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Robert Mann dies at 81, pioneer in prosthetics and gait analysis

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  • Robert Mann dies at 81, pioneer in prosthetics and gait analysis

    Dear Biomch-L subscribers,

    Many of you probably know about Bob Mann's pionieering work in gait analysis and total hip replacement. He died on June 16th of a heart attack. The New York Times published an obituary on Saturday, it is reprinted below.

    A longer obituary can be found on the MIT website:

    Many of you will also recognize him as a prolific author of letters to journals in recent years. These letters are well worth reading, especially those where he offers friendly suggestions for citing some of the excellent work that was done in the 1980s. See, for example, On the occasion of his death, it would be appropriate to visit PubMed and type "Mann RW" to get an appreciation for the not so distant, but already nearly forgotten history of our field of science.


    Ton van den Bogert, Biomch-L co-moderator


    Robert W. Mann, 81, Designer of Devices for Handicapped, Dies

    Published: June 24, 2006
    New York Times

    Robert W. Mann, a mechanical engineer and designer who helped create advanced prosthetic joints, a Braille printing machine and devices to aid patients in rehabilitation, died on June 16 at his summer home in Moultonborough, N.H. He was 81.

    The cause was a heart attack, his family said.

    Beginning in the 1950's, Dr. Mann was an early practitioner in the field of rehabilitation engineering and helped guide students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the design of sound, vision and navigation systems to unfetter the handicapped.

    Dr. Mann, who worked there for more than four decades, was named an emeritus professor of biomedical engineering in 1992.

    In the 1960's and 70's, Dr. Mann and others at M.I.T. worked on a computer program for translating English text into Braille. The program was part of a larger project to develop a computer-directed Braille embossing machine intended to allow the blind quicker access to printed material as it is published. The result was a successful device, known as M.I.T. Braillemboss, that printed efficiently and has seen broad use.

    Among projects at M.I.T. during the same period, Dr. Mann and his students produced a folding cane that was a low-technology solution to a nonetheless formidable problem for the blind: how to stow a cane quickly when entering a car or other vehicle.

    In the 1960's, Dr. Mann helped produce a complex prosthetic elbow that joined an electromechanical device with remnant muscle tissue, to allow amputees to perform a lifting action. The device, developed by scientists at Massachusetts General Hospital, M.I.T. and other institutions, became known as the "Boston arm."

    Dr. Mann was also interested in the mechanics of hip joints, and he studied the pressures created within the joint and upon its cartilage. A colleague and collaborator, Derek Rowell, a professor of mechanical engineering at M.I.T., said that Dr. Mann was prominent in developing a prosthetic hip joint, still in use, that allowed measurements to be taken of stresses and pressures within the joint while it was in motion.

    Robert Wellesley Mann was born in Brooklyn. He initially trained to be a telephone company draftsman, received his bachelor's and master's degrees from M.I.T., and a doctorate in mechanical engineering there in 1957.

    He became a professor of mechanical engineering at M.I.T. in 1963. In 1975, he helped to found the Newman Laboratory for Biomechanics and Human Rehabilitation at M.I.T., and was its director.

    He was a member of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences.

    Dr. Mann's wife of 52 years, the former Margaret Florencourt, died in 2002. Mrs. Mann was a first cousin of the writer Flannery O'Connor. After his wife's death, Dr. Mann became chairman of the Flannery O'Connor-Andalusia Foundation, which promotes the study of her work and provides public access to her home, Andalusia. He lived in Lexington, Mass.

    He is survived by a son, Robert W. Mann Jr. of Port Washington, N.Y.; a daughter, Dr. Catherine L. Mann, an economist, of Great Falls, Va.; a brother, Dr. Kenneth Mann, a biochemist, of Grand Isle, Vt.; two sisters, Helene Madigan of St. Paul and Virginia Swartz of Pittsburgh; and four grandchildren.

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