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The Dean's Column: Knitting Two Institutions Together

03/12/18

The Dean's Column

Since the new Jefferson (Philadelphia University + Thomas Jefferson University) debuted over the summer—and our first class of students matriculated into our Center City and East Falls campuses in the fall—we’ve been talking a lot about the reasoning behind this unique combination of one university renowned for excellent medical education and training, and one celebrated for its design, engineering, and fashion curricula.

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You can practically see the question marks dancing over people’s heads when they first learn about it, but as we delve into the history of the two schools that make up our bold new institution, and how their respective strengths complement each other, those question marks disappear and are replaced by a light bulb—a modern, cool, energy-efficient LED light bulb, of course. Overwhelmingly, once people attend with an open mind, they agree that this merger just makes sense. In fact, it seems obvious when you really think about it—a revolution in education, yes, but even more so, an evolution.

Both institutions have a long history spanning two centuries in which they have been defined by growth, change, and innovation. They were both born to fill a need in education, and transformation—of students, professionals, Philadelphia, academia, the world—has been baked into them from the beginning. And over those many years there’s been more overlap between medicine and design, even in the fashion world, than you might think.

In May, I gave a talk at the Greater Philadelphia Smart Fabrics Conference on “Medicine + Smart Fabrics” in which I described Medicine+, Jefferson’s cocurricular programs that are designed to prepare our students to think differently, and innovatively, across disciplines—not only to adapt to a changing healthcare landscape, but also to be agents of that change.

After my presentation, I heard from David Edman of VBID Health, and a longtime friend of Jefferson, who reminded me that this kind of synergy between disparate disciplines isn’t entirely new—in medicine in general, or in smart fabrics in specific—and drew an unexpected connection between medicine and PhilaU. David told me about his father, Thomas Edman, an alumnus of PhilaU’s first incarnation, the Philadelphia Textile Institute (PTI), and a pioneer in the field of smart fabrics. Back then, he went by a different name: Thomas Eidlitz. People, like many institutions, are constantly reinventing and redefining themselves to adapt to and thrive in our changing environment.

Thomas registered at PTI under the GI Bill in September 1947 for the four-year Knitting Degree Course. He describes his time there in a note to Alumni Affairs in 2009: “I knew more about knitting than the instructor. We were located at Broad and Pine, diagonally across the Jewish Y, and I was at the groundbreaking at Schoolhouse Lane and Henry Avenue for the new school.”

In fall 1953, he returned to the school for an open house and ran into then-president Dr. Bertrand Hayward, who listened with interest about his postgraduate, one-year Knitting Degree course at the Leicester College of Technology in Leicester, England. Hayward offered him a job in the Knitting Department, and in January Thomas arrived—to find that Hayward remembered him, but not his name, “because of the unusual spelling.” The following week, Thomas legally changed his name to Edman.

So, what does this walk down Memory Lane—and all this talk about knitting!—have to do with medicine? Quite a lot, as it happens. While the name Thomas Eidlitz may not ring a bell, or even Thomas Edman, here’s one you probably have heard of: Dr. Michael E. DeBakey. That’s the same DeBakey of the famous DeBakey vascular graft for replacing veins and arteries, grafts made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET)—better known as Dacron fabric. Again, it all lies in the name.

As DeBakey relates in Heart to Heart: The Twentieth Century Battle Against Cardiac Disease, upon experimenting with shaping tubes on his own—with his wife’s sewing machine!—and successfully using a homemade bifurcation tube (sterilized of course) on a patient in 1954, he needed a way to knit Dacron into the shapes he needed. His search led him to a socks-knitting factory in Reading, Pennsylvania, where someone directed him to an expert at the Franklin Textile Institute, “a Swiss immigrant” named Thomas Edman!

Thomas agreed to work for DeBakey, and with a grant from a former patient of DeBakey’s, the head of Stuart Pharmaceutical Company in California, Thomas developed a machine to create seamless Dacron tubes. DeBakey relates:

“I used these Dacron grafts on patients and even sent some to my colleagues who were also interested in working in the field. Ultimately, one of the companies in Philadelphia, I believe, bought the machine that Mr. Edman had developed, and that became the grandfather of all the knitting machines we have today.”

One of the major benefits of the cross-disciplinary curricula we are developing at Jefferson, and the upcoming changes to schools in both our Center City and East Falls campuses to reflect these new possibilities, is to foster pathmaking collaborations like this, which result in brand-new treatments, innovative technologies, and novel ways of looking at and solving problems in healthcare and other professional industries.

A primary directive for Jefferson is to seek mutually beneficial connections with complementary businesses, organizations, and institutions that share our vision and our mission. We want partners who can work with us to enhance and reinforce everything we do, from transforming education to reimagining healthcare, and improve more lives—of our students, alumni, patients, and communities of the world. Such collaborations are more than part and parcel of our history, but our key to becoming the preeminent professional university of the future.

Mark L. Tykocinski, MD
Provost and EVP for Academic Affairs, Thomas Jefferson University
Anthony F. and Gertrude M. DePalma Dean, Sidney Kimmel Medical College