As part of NAA’s ongoing tribute to great minds in science and medicine, this week’s tribute is to Dr Walter L. Henry, one of the pioneers in the field of echocardiography. While there have been many who contributed in this key field of medicine, such as Inge Edler, Carl Hertz and Harvey Feigenbaum, to name a few, Dr Henry’s contribution was unique in that he used his skills as part of the NASA space program to do before and after evaluations of American astronauts. So NAAites, be patient, your space fix is coming. Here then is the story of this remarkable man.
Walter was born in a small town in Western Maryland to a family of modest means but exceptional character and integrity. Walter’s father was a 33rd degree mason who dedicated his life to helping others. He used to go to the poor parts of town to “recruit” kids to play church league basketball. While he always had a winning team, the real purpose was to help kids that were on the verge of making poor life choices. For over half a century, he would still get letters thanking him for the help that he had given them at such a crucial stage in their life.
The town itself was a backwater place whose the local radio station used to claim that it played both kinds of music – Country and Western. Walt spent his summers at camp or fishing with Uncle Daryl (see picture below.) His uncle used to take him to culturally “diverse” places where the locals looked like they had just come from the set of Deliverance. But apparently the fishing was good.
Leroy (as he was called then) was an outstanding student of course, but was also a very good basketball player making all city and all conference. He also loved football and was the QB that helped his team win the big game when the teams star went down.
In the movie Night of the Living Dead, Cumberland, Maryland was said to be the first place where they had both kinds of people, the ambulatory living and the ambulatory dead. Like the zombies, Walter headed to Pittsburgh.
At the University of Pittsburgh, Walter majored in Electrical Engineering. But the experience was so much more. He was voted runner-up for the Mr. Pitt award (given to the most popular student) as a result of his many intramural, Greek and other activities (and really, who was going to beat out Mike Ditka.)
He also enjoyed the zeitgeist of the times as well. In 1960, Walter could go to the top of Schenley Towers and see the Pirates and the Steelers play in old Forbes Field. Even today, if you close your eyes and look towards where the old ballpark used to be, you just might hear the echo of the day that Bill Mazeroski hit the greatest home run in World Series history.
And the early sixties were also a time when folk singers ruled pop culture. Groups like The Kingston Trio, the Limelighters, and Peter, Paul and Mary (see below) could be heard asking such delphian questions as “where have all the flowers gone?” or “will he ever return?” In fact Walter was in charge of a Peter, Paul and Mary concert while he was at Pitt.
And as some answers were just blowing in the wind, other bolder visions were being set down. One such was John Kennedy saying that America should go to the moon before the decade was out. It was a remarkable challenge and it was just as remarkable that America stepped up to make it happen.
When the Dodgers and Giants moved to California, America’s cultural epicenter moved with it and so in 1964, Walter went west as well to attend Stanford University to study medicine.
Stanford was a remarkable place in the mid 60’s. The medical school alone had multiple Nobel Prize winners. With his choice of any disciple now open, Walter chose to do research in cardiology while he was a medical student which set the stage for what was to come. His research at Stanford included research in kidney transplants in animals. Also, the technique for heart transplants in animals was part of the tapestry of Stanford that eventually led to breakthroughs in human heart transplants.
The human heart as culture was also changing in the late 60s and Dr Henry was in the San Francisco Bay area when Haight Asbury started America on a new course of mild altering drugs, free love and psychedelic music. It was an exciting time with the Magic Bus always just a token away. Dr. Henry was there donating his time to the afflicted of the counter culture.
After great success at Stanford (being one of three students honored for special merit,) Dr. Henry was off to the East Coast again, this time to NYC for his internship.
NATIONAL INSTITUTES OF HEALTH
After completing his internship at the Albert Einstein hospital in the Bronx, Walter left for the NIH in Bethesda, Maryland. This was to be the place where his remarkable work took place. When first asked what work he intended to pursue there, Dr Henry said echocardiography. His boss at the time didn’t think much of the choice as he said that was just like “chasing ghosts”. It was a reference to the impossible to read grainy images which were the standard of its time.
After Walter arrived at the NIH he was matched up with an engineer who had the perfect set of skills to make the ghosts go away. And so Walter Henry and an engineer named Jim Griffith set out to fix what was wrong. And they succeeded wildly by being able to generate two-dimensional images of the human heart and were among the very first people to see truly clear images of the beating human heart. It was an extraordinary accomplishment and one of the rewards for this was to be part of America’s dream of conquering space. For more about the work at the NIH see the video below.
WORKING WITH NASA
Dr. Henry was involved with two NASA space programs – the 84 day final Skylab mission and the Apollo Soyuz mission. He studied both crews of these missions at the Johnson Space Center in Texas and later aboard the recovery ships within one hour after splashdown. Recall that America had lost the race to be first into space when the Russians launched sputnik in 1957 and then launched the first human in space (Yuri Gagarin) in 1961. This is what prompted the great space race for the moon. America it turned out had the right stuff and in the end, they made John F Kennedy’s vision a reality.
The early astronauts came from the test pilot program and they were of the Yee haw – hit the damn button school of spaceflight. In fact, Dr Henry recounts a story that he heard about one flight. The astronauts were supposed to abort the flight should any one of several buttons in the cockpit lit up red. When all the lights lit red during a lighting strike during liftoff, the astronaut in charge of the abort decision just said, “yippee ki yay” and off they went (no one was hurt.) It was as colorful a group of characters as you could assemble, and Walter got to meet many of them. One crew member even tried to use his wife’s x-rays when his own x-ray showed a problem … nobody wanted to miss their turn to go into space.
Being on the naval ships and giving the astronauts physicals and echocardiograms was a great honor, but it was living history of the best kind. Being involved with the first people in human history to go into space was pretty amazing stuff.
WHAT CAME NEXT
For his work in helping to bring echocardiography to the world and for his exceptional talent, Dr Henry was given such awards as being a Fulbright Professor during an American College Cardiology Circuit Course in Brazil and Argentina, the America College of Cardiology Circuit Course in India and Ski Lanka, the National Academy of Science Study Course in Egypt, and the Distinguished Alumni Award of the University of Pittsburg, as well as many others.
Dr. Henry capped his remarkable career by heading to the University of California at Irvine where he continued his research in echocardiography before becoming Dean of the Medical School in 1989. He also founded a software company and today lives with his wonderful and talented wife Maria del Carmen Calvo, an artist of some considerable fame.
NAA salutes Dr. Henry for his outstanding contribution to the world of medicine. He was from a generation that knew how to stand and deliver. NAA hopes that there is still a reserve of people just like him to keep the country great. NAA also wants to thank the inestimable scientist for being a truly wonderful brother. It’s been an honor to share the journey.
Final Final thought – What else can you take pictures of with echo? Behold the baby Santana.