PART 1: A revolutionary device now used routinely in colonoscopies was invented by a Knoxvillian 60 years ago

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Today we begin a periodic series spotlighting some of the early entrepreneurial pioneers in the Knoxville region, and we could not think of a better example than a person who revolutionized a medical procedure almost 60 years ago. Yet, as you will learn in this three-part series, he’s still pursuing new ventures as a servant leader today.)

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

Bergein F. (Gene) Overholt was not born in Knoxville, but he was raised and has spent most of his adult life here. Now in his 80s, the soft spoken individual who is described by many as one of the most humble and kind people they have ever met is also one of the region’s best known entrepreneurs on a national scale.

Today, the lifelong learner and pursuer of ways to help individuals is far from resting on his laurels. Overholt is Chair of the Board of Directors of Ionogen LLC, a start-up focused on disinfectants that address viruses and bacteria like COVID-19 and Clostridioides difficile, better known as C. diff. It’s a company that we recently spotlighted in this article.

As we begin a periodic series to cast the spotlight on some of Knoxville’s most impactful entrepreneurs over the years – individuals who have built successful business here and drawn national attention to the region for their efforts, we could not think of a better story to tell than the one of Gene Overholt. Much of it has happened here or at least been inspired locally, and the impact of the Knoxville Gastroenterologist on his profession was captured so well in this 35-minute episode of the “Meet the Master” series from the VideoGIE Journal.

So, if you are not familiar with Overholt, you are probably asking, “What did he do to earn such national and international acclaim?”

It was the development of the flexible fibersigmoidoscope-colonoscope, a device that revolutionized colonoscopies and eventually became the industry standard for Gastroenterologists in spite of early skeptics. The invention earned Overholt the William Beaumont Award from the American Medical Association and the Rudolph V. Schindler Award from American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy. He was the youngest recipient of the latter award when he was recognized in 1975.

So, how did a then recent graduate of the University of Tennessee’s College of Medicine come-up with the idea for the new device? Overholt attributes it to his father, affectionately known as “Dr. Knoxville.” He was focused internal medicine, but a good percentage of his practice involved cardiology.

“He sent me an article from Time magazine about fiber optics,” the son said, recalling vividly that it was July 1961. “I read it and filed it in my mind.”

At the time, the younger Overholt was an intern at the University of Michigan Hospital in Ann Arbor and an applicant for a position with the U.S. Public Health Service. He travelled to Washington, DC for an interview that summer where Overholt says he noticed the person conducting the interview was not feeling good.

“He was clearly in a lot of pain,” Overholt said. “He told me that he had a polyp in the descending colon, and three different doctors had tried to reach it but could not.”

The commonly used device for examination of the lower colon at the time was an inflexible device called the “Silver Stallion.” As the name implies, patient comfort was not its strong suit nor was it as useful a diagnostic tool as it needed to be.

The young intern immediately recalled the article that his father had sent him and said, “What we need is a flexible sigmoidoscope.” Overholt then quickly described the device that he envisaged – a flexible scope with optics to provide light along with methods to instill air to navigate the colon, clean the lens, move in four directions, and take biopsies.

“He was stunned and asked if I had done this,” Overholt recalls. “My answer was no, but it was so clear in my mind that this was a plan from God above.”

The Public Health Service Administrator immediately introduced Overholt to the head of the department who was equally impressed with the possibilities. “We like this idea,” the official said. “Take it back to your Professor. If he will support you, we will fund the development of this scope.”

“My Professor said yes,” Overholt told us. “He became my mentor and protector.” The funding came from the Cancer Control Program in the Public Health Service.

Over the next two years, six companies tried to develop the device; one was successful, and Overholt, by then a first-year Resident, used the device on a patient in 1963 under the watchful eyes of a Senior Gastroenterologist (GI).

After the 45-minute procedure on the patient who had colon cancer, the overseeing GI said, “Overholt, this will never go anywhere!” Today, the person who came-up with the idea for the flexible fibersigmoidoscope simply says, “Not a very prophetic statement.”

NEXT: Evolving from the first use to the industry standard.

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