at the California Institute of Technology, received his BS in Mechanical Engineering in 1949.
Will found employment with C. F. Braun & Company, an engineering construction firm that built oil refineries and chemical plants. He designed heat exchangers and worked with the welding experts to overhaul the company’s welding standards. Later he moved into the Project Purchasing Department where he learned about plant design, along with precision ordering of parts and equipment to arrive when needed. After eight years, Will was let go. He was too much of an independent thinker and nonconformist for the straight-laced company – qualities that would serve him well in his future endeavors.
The Shift to Medical Technologies
Will spent the next 10 years as a sales representative for a small electronic components manufacturer supplying parts to companies involved in the aerospace industry. It was a phone call from a UCLA medical student that sent Will in a whole new direction. The student was experimenting with the use of thermistors, tiny temperature-sensitive resistors, in sensing blood flow. Will set up his own small laboratory in a rented building to experiment with the technology. When Dr. William Ganz, a prominent cardiologist called him about adding sensors to heart catheters, Will was ready. He soon found himself making prototypes of a device that came to be known as the Swan-Ganz thermodilution catheter. Their combination of heart knowledge and engineering knowledge was unique at the time, and proved to be invaluable.
“Wilton Webster was a force for so much that is good in this life. His work has resulted in ending the suffering of millions. His generosity, personally, and through his foundation, enhanced the appreciation of the Arts and fostered the advancement of scientific knowledge that has and will change the world. What a legacy. What a role model to live up to for all of us.” – Dr. Benjamin J. Scherlag, PhD, University of Oklahoma
Will resigned from the sales job and officially formed Wilton Webster Laboratories in 1969. He was suddenly an entrepreneur. Working with Ganz, they invented the Coronary Sinus Blood Flow Catheter. Cardiologists from all over the world came to learn from Ganz, and if they wanted to pursue his techniques in their own hospitals, the only place they could purchase the catheter was from Webster Laboratories. Will also had the foresight to file patents on his medical inventions.
Another fruitful early collaboration was with Dr. John Kirklin, one of the first open-heart surgeons. He needed a specialized instrument to monitor muscle quiescence and temperature during extended surgeries, and Webster Laboratories designed and built the needed device. Will observed his device in action during an open-heart surgery on a one-year-old boy – an experience he would never forget and which inspired him in his work.
Electrophysiology: Studying Heart Rhythm Abnormalities
The up-and-coming field of electrophysiology (EP) and electrode heart catheters became Will’s next opportunity for medical device innovation. There was only one competing company, but it did not offer custom builds, which had become Will’s specialty. When a phone call came from Dr. Sonny Jackman at the University of Oklahoma requesting a special orthogonal electrode catheter, Will had it designed and built within two days. Based on these successes and rapid growth, the company was incorporated as Webster Laboratories, Inc.
“Will was a brilliant engineer and inventor. He created the tools critical for the development of RF ablation. Perhaps most important, Will was humble, kind, generous, thoughtful, and endeavored always to do the right thing. ” ~ Dr. Warren M. (Sonny) Jackman, MD, University of Oklahoma
A sample of Will’s handwritten catheter design notes
The gap Will and Sonny saw was that heart arrhythmias were not being effectively treated with the catheters that were available at the time. They worked together on potential solutions utilizing radio frequency energy to correct arrhythmias. More specifically, their work resulted in a cure for the congenital heart defect called WPW or Wolf–Parkinson–White Syndrome. Electrophysiologists from around the world came to Jackman’s lab to learn about his techniques, and they all ordered Will’s steerable tip catheters for their own labs.
The radio frequency (RF) ablation therapy and devices pioneered by Will and Sonny quickly became standard practice throughout the 1990s. Will continued to make improvements in RF ablation for more than a decade by introducing irrigation, creating an 8mm tip with dual sensors, and developing the first ablation catheter with an embedded electro-magnetic sensor. He also contributed his inventiveness to developments in diagnostic catheters, including close-spaced electrode catheters, basket catheters, the HALO catheter and the Crista Cath 20-pole deflectable catheter.
“It was just amazing how he was able to create the catheters that we envisioned.” ~ Dr. Mario D. Gonzalez, MD, Penn State Heart and Vascular Institute
Many of the innovations Will created were the result of specific requests from cardiologists. When a doctor contacted him with an idea, he was always ready and able to quickly move the idea through the design and prototyping of a solution.
