Bioengineering pioneer, longtime professor William Akers dies

By Patrick Kurp

William Akers, professor emeritus of chemical and biomolecular engineering and a pioneer in the development of the world’s first artificial human heart, died Nov. 5 at age 94.

William Akers in a lab

William Akers during his research years.

“I want to give back a small portion of what I have been given. It’s good for the student and it’s good for us,” said Akers in 2015 after giving the university $1 million to establish the William W. Akers Endowed Engineering Scholarship fund to support high-need, undergraduate engineering students who maintain a 3.0 overall grade point average or higher.

Born in north central Texas and raised in the small town of Graham, Akers rose to prominence in the 1960s when he collaborated with researchers at Baylor College of Medicine to develop the first artificial heart. The move signaled a radical change in academic disciplines.

In 1947, Akers was working for the Atlantic Refining Co. in Dallas when he was invited to join the Rice faculty as an assistant professor in chemical engineering. That same year he married his wife, Nancy, who died in 2016. Akers served as chair of chemical engineering from 1955 to 1965.

“Bill was first and foremost an engineer, always ready to tackle the most challenging problems or volunteer for causes that he considered important,” said Kyriacos Zygourakis, the A.J. Hartsook Professor in Chemical Engineering and professor of bioengineering. “I first came across Bill’s work in 1969 or 1970. I had a book from the library with the impressive title ‘The Engineer: Designs for the Year 2000.‘ And there was a young Bill Akers listening to ‘a simulated heartthrob.'”

In 1964, Rice President Kenneth Pitzer called a meeting with Akers, five other engineering professors and Dr. Michael DeBakey of Baylor College of Medicine to discuss plans for devising an artificial heart. That same year Akers founded Rice’s Laboratory for Biomedical Engineering, and in May 1965 surgeons at Baylor implanted a working model in a patient, with the artificial pump moving blood from the left atrium to the aorta. Akers wrote in a memoir of his work on the artificial heart:

“On Aug. 8, 1966, a 37-year old woman suffering from severe aortic insufficiency and mitral stenosis could not come off the heart-lung machine following surgery. Dr. DeBakey attached our left ventricle to her heart and we began pumping. We took over her blood circulation. After five days, we could begin to cut back a little and still keep full body function. On the 10th day, her heart was carrying most of the load and Dr. DeBakey removed our heart. (We) had spent 10 days and nights at the controls of the heart. The patient recovered but was killed in an automobile accident six years later.”

In 2015, Akers explained, “The heart is two pumps. The left ventricle pumps blood from the lungs through the entire body, which flows back to the heart through the veins. The right ventricle then pumps the blood back through the lungs. The left ventricle is the most critical. Our lab worked on replacing it.”

His collaborations with Rice faculty and physicians at Baylor led to decades of pioneering research in the biophysical dynamics of blood flow, shear stress and strain, and how these factors play a role in cardiovascular disease. In 1973, he began serving Rice in administrative roles, becoming development director, vice president for external affairs and vice president for administration, while still teaching classes.

Akers earned a B.S. from Texas Tech in 1943, an M.S. from the University of Texas at Austin in 1944 and a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan in 1950, all in chemical engineering. He retired from Rice in 1993.

He was a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Chemical Society and the American Institute of Chemical Engineers. Akers established the Nancy and William Akers Endowed Scholarship in Music, the Carol Akers Klug and Susan Akers Hirtz Endowed Scholarship and the Williams Akers Endowment, which funds the William W. Akers Senior Design Award in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. In 1994, Henry Jackson ’37 made a gift to establish the William W. Akers Chair and Professorship, now held by Walter Chapman.

“I once asked Bill after he retired what he was doing,” said George Hirasaki, the A. J. Hartsook Professor Emeritus of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. “He said that he was volunteering by preparing tax returns for people who could no longer do it by themselves. Bill lived a long and fruitful life. We will miss him but he left us fond memories.”

Akers is survived by two daughters, Carol Akers Klug and Susan Akers Hirtz.

The memorial service will be at 2 p.m. Dec. 7 at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church, 717 Sage Road.

–Patrick Kurp is a science writer in the George R. Brown School of Engineering.

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