Dr. Homer Hartman Stryker: Inventor, Orthopaedic Surgeon & Businessman
November 4, 1894 – May 5, 1980
Dr. Homer Stryker was an orthopaedic surgeon, inventor, and businessman, best known for his inventions which revolutionized orthopedic care, bringing comfort to patients and convenience to doctors and hospital staff.
Dr. Stryker's best known inventions include the Wedge Turning Frame, the Circ-O-Lectric Bed, the Walking Heel and the Cast Cutter. The Wedge Turning Frame was an important medical breakthrough used to treat patients who were immobilized during extended hospital stays and often developed blood clots and skin problems. It allowed medical personnel to quickly and easily turn their patients to help prevent some of those blood clots and skin problems. The 1937 Wedge Turning Frame invention was the basis for Dr. Stryker's masterpiece developed in the 1950's, the Circ-O-Lectric Bed, which is still in use at some hospitals today.
The Walking Heel for walking casts was made of rubber, thus was much lighter than the cast iron heels of the time, so the patient's mobility was better. The Cast Cutter was designed to alleviate the cumbersome task of removing a cast. It used an oscillating saw to cut through the hard material of a cast, but did not cut soft tissue or injure the patient's skin in the process. The evolution of these products is a testimony to Dr. Stryker's approach to innovation – after he invented a product, he would continue to improve it. More than seventy years later, Stryker Corporation still sells the Cast Cutter, with continual improvements in performance and design over time. Homer Hartman Stryker was born in Wakeshma Township on November 4, 1894 and graduated from Athens High School (Athens, Michigan) in 1913. He attended Western State Normal College (now Western Michigan University), graduating in 1916. After teaching in a one-room schoolhouse in the Keweenaw Bay school system in the Upper Peninsula, he enlisted in the U. S. Army and served in France during World War I.
When Stryker returned to the U.S., he realized that although he loved the teaching profession, he also had a strong desire to work with his hands. He talked with a family friend, who practiced as a physician in Kalamazoo. This man quickly realized that this bright, eager young man would be a good fit as a medical student. With his recommendation, Stryker was accepted into the University of Michigan medical school in 1919. However, he was required to pass a foreign language exam before beginning medical school, and he was not fluent enough in any foreign language to pass. Stryker connected with Mary Jane Underwood, also an Athens High School graduate. Valedictorian of her class and the first female Athens High School graduate to attend college, she taught German and French in Belding, Michigan after graduating from Northwestern University in 1916. She tutored Stryker, and he quickly picked up enough French to pass the medical school entrance exam.
Stryker needed additional money to attend medical school, so he taught school in Grand Ledge, Michigan, coached football, basketball and baseball, worked as a barber, and pitched for the Grand Ledge semi-pro baseball team. With the funds saved from two years of work, Stryker entered medical school at the University of Michigan in 1921. In addition to his studies, Stryker was the starting pitcher for the University of Michigan baseball team, and led them to a Big 10 title.
Homer married Mary Jane Underwood, his former tutor, in 1924 in Marshall, Michigan. In 1925, Stryker graduated from the University of Michigan medical school, then interned at University Hospital in Ann Arbor for three years. After moving to Alma, Michigan and working briefly at a small private hospital, they moved to Kalamazoo in 1928. He opened a general practice on the second floor of the State Theater building in downtown Kalamazoo. Dr. Stryker served as the Kalamazoo County physician in 1929 and 1930 and practiced general medicine until 1936, when he returned to University Hospital in Ann Arbor to do a residency in orthopedic surgery. During his residency, he began working on ways to improve traditional procedures for moving immobile patients, and for making patients more comfortable. Upon completion of the program in 1939, they returned to Kalamazoo.
Dr. Stryker went to work at Borgess Hospital as the only certified orthopaedic surgeon in the region. He had an office on the second floor and a workshop in the basement. It was in this workshop that he began to manufacture and sell some of his inventions. During World War II, his Wedge Turning Frame was sought after by the U.S. Army, so orders increased. Dr. Stryker hired two part time workers and began producing Wedge Turning Frames and Walking Heels. His wife Mary Jane sewed canvas strings for the turning frames.
For a time during World War II, Dr. Stryker turned to the Kalamazoo Toy and Sled Company for help in manufacturing his frames. The company had been virtually shut down because of a lack of raw materials during the war, so they agreed to manufacture Dr. Stryker's frames. In 1946, Dr. Stryker formed the Orthopaedic Frame Company, Inc. By 1949, he had moved the company's headquarters to Alcott Street in Kalamazoo. The company's goal continued to be helping patients lead healthier, more active lives through products and services that made surgery and recovery simpler, faster and more effective.
During the 1950s, Dr. Stryker worked on what was arguably his most famous invention - the Circ-O-Lectric Hospital Bed. An electric motor turned a bed, suspended between two wheels, to a vertical or horizontal position, as well as many positions in between. The device could be operated by thepatient or a nurse. Like the Wedge Turning Frame, this reduced the amount of time and effort required by staff to physically move patients. Patients liked the bed because it was more comfortable, and they could operate it themselves.
In 1955, Dr. Stryker's son Lee joined the company as general manager, and in 1958, sales hit $1 million. In 1964, Dr. Stryker retired from his medical practice and changed the name of the company to Stryker Corporation. In 1969, Lee became president and chief operating officer. He served in that position until 1976, when he and his wife and two companions perished in a tragic plane crash while on vacation in Wyoming. His children, Ronda, Patricia and Jon, were not on the plane and survived. Lee had helped boost the company to 280 employees and nearly $10 million in sales by the time of his death. In 1977, John W. Brown was named President and CEO. Under Brown's leadership, revenue grew to almost $4.3 billion in 2004, the company became a member of the FORTUNE 500, and Stryker received multiple accolades as one of the best performing medical technology companies.
Dr. Stryker died on May 5, 1980 at Borgess Hospital in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He was 85 years old. Dr. Stryker received many honors and awards for his contributions to orthopaedic medicine. In 1968, he was awarded the Presidential Citation for Meritorious Service from the President's Commission on Employment of the Handicapped. In 1970, he was honored with the Distinguished Alumni Award from the Western Michigan University Alumni Association. Borgess Hospital named its new orthopedic department after him in 1972. Three years later, Borgess named its renovated nursing school building the Stryker Center. The Center was renovated again in 2005 and is now a 140,000 square foot outpatient center. In 1978, he was given the "Service to Mankind Award" by the Kalamazoo Sertoma Club.
Today, Stryker Corporation is a global company and its headquarters remain in Kalamazoo. In 2013, the company reported over $9 billion in sales and over 25,000 employees around the world. Stryker is ranked #305 on the FORTUNE 500 list and offers a diverse array of innovative medical technologies, including reconstructive, medical and surgical, and neurotechnology and spine products to help people lead more active and more satisfying lives. Stryker products and services are available in over 100 countries around the world.
"It's a poor workman that blames his tools. If they don't work, make them work. If you can't make them work, make some that do work." – Dr. Homer Stryker