“I don’t remember him ever failing us.” ~ Dr. Gerald V. Naccarelli, MD, Penn State Heart and Vascular Institute
Sonny Jackman (left) and Will Webster (right) being inducted into the University of Oklahoma Seed Sower Society for generous contributions to the university.
Webster Laboratories Joins the Johnson & Johnson Family of Companies
It was 1996 when Johnson & Johnson acquired Webster Laboratories, where it came to be known as Biosense Webster, now widely recognized for its global leadership in facilitating the diagnosis and treatment of cardiac arrhythmias. Continuing the practical innovation that led Will to develop the first successful deflectable tip catheter, Biosense Webster offers more electrophysiology catheter designs than anyone else in the industry – and continues to produce a steady flow of breakthrough designs.
“Will was not only an amazing engineer, but also a hard-working business man who constantly challenged the status-quo to meet the needs of his customers, their patients, and his employees. It is this optimistic and persistent spirit which continues to inspire and guide the team at Biosense Webster every day. We are all privileged to stand on the shoulders of such a giant and are deeply committed to continue following in his footsteps.” ~ Uri Yaron, Worldwide President, Biosense Webster
Will in the lab holding one of his many catheters
When asked what he thought about Biosense Webster becoming such a large and successful company, here’s how Will responded:
“We’re still living by the same principles as when we started: Serving the customer, providing value, and doing things for patients that would help them. The fact that we’ve reached worldwide scale means we can reach more people and have a much higher impact on our customer population.”
These principles – delivering service and value to customers and patients were how Will lived his professional life. They continue to be the principles of Biosense Webster to this day, and have led the company to produce the following catheter innovations over the past 20+ years:
1996 – NAVISTAR® Catheter: Approved in Europe for ablation, this milestone signaled an important advance: the first combination diagnostic and ablation catheter.
1997 – THERMOCOOL® Catheter: The world’s first irrigated-tip catheter is launched in Europe.
1997 – LASSO® Catheter: The approval of the world’s first circular mapping catheter enables clinicians to capture recording from the pulmonary veins.
2005 – PENTARAY® Catheter: With five soft, flexible branches to ensure atraumatic contact with endocardium, the unique star shape provides full-coverage, high-density mapping capability.
2011 – THERMOCOOL® SF Catheter: Featuring advanced irrigation technology, this catheter maximizes cooling of the catheter tip and optimizes fluid delivery with half the flow rate of earlier Biosense Webster catheters without porous tip technology.
2014 – THERMOCOOL SMARTTOUCH® Catheter: A therapeutic catheter to enable the direct and real-time measurement of contract force during catheter ablation procedures.
2016 – THERMOCOOL SMARTTOUCH® SF Catheter: Enables both the precise and stable application of contact force while enhancing cooling efficiency and optimizes fluid delivery with half the flow rate of earlier Biosense Webster catheters.
“Will Webster was a great friend. I think he is best remembered as a builder. He had great insight and a real dedication to making tools for one of the most important procedures in the field of cardiac electrophysiology.” ~ Dr. Kriegh P. Moulton, MD, Prairie Heart Institute
Thanks to Will’s relentless focus on innovation, Biosense Webster has helped countless patients by putting their hearts and their lives back in rhythm, and has advanced the field of electrophysiology from a collection of possibilities to a well-established, mainstream medical discipline.
Awards and Accolades
“Will affected me in a profound way, both professionally and personally. He was like a north star, and I will miss him very much. Will has had a very special life, and his legacy is immense in our field, but at the center of it I knew him to be a fine, humble man and a friend.” ~ Dr. John K. Triedman, MD, Boston Children’s Hospital
Dr. Jacqueline K. Barton, a well-known professor in Caltech’s Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering (CEE), notes how “Will Webster was an accomplished alumnus and inventor whose impact on cardiac medicine continues to change the lives of millions each day.”
Will graciously accepted Caltech’s Distinguished Alumni Award in 2005. It is the highest honor Caltech can bestow upon a graduate, and only 232 alumni have received it since it began in 1966. The Caltech Alumni Association had previously honored him in 1994 with a certificate of recognition for his 25 years of outstanding achievements in medical-device innovations and the many contributions he made in the care and management of cardiac arrhythmias.
