(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second article in a three-part series spotlighting a Knoxville entrepreneurial pioneer who is still focused on making life better for people nearly 60 years after his game-changing first invention.)
By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA
For Bergein F. (Gene) Overholt, the first use of the flexible fibersigmoidoscope-colonoscope that he conceived in 1961 and first used in 1963 was just the beginning of a decade-long journey before the new device was widely embraced by the medical community. There were numerous clinical trials, lectures, and papers written about the novel instrument, and there have been numerous improvements to the device in six decades.
“During all of that time (first decade), there were the skeptics,” he says, citing one in particular – a silver haired Professor at Tulane University who annihilated him during an early lecture to about 200 Gastroenterologists. At the time, Overholt was a first-year Resident. Four years later, that same Professor saw the light – no pun intended – and invited the individual he had demeaned to interview for a department head position.
Overholt highlighted one part of the journey in a 2010 Knoxville News-Sentinel article where he described how a colleague had used the scope with a wire loop to remove polyps in 1967. “We knew we had something long before that, but his advance really brought it to the forefront,” Overholt said. “Right about then, I knew we had a diagnostic and therapeutic device that would revolutionize things.”
Yet, as may seem strange to many of today’s entrepreneurs and those who fund technology-based start-ups, the device was never patented. Why? Overholt explained that his Professor/Mentor at the University of Michigan strongly advised against it.
“If you do, everything you say in your professional career from now on will be viewed as financially-biased,” Overholt recalls him advising, adding, “In the long run, it was a wise decision.” That perspective says so much about the long-time Knoxville Gastroenterologist, his character, and his passion for helping others.
It is, after all, his life’s work that continues in his 80s.
Overholt says he always wanted to go into academic medicine, but well-known Knoxvillian Bo Shafer, who happens to be his brother-in-law, convinced him to return to the community. That was in 1969, and he remained active in the medical profession until retiring three years ago, but not from life and the goal of helping others.
Over the years, Overholt’s entrepreneurial interests have continued. He founded Gastrointestinal Associates and became a national leader in the treatment of Barrett’s esophagus, a potentially serious complication of gastroesophageal reflux disease, through the use of photodynamic therapy and radiofrequency ablation.
Later, in 1986, he founded The Endoscopy Center, the first free-standing endoscopic ambulatory surgery center in the United States. Overholt along the way also served as President of the American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy and the American Association of Ambulatory Surgery Centers; founding member and Past President of the Tennessee Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy; Chief of Staff at the old St. Mary´s Medical Center; Medical Director of the Laser Department of the Thompson Cancer Survival Center; and a member of the old Knoxville City School Board for 15 years and its Chairman for three years.
Today, as he spends more time with family and other societal causes that interest him, Overholt is still very much an entrepreneur. One of those interests resulted in a rapidly growing new company located in the Bearden area of Knoxville.
NEXT: The story of Ionogen LLC.