Systems Medicine Scholarship Honors the Late Robert Ledley

December 8, 2017 — The late Robert S. Ledley, DDS, a pioneer of medical informatics, was known for making several contributions to the field of biomedical research, including the invention of the whole body CT scanner. On December 6, several of Ledley’s family members and former colleagues gathered to celebrate a contribution made in his honor that will support biomedical education at Georgetown.

“Georgetown is very honored to have been the academic home for more than three decades of Dr. Ledley in three different departments of radiology, physiology and biophysics,” said Edward B. Healton, MD, MPH, executive vice president of health sciences and executive dean of School of Medicine at Georgetown University Medical Center.

Healton spoke at the dedication of a plaque and scholarship endowment made in Ledley’s honor. The Ledley family, along with the National Biomedical Research Foundation (NBRF), established an endowment of $100,000 in his honor to support a merit-based scholarship for students in the systems medicine master’s program.

A textbook by Ledley helped lay the groundwork for the field that would become known as systems medicine, Healton explained in his remarks.

“Dr. Ledley wrote a seminal textbook on the use of computers in biology and medicine, revolutionizing the field of medical informatics, using data and computers to aid physicians in their diagnosis and treatment of patients,” Healton said. “While not named at the time, this is the work that we now describe as systems medicine.”

The Dr. Robert Steven Ledley Endowed Scholarship was awarded to Henry Walch this year. Walch is pursuing his MS is the systems medicine program.

“It is an honor and a privilege to be the first recipient of the Dr. Robert Steven Ledley Endowed Scholarship,” Walch said. “I am very grateful to to be a part of this program and it is my hope that more students will learn about it and apply to it, because the education you receive is second-to-none.”

An Accomplished Inventor

During the plaque dedication in the lobby of the Medical-Dental Building, Ledley’s family and colleagues reflected on the days in Georgetown’s basement when the whole body CT scanner was made and later used on its first patient, a toddler who hit his head after falling off a bike. The CT scanner helped save the toddler’s life by visualizing a blood clot that could have killed him. A prototype of Ledley’s full body CT scanner is on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

The CT scanner was just one of the many inventions Ledley developed. After earning a degree in dentistry from New York University, he created inventions that received more than 20 patents. Many of Ledley’s inventions were developed through the NBRF, which he founded. He was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1990 and received the National Medal of Technology in 1997.

Another of Ledley’s inventions, the Film Input to Digital Automatic Computer, was displayed for guests at the plaque dedication. It was the first scanner that allowed images to be digitized and was used for chromosome analysis, automatic Pap smears and interpretations of echocardiograms and EKGs.

Celebrating Ledley’s Legacy

Among a room of Ledley’s closest colleagues and friends, Ledley’s sons, both of whom earned their medical degrees at the School of Medicine, spoke warmly about their father’s character and accomplishments.

Ledley’s son Gary eventually became his colleague and he admired his father’s vision, passion and dedication toward his family and colleagues. “He loved all the people who worked with him. He was diverse before diversity was popular,” Gary said.

Fred, another of Ledley’s sons, said that his father would have felt happy to see the success of the systems medicine program at Georgetown. He also recalled a paper his father wrote years ago discussing how mathematical calculations would take years to complete on a computer. “It doesn’t take ‘1,300 years’ anymore,” Fred said. “It can be done with the phone in our pockets. My father understood that and that’s what he brought to Georgetown. Georgetown in response gave him the opportunity in being around giants in medicine.”

In addition to his inventions and his children, Ledley’s legacy continues through Georgetown’s Systems Medicine master’s degree program, directed by Sona Vasudevan, PhD, and Elliott Crooke, PhD.

“This is personally a very special moment for me as I started my career at Georgetown as an employee of NBRF,” Vasudevan said. “I met Dr. Ledley on several occasions and engaged in discussions with him on the importance of sequences and data. I am honored to be part of his legacy by directing a program that fits into his vision."

Amber Robins, MD, MBA
GUMC Communications