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Andrew Dibner, former BU professor who pioneered the medical alert device field, dies at 93

In addition to inventing the Lifeline system, Dr. Dibner was among the so-called BU Five — faculty members who refused to cross picket lines set up by striking clerical and technical workers in 1979.
In addition to inventing the Lifeline system, Dr. Dibner was among the so-called BU Five — faculty members who refused to cross picket lines set up by striking clerical and technical workers in 1979.(Boston Globe File/2005)

Andrew Dibner was shaving one day in the early 1970s when he had a moment of inspiration that would save countless lives. If someone who is disabled or elderly falls, he wondered, what if some technology could summon emergency assistance, even if a phone were out of reach?

He was a psychologist and a Boston University psychology professor at the time, and it took a few years for his inspiration to become an invention — and ultimately a ubiquitous phenomenon.

The medical alert system he pioneered with his wife, Susan Schmidt Dibner, and the Lifeline Systems company they cofounded to market the device, led the way for other manufacturers to enter what is now the field of personal emergency response systems. At the outset, however, persuading investors was difficult.

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“We had no money,” Dr. Dibner told the Globe in 1988. “I found an unemployed engineer who built the first model, then a small manufacturer who made burglar alarm equipment. It was hard to get venture capital.”

Dr. Dibner, whose inspiration created a segment in the health care industry, died July 6 in a memory care facility in Peoria, Ariz. He was 93. His daughter Dr. Robin Dibner told The New York Times the cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease.

He and his wife, Susan, a sociologist who died in 1988, were partners in Lifeline Systems Inc. The system they devised provided at-risk people with transmitters that are worn as pendants or bracelets. Someone who is immobilized by a fall or an illness can press a button on the transmitter, which sends a signal to a console linked to a home telephone, which in turn automatically dials a central monitoring station.

Once the connection is made, an operator can assess the situation, possibly by speaking to the person through the console’s speakerphone and then calling for help from a designated neighbor or relative or, ultimately, an ambulance.

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The Dibners believed the device would offer comfort and reassurance to people who might otherwise have to live in nursing homes or who felt vulnerable after being discharged quickly from a hospital.

“Even if they didn’t use this,” Dr. Dibner told the Times in 1984, “people will have the psychological assurance that they’re not alone.”

Reassuring those in medical need had been on his mind since he was young.

As a boy, Dr. Dibner had often turned to his grandmother for encouragement, he recalled in a 1988 interview with Jean Dietz, the Globe’s Senior Set columnist. When he was 12, he awoke one night to find his grandmother in the hall. She was having a heart attack and clutching her chest.

Subsequently, he added, an older family friend had a stroke while living alone. Four days passed before she was discovered by a neighbor. The family friend was still alive, but too much time had elapsed for successful treatment. “She died within six months in a nursing home,” he told the Times.

In a 1983 Globe interview, he described Lifeline Systems as initially a “mom and pop” operation that the couple launched with a $12,000 stake.

For their accomplishments in health and education, the Dibners were among recipients of the Charles A. Dana Foundation’s “pioneering achievements” award in 1986. They received $10,000.

Andrew Sherman Dibner was born on May 30, 1926, in Brooklyn, N.Y., to Harry Dibner and Masha Goldberg, immigrants from Russia. His father sold insurance, and his mother was a seamstress.

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After serving stateside in the Army during World War II, Dr. Dibner enrolled at Brooklyn College. He did not do well in engineering courses and, guided by an aptitude test, shifted to psychology. After receiving a bachelor’s degree, he attended the University of Michigan, where he graduated with a master’s and a doctorate in psychology.

He moved between teaching and clinical work for a decade before settling at Boston University in 1964 as a psychology professor. He was a founder of the school’s gerontology center.

An engineer built the first Lifeline prototype. But 25 venture capital firms turned down the Dibners for financing. “They liked the idea,” Dr. Dibner told The Wisconsin State Journal in 1983. “They didn’t trust us as managers.”

After they brought in an experienced businessman as the company’s chairman, venture capital money came in.

Initially, Lifeline’s target customers were not users but institutions such as hospitals, nursing homes, and health care agencies, which would buy monitoring stations and charge fees to individuals who wanted the service. The business model was eventually augmented to include selling directly to consumers.

Dr. Dibner continued to teach at Boston University until the mid-1980s.

He also was among the so-called BU Five — faculty members who refused to cross picket lines set up by striking clerical and technical workers in 1979. Instead, they held classes on lawns or off-campus sites.

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Then-BU president John R. Silber and the university’s administration announced their intent to fire or suspend the five faculty members. In November 1979, Silber said that the five — who included Howard Zinn and Caryl Rivers — could avoid disciplinary action if they submitted written apologies. All refused. A few months later, BU decided not to seek sanctions against them.

Lifeline went public in 1983, and Dr. Dibner remained with the company until retiring in 1990. In 2006, when Lifeline had more than $100 million in annual revenues, 470,000 individual subscribers, and business relationships with many health care organizations, it was acquired by Royal Philips Electronics for $690 million.

The company, now called Philips Lifeline and based in Framingham, says it is the leading medical-alert service in the United States.

Dr. Dibner’s invention has evolved since his retirement to include modern twists such as a technology that can detect falls and send help even if the person can’t push the transmitter.

In addition to his daughter Robin, a rheumatologist, Dr. Dibner leaves his wife, Jean Proulx Dibner; his son, Steven; two other daughters, Nina Dibner and Lora Dibner Garcia; two stepdaughters, Jennifer and Suzanne Proulx; two stepsons, Thomas and Jonathan Proulx; five grandchildren; and 10 step-grandchildren.

His first marriage, to Iris Miroy, ended in divorce.

Lifeline prompted other companies to enter the business, most famously LifeCall, whose well-known TV commercial featured an older woman lying on the floor, saying, “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!”

Dr. Dibner credited that ad with boosting his company’s sales, because it brought national attention to the growing market for Lifeline.

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“I feel very fulfilled,” he told the Globe in 1986, “because I was able to come up with an idea that turns out to be so helpful to people.”


Material from The New York Times was used in this report.