Officially launched in 2003, Bioengineering at Illinois traces its origins to groundbreaking research conducted six decades earlier by faculty like ultrasound pioneers William Fry and Floyd Dunn in the Electrical Engineering Research Lab (EERL), which stood on what is now the Bardeen Quad.
Fry’s ultrasound research led to more advanced medical practices for treating patients undergoing neurosurgery and for disorders such as Parkinson's disease and intractable pain. Fry is credited with establishing one of the foundations of bioengineering — and a new field of study — the medical application of ultrasound for therapeutic purposes.
Fry also developed mechanical and artificial hearts, filing patents for this work in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Although Fry died unexpectedly in 1968 at the age of 49, his brother Francis continued the innovative work, leading to many more firsts in the field, including the scanning and imaging of live human brains.
Floyd Dunn (BSEE 1949, MSEE 1951, PhD 1956), who studied under Professor Fry, later became an electrical engineering faculty member at Illinois. Dunn made important research contributions to understanding how ultrasound propagates in and interacts with biological media. He almost single-handedly kept the field alive during a period in the 1960s when research interest temporarily waned. Today, biomedical ultrasound is a multi-billion-dollar per year industry.
During his 40-year career as an Illinois faculty member and director of the Bioacoustics Research Lab, Dunn conducted fundamental research that helped make ultrasound a safe and efficient diagnostic and therapeutic medical technique. His accomplishments impacted six major areas: absorption processes, nonlinear phenomena, applications in living systems, toxicity, measurement techniques, and acoustic microscopy.
Dunn, who was a member of the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Sciences, retired in 1995. He died January 24, 2015.
Another prominent faculty member was Bioengineering Affiliate Professor Paul Lauterbur, who received the 2003 Nobel Prize in Medicine for developments in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) — work he completed largely in the 1970s while at the State University of New York at Stony Broook. Lauterbur, who died in 2007, was among the first scientists to use nuclear magnetic resonance in the studies of molecules, solutions, and solids. MRI, which revolutionized the medical profession, continues to be a significant area of study in the Department of Bioengineering.
On the education side, Bioengineering was originally (1973) an undergraduate degree program housed in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. In 1987, it was recognized as a special program in the College of Engineering (COE) and became a COE department in 2003 with Professor Bruce Wheeler serving as the first head. When Wheeler left Illinois for the University of Florida, Professor Michael Insana, the Donald Biggar Willett Professor in Bioengineering at Illinois, became head and served from 2008 to 2013. Insana continues to teach and conduct research at Illinois. In August 2013, Professor Rashid Bashir, the Grainger Distinguished Chair in Engineering, became Bioengineering head.
The department accepted its first class of 22 undergraduate and 3 graduate students in 2004, and today the department serves more than 250 undergraduates and 70 graduate students. Students benefit from 15 fulltime core faculty in the department and more than 50 graduate program faculty from across the university.
The range of disciplines involved in the Department of Bioengineering has increased greatly over time, with research continuing to evolve in the area of bioimaging at multi-scale and further expanding in molecular, cellular and tissue engineering; bio-micro/nanotechnology; computational bioengineering; synthetic bioengineering; and health care systems engineering.