Rich Newman

Welch Allyn Archive: The stories we promised we’d never tell

Welch Allyn has a wonderful tradition of having its employees “actively engaged” in its products. As a result, there was an unwritten rule from the early days through the 1980s that in order to work in Welch Allyn sales you had to either have the instrument used on you, or see the instrument used in a clinical setting. Over time, stories of sales representatives learning about the instruments first-hand have become urban legends in the company.

Although we are still not certain of its authenticity, there is a story about Bill and Lew Allyn, who back in the 1960s needed to see a laryngoscope used in a clinical setting before being allowed to become “true” sales representatives. Welch Allyn was an early pioneer in developing laryngoscopes and designed the world’s first fiber optic laryngoscope. A key part of the Welch Allyn product portfolio in the 1960s, a laryngoscope is used to create an airway in a patient, often allowing an endotracheal tube to be inserted into the windpipe. This procedure, called intubation, can be done in a variety of settings from field trauma to operating rooms. Well, Bill and Lew were obligated to see the device in use, so one bright and sunny Upstate New York morning they went to Auburn Memorial Hospital to see the laryngoscope in action. They gowned up and went into the operating room to watch (from a safe distance) as the anesthesiologist intubated the patient. When the intubation was complete, the surgeon turned to Bill and Lew and asked if they wanted to stay and watch the surgery.They should have left but they didn’t. The rumor (which survives to this day at Auburn Community Hospital) is that both Bill and Lew passed out before the first incision was even completed and the recovery room had two extra patients that morning.

The same unwritten rule held true in the research and development department but with a slight twist: if you invented a new medical device, you were the first to have it used on. In the late 1970s Bill Moore, Dom Danna and Rich Newman co-invented the Welch Allyn Video Endoscope (WAVE). Rich Newman volunteered to have this device used on him because, in his own words, “Bill Moore, as a VP, was necessary to run the company, and Dom’s engineering skills were way too valuable to the project, so I volunteered to be the first video colonoscopy patient.” To many, the invention of the video endoscope may have been the single biggest clinical advance Welch Allyn ever made— as it truly changed the standard of care.

So in July of 1980, at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Syracuse, Dr. Fitzgerald performed history’s first full video colonoscopy on Rich Newman. The exam had to be performed before July 16 of that year, when the FDA rules would change and make investigational trials much more difficult— and as one of the inventors, Rich was eager to have the instrument move forward. The colonoscopy lasted about forty minutes and was performed without anesthetic so that Rich could tell the doctor if he experienced extreme pain, which could lead to a life-threatening perforated bowel. While in the recovery room, it’s rumored that one of the nurses told Rich she would never have let Dr. Fitzgerald operate on her because he had just lost his driver’s license two weeks earlier!

Although things have certainly changed, Welch Allyn employees remain actively engaged in its products. They still volunteer for various product testing, but typically in the form of more formalized clinical trials for devices like blood pressure monitors and thermometers.