Dr. Gerhard Schmeisser, orthopedic surgeon, Hopkins professor

He was an innovator in artificial-limb technology

  • Gerhard Schmeisser
Gerhard Schmeisser (Handout photo )
September 30, 2012|By Jacques Kelly, The Baltimore Sun

Dr. Gerhard Schmeisser, a retired orthopedic surgeon, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine faculty member and an innovator in artificial-limb technology, died of Alzheimer's disease complications Sept. 23 at Roland Park Place. He was 86 and had lived on Gibson Island.

Born in Baltimore and raised on Tunbridge Road in Homeland, he was the son of Gerhard Schmeisser, an investment banker, and the former Katherine Fleming, a homemaker. He attended the Calvert School and was a 1944 graduate of the Gilman School, where he was captain of the lacrosse and wresting teams. He was a Maryland and Eastern States champion in his wresting weight class.

He was drafted into the Army immediately after his Gilman graduation. In an autobiographical sketch, he recalled joining about 100 teenagers in the Fifth Regiment Armory: "Most of the inductees felt that ... many would not survive. All accepted their fate and were wrenched by their feelings, and all concealed it."

Dr. Schmeisser became a second lieutenant and was assigned to Germany after World War II ended. His role was to help stabilize occupied Germany and "to deter further westward movement of Soviet forces." He also supervised a military prison for "errant American GIs." He attended the Nuremberg War Crime Trials and was seated near Nazi official Hermann Goering.

In his memoir, Dr. Schmeisser described traveling throughout Germany's American Zone. "The countryside was in disorder and the cities in rubble, sometimes still smelling from the underlying dead," he wrote. He encountered two types of people: "soldiers who were tired, cautious and always armed, and refugees from everywhere, all hungry, poorly clothed, migrant and dispirited."

He volunteered as a train commander to take 1,100 Hungarians, who had been slave workers for Nazi authorities, from Pocking, Germany, to Komaron, Hungary. He led the trip with 40 box cars and a "battle-scarred" steam locomotive. His mission, he said, was to get the Hungarians "to their destination, alive and unmolested by Soviet or other forces."

After leaving military service, he earned a bachelor's degree at Princeton University, then graduated from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in 1953. He specialized in orthopedic surgery. In his memoir, he said that as a child, he had been introduced to Dr. William S. Baer, a pioneering orthopedic physician who lived in Baltimore.

In 1958 he joined other Johns Hopkins physicians and nurses to form a CARE Medico team for humanitarian work with Jordanian refugees from Arab-Israeli conflicts. They were honored by King Hussein and received awards from the International Rescue Committee for treatment of Palestinian refugees.

Dr. Schmeisser became the chief of orthopedic surgery at the old Baltimore City Hospitals in 1959. He also joined the Hopkins Medical School faculty and had an appointment at the University of Maryland's School of Medicine. He was named a Hopkins professor in 1971.

"Thus, for many years I was the primary source of education in orthopaedics for most medical students in this state," he said in his memoir.

Dr. Thomas E. Hunt, a retired orthopedic surgeon, recalled Dr. Schmeisser as a "wonderful teacher who was interested in all sorts of things. He was a learned person, who was interested in early computers. He was also very organized."

In his memoir, Dr. Schmeisser said he acquired an early "strong interest" in the Johns Hopkins limb prosthesis clinic, which he subsequently directed. He wanted to use electrical power to help those who had lost their arms.

"He was an explorer and a very creative guy," said a colleague, Charles Dankmeyer Jr. of Arnold, who is a prosthethist. "He liked to push the envelope a bit. It was the Vietnam War, and he married the prosthesis clinic with the Hopkins Applied Physics Lab. He used a technology transfer from weaponry to help people."

The Veterans Administration funded studies with the Hopkins School of Medicine and the Applied Physics Laboratory to develop prosthetic devices, robotic systems and electric wheelchairs for quadriplegics.

"He pioneered fitting patients with articial limbs immediately after surgery," he said. "His idea was to get them up and healing faster."

Dr. Schmeisser worked with Applied Physics Lab engineers Woodrow Seamone and John Loveless to create a control system for an upper limb prostheses. In 1971 that device won an Industrial Research Award as "one of the 100 most significant technological advances in the world."

Dr. Gaylord Lee Clark Jr., a friend who lives in Stevenson, called Dr. Schmeisser "an adventurer in all areas of life, a great personality and a leader."

He recalled how when a 14-year-old required the amputation of his right hand because of a malignant tumor, Dr. Schmeisser and his team found a way to fit the young man with a prosthetic device so he could continue to play the piano.

"It was a great achievement," Dr. Clark said. "Gerry meant a lot to the lives of his patients."

Dr. Schmeisser commuted to Hopkins from Gibson Island on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle for many years. He was an avid boater and liked skiing, mountaineering, camping, sky diving, scuba diving and building and flying experimental aircraft.

He retired in 1991 and sailed North American waterways and the Abaco Islands in the Bahamas.

Services are private.

Survivors include his wife of 55 years, the former Ann Kendrick Melvin, a former Johns Hopkins nurse.


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