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Duke Biomedical Engineering chairman and OCT pioneer Joseph Izatt passes away


Joseph Izatt was a skilled researcher and inventor who played a foundational role in the development of optical coherence tomography.

Joseph Izatt

Joseph Izatt

Joseph Izatt, the Michael J. Fitzpatrick Professor of Engineering and chair of Duke’s Department of Biomedical Engineering (BME), passed away on Sunday, April 7 at the age of 61.

As a researcher and inventor, Izatt was instrumental in the development of optical coherence tomography (OCT). The imaging technique uses optical interferometry scan through layers of soft tissue, including the retina and the back of the eye to obtain highly detailed images that guide diagnosis and treatment decisions by ophthalmologists.

Izatt had a lifelong passion for science that he inherited from his father and he started to work with lasers while still in high school. After graduating, he attended Massachusetts Institute of Technology, earning a bachelor’s degree in physics in 1986, followed by a doctorate in applied radiation physics in 1991. Following 2 years of postdoctoral training, he was a professor of Biomedical Engineering at Case Western University in Cleveland, Ohio, before moving to Duke University in 2001.

During his tenure as chair of Duke BME, he championed the successes of all within the community and worked with faculty, staff and students to ensure the department supported their goals.

In a Duke University news release, Pratt School Dean Jerome Lynch celebrated Izatt’s career and leadership.1

“He was an exceptionally thoughtful leader who weighed every decision with a care that originated with his deep love for the BME community,” he said in the statement. “The integrity and humility he brought as a school leader will be missed.”

According to the news release, Izatt collaborated with Cynthia Toth, MD, a medical doctor and Duke professor of ophthalmology, to bring this research directly to patients. According to the Duke news release, the pair worked to improve the accuracy of examination and surgery of the eye led to handheld OCT systems for infants and the first intraoperative OCT-guided system for surgery.

Izatt advised and collaborated with talented students and staff in his Biophotonics Group to advance OCT technology. Together, they developed new methods to improve non-invasive medical diagnostics, in vivo tomographic microscopy, and real-time image-guided robotic surgery. The lab’s expertise in OCT technology has also allowed them to expand their reach beyond the realm of biomedical imaging to other endeavors, such as investigating how OCT could help autonomous robots and vehicles to see better.1

In recognition of his scientific achievements, Izatt was named a fellow of the National Academy of Inventors and the American Institute for Biomedical and Biological Engineering and received the Edwin H. Land Medal in 2021.2

While at Duke, Izatt was recognized for his leadership and mentorship, and he received the Pratt School’s Capers and Marion McDonald Award for Excellence in Mentoring and Advising in 2008 and the Graduate School Dean’s Award for Excellence in Mentoring in 2017. He also helped shape the direction of the wider university, serving as chair for both the Pratt 2039 organizational visioning exercise and the Search Committee for Duke’s Vice President for Research and Innovation.1

In 2022, Izatt was named chairman of Duke BME in 2022, providing his support to the department’s trajectory of success by recruiting outstanding new research and teaching faculty. He also worked with the BME Strategic Visioning Committee to ensure that the department continues to educate ethical, well-rounded engineers who can guide and transform the future of the biomedical engineering field.1

Lynch noted in the university’s news release that Izatt’s passing is a loss for the academic community that he supported throughout his career, and his impact will continue to be felt.

“The loss of Professor Izatt leaves us and the Pratt community with a profound sense of sorrow as his dedication to his family, students, faculty and staff were the hallmarks of who he was as a person,” Lynch said in the statement. “I am especially saddened to have lost a school leader who proudly led with his heart and who cared so deeply for the members of the BME and Pratt community.”

Izatt was dedicated to scientific endeavors and was involved in Science Olympiad competitions, athletic and musical performances as his children grew up. He instilled that love of science in his children, who all now work in STEM fields.

Izatt also had a passion for flying and shared that love with his family. As his children grew, they would fly remote control airplanes and rockets. In 2016, he earned his private pilot’s license and would often take trips with his family.2

Izatt is survived by his wife, Susan, and their children Elizabeth, Gregory (Hannah), and Daniel; his mother, MaryAnn Izatt; a sister, Nancy Bemis (Greg); and two brothers, Jim (MaryAnn), and Richard (Carole). He was preceded in death by his father, Jerald Izatt, and his sister, Peggy.2

  1. Biomedical Engineering Chair Joseph Izatt Dies | Duke Today. today.duke.edu. Accessed April 29, 2024. https://today.duke.edu/2024/04/updated-memorial-fund-information-biomedical-engineering-chair-joseph-izatt-dies
  2. Joseph Izatt Obituary (1962 - 2024) - Durham, NC. Legacy.com. Accessed April 29, 2024. https://www.legacy.com/us/obituaries/name/joseph-izatt-obituary?id=54845474
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