Latter-day Saint goes from small-town Idaho farm boy to engineering pioneer
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Despite his extensive list of accomplishments, Wayne Quinton describes himself simply. "I love to design and build things, that's who I am." He adds with a laugh, "The nice part is that I'm good at it."
For the man who is considered by many as the father of the bioengineering field, his description is modest. Brother Quinton, a Mormon Church member of the Shoreline Ward, Seattle Washington Shoreline Stake, has a substantial inventory of life-saving medical devices to his name including the lightweight treadmill (yes, the one we run on).
As the foreman of the University of Washington's medical instrument shop for 10 years, Brother Quinton effectively married the field of medicine with the field of engineering. He designed and collaborated with physicians on more than 40 devices. His unlikely transformation from a small-town farm boy to engineering pioneer was spurred by his constant pursuit of knowledge.
"I was not afraid to ask 'Why?' " he said. "And I was never afraid to do something difficult."
Brother Quinton's childhood on a small farm in Rigby, Idaho, nurtured his natural mechanical prowess. As the only child of Depression-era farmers, he was his father's prime helper. "Early on I was doing things most kids couldn't," he said. "I was good at keeping things repaired."
Despite growing up in a predominantly Latter-day Saint community, he was not reared in a religious home and did not have a positive impression of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or of religion in general. His uncle, Ebenezer Hanks, was a Presbyterian minister in Rigby and was antagonistic to the Church. "I used to tell him, 'Uncle Ebenezer, you are more against the Mormons than you are for the Presbyterians,'" he said.
Brother Quinton also recalled an incident growing up when his father discovered that a neighbor was resetting the head gate to water his own field instead of theirs every time he came block (home) teaching. As a result, Wayne Quinton had "absolutely no interest in religion growing up. I had a problem with the concept of God."
Although not religious, his parents were honest, good people. Brother Quinton described his father as skillful. "Dad called himself a 'Jack-of-all-trades and a master of none.' He never tackled anything he couldn't finish. He taught me not to be afraid of failure."
Brother Quinton's mother was a hard worker and savvy businesswoman. She opened and ran a dry cleaning business when Brother Quinton's father was bedridden after a heart attack. "Mom and I had a good relationship," Brother Quinton said. "We worked together and relied on each other."
It was his mother who encouraged and supported him in pursuing an education. He spent one year at Ricks College (now BYU-Idaho) studying physics and advanced math before transferring to Montana State University. After college he found there were very few jobs available and signed on as a draftsman for Boeing two weeks before the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.
He returned to Rigby in 1948 but soon learned that "dry cleaning wasn't for me." He helped his mother sell the business before moving to Seattle, Wash., to pursue a doctorate in physics. Because he couldn't qualify for in-state tuition, he decided to work for two years and was hired by the University of Washington as an electronics technician. Two years later he was hired as the foreman of the university's medical school instrument shop where he worked closely with physicians to design medical devices.
"It was fun," he said. "My job was to build anything they couldn't buy. Physicians would come to me with a problem and ask, 'What can you do to help us?'"
For example, Brother Quinton recalled when a gastroenterologist friend came to him and said that there was 20 feet of ileum in the small intestine that could not be biopsied without surgery. Brother Quinton then worked with him to develop a hydraulic gastrointestinal biopsy instrument that could be threaded down the stomach and into the ileum, allowing doctors to take several biopsies without any deterioration of the specimen. "It solved a lot of disease problems."
Among the other devices he designed are the lightweight treadmill originally used by cardiologists to diagnose cardiac disease, an oxygenator that enabled open-heart surgery, and a shunt that allowed for repeated kidney dialysis procedures on an individual.
Brother Quinton said, "It was exciting; I thoroughly enjoyed everything I was doing. I had the opportunity to associate with some of the most brilliant minds in the world, and that was fun."
During his tenure at the university, Brother Quinton developed a friendship with an LDS doctor, Roger Brown, who invited him every Thursday afternoon to meet for a religious discussion. In those meetings, Brother Quinton became acquainted with the idea of Joseph Smith ushering in a new dispensation.
"I thought, 'If Joseph Smith was telling the truth when the Lord told him this was a new dispensation, there should be physical evidence in the world to support it.' "
Brother Quinton then put his engineering mind to work and began to study the use of fossil fuel to replace the use of glucose, or manual labor. He found that at the time of Joseph Smith the use of fossil fuels began to supplant the use of glucose. Because of his research, Brother Quinton thought, "I ought to look more closely at this [church]." In time, he developed a testimony that Joseph Smith was telling the truth and was baptized in 1956 at the age of 35 by Dr. Brown. Since then, he said, he's never wavered in his testimony.
Eventually Brother Quinton took the gadgets the university decided not to manufacture and started his own company — Quinton Instruments — in his basement. He sold the company in 1984 and now, at the age of 89, spends his days with his wife, Jeanne, and their family. Most recently he was awarded the University of Washington's 2009 Alumnus Summa Laude Dignatus, the highest honor the university can bestow for a lifetime record of achievement.
"There's no question the Church has added to my life," he said. "It's a great way to live. I know if you live in accordance with the principles of the gospel you can't go wrong. You'll be happier; you'll be more profitable; you'll be more comfortable with yourself and your family; and you can anticipate eternal life."