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NIH Record - National Institutes of Health

Retired NIH Craftsman Dehn Is Mourned

Dehn smiling against a blue sky. He wears a straw hat and glasses.

William “Bill” Dehn

William “Bill” Dehn, a retired glassblower known around the world for his ingenuity, technical skill and contributions to medical research laboratories and clinics, passed away on Aug. 18 at age 86. 

After more than 40 years at NIH, Dehn retired in 2003 as the last glassblower in the Office of Research Services’ Biomedical Engineering and Instrumentation Branch (BEIB). 

From rat waste sorters to mouse milkers, from three-stage oil diffusion pumps to mosquito feeders, if a scientist needed it, Dehn devised it on demand in glass. That was before plastics and digital solutions took over.

At BEIB’s peak in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the branch employed six glassblowers on staff—most of whom put in overtime producing the unique devices required for research. Campus labs and clinics were using more than 50,000 glass units annually. Many instruments and devices were created to individual specifications and protocol requirements. 

Dehn holds a thin glass cylinder to a stream of white-hot flame. He wears a striped shirt and safety glasses, with another headpiece propped on his forehead.

In 2002, glassblower Dehn at work

For decades, labs nationwide and around the world appealed to NIH glassblowers for their unique research tools. 

“These days many of the devices have been replaced by computer modeling,” Dehn said in an August 2002 NIH Record article.

“Bill’s passion for science and precision craftsmanship left an indelible mark on the scientific community,” according to an obituary, “and his humor was as finely crafted as the glass instruments he so expertly designed.” 

Dehn’s survivors include his wife of more than 66 years, Betsy; daughters Barbara Boswell and Michele Field; four grandchildren and five siblings.


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