Will Webster (right) receives the Distinguished Alumni Award from Caltech President David Baltimore in 2005.
The Helen and Will Webster Foundation, which they established in 1997, was awarded the 2016 Fiat Lux Award For exceptional commitment, deep understanding, and outstanding generosity to UC Santa Cruz.
From the University of Oklahoma, Will has received the 2008 OU Regents’ Alumni Award for Outstanding Service and the 2010 “Amicus Medicinae” or Friend of Medicine Award.
Among Will’s 43 commercially significant patents are the following:
US 4960134, October 1990: Steerable catheter.
US 5411025, May 1995: Cardiovascular catheter with laterally stable basket-shaped electrode array.
US 6198974, March 2001: Bi-directional steerable catheter.
US 6292695, September 2001: Method and apparatus for transvascular treatment of tachycardia and fibrillation.
US 7918851, April 2011: Irrigated tip electrode catheter and method of manufacture
“As an engineer and entrepreneur, Will transformed the field of electrophysiology. Because of his humble nature, he never realized the impact his work had on the lives of people and the change he made in the world. I will always think of Will as a mentor and a friend.” ~ Roy Tanaka, former president of Biosense Webster
Wilton Webster’s Legacy of Giving Back
In telling his own story of scientific success in 2014, Will closed his autobiographical sketch with these wise words for budding scientists: “It's never about you – it's always about what you do for others!” Will lived this mantra out in his own life through devotion to his family. He was married for 67 years to Helen Miller (who passed away in 2017) and together they raised three sons, William (who passed away in 2000), Alec, and Richard, all of whom witnessed first-hand how a combination of education and determination can lead to groundbreaking success. Will’s unwavering belief in the power of a good education was borne out in his philanthropic efforts on behalf of institutions of higher education.
Will and Helen Webster, married for 67 years
At his alma mater, Caltech, Will served as a member of the Chair’s Council for the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering (CCE), helping shape the division’s future direction. Through the Helen and Will Webster Foundation, he contributed funds for the construction of the Warren and Katharine Schlinger Laboratory for Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, supported graduate fellowships for CCE students, provided discretionary resources for new initiatives within CCE, and established an undergraduate scholarship named in memory of their son, William Wilcox Webster.
He and his family foundation also gave generously to the University of California Santa Cruz, where his son Alec worked for 14 years as a precision machinist and technician for the Santa Cruz Institute for Particle Physics before deciding to pursue an environmental studies degree from UC Santa Cruz. Chancellor George Blumenthal sums it up this way: “Will Webster created a flourishing business improving the lives of cardiac patients. Then he continued changing the world through the good works of the Helen and Will Webster Foundation.”
Their generosity to UC Santa Cruz included the establishment of five different presidential chairs, renovation of the Cowell Ranch Hay Barn, the naming and endowment of Rachel Carson College, and support for other initiatives across campus such as environmental programs, the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, the Libraries, and the Quarry Amphitheater.
One of the more recent chairs established was the Wilton W. Webster Jr. Natural Reserves Presidential Chair, reflecting Will’s dedication to environmental protection and conservation that developed in his later years. The UC Santa Cruz Natural Reserves is a network of 39 protected sites throughout California covering more than 756,000 acres. They serve as a living laboratory supporting university-level teaching, research, and public service for wise management of the Earth and its natural systems. To get a detailed picture of the profound impact the Webster family has had on UC Santa Cruz and Rachel Carson College, see Philanthropy in Pursuit of a Healthier Planet
, showcasing the results of their generous giving.
From Will’s collaborative relationship with Dr. Sonny Jackman at the University of Oklahoma came a strong philanthropic commitment to OU, which has included funding for student scholarships (Scholars Program, Sooner Heritage Endowment), Honors College reading groups, the College of Education Academic Advising Center, and many other initiatives.
A Life Well-Lived
Will was dedicated to helping others achieve success. Biosense Webster employees around the world validate Will’s legacy by continuing to innovate based on the needs of physicians and their patients.
“Will was very customer-focused – he was all about solving problems for people. This was true for both clinicians and our own production people – he was diligent about designing and building new catheters for a doctor or a new production aid for a person on the line. He was humble – he did whatever it would take to solve the problem. Compassionate. Brilliant.” ~ Kristine Fuimaono, Director of Research and Development, Biosense Webster