Rebecca Richards-Kortum named to National Inventors Hall of Fame

Rice U. engineer honored for inventions that diagnose cancer, save babies

Global health pioneer Rebecca Richards-Kortum, a Rice University bioengineering professor whose work has improved medical care for millions of newborn babies and saved lives in low-income countries, will be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in May.

Rebecca Richards-Kortum

Rebecca Richards-Kortum (Photo courtesy of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)

Hall officials announced 19 new inductees today at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Richards-Kortum’s fellow honorees in the 2019 class include the inventors of fluoride toothpaste, the portable electric drill, the Unix operating system and the first drugs for treating high blood pressure. Fewer than 600 inventors have been inducted in the hall, which was founded in 1973.

Richards-Kortum, who joined Rice in 2005, develops inexpensive but effective medical technologies for people living in places where traditional medical equipment is not an option. She’s pioneered the development of low-cost inventions that detect cancer and help newborn babies survive in Africa.

Richards-Kortum’s work has led to the creation of optical technologies that have improved early detection of cervical, oral and esophageal cancer as well as a number of tools to improve infant survival rates. These inventions include the Pumani CPAP system for newborns with breathing problems, BiliSpec for measuring bilirubin levels to detect jaundice and DoseRight for accurate dosing of children’s liquid medication.

Richards-Kortum is Rice’s Malcolm Gillis University Professor, professor of bioengineering and director of the Rice 360º Institute for Global Health. She was selected by the State Department as a U.S. Science Envoy in June.

Richards-Kortum is the first Houston scientist and first Houston woman to win a coveted “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation. She is also the first woman and the youngest Rice faculty member to earn the rank of University Professor — Rice’s highest academic title.

Clinical studies of her lab’s battery-powered, high-resolution microendoscope are either planned or underway for a dozen types of cancer including cervical, bladder, oral and colon. Richards-Kortum also leads NEST360°, an international group of physicians, engineers and business and entrepreneurial experts working to end preventable death of newborn children in sub-Saharan Africa by providing both the technology and support African hospitals need to deliver comprehensive neonatal care.

“Invention is a team sport, and I’ve been fortunate to work with hundreds of great students, physicians, nurses, designers, entrepreneurs, public health experts and others,” Richards-Kortum said. “I share this honor with them, and I join them in thanking the National Inventors Hall of Fame, both for recognizing our work and for calling attention to crucial need for innovation to address global health inequities.”

The Ohio-based National Inventors Hall of Fame is a nonprofit founded in partnership with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to recognize inventors and invention, promote creativity and advance the spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship. The National Inventors Hall of Fame Museum, a Smithsonian affiