Biomedical engineering at the University of Kentucky developed as part of the research programs of the Wenner-Gren Aeronautical Research Laboratory (short for the Wenner-Gren Lab hereafter).
The Wenner-Gren Lab was a gift of the Viking Foundation (Axel Wenner-Gren, president) in response to a proposal by A. J. Meyer and Colonel James H. Graham (dean of the College of Engineering). The Wenner-Gren Lab 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 under the administrative jurisdiction of the Office of the Dean of the College of Engineering and directorship of Professor Meyer.
During the final phase of World War II, the Wenner-Gren Lab, Meyer and Graham were investigated by the university and the U.S. State Department due to allegations that Axel Wenner-Gren was a Nazi sympathizer. As a result, the State Attorney General’s office ruled that the Wenner-Gren name should be removed from the Lab. Even though Axel Wenner-Gren was cleared of the charges against him, compounded with the rapid shift to the use of jet engines by military and commercial aircraft, the Lab's activities decreased in the late 1940’s.
After Meyer left UK in 1951, the Wenner-Gren Lab was placed under the administrative jurisdiction of the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Professor E. B. Penrod, head of the mechanical engineering department, assumed the directorship of the Lab until Karl O. Lange became its director in 1953. Under Lange’s leadership, the Lab restored the name of the Wenner-Gren Lab and areas of research and development were expanded.
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 UK College of Medicine and research in 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 NASA and studies of gravity effects on biological systems are still a significant part of the department’s research program. A UK biomedical engineering student was awarded first place honors in a 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-foot diameter centrifuge for the investigation of gravity effects on earth organisms.
Professor Jim Lafferty became the Director of the Wenner-Gren Lab in 1970. Under Lafferty’s leadership, 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. 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 the 1969 and 1989 Oswald Awards.
The continued growth of the program and its international recognition prompted the second expansion of the Wenner-Gren Lab. The 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 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 a 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.
In 1990, Professor Charlie Knapp became the Director of the Graduate Center for Biomedical Engineering housed in the Wenner-Gren Lab when Lafferty retired. Under Knapp’s leadership, the biomedical engineering program took on broader areas of investigation with the addition of new faculty with expertise in diverse areas. During 1991-1994, the center was part of The Graduate School, and during 1994 - 2003, the center was also part of the Medical Center in budgetary matters. In 2005, when Knapp stepped aside from directorship to focus on his funded research in cardiovascular research, Professor David Puleo became the Director (later renamed as Chair in 2009) of the Center for Biomedical Engineering. In July 2010, the center joined the College of Engineering but remained a center, and in July 2013 it was administratively reorganized into the Department of Biomedical Engineering (BME). Upon the demolition of the Wenner-Gren Lab to make room for the Academic Science Building later that year, the BME department relocated to the renovated fifth floor of the Robotics and Manufacturing Building. In 2016, the department was renamed the F. Joseph Halcomb III, M.D. Department of Biomedical Engineering, the first-named department on UK’s campus, in honoring the generous gift given to the university and college by Dr. F. Joseph Halcomb and his wife, Joani. In August 2017, Professor Guigen Zhang was recruited from Clemson University to become the Chair of the Joseph Halcomb lll, MD Department of Biomedical Engineering.