Dudley Childress, PhD: A “Renaissance Man” Exerts a Lasting Influence on P&O
Few persons have been as towering a presence in the field of rehabilitation research and engineering as Dudley S. Childress, PhD, director emeritus of the Northwestern University Prosthetic Orthotic Center (NUPOC), Chicago, Illinois, and professor emeritus of physical medicine and rehabilitation at the Northwestern University (Northwestern) Feinberg School of Medicine. Through more than four decades, Childress has worked tirelessly to advance prosthetic, orthotic, and assistive device technology and to mentor up-and-coming researchers, engineers, and clinicians, many of whom have since made their own significant contributions to improving the lives of persons with disabilities.
Childress' work has garnered a veritable ticker-tape parade of recognition and awards. Lifetime achievement awards include the Veterans Affairs (VA) Rehabilitation Research & Development Service Lifetime Service Award (2010); the da Vinci Lifetime Achievement Award (2005); and the Amputee Coalition Ernest Burgess Lifetime Achievement Award (2007).
Childress received the VA's highest honor for VA rehabilitation investigators, the Paul B. Magnuson Award, in 2002, and NUPOC has memorialized Childress' contributions by naming one of its central conference rooms "Childress Commons."
Although he was unable to be interviewed due to advancing Parkinson's disease, Childress' body of work, his numerous awards, his colleagues, his devoted wife Nancy, and the many persons he has helped through the years speak eloquently for him.
"Dudley Childress has made an unparalleled and lasting contribution to advancing prosthetic and orthotic knowledge," says John Michael, MEd, CPO, FAAOP, FISPO. Michael is associate director of NUPOC and oversaw the historic merger of NUPOC with the Northwestern University Prosthetics Research Laboratory (NUPRL) in 2010. Michael continues, "His life's work has changed the way we think and practice worldwide."
Elliot Roth, MD, chairman of the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation in Northwestern's Feinberg School of Medicine agrees: "Many of the products and practices that patients and professionals use now in daily practice are derived from developments that originated from Dr. Childress' ideas and investigation."
Childress has contributed much to advancing the mission of the International Society for Prosthetics and Orthotics (ISPO), the VA, and the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR), Michael adds.
John N. Billock, CPO, LPO, clinical director of the Orthotics & Prosthetics Rehabilitation Engineering Centre, Warren, Ohio, worked with Childress at NUPOC/NUPRL during the late 1960s and early 1970s before entering private practice in 1975. "I greatly admire his passion for improving the quality of life for disabled people through practical technological advancements that would improve their functional capabilities, mobility, and/or communication in everyday life," Billock says, adding that he believes Childress' compassion and his deep understanding of the needs of persons with disabilities have been the driving forces behind his career and achievements. "This compassion, which became his passion in research, has reached far beyond prosthetics and orthotics and has touched the lives of everyone who has ever worked with him or benefited from his dedicated skill and knowledge."
In 1968, Childress and his colleagues, including Billock, developed the first North American myoelectric system that was self-suspended and self-contained. Otto Bock, Duderstadt, Germany, had developed the first production version of the MYOBOCK® System in 1967, which was self-contained, self-suspended, and used an electric hand. However, the Northwestern myoelectric system was the world's first commercial system with proportional myoelectric control, in which the user controlled the speed of the fingers and the rate of change of grip force in proportion to the magnitude of the myoelectric signal. The MYOBOCK system used on/off control, in which the myoelectric signal turned the hand on and the absence of a signal turned the hand off, regardless of the strength of the muscle contraction. "Proportional control allowed for finer, more precise control of the action of the electric hand," explains Craig Heckathorne, MSc, research and design engineer at NUPOC. "This control feature was critical to Childress' later development of the Synergetic Prehensor, the first commercially available electric prehensor with physiological speed and grip force." The new Northwestern design was successfully fitted on Richard Shearer, a young amputee who lost his right arm below the elbow due to an electrical accident.
Besides his work in upper-limb prosthetics, Childress and his colleagues also have devoted much time to developing assistive devices for persons with high-level upper-limb disabilities.
One outstanding example is the sip-and-puff wheelchair, developed in 1972, which can be controlled simply by inhaling and exhaling into a tube. The work in assistive technology expanded into other environmental control systems that can be activated by persons with paralyzed hands and arms.
Another landmark achievement occurred in 1998 when, with VA assistance, Childress and colleagues developed a state-of-the-art motion-analysis system dedicated to studies of prostheses, orthoses, and other ambulation and manipulation aids.
