Lojze Vodovnik

Lojze Vodovnik -
person, teacher and scientist

Lojze Vodovnik was born on 6 September 1933 in Maribor where he also finished high school. In 1957, he graduated from the Faculty of Electrical Engineering in Ljubljana. He got his first job in the company 'Elektromedicina', where he developed a number of devices for therapeutical stimulation of nerves and muscles. In 1959, he was elected teaching assistant for the subjects “Electromedical appliances”, “Industrial electronics” and “Rectifiers” at the Faculty of Electrical Engineering in Ljubljana. In 1963, he also passed the doctor's degree at the same faculty. The same year, he was elected assistant professor for the subjects “Electronic measuring instruments”, “Survey of technical cybernetics”, “Electromedical appliances” and “Remote control and measuring”. Next year, he left for USA for a one-year specialization to Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. There he continued his research on new possibilities for the rehabilitation of the disabled on the basis of electronic and cybernetic means. After his return to Ljubljana, he established a Laboratory for Medical Engineering and Biocybernetics at the Faculty of Electrical Engineering. In 1966, he was invited to the Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland as visiting professor, and, until 1969, in addition to lecturing in the Ljubljana faculty, he was giving lectures also in Cleveland. In 1967, he was elected associate professor and, in 1973, he nominated full professor at the Faculty of Electrical Engineering. In 1973, he was elected Vice Dean of the Faculty of Electrical Engineering and two years later Dean of the same faculty. In 1977, he became a corresponding member of the Slovenian Academy for Sciences and Arts, and in 1983 he was elected regular member of this institution. Between 1992 and 1995 he was secretary of the section for mathematical, physical, chemical and technical sciences and since 1995 a member of the presidential board of the Academy. In 1998 the academician Professor Lojze Vodovnik, D. Sc., retired and became professor emeritus of the University of Ljubljana.

It is impossible to describe the image of a man, who was so exceptional in all of his life and who left such a strong impression on his environment. He was a person with an outstanding intelligence; however, he never exposed this to others. With a proverbial simplicity he was accessible to anybody, also to cleaning lady whose work he valued and respected as anybody else's. He had a noble-minded relation to all people he met in his life. He was unselfish, he believed people and trusted them. He liked to help his co-workers in critical situations. With honest people he was correct and encouraged them and supported them constantly. He was very pleased with every success of his fellow workers. Colleagues and co-workers from the faculty, scientists whom he was meeting all over the world, were therefore his sincere friends. He was an extremely warm and affectionate personality. His endless honesty was sometimes on the verge of naivety. He was a good man.

As a teacher he was among those professors who confided in students and trusted them. He encouraged students and respected them, he appreciated their own ideas. He acquainted them with biocybernetics, which underlines the engineering approach to biological systems. He was all the time discovering new fields still in their early stages and passing his enthusiasm to students. It was an exceptional honor for his students when they could cooperate with him in a research work in his laboratory, gradually becoming members of his team, as the criteria for this were very severe. Such students were chosen with a special visionary feeling.

He was a very exacting mentor, accurate, consistent and strict, especially to his closer fellow workers. He educated several generations of his successors who will always be grateful to him for his great contribution as a teacher, scientist and exceptional human being.

The scientific research work of Professor Lojze Vodovnik is rich and exceptionally diverse. Besides the basic electrotechnical field, it reaches to several other fields, also border domains, of science. On his scientific research path, he never avoided challenges originating either from engineers, medical doctors or everyday life. On this path, several coincidences happened which decisively influenced the future development of the young engineer of electrotechnical sciences with an extraordinary intellectual potential and ardent desire to discover new horizons. His basic desire to be creative in the field of medical electronics, for which reason he became employed in the company Elektromedicina, was left behind for many years by being appointed university teaching assistant in 1959. However, it was never been suppressed. His postgraduate studies, including the master’s and doctor's degree under the mentorship of Professor Aleš Strojnik, a scientist with international renown, were namely all accomplished in the field of electron microscopy. In spite of the circumstance that, at the time, this field culminated exactly in Ljubljana, it did not present suitable conditions for the fulfillment of his ambitions. For his further development, the contacts with Professor Rajko Tomović from the Belgrade Electrotechnical Faculty were of paramount importance. Professor Tomović also arranged a meeting with the “father” of cybernetics, Professor Wiener, and Professor Reswick in Opatia in 1962. An invitation to the Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland was a unique chance to realize his scientific ambitions. The time he spent there is most probably one of his highly creative scientific periods. At that time, he set, together with Professor Reswick and co-workers, theoretical bases for the functional electrical stimulation and designed in detail the phases of operation denominated as electronic bypass. He sincerely hoped that, by means of the new rehabilitation method, it would be possible to restore the original function of the paralyzed limbs to a high degree. After his return to Ljubljana, he set with great enthusiasm the basis for the Ljubljana rehabilitation research program, which later on grew into the Ljubljana Rehabilitation Engineering Center with a marked financial support of the U.S. Ministry for Health. At the time, this was one of two foreign projects and, later on, the only project outside the United States supported by said U.S. government institution. The basic aim thereof was to embody technologically the rich ideas of Professor Vodovnik. Besides his scientific ingenuity, he had an exceptional gift to gather the right people around himself and to highly them motivate. He succeeded in establishing a genuine relationship between different professional profiles, such as medical doctors, biologists, physiotherapists, medical nurses, engineers and other people. Such cooperation was considered to serve as an example for other centers of this type in the United States. He was conscious that a success of such a complex program depended on highly coordinated teamwork. Further developments wholly confirmed such vision, and today the team approach in medicine and elsewhere seems to be self-evident. The model operation of the Ljubljana Rehabilitation Engineering Center was one of the significant reasons for which the U.S. Ministry for Health co-financed its program for four project intervals until 1987.

