James McEwen, a UBC alumnus and adjunct professor in UBC’s Departments of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Medicine, has been inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame (NIHF) for his invention of the automatic surgical tourniquet, a medical device that has significantly improved surgical safety, quality and efficiency around the world.
Tourniquets are used to limit arterial blood flow, reducing blood loss and allowing surgeons to work in a blood-free environment. But before McEwen developed his innovation in the late 1970s, tourniquets were unreliable and even dangerous to use, often causing nerve or tissue damage by applying prolonged excessive pressure to the limb or extremity.
“I suspected that with a little ingenuity, I could create a new microprocessor-based tourniquet system that could completely get around all of the problems with mechanical tourniquets,” said McEwen in a convocation address at Simon Fraser University. “Of course, luck played a big role […] I was born in the year that the transistor was invented, I graduated from electrical engineering in the year the microprocessor was invented and I got my Ph.D. in the year that the first microcomputer was introduced.”
McEwen’s tourniquet, which uses a computer to ensure that the device applies only the minimum pressure necessary to stop blood flow, was far safer and more accurate than models available at the time and is now standard equipment in most operating rooms in Western countries. He began developing the technology after learning that a young patient at Vancouver General Hospital had become paralyzed in the arm due to a tourniquet-related accident during routine surgery.
“[Mechanical tourniquets] caused injuries. And the injuries could be quite serious. Everyone accepted that. But I didn’t,” said McEwen, who has over 240 patents and patent applications for medical devices and has long supported educational programs, scholarships and other initiatives to advance innovation, including at UBC. “My intuition and education told me I could create something better.”
Other 2020 NIHF inductees include the inventors of the sports bra and an autonomous robot system that has revolutionized warehouse order fulfillment for e-commerce.
After receiving his bachelor’s (1971) and doctoral (1975) degrees in electrical engineering from UBC, McEwen established the biomedical engineering department at Vancouver General Hospital, serving as its director from 1975 until 1990. He founded the tourniquet technology company Delfi Medical Innovations Inc., co-founded the not-for-profit Medical Device Development Centre, which facilitates the development and evaluation of new medical technologies, and is currently president of Western Clinical Engineering Ltd., a part of the Delfi Medical group.
McEwen is also an Officer of the Order of Canada and the recipient of numerous honours, among them the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal, honourary doctorates from SFU and UBC, the Meritorious Achievement Award from the Association of Professional Engineers of British Columbia, the Dean’s Medal of Distinction from UBC Applied Science and the $100,000 Principal Award for Innovation in Canada from the Ernest C. Manning Awards Foundation.
The NIHF aims “to recognize inventors and invention, promote creativity and advance the spirit of innovation” by connecting its inductees with budding inventors through STEM education programs, interactive exhibits and other means.
The 48th Induction Ceremony will be held on May 7, 2020 at the National Building Museum in Washington, DC. For more information about McEwen’s inventions and accomplishments, please see his official page on the National Inventors Hall of Fame website.