Greater than the Sum of His Parts

Zingg, Walter

Walter Zingg, Professor & IBBME Director (1983-1988)

When Walter Zingg began his career in the 1960s and 70s, biomaterials and biomedical engineering was still something of a novelty.

It was the perfect field for a man with vision.

Zingg, a Swiss immigrant, was named Head of Surgical Research at the Toronto Hospital for Sick Kids where he pursued numerous research projects such as the freezing of organs during heart-lung bypass operations. Yet it was the point where science and engineering intersect that held endless fascination for Zingg. “Walter Zingg loved engineering,” Professor Emeritus Hans Kunov, former colleague and IBBME Director, explained.

Even before receiving his position at Toronto’s Sick Kids Hospital, Zingg was publishing in the relatively unknown field of biomaterials (constructs that interact with biological systems)—in particular, a 1960 paper on the use of a commercial polyurethane for the repair of bone fractures—marking him as one of the first Canadian researchers with a medical degree conducting experiments of this sort.

Dr. Zingg’s love of medicine and machines eventually brought him to the University of Toronto’s budding IBBME program. At the time, the Institute was known as IBME, or the Institute of Biomedical Engineering. It was here that Zingg began working in earnest with researchers exploring the frontiers of a new science: biomedical and biomaterials engineering. Working with now Professor EmeritusCharles Ward in the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering on blood oxygenators, Zingg patented a new tubular membrane design, an important precursor to models currently being used. Later, Zingg would create a new insulin pump design with other Engineering collaborators, including IBBME’s own Professor Michael Sefton.

One of his most notable contributions to the world of science, however, was a project with Dr. Bernard Leibel and Dr. Julio Martin, in which they were able to eliminate diabetes in research subjects through the transplantation of pancreatic cells. “This was a great accomplishment and my father was justifiably proud,” recalls Professor David Zingg, Director of the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Study (UTIAS), and Walter Zingg’s son, of this day when Zingg’s work became “front page news.” “But I do remember his telling me at the time with typical modesty that it was just a small step and there was a long way to go.”

And it was this same humble yet boundlessly determined spirit that saw Zingg forever change the course of IBBME’s history.

When Zingg was appointed Director in 1983, Professor Hans Kunov and a fellow professor had been struggling for nearly five years to start a Clinical Engineering graduate program. Having acted as associate director of the Institute for nearly ten years, Zingg was in an excellent position recognize the potential of this hitherto unknown research field and acted swiftly. “He was instrumental in setting up the Clinical Engineering program,” stated Professor Emeritus Richard Cobbold, former IBBME Director. The Clinical Engineering program quickly became one of the “greatest in the world,” according to Kunov, helped along by the supreme talents of Alf Dolan, the program’s first appointed coordinator.

Still, among the greatest of Zingg’s many lasting legacies was his enduring passion and decency, characteristics that came to define the man as much as the visionary leader and researcher. “I became Director after Walter,” recalled Kunov. “At least once a week he’d come in and ask, ‘Hans, how are things going?’ because he wanted to help.”

“He was one of the kindest, straightest men I’ve ever met,” Kunov said with a smile.

Discover IBBME’s history or learn more about the Biomaterials, Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine research theme.