Dr Frederick ‘Dick’ Stephens was born in 1916 and married his wife Dr Norma ‘Babette’ Stephens in 1945. Dick and Babette graduated together at a time when extremely few women were undertaking a degree in Medicine at the University of Sydney, both went on to lead long illustrious careers in medicine.
In 1960 Dr Dick Stephens developed, what was later named, the Stephens Anaesthetic Apparatus – a compact portable machine that weighed slightly more than 15 kilograms which anaesthetists could take with them to hospitals to safely administer volatile anaesthetic agents.
Later in 1966, after experiencing the death of a boy from hyperpyrexia during routine surgery in 1966, Dr Stephens decided there should be a better way to notify changes in a patient’s metabolic state, rather than to rely on the method of monitoring their body temperature or pulse rate.
Dr Stephens holding the monitor which he invented. Photography: Unknown. Published in the Magazine of Australia Society of Anaesthetists.
Leaning into both his medical and engineering background and more than $100,000 of his own money he developed a prototype of his ‘Calibrated tissue perfusion and heart rate monitor’. This was a lightweight machine that could be carried in one hand and was capable of sensitively measuring and monitoring heart rates (as shown through tissue perfusion) via a transducer attached to a finger or ear lobe.
Dr Stephens went on to test and perfect the monitor with colleagues from Sydney’s Mater Hospital (where he was Director of the Clinical Research and Development Unit) and the CSIRO. He eventually renamed it the ‘Stephens Tissue Perfusion Monitor’, and in 1979 he won the ABC Inventor of the Year award; won a silver medal at the International Exhibitions of Inventors in Geneva; and signed a contract to manufacture and market the device commercially.
As well as assisting anaesthetists, the Stephens Tissue Perfusion Monitor was also useful for many other medical functions such as measuring levels of stress, as a lie detector, to check the success of skin grafts, to check for circulatory restitution in vascular surgery, to monitor patients undergoing major dental surgery and to help prevent cot death of babies. Dr Stephens continued to do medical research along with his private practice until he retired in the 1980s.
Dr Dick Stephens passed away peacefully on 25 February 2019. His wife Dr Babette Stephens passed away in 2007 at the age of 84. Their legacy lives on with their son, daughter in law, and several grandchildren pursuing careers in medicine and becoming members of Doctors Health Fund.