Uncommon Sense: the This is True Podcast
032: “Give Me a Shot at It. I’m an Engineer”
In This Episode: The story of a man who wasn’t satisfied with mere success. He took Uncommon Sense to a new level in order to help others, yet refused to get rich from it.
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* The photos mentioned are included in the transcript below.
* Kaplan’s National Inventors Hall of Fame induction.
I’d like to tell you the story of a man who wasn’t satisfied with mere success. He took Uncommon Sense to a new level in order to help others.
Welcome to Uncommon Sense. I’m Randy Cassingham.
Sheldon Kaplan got his degree in mechanical engineering from Northwestern University in 1962 and, like many engineers during that era, got a job with NASA. Hired by the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland to design hardware for satellites, he moved to a contractor company in 1965, where he still worked on NASA projects. One of his first tasks was to design an emergency medical kit for the Apollo program.
The company had other government contracts too: he also designed something called the PneumoPak, a pressure dressing for high-altitude reconnaissance pilots. Starting to see the pattern here? Medical technology: Kaplan liked to be a part of saving lives by coming up with solutions that helped solve problems.
The company had another device that just wasn’t working out. It was called the AtroPen, designed to administer drugs in the field. To keep it rugged, the drug to be dispensed was held in a stainless steel capsule: that meant only drugs that could be kept stable in steel could be used, and there were other mechanical issues. Kaplan set upon completely redesigning the device from scratch — and figuring out how to use glass to hold the drugs: glass is the gold standard in injectable drug storage, which also enabled users to see the drug to ensure the right amount was there, or to see if it was discolored or cloudy.
Why was the device needed? In the 1950s, a new chemical weapon was starting to be developed: organophosphate nerve agents. There are a couple of antidotes for it, but obviously they must be administered pretty quickly to save the victim. That meant, for instance, that soldiers needed to carry the antidotes with them, and be able to inject themselves quickly should the antidote be needed, rather than wait for a medic to arrive to help. So the entire package had to be self-contained, stable over time, stay sterile until use, be relatively fool-proof, and be injectable through clothing. That’s a tall order, especially in battlefield conditions.
But when Kaplan was done, he met all of the objectives. It was called the ComboPen, because there were two auto-injectors, one for each of the drugs. The U.S. military called the package the Mark I NAAK, or Nerve Agent Antidote Kit, which is pictured on the Show Page. It works against nerve agents like Sarin and VX. Survival Technology received a patent on the device in mid-1977, with Kaplan shown as the lead inventor. The diagram of the thing is a study in complexity: I have that on the Show Page too.
But once that process was done and the contract satisfied, Kaplan had already realized there was another application for the auto-injector he invented: one that could have much wider application and save the lives...