Obituary: Frank Dorman, a 'self-taught visionary' at the U

  • Article by: ADAM BELZ , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 12, 2013 - 6:52 PM

Frank Dorman.

Photo: , Courtesy Dorman family.

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Frank Dorman didn't much care for school. His mind moved too fast and too far.

The lab technician at the University of Minnesota never earned a bachelor's degree, but his restless, effervescent mind powered innovations at the university that helped lay the bedrock of Minnesota's medical device industry.

"Frank was a self-taught visionary in engineering and in physics," said Dr. Henry Buchwald, who has been credited with developing the world's first infusion port and implantable infusion pump. "I think it's fair to say that he had the mind of a genius."

Dorman died Dec. 15 in Golden Valley. He was 77.

Not only was he a pioneer in the medical device industry, he helped found a company -- Shoreview-based TSI Inc. -- that still makes precision measuring devices for medical and industrial customers.

"He'd always been an inventor, even as a child," his wife, Joan Dorman, said. "He didn't accept that you couldn't do something, so he did it."

Born and reared on a farm near Eagle Bend, Minn., Dorman gravitated to machinery, learned to repair it and helped his father in an obsessive quest to build a perpetual motion machine. When he graduated from high school, he moved to Minneapolis to study electrical engineering at the university.

His classes couldn't keep up with him.

"He wasn't a particularly avid student," said Mike Fingerson, who shared a wall with him at a rooming house for students. "He was more interested in working on his latest idea."

About halfway into the program, Dorman dropped out. He never went back to school, though he spent most of the rest of his life at the university. He took a job as a science writer for General Mills and moved into a house with Fingerson and three other engineering students.

One night over dinner, Fingerson was discussing a measurement problem he had with his thesis. Dorman's suggestions helped Fingerson rework his thesis, and then provided the seed of an idea for Thermal Systems Inc., the firm the two men and three others founded in 1961. He worked at the new company's labs on the side, helping engineers overcome obstacles on nights and weekends.

The company eventually went public and was sold in 2000 to a private investment group for roughly $180 million.

Dorman met his wife, Joan, in 1966. She had just moved from Des Moines for graduate school at the U, and they ran into each other in a Mensa reading room. They were married 10 months later.

Meanwhile, he had been hired to work at the university by medical device pioneer Perry L. Blackshear. Dorman worked on early research into the artificial heart, and on pumps and ports that ended up being sold by companies like Johnson & Johnson and St. Jude Medical. His name is on several patents.

Though he has never acquired the fame of some of the doctors and engineers he collaborated with (Buchwald and Blackshear were two of the nine inaugural members of the U's Academy of Medical Device Innovators), he was a key player in the development of the first implantable insulin pump and the first infusion ports for medical patients.

He was always self-deprecating, referring to himself as a "monkey at a typewriter" or the "dummy in the back room," Blackshear said. But the truth is Dorman launched the careers and fortunes of many of the people he worked with and was a crucial reason those years were "a wonderfully productive time" for the lab.

"There's an awful lot of people that Frank made kings out of," Blackshear said. "In all this time he was perfectly satisfied letting other people take the limelight."

Dorman is survived by his wife, their son, two daughters, and one granddaughter, as well as a brother in Eagle Bend, a sister in California and a brother in Albion, Iowa.

A memorial service will be held at 4 p.m. Thursday in the U's Campus Club.

Adam Belz • 612-673-4405 Twitter: @adambelz

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