Professor David Simpson

Pioneer of powered prosthetic limbs
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David Cumming Simpson, orthopaedic bioengineer: born Corstorphine, Midlothian 24 July 1920; MRC External Staff, Department of Surgery, Edinburgh University 1953-54, Lecturer in Medical Physics 1954-63, Senior Lecturer and Director of the MRC Powered Prosthetic Unit 1963-72, Professor of Orthopaedic Bioengineering 1972-80 (Emeritus), Executive Dean of the Faculty of Medicine 1977-80; MBE 1966; married 1946 Isabel Ross-Smith (died 1996; one son, two daughters); died Edinburgh 15 May 2006.

David Simpson was one of the worldwide pioneers half a century and more ago of the infant art of orthopaedic bioengineering - the application of engineering methods and principles to problems in orthopaedic medicine.

At the Department of Surgery at Edinburgh University from the early Fifties, Simpson designed monitoring equipment to support the transplant surgery work of the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh and the Western General Hospital, including a multi-channel recorder for monitoring the condition of patients in the operating theatre and the first successful foetal heart monitor.

In 1963 he was appointed the first director of the Powered Prosthetic Unit at the Princess Margaret Rose Orthopaedic Hospital in Edinburgh. David Gow, Director of Rehabilitation Engineering Services for Lothian, recalls that, charged with finding prosthetic solutions for children afflicted by thalidomide, Simpson visited Heidelberg to look at the pioneering work of Ernst Marquardt:

Since the early 1950s Marquardt had been building and fitting pneumatic carbon dioxide-powered limbs to adults. Simpson went and observed and on 4 May 1963 Scottish powered prosthetics and Edinburgh's bioengineering centre was born. Simpson and his co-workers at the then Powered Prosthetic Unit in Edinburgh began to design and fit a series of gas-powered limbs which were the bionic arms of their day and the legacy of which resonates still.

Simpson told me that perhaps his proudest achievement was his device by which a spoon was placed in a hook at the end of the powered arm, able to take up food, which remained on the spoon until it reached its journey's end at the child's mouth. He was thrilled when a thalidomide child, only one morning after it was introduced to her, started using it.

In 1967 Simpson was chosen to be Director of the Medical Research Council's Unit for Physical Aids for the Disabled and in 1972 he was appointed to a personal chair at Edinburgh University, where he was Executive Dean of the Faculty of Medicine from 1977 until his retirement in 1980.

David Simpson was born in Corstorphine, outside Edinburgh, in 1920 and educated at Edinburgh Academy. In 1938, on leaving school, he spent a holiday in Germany and was so troubled by what the Nazis were doing that he joined the Territorial Army immediately he came back. Perhaps the highlight of his German visit was lunch at the house of the physicist Max Born, who was to go to Edinburgh University months later as a refugee scientist.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, Simpson was apprenticed to a firm of chartered accountants in Edinburgh but volunteered for the Royal Scots and, on being commissioned, was transferred to the Highland Light Infantry. In 1945, at the very end of the war, he was wounded by shell shrapnel which entered his neck and left through his shoulder, injuring his lung and causing severe nerve damage to his right arm and shoulder. Sent back to Edinburgh, he was immensely fortunate to have the intense interest of Sir James Learmonth, at that time the leading authority on peripheral nerve injuries. Learmonth himself carried out a series of operations over successive years to restore to Simpson the use of his arm, although he had to teach himself to write left-handed.

Simpson now changed direction to study Physics at Edinburgh University in Max Born's department, going on to complete a PhD in Medical Physics in 1952 before joining the university staff.

Away from medicine, Simpson took a keen interest in horticulture and in the topography of Edinburgh (in 1962 he published Edinburgh Displayed). In his retirement he wrote poetry based on his wartime experiences and in 2005 a collection, A Private World: a foot soldier's verses, was published by Combat Stress, the ex-services welfare charity.

When I last saw David Simpson, at a Tuesday coffee morning at the Royal Society of Edinburgh, he told me, Fellow to Fellow, how his own wartime injury had made him concerned about the declining provision of field hospitals and medical support for troops in conflicts. He ferociously disapproved of the Iraq war, and in particular of the treatment of the physically and psychologically wounded among our servicemen.

Tam Dalyell