The cardiothoracic surgeon who co-invented the flexible Dobhoff narrow bore feeding tube -- and refused to patent the invention so its benefits could be spread more rapidly -- has died at the age of 80.
Robert Dobbie, M.D., of Lincolnshire, Ill., a Chicago suburb, died Oct. 26 of emphysema and pneumonia at Condell Medical Center, Libertyville, Ill.
Dobbie had left the Navy after 23 years and joined the surgical faculty at the University of Tennessee's College of Medicine, where, in the 1970s, he and James Hoffmeister III, M.D., then a resident, worked on the tube that bears their names.
Hoffmeister is now a general surgeon at a rural hospital in Newport, Wash.
"I went to a nutritional conference on Friday, just a little thing in Spokane, and the Dobhoff thing came up," Hoffmeister said. "Just about everybody in healthcare has heard of it. What a wonderful legacy."
Hoffmeister recalls fondly that Dobbie, as an attending at Regional Medical Center in Memphis, Tenn., was an oasis of tranquility.
"In the world that I lived in, which was made up of inner-city trauma cases, he was really laid back, and that was probably because of his Navy career," Hoffmeister said. "So he was kind of odd because of how relaxed he was. And he was a thinker, he was coming up with all these ideas and saying, 'Jim, what do you think about this?' He was definitely more of an introspective type of person."
Dobbie had a grant from a manufacturer of a liquid food product to develop a new delivery mechanism. The idea was to bypass the stomach and reach the small intestine, thereby reducing the risk to chemotherapy and heart patients of vomiting and aspiration, Hoffmeister said.
"We were trying to figure out what type of tubes to use," he said. "All the types we had were hard, natural red rubber. The technology hadn't changed in 50 years."
"We bought polyethylene tubes in large rolls," he said. The pair experimented with different types of weights tied to the end of the tube to allow the gastrointestinal tract to pull the tube into the small intestine.
Dobbie eventually found a manufacturer that created a small cylinder filled with stainless steel shot. Dobbie took that prototype to a manufacturer, which perfected and marketed it, Hoffmeister said.
"We completed our work in 1975," Hoffmeister said. "The idea was mostly his, and he was very gracious to attach my name to it, because I did most of the footwork on it, as residents do."
Hoffmeister recalled that Dobbie "never talked dollars and cents" about the money that might be made from the invention.
Dobbie's wife, Barbara, recalls her husband purposefully decided not to seek a patent on the device.
"He said he didn't want to hold it back," she said. "He wanted as many people as possible in the world to benefit from it.
"We didn't need it," she said, when asked about the royalties her husband gave up, "not as much as people needed their lives."
Dobbie was born in into a medical family in Buffalo, N.Y., where his father was chairman of the department of surgery at the University of Buffalo's medical school.
He graduated cum laude from medical school at the University of Michigan in 1946. During his residency at University Hospital in Ann Arbor, Mich., Barbara, then a nurse, said she saw a "tall handsome man carrying six IV bottles on a tray upright like waiters do. I thought, 'Gee, how do I get to that guy?' "
Then Dobbie asked her out.
"We never went out with anyone else after that," she said. "We were married 55 years."
While at Michigan, Dobbie joined the U.S. Naval Reserve. He rejoined the Navy in 1948 and served in the Korean War as senior medical officer of a surgical team.
Dobbie returned to Ann Arbor, completing his surgical residency in 1953. He was certified by the American Board of Surgery that same year, and then returned to the Navy to serve out the remainder of his military commitment, initially stationed in Athens, Greece, as the senior medical officer of a joint military hospital wing.
Dobbie returned to the U.S. in 1956 as a member of the surgical teaching staff at the National Naval Medical Center, Bethesda, Md., then completed his cardiothoracic surgical training at Presbyterian Hospital, Philadelphia, where he began working on the design of a heart pump for which he received a patent.
He also served as chief of surgery and executive officer of the naval hospital in Memphis, Tenn., and as chief of surgery and executive officer at the naval teaching hospital in Oakland, Calif.
Dobbie retired from the Navy as a captain in 1969. Because of his rank, "the only job they would give him was in administration," which he thought would be a waste of his skills and training as a surgeon, his wife said.
Dobbie left Tennessee in 1979 to join medical manufacturer Baxter Travenol Laboratories, now Baxter International, of Deerfield, Ill., as an associate medical director. He became medical director of the medical products division in 1980, and was medical director of clinical nutrition products for Nestle.
In addition to his wife, Dobbie is survived by a daughter, Sallie Burroughs; a son, Scott; a sister, Ann Kuhr; and four grandchildren. Funeral services were held in Wheeling, Ill.