"What I Have Learned"
Childress is a strong proponent of teamwork in rehabilitation engineering research and development—including bringing aboard persons with disabilities as part of the team.
"What I have learned is that rehabilitation engineering must be a team effort in order to be effective," Childress points out in a JRRD article ("Development of Rehabilitation Engineering Over the Years: As I See It," supplement to the November/December 2002 issue of JRRD: Journal of Rehabilitation Research & Development, VA Rehabilitation Research & Development Service). He adds, "I have learned that persons with disabilities should, if possible, be part of rehabilitation research teams."
Childress continues, "I have learned that rehabilitation engineering research cannot be an 'ivory tower' activity." He urges researchers to work with end users in everyday life environments as well as clinic settings and to work with their families and healthcare professionals when possible.
Childress practiced what he preached, bringing persons with disabilities into the research picture. An outstanding example is Margaret Pfrommer, who developed quadriplegia due to polio. She was only in her 30s and her friends were trying to help her get out of a nursing home when she contacted NUPRL, Childress recalls, according to an article in the Amputee Coalition publication inMotion ("Dudley Childress, Taking the Work Forward," by Nancy Carroll, July/August 2004). Childress decided to set up assistive technology for her and offered her a job as the laboratory receptionist. Pfrommer accepted the job and became an integral part of NUPRL for the next quarter of a century until her death in 1998.
Pfrommer used a sip-and-puff wheelchair, operated an adapted phone system, and became one of the first to use a personal computer to assist in writing manuscripts and other work. She played a positive role in the development of wheelchair controllers, environmental controllers, communication aids, telephone controls, computer interface systems, home respiratory aids, and independent living, Childess notes in his 2002 JRRD article. He adds, "Margaret was active in RESNA [Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America] and promoted rehabilitation technology locally, nationally, and internationally."
Bill Dellenback, Thomas Schworles, and Will Jenks were persons with disabilities who interacted with Childress and laboratory researchers in the development of assistive devices. Dellenback, who was fitted with a myoelectric transradial prosthesis in 1972, "was of invaluable assistance in our prehensor development research for more than 20 years." Others, including Jenks and Shworles, frequently helped with the design of assistive equipment.
Passing the Torch
Childress has mentored approximately 50 students at the doctorate and master's-degree levels, according to NUPOC Executive Director Steven A. Gard, PhD.
"He was a mentor to many young engineers, prosthetists, and orthotists who went on to do well in the field and establish their own niches and make their own contributions," researcher and clinician Maurice LeBlanc, MSME, CP(E), observes. "Dr. Childress created an environment and funding to foster education and research with which so many got their feet wet and established their reputations."
R. J. Garrick, PhD, editor of Capabilities, published by NUPOC, and director of NUPOC's Resource Unit for Information and Education Services, comments, "Graduates who were trained under Childress' tutelage have dispersed throughout the nation and abroad where they contribute to academic and industrial research in bioengineering, medicine, prosthetics, and orthotics. They are developing prosthetic devices and [taking] rehabilitation engineering in new directions, including neural and robotic interfaces."
Andrew Hansen, PhD, engineer and health science specialist at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center, Minnesota, and adjunct associate professor, Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine, recalls his student days. "I feel very blessed to have Dudley as a mentor. He always took time to talk with me about my research or about anything else on my mind. When I worked with him, he seemed to always have a positive spirit that would recharge my batteries when I felt a little discouraged."
Hansen praised Childress in his doctoral thesis: "Dudley Childress has been an incredible mentor. He has taught me many things through countless hours of discussions." Hansen especially remembers Childress' first presentation to new graduate students, walking into the room with eight or ten VHS tapes under one arm and carrying a box full of prosthetic components under the other. As a somewhat homesick Iowa farm boy, Hansen was asking himself why he was there in a huge city. However, "After that meeting, I walked home knowing I was in the right place."
Introducing Childress during the 2006 NUPOC Gala Trilogy Fundraiser Dinner, Gard noted that he was honored to be among the select group of students Childress had mentored. "Many of his former students are now working as prosthetists and orthotists, rehabilitation research engineers, managers of gait analysis laboratories, physicians, orthopedic surgeons, and professors at major universities with their own research programs."
In 2004, Childress was honored for his work in mentoring others with a RESNA Mentor Award. The award is given to a RESNA member who has been nominated by at least three nominators who have submitted essays describing how the nominee has influenced and nurtured others in the field of rehabilitation engineering or assistive technology.
