Metro

Melvin Glimcher, 88; doctor fascinated by bones’ structure

Dr. Melvin J. Glimcher helped develop the “Boston Arm” prosthesis.
Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard
Dr. Melvin J. Glimcher helped develop the “Boston Arm” prosthesis.

Trained in mechanical engineering and physics before he headed to medical school, Dr. Melvin J. Glimcher became fascinated by the elegance of bone composition and spent more than 50 years conducting research that in some instances upended previous theories in his field.

“Orthopedics in the future will not be simply surgery, or medicine,” he told the Globe in 1966, “but a combination of both plus knowledge of the whole area of skeletal structure, its biology, chemistry, and biomechanics.”

Studies he conducted led to a more precise understanding about how bones and teeth develop and about the mechanics of walking and running. He also was a leading developer of what was introduced in 1968 as the “Boston Arm”: an artificial limb that responded to commands from the brain.

Advertisement

“He was a father of the bone field,” said Dr. Henry Kronenberg, who had worked with Dr. Glimcher at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Get Metro Headlines in your inbox:
The 10 top local news stories from metro Boston and around New England delivered daily.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

A professor emeritus at Harvard Medical School, and a former chief of orthopedic surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital and Boston Children’s Hospital, he died May 12 in his New York City home. Dr. Glimcher, whose health had been failing, was 88 and previously lived in Brookline for many years.

“Nature has evolved this magnificent substance,” he said in a 1988 The New York Times interview, describing his admiration for bones. “It has mechanical properties just beautifully designed to do the job, to carry you around.”

Among his notable early research findings was that collagen, a long chain protein, is organized in bones in such a way that it provided places for the calcification that is an important step in how bones harden.

Then in the late 1960s, in collaboration with other researchers while working as a consultant at Liberty Mutual Insurance Co., he helped create the “Boston Arm.” When the artificial limb was unveiled to the public in September 1968, Dr. Glimcher said a good way to understand how it worked was to consider the interaction between two computers: the brain, which was “the greatest computer of them all,” and electronic equipment in the arm.

Advertisement

Dr. Glimcher, who formerly was a professor of orthopedic surgery at Harvard Medical School and had directed the Boston Children’s Hospital laboratory for the study of skeletal disorders and rehabilitation, “cared a lot about bringing people into the bone field,” Kronenberg said.

Kronenberg recalled an occasion when he was a younger scientist and gave a presentation. Afterward, Dr. Glimcher showered him with praise.

“That was his modus operandi: He was very supportive of young people in the sciences,” Kronenberg said. “That’s the part of him not everybody knows about.”

One of the young scientists he encouraged was his daughter Dr. Laurie Glimcher of New York City. Each went to Harvard Medical School, and each became a tenured professor at Harvard at 39. She is now dean of Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City.

“He was a very inventive scientist and a brilliant man,” she said.

Advertisement

She credited her father with endless hours of impromptu instruction, and said he also helped care for her children during the toughest days of medical training.

“I was the fastest diaperer in the East,” he told the Harvard Gazette in 2006.

Born in Brookline, Dr. Glimcher grew up in Chelsea and was a night sports reporter for the Chelsea Record while attending Chelsea High School.

During World War II, he tried to join the Marines at age 17, but his mother tracked him down at the recruiting office. In 2006, he recalled in a Globe interview that he tried to talk his way out of that uncomfortable moment by telling a Marine sergeant: “I’ve never seen this woman in my life.”

During college, he got a chance to serve in the Marine Corps. He initially attended Duke University but graduated from Purdue University with bachelor’s degrees in mechanical engineering and in physics. He went on to graduate in 1950 from Harvard Medical School, where he won the Soma Weiss Award for research, which his daughter won 26 years later.

He completed a surgical internship at University of Rochester’s Strong Memorial Hospital and a residency at Massachusetts General Hospital, but he thought there were many unanswered questions in his field that required more training. In the mid-1950s, he became a postdoctoral fellow in biophysics and biophysical chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In 1966, at 39, he became the first to hold a tenured orthopedic surgery chair at Harvard when he was named the Edith M. Ashley professor of orthopedic surgery at the medical school. In 1988, he was the first to receive the Bristol-Myers/Zimmer Award for distinguished achievement in orthopedic research.

Kronenberg said Dr. Glimcher “brought very rigorous chemistry and rigorous thinking” to his work and research.

“He was a very rigorous man,” Kronenberg said. “He was a great leader that people admired. He was always honest in telling people what he thought. That’s very useful in a scientist.”

When longtime family friend Hank Bell, a professor emeritus at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, fell ill, Dr. Glimcher took three days off to bring him back to health. “That was typical of Mel,” Bell said.

During summers on Martha’s Vineyard, his skills as a physician were often called upon informally, but his culinary skills, particularly his striped bass recipe, were also well-known.

Dr. Glimcher’s marriage to Geraldine Lee Bogolub, the mother of his three daughters, ended in divorce. She died in 2010. His marriage to Karin Wetmore also ended in divorce.

In addition to his daughter, Dr. Glimcher leaves two other daughters, Susan of Princeton, N.J., and Nancy of Coral Gables, Fla.; six grandchildren; and a great-grandson.

A service will be announced. Burial was in Sharon Memorial Park in Sharon.

Decades after being treated by Dr. Glimcher, patients would write to thank him for solving, or at least improving, their bone problems.

His students, meanwhile, often remarked he was skilled at explaining sophisticated concepts in a way that was easy to understand, and many noted that he was a perfectionist.

“I think one of his greatest pleasures in life was helping people,” his daughter Susan said. “And a lot of the responses we got from our friends and from colleagues was, ‘He helped me so much when I needed it.’ ”

Dr. Glimcher also used every opportunity to offer lessons around the house.

“Our entire life was one fun science experiment,” Susan said.

Emma Stickgold can be reached at estickgoldobits@gmail.com.