An immense inner force was driving Professor Vodovnik to new research fields. As early as in 1967, he tried to penetrate as many secrets of life as possible and understand them from self-organization of living organisms to information processing in the central nervous system. Only in this way is it possible to understand that, in the course of the second project interval, he transferred the field of classical functional electrical stimulation that he himself initiated, to his fellow workers, numerous already, whereas he himself entered the research of therapeutical effects of electrical stimulation on voluntary control and spasticity. Opening new research areas became a continuing orientation that directed all of his further deliberations and research work until his retirement. In his desire to help the patients with locomotion disabilities, he fervently studied the possibilities of using hypnosis for improving gait patterns at hemiparetic patients, not without theoretical basis, as he knew a lot about information processing in the brain. Although this research yielded good results, witness whereof are articles in valued scientific journals, it was prematurely stopped because of reproaches that he tackled border sciences.

He discovered a new research field immediately. He believed in positive effects of electrical stimulation of different kinds without restraint. He therefore started to fight the grave medical problem – healing bedsore and chronic wounds by means of electrical stimulation. He was very well acquainted with the influence of the immune system on the process of healing; therefore, he chose it as a research objective. The first results of this research attracted the attention of the U.S. Ministry for Health and of the European Union so that these two institutions co-financed further research. As at that time financing of the Rehabilitation Engineering Center in Ljubljana was cut off, the above funds were could replace the loss so that comprehensive evaluations study of the control hospitals in several cities in the former Yugoslavia could be carried out. A new therapeutical approach was created by which a wound, in several cases, healed much faster than in cases when treated by classical methods. Often, a dangerous and expensive surgical intervention could thus be avoided. Although the basic project has long been concluded, the research is still being carried out, yet to a minor extent, so that an important web basis for designing and prognosing the healing of chronic wounds is being created.

It is a paradox that, on the one hand the electric current stimulates the growth of healthy cell and tissue and that, on the other hand, it hinders the growth of cancerous tissue. This problem was the last one, which he was able to approach, but he had an explanation and model conception also for this phenomenon. In the last years of his creative work, idea of an overall influence of electric currents on living organisms was growing in his mind. He named the phenomena, triggered in living organisms by electric currents or electric fields, with a common term “cell and tissue electrotechnics”. For this reason, Professor Vodovnik was not only “the father” of functional electrical stimulation, but also the founder of a much wider field of cell electrotechnics which, after he passed away, has successfully developed and has its peak exactly in Ljubljana, which is recognized worldwide.

The exceptional success of scientific research work of Professor Vodovnik was confirmed with awards which he received in his life. As early as 1964, he was awarded the prize of ETAN for the best article within the board for medical electronics. He received twice the award of the foundation Sklad Borisa Kindriča (the main Slovenian government award for scientist and artists), for the first time in 1971 and for the second time in 1986. In 1974, he was awarded a medal of thanks of the company Elektromedicina for long-year cooperation in their development program. In 1978, he was awarded with a medal of gratitude of the institution ETAN. He received a medal from the Institute for the Rehabilitation of the Disabled on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the establishment of the Institute in 1980. In the same year, he was also rewarded with an order of labor with golden wreath. In 1984, he received a medal of IEEE on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of its existence. The award Vidmarjeva nagrada as acknowledgement for his pedagogic work was granted to him in 1987. The same year, he also received the award of AVNOJ; the order of labor with red flag was granted to him in 1990. In 1992 he was elected fellow member of IEEE. In 1995 he received an award of the Republic of Slovenia for outstanding achievements in science.

People with whom he worked, without doubt contributed to the diversity of fields which he detected in his rich life because working with him was very simple; he practically allowed complete freedom of research. He has also allowed such freedom to himself so that he was dealing with problems which seemed to be interesting and which molested patients and people in general. He sincerely tried to find solutions applicable to medical doctors and which some time will offer help or already have helped to improve the health of man and the quality of life. Such vision and the desire to aid the human beings were the basis of all of his work and touched all of us in his vicinity sooner or later.

Lojze Vodovnik died 14 June 2000.

Damijan Miklavčič
Stanislav Reberšek
Alojz Kralj

 

A book to rember Dr. Vodovniks work

 

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