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In-House Craftsman's Unit To Close
NIH's Last Glassblower Prepares to Exit

By Carla Garnett

On the Front Page...

Have you ever really needed a mouse milker? Where would you go if you wanted a contraption to sort rat waste? Ever seen a mosquito feeder (besides the occasional arm or leg during picnic season)? For more than four decades, NIH has never needed to look farther than Bldg. 13 for the man who not only knows each of these devices well, but also crafts them on demand. On July 23, Bill Dehn marked 40 years of wielding blowtorches at NIH. He will retire in January, and take with him NIH's last vestige of the centuries-old tradition of glassblowing.


"Our main job is to create one-of-a-kind things that are not commercially available," Dehn explains. "When the scientists can't buy what they need, we make it. When what's available won't do what they want, we modify it. And when something breaks, we repair it."

NIH's last glassblower Bill Dehn

At its peak in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Office of Research Services' Biomedical Engineering and Instrumentation Branch had six glassblowers on staff, and most of them put in overtime producing the unique devices required for research. Labs and clinics on campus were using more than 50,000 glass units each year, many of them crafted to individual specifications and protocol requirements. For decades, other labs came to NIH glassblowers for their unique research tools.

"These days many of the devices have been replaced by computer modeling," Dehn notes, "and a lot of the grants we used to work on are being sent to universities."

In addition, Dehn says, although glass is an ideal material for prototypes, less expensive and more flexible plastic is the material of choice for mass production of most clinical and laboratory devices. Holding up a small glass cylinder about the length and width of a baby's forefinger, Dehn examines one of hundreds of trachea tubes he made many years ago.

"Now these are made of plastic, so they are more comfortable for the patient," he says.

James Sullivan, supervisor of ORS's mechanical instrument design & fabrication section, which is operated on a fee-for-service basis, explains: "Due to the increased availability of commercial products and the popularity of plastic and disposable items, demand for in-house glasswork has declined. There is really no longer enough work to keep someone employed full time."

One by one over the last 10 years, each of Dehn's colleagues has retired or moved on to other jobs. Last year, only Dehn and one other glassblower, Carroll Toms, remained. Due to fewer and fewer incoming requests, Toms had been assigned work in another instrumentation section before he retired a short time ago. With several patents to his credit and many more grateful scientists whose work he respected and aided, Dehn says he's ready to live the retired life too.

Fifteen years ago, this 3-stage oil diffusion pump was used for high vacuum lines. Today, more efficient metal has replaced glass — one reason demand has declined for glassblowing.

"I'll be really sorry to see him go," says Dr. Harry Saroff of NIDDK's Laboratory of Genetics and Biochemistry. "He made some fine instruments for me. Many of them were fairly difficult to make because they had to be handled so gingerly. They were extremely delicate and fragile. It would have been a lot more expensive to have these items made outside. These were fairly complicated items that I needed for my experiments."

Saroff represents quite a few scientists who have visited Dehn over the years, requesting uniquely fabricated glasswork. Most times, the researchers came to Dehn with little more than an idea and a roughly scribbled sketch of the necessary item. From there, Dehn's skill and creativity took over.

"I've always found him to be a highly qualified craftsman," Saroff recalls, describing one instrument — a jacketed reaction vessel — that Dehn crafted to help keep fluids at a constant temperature. "You seldom find that quality nowadays, but I'm old enough to remember the good old days."

Colleagues will miss not only Dehn's technical skill with a glass tube and an open flame, but also his ability to make people laugh.

"Of course, there's no replacement for Bill," Sullivan agrees. "He's quite accomplished. More importantly, he has a historical knowledge of the research here that nobody else does. He can almost predict what a scientist will need.

Although the delicate glass globe Dehn holds looks like it belongs in an art museum, it is actually more at home in the lab, sorting rat waste.

"But we are also losing another 'art' of Bill's — his sense of humor," Sullivan continues. "I think it would be recognized by most people who have worked with Bill or perhaps only encountered him for a brief period. He has maintained his humor through difficulties both personal and professional."

Even after Dehn leaves, ORS will continue to support scientists by helping to arrange contract glassblowing if necessary or by offering consultations on where to purchase necessary devices. "One way or another," Sullivan concludes, "we intend to provide the services we are currently providing."

Reflecting on the past 40 years on the job and describing one of his proudest moments, Dehn says he will mostly miss being involved in the research here. It was quite a few years ago, he remembers. He was producing lab devices for longtime NIDDK researcher Dr. Makio Murayama, who at the time was conducting studies on sickle cell anemia. Murayama — who was being acknowledged for the success of his research by an ambassador from Ghana — invited Dehn to a reception and introduced him to the African diplomat. The grateful ambassador heaped praises on the NIH'ers for the research and, subsequently, Murayama and Dehn were regaled with heartfelt tales of how research with the drug hydroxyurea was helping children in Ghana survive their disease and manage the pain of the disorder.

"Over the years I've worked for a lot of well-known researchers," recalls Dehn. "That day with Dr. Murayama and the Ghana ambassador was very special, though. I was very gratified to know that in some small way, I had something to do with it."

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