J. David Hellums, the A.J. Hartsook Professor Emeritus in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, and of Bioengineering, former dean of the George R. Brown School of Engineering at Rice University, and a pioneer in biomedical research, died June 26 at the age of 86.
“David was instrumental in developing the whole bioengineering effort at Rice,” said C. Sidney Burrus, the Maxfield and Oshman Professor Emeritus of Electrical and Computer Engineering and former engineering dean. “First there was the artificial heart project, then the bioengineering lab within chemical engineering, and finally the Department of Bioengineering within the school of engineering. David stepped in to be acting chair of that department, which has become one of the highest ranked in the nation.”
Hellums was born in Stamford, Texas, on Aug. 19, 1929. He earned a B.S. in chemical engineering in 1950 from the University of Texas at Austin, spent three years as a process engineer with the Mobil Oil Co., another three years as a statistical services officer with the U.S. Air Force, and returned to Austin to earn his master’s degree in chemical engineering.
He joined the Rice faculty as an assistant professor of chemical engineering in 1960 and received his Ph.D. the following year from the University of Michigan. Hellums’ research interests in the 1960’s shifted increasingly to biomedical applications.
In 1964, Rice President Kenneth Pitzer called a meeting with Hellums, five other engineering professors and Dr. Michael E. DeBakey of the Baylor College of Medicine (BCM) to discuss plans for devising an artificial heart. One year later, surgeons at BCM implanted a working model in a patient, with the artificial pump moving blood from the left atrium to the aorta.
In 1968, Hellums became a founding member of the Biomedical Engineering Laboratory at Rice, and later its director for 10 years. At the time of his retirement in 1998, Hellums told Rice News: “I was not biologically oriented at that time. I was into computational fluid dynamics, but Dr. DeBakey sort of brainwashed us, explained to us what an exciting project it was, and we joined on.”
“Hellums tested theories of blood flow in capillaries and investigated the physical factors of blood trauma with a group of physician-scientists at Baylor,” said Michael W. Deem, John W. Cox Professor in Biochemical and Genetic Engineering and chair of bioengineering at Rice. “Their original mission was to find solutions to bleeding and clotting problems associated with cardiovascular prostheses. This led to the first successful left-ventricular bypass pump by DeBakey and William W. Akers.” Akers is professor emeritus of chemical and biomolecular engineering, and of bioengineering, at Rice.
Hellums became a full professor in 1968, and from 1970 to 1976 served as chair of the Department of Chemical Engineering. From 1980 to 1988 he was dean of engineering. Hellums was also an adjunct professor at BCM and the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.
“David was a true pioneer of biomedical engineering at Rice,” said Antonios Mikos, the Louis Calder Professor of Bioengineering, and of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, and director of the Center for Excellence in Tissue Engineering at Rice. “His research provided the foundation of the interlay of blood flow, vascular physiology and thrombosis, which had enormous implications in health care. His work advanced our understanding of human disease and facilitated the development of new therapeutics.”
In 1987, Hellums became the first engineer to receive the Research Merit Award from the National Institutes of Health, in recognition of his “application of biofluid mechanics and cellular engineering methods to biological research.” The original 10-year grant was extended twice for a total of 20 years of funding. He was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1998
“He was a pioneer in developing cardiac assist devices, and in investigating the effects of shear forces on human red blood cells and platelets,” said Dr. Joel Moake, senior research scientist and associate director of the J.W. Cox Laboratory for Biomedical Engineering at Rice, and professor of medicine at BCM, where he was a longtime research collaborator with Hellums. “He was a critical catalyst in the formation of the Department of Bioengineering, which has been the most highly ranked department at Rice since the inception of the new discipline two decades ago.”
“In addition to being a leader and a creator,” Burrus said, “he was a productive scholar, excellent teacher and a nice human being.”
Hellums is survived by his wife Marilyn of Houston, his son Mark of Austin, and his son Jay of Houston. Visitation hours will be held July 1 from 5 to 8 p.m. Bradshaw Carter Memorial, 1734 Alabama St., Houston. The memorial service will be held July 2 at 2 p.m., at the First Christian Church, 1601 Sunset, Houston.
The Department of Bioengineering will honor Hellums by establishing the J. David Hellums Chair in Bioengineering.