A True Pioneer: Dr. Thomas J. Fogarty

by | Dec 9, 2021 | Fogarty Innovation, Mentoring

Foreword: The following is an abbreviated and edited transcript from the latest Medtech Trailblazers, the real stories behind the Innovators, Fogarty Innovation’s series of casual, in-depth conversations aimed at discovering the people who have forged our industry. To view the videocast, click here.

While he needs no introduction, it’s always an honor to list Dr. Tom Fogarty’s many accomplishments over his nearly eight-decade career as one of the medical device industry’s most prolific inventors. Dr. Fogarty has had a profound and lasting impact on patients, on healthcare, on innovation on our industry and many of its leaders. 

As an internationally-recognized cardiovascular surgeon, inventor, entrepreneur and vintner, he has dedicated his entire career to improving patient care and is named on over 200 medical device patents, including the “industry standard” Fogarty balloon catheter, which nearly 60 years later is still being used to save the lives and limbs of more than 16 million patients.

His knack for building things started at an early age — when he was just 12, he invented the centrifugal clutch, which is still used today in many two-stroke engines and golf carts. That sparked a lifetime of innovation in medical technology that is alive and well today.

Andrew Cleeland (AC) had the pleasure of sitting down with his mentor, Dr. Fogarty (DF), to explore several themes: resilience and perseverance, a sense of curiosity and the importance of mentoring. We invite you to enjoy their fascinating conversation. 

AC. Let’s start with the concept of resilience. Your early days in Cincinnati were tough. How do you believe this shaped your life? 

DF. I lost my father at an early age, which led me to start working in my early teens to help support the family. That had a significant impact on me, and I don’t think I’d be where I am now had it not been for those early experiences. With my mother as my first mentor, I learned early on to toe a straight line. 

I also found an outlet in boxing, and as a semi pro boxer, I focused on the importance of winning, which was a positive attitude to have for a guy who was small. Because I learned how to box well, other kids wouldn’t mess with me, and I learned how to stand up for myself.    

AC. That willingness to stand up for yourself and for what’s right became an important and impactful element for where we are today. In the early days of the embolectomy catheter, you conducted a series of human patient trials with Dr. Jack Cranley. But you couldn’t get that groundbreaking work published because you were running up against the establishment. Why did you persevere?

DF. It was really because Dr. Cranley recognized the significance of the work and encouraged me to continue no matter what. In fact, he helped me get in touch with an intellectual property attorney because he told me this was a valuable patent. I didn’t have any money, but Dr. Cranley introduced me to an attorney in Cincinnati who did it for nothing and told me I could pay him when I had some funds.

AC. What drove you to go against the surgical community and do something different?

DF. I started working at the hospital as a scrub technician around my sophomore year in high school and then graduated up to the OR where I cleaned instruments, so I had the opportunity to learn a lot about them. I also saw many surgeries and observed what worked and what didn’t. That offered insights at a very young age, and Dr. Cranley was one of the few people who believed in me. So when I came up with the balloon catheter, he made me do all the animal studies and testing on cadavers, which meant that early on I was aware of the process you should go through to introduce a new technology. While you have to keep ‘no harm’ in mind, at the same time, you have to challenge a standard. My device worked, and Dr. Cranley used it and encouraged me to keep going, which gave me a lot of confidence.

AC. The second theme I’d like to explore is your innate sense of curiosity. Do you think that has been the driving factor in your career that has led to your success and many accomplishments? 

DF. I do. If you can’t imagine something, you can’t create it.  

AC. For example, how did you come up with the design of the centrifugal clutch? What motivated you?

DF. I was driving in the back of a scooter in eight grade, which was a big deal because most of the kids I knew at the time were of more modest means and couldn’t afford something like that. But this one kid, “Pinhead” we called him, had one and invited me to go out with him because I had his back when some kids were bullying him. He had a two-seater Cushman, and he drove and I rode in the back. But when he shifted going uphill, the scooter would just lurch ahead and I would consistently fall off the back. At the time, I worked at a small motor shop and they taught me how to use the machinery. We wanted to smooth out the ride, so that’s when he and I came up with the centrifugal part.

AC. Our third theme is mentoring. Did you know you were being mentored by Dr. Cranley? What did you see in that relationship? 

DF. I didn’t see him as a mentor, per se, but as a wonderful person who was willing to help me with my goals.

AC. So true…it’s clear that Dr. Cranley genuinely wanted to help you develop. Without his assistance, it would have been very difficult to get that paper published. That was the beginning of the balloon catheter, which was the first step to spawn where we are today, with a focus on minimally invasive surgery. So what do you think makes a good mentor? And how did you come across yours?

DF. I didn’t seek my mentors, but as you just said, I was very fortunate to have them. In general, I consider a mentor to be a person who is very caring about a worthy objective. At the same time, a bad mentor can also show you what you don’t want to become. 

AC. On a separate note, you’ve said that “innovation is best learned by doing.” What do you mean by that?

DF. You have to experience some things in order for them to come to life. That’s really true when you’re developing a technology. You can’t let somebody else just do it or hire somebody to do it for you. You have to do it yourself. 

AC. What’s your superpower?

DF. I’m persistent. And I try to identify good people to work with and then give them leeway. Particularly in the field of medical devices, you need a great team, and it’s best when they are from different backgrounds. You need people who can be straightforward and are aligned with what you’re trying to accomplish. And they have to be there for the right reason, not just trying to make money.  

If the focus is on money to the exclusion of other things, you take shortcuts that are not going to work. Patients first is always the priority. 

AC. What’s your proudest achievement?  

DF. There’s an infinite number. I’m proud of the fact that I’m always focusing on making whatever situation I’m in better. That’s why I love medical technology because you have the opportunity to make things better. And you are in unison with your team to help patients.

AC. What advice would you give young innovators?

DF.  After over 70 years in healthcare, I’m still learning. There’s so much to learn, but the lessons are not just in medicine, but in many different areas – you have to learn business, and you have to make commitments and sacrifices. A lot has to be done in the period it takes to get a technology to market, and you’re going to make mistakes, which are a learning curve that you have to go through. You just have to be careful how many you make and how big a mistake and then admit it to yourself and learn from them, or you will never change. 

Then, listen to others…those who have come before you and those who are there with you…but not at the exclusion of seeing for yourself. You’ll learn by being involved.

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