The large number of published works written by Childress and his colleagues is a goldmine for researchers and clinicians. "I would advise every student of P&O to read and reread every publication they can get their hands on where Dr. Childress was an author," Michael says. "His insights are keen, clearly expressed, clinically meaningful, and supported by convincing evidence. In many ways, Dr. Childress' decades of work have paved the way for tomorrow's evidence-based practice, even though that concept was only coined recently."
Childress was born on a farm near Archie, Missouri, the first child of Stephen T. Childress, a history teacher and athletic coach, and Virginia Dudley Childress, who taught first through eighth grades in a one-room country schoolhouse, according to the 2004 inMotion article. Later, the family, which included his sister Marianne and brother Samuel, moved to Harrisonville, Missouri. Nancy Childress recalls, "We were a little school—200 students. Dudley's father did the whole athletic program—basketball, football, track, gym classes, taught both world and American history, and drove one of the buses that picked up kids from the surrounding farm areas. Dudley was valedictorian of his class, class president, and a good athlete."
Childress was an all-state player in high school and won a football scholarship to the University of Missouri, Columbia. He earned his bachelor's degree in electrical engineering in 1957 and a master's degree in 1958. He and Nancy were married in 1959 after she returned from Melbourne, Australia, where she had been studying on a Fulbright scholarship. "I was a hometown girl, but not his high school sweetheart," she says. "We sometimes joke that most of our classmates were married by the time we got around to it."
Childress served a two-year tour of active duty in the Army and four years of active reserve. He became an instructor and later an assistant professor in the University of Missouri's Electrical Engineering Department. Childress then took a leave of absence to pursue his doctorate at Northwestern. "Some of Dudley's friends joked that perhaps he wasn't coming back," Nancy says. However, Childress said there was only one job in the Chicago area he would be interested in. "And, wouldn't you know? It was offered to him very shortly." Thus, Childress joined the Prosthetics Research Laboratory program as a prosthetics engineer, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Dudley and Nancy have two sons, Stephen and Malcolm, and three grandchildren.
"Renaissance man" and "humble" are phrases that pop up often when colleagues and friends talk about Childress' life and work.
"His ideas have been enriched by his extensive and eclectic interests in science, history, biography, art, and poetry," Garrick says. "He often composed poems to commemorate events and people."
"Dudley is truly a Renaissance man," Michael comments. "He is a voracious reader and student of history, an acknowledged expert in his field, a proven researcher, an author of uncommon clarity, and a poet."
"Most people know that Dudley is a brilliant guy with a comprehensive knowledge of prosthetics, rehabilitation, biomechanics, and science in general," Hansen says. "Not many know that Dudley was an athlete—a quarterback for the University of Missouri. He loves football and is dedicated to the Northwestern team. We always enjoyed conversations about football on Monday mornings."
Stefania Fatone, PhD, BPO (Hons), research assistant professor at NUPOC, who hails from Australia, also recalls those Monday morning football discussions. "As a former quarterback, Dr. Childress loves football. He would delight in updating us at our Monday morning staff meetings as to the progress of the Northwestern Wildcats football team. I would roll my eyes in annoyance, professing that I had escaped my 'footy'-mad family and nation—that's Aussie rules—only to end up in a football-mad lab. It became a running joke!"
Fatone continues, "His lab was a welcoming, energetic, and collaborative place to work. One of the traits I most like about Dr. Childress is his sharp sense of humor; he wasn't above some friendly teasing, a habit for Australians such as myself and one which made me feel very much at home."
Among Childress' interests, LeBlanc mentions that he was known for giving good walking tours of downtown Chicago architecture. "And one had to walk fast to keep up with him!"
Fatone is impressed with Childress' humility about his achievements. Although as an undergraduate P&O student in Australia, Fatone knew about his work in myoelectric prosthetics, she says, "I was totally unaware of his work in environmental controls for the disabled, wheelchair technology, and his student days doing eye research. His vast contribution to knowledge unfolded to me bit by bit over the years. Dr. Childress' contributions and leadership became especially obvious to me in the latter part of his career as he approached retirement and he began accumulating lifetime achievement awards and accolades from numerous organizations. And yet, you would never have known all this from chatting with Dr. Childress. He was always more interested in what others were doing."
Hansen perhaps sums it up best: "Dudley is truly a Renaissance man, a sportsman, a scholar, and a gentleman."
And, one might add, a living legend in his chosen fields of prosthetics, orthotics, and rehabilitation engineering.
Miki Fairley is a freelance writer based in southwest Colorado. She can be reached at