Oral History: Dr. Thomas Fogarty

Image extracted from 1969 embolectomy catheter patent application showing the balloon expanded

This post comes from Meg Suhosky, (former) Student Archives Assistant in the Historical Collections & Archives.

Thomas J. Fogarty, M.D. is well known for his inventions, as well as his innovative, adventurous spirit. He is best known for his creation of the embolectomy catheter, which he developed very early in his career. His innovatory persona however, is something that he seems to have been born with. In an interview recorded as a part of our OHSU Oral History Program, Dr. Fogarty recalls that he has always “built stuff.” As a young boy, he remembers “build[ing] model airplanes and sell[ing] them to the neighborhood kids.” Later in the eighth grade, while working as a scrap cleaner in a mechanic shop, he developed a prototype of a centrifugal clutch!

The interview also briefly touches on Fogarty’s boxing career before his days in medicine. Unsurprisingly, he brings to light the ways in which activities like boxing are as much about critical thinking as they are about movement. “I think good boxers are really pretty smart. They learn how to figure out their opponent … And if you anticipate properly, you can get something done before he knows it.”

His boxing days were short lived, but Fogarty takes a sporting approach to many of his endeavors. From medical instruments to wine, he sees innovation as an exciting problem-solving process:

So, most of all, you go through a series of failures. That’s part of the process before you succeed. Unfortunately, what most people do if they don’t succeed the first time, they forget about it. The problem, however, still exists. So, if you keep thinking about it, eventually you’ll come up with something that will maybe work. That’s the process of innovation.

As mentioned, one innovation that was certainly a success for Fogarty was the embolectomy catheter. He describes to his interviewer, Dr. Richard Mullins, how the idea came to be:

Well, I was a scrub technician for Dr. Cranley who did all vascular.

And I’d say, “This isn’t working.”

U.S. patent 3,435,826

And he said, “I know it’s not working. Why don’t you make it work?” to me.

And I said, “Okay.”

“Tell me what to do.”

I said, “Well, I don’t know what I want to do. But I’m going to do something.” So, I thought about it a little bit and I said okay, I’ll do something.

And he said, “What’s it going to be?”

I said, “I’m going to put a balloon on a catheter.”

He said, “What?!”

I said, “I’m going to put a balloon on a catheter.” And I said, what are you going to do? “Once I get the balloon on the catheter, I’ll thread it down the artery, or up the artery, I’ll inflate the balloon and draw it back.”

He says, “That may work.”

As we know now, it did indeed work! This transcription from our Oral History Program is full of incredible anecdotes and memories from Dr. Fogarty’s life and career, be sure to check it out!