Biomedical Engineering at the University of Kentucky developed as part of the research programs of the Wenner-Gren Aeronautical Research Laboratory (WGARL). The Laboratory was a gift of the Viking Foundation (Axel Wenner-Gren, president) as a result of proposals and negotiations of Professor A. J. Meyer and Colonel James H. Graham, Dean of the College of Engineering. The laboratory was completed in 1941 and operated through the war years as a research and training facility for the design, operation and maintenance of aircraft engines and related equipment. The laboratory was under the administrative jurisdiction of the Office of the Dean of the College of Engineering with Professor Meyer serving as director of the laboratory.
During the final phase of World War II the WGARL, Prof. Meyer and Dean Graham were the subjects of investigations by the University and the U.S. State Department due to allegations that Wenner-Gren was a Nazi sympathizer. As a result, the State Attorney General’s office ruled that the name of Wenner-Gren should be removed from the laboratory even though the conditions under which the University accepted the gift of the laboratory specified that the building carry the name of Wenner-Gren. Even though Wenner-Gren was cleared of the charges against him, these problems, coupled with the rather rapid shift to the use of jet engines by military and commercial aircraft, brought the activities of the laboratory to a low level in the late 1940’s.
Professor A. J. Meyer left the University in 1951 and the administrative responsibility for the Aeronautical Research Laboratory was placed in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. Professor E. B. Penrod, Head of the Mechanical Engineering Department, directed the activities of the laboratory until Dr. Karl O. Lange was appointed laboratory director in 1953. The laboratory, however, continued as a unit of the Mechanical Engineering Department. Dr. Lange obtained authority to restore the name of Wenner-Gren to the laboratory while developing new areas of research and development.
One of the new areas of activity was Biomedical Engineering which involved the development of the Massie Sliding Hip Nail and the Lange Skinfold Caliper in the period 1954 to 1957. A program to investigate whole body response to vibrations was initiated in 1957 and the first graduate degree based on biomedical engineering research was awarded in 1959. A USAF contract awarded in 1959 to train chimpanzees for the Mercury Space Flight program marked the major shift of activity in the laboratory to predominantly biomedical engineering research. This period also saw the establishment of the U.K. College of Medicine and the research in the area of human response to vibrations was developed through collaborative efforts with the Department of Physiology and Biophysics. The research related to space flight continued under funding from the NASA and studies of gravity effects on biological systems are still a significant part of the Department’s research program. A U.K. biomedical engineering student was awarded first place honors in regional and national competition for the best technical paper presented by a graduate student to the Institute of Aerospace Sciences in 1962.
The NASA research program prompted the 1966 expansion of the laboratory to house the 50 feet diameter centrifuge for the investigation of gravity effects on earth organisms. From 1967 to 1982, research programs in cardiovascular and musculoskeletal dynamics were developed and the NASA research expanded to include a series of rocket flights (Aerobee 250A rockets) dedicated to experiments conducted by University of Kentucky investigators from the Wenner-Gren Laboratory. During this period, an ad-hoc committee was formed to develop a Biomedical Engineering Program. This committee was later replaced by a Biomedical Engineering Council. By 1981, there were nine Ph.D. candidates, five M.S. candidates and two postdoctoral fellows participating in the Biomedical Engineering graduate program. The participation of 20 undergraduates resulted in four award-winning papers including 1969 and 1989 Oswald Awards.
The continued growth of the program and its international recognition prompted the second expansion of the laboratory. This 1977 addition to the facility provided excellent animal housing and surgical facilities as well as additional laboratory and office space. In 1980 the Colleges of Medicine and Engineering commissioned a review and evaluation of the operation and activities of the biomedical engineering program. This review was performed by Dr. Robert Rushmer, a noted physiologist and founder of the Bioengineering Center at the University of Washington. Dr. Rushmer recommended that a Center for Biomedical Engineering be created “for the purpose of providing opportunities for broader scope, better balance and greater probability of attaining the full potential of which the program is capable” and that the core faculty be increased to provide a “critical mass” of five to seven members. In 1985 Dr. Rushmer’s major recommendations were implemented with the creation of the Graduate Center for Biomedical Engineering under the jurisdiction of the Graduate School. Graduate programs leading to the M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Biomedical Engineering were approved by the Kentucky State Council on Higher Education in January 1988.
With reorganization in 1991, the Center Director reported to the Dean of the Graduate School. From 1991-1994, the Dean of the Graduate School reported to the Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies concerning matters of the Biomedical Engineering Program. In 1994, further reorganization maintained the reporting relationship of the Center to the Dean of the Graduate School but placed the budget and faculty lines in the Medical Center, with the Dean of the Graduate School reporting to the Chancellor of the Medical Center concerning Biomedical Engineering. When the University switched to a provost system in 2003, the Dean of the Graduate School began reporting to the Provost regarding Biomedical Engineering. In July 2010, the Center joined the College of Engineering. In July 2013, the unit was administratively reorganized into the Department of Biomedical Engineering in July 2013. It was later relocated to the renovated 5th floor of the Robotics and Manufacturing Building.
In April 2016, The College of Engineering announced that mechanical engineering alumnus and Hall of Distinction member F. Joseph Halcomb and his wife, Joani, were donating $7 million to transform the Department of Biomedical Engineering. As a result, the College renamed the department the F. Joseph Halcomb III, M.D. Department of Biomedical Engineering. It is the first named department on UK’s campus.