The History of Biomedical Engineering at Penn State

The Early Years – Defining Bioengineering

The roots of the Penn State biomedical engineering program began in 1970 when faculty from the College of Engineering and the College of Medicine joined forces to develop implantable circulatory assist devices and artificial heart devices.

William Pierce, a cardiothoracic surgeon at Penn State Hershey Medical Center formed a research group with aspirations to develop an artificial heart device. Pierce was joined by John Brighton, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, and over the course of several years, a steady research partnership was built. The researchers worked collaboratively and enlisted the help of graduate students across a number of engineering disciplines. Their work paved the way for research partnerships among the Colleges of Engineering and Medicine and Science for years to come.

Forming of the IGDP

In 1971, David Geselowitz, a biomedical engineer with an interest in electrocardiology, was recruited to institute a bioengineering graduate program at Penn State. In 1974, the graduate program under Geselowtiz’s leadership officially took flight and became the first Intercollege Graduate Degree Program (IGDP) at Penn State. The program enlisted faculty from the Colleges of Engineering, Medicine, Science, and Health and Human Development.

In 1976, the department gained great acclaim when its pneumatic left ventricular assist device was successfully implanted in a human patient. At the time, it was the first successful procedure of its kind to have ever been recorded. The device worked as a bridge to keep patients functioning until an acceptable human transplant heart could be obtained. Today, the device is still being used and has been implanted in more than 250 patients worldwide.

In recognition of the innovation, the Penn State Heart Assist Device was designated as an “International Mechanical Engineering Historic Landmark” in 1991 by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

Since the inception of the original heart assist device, subsequent refinements and new technologies have emerged—the most prominent being the total artificial heart, or pneumatic heart. Currently, the Penn State pneumatic heart is the only artificial heart approved by the Food and Drug Administration for clinical application.

Researchers in the bioengineering graduate program continue work on artificial heart technology today, along with wide range of other cutting-edge applications fusing engineering, science and medicine. Their work focuses on drug delivery systems, cancer research, and tissue and regenerative medicine among others.

The Biomedical Engineering Undergraduate Program

With the artificial heart program serving as a nucleus for development, the bioengineering department introduced an undergraduate program in 2000 with grants obtained from the Whitaker Foundation.

In 2013 the department officially changed its name to the Department of Biomedical Engineering to better align with industry and academic standards and to fully reflect the scope of work researchers are immersed in.

Continued growth of the program is clearly reflected by a steady rise in the number of full time graduate and undergraduate students, a plan to nearly double existing faculty members in the next three years, and a new state-of-the-art teaching and research facility planned to open in 2019.

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The Department of Biomedical Engineering administers the undergraduate major in biomedical engineering, and is a part of the university-wide Intercollege Graduate Degree Program, offering both M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Bioengineering. Our work combines traditional engineering principles with medicine and technology for the betterment of human health and society. 

Department of Biomedical Engineering

205 Hallowell Building

The Pennsylvania State University

University Park, PA 16802-4400

Phone: 814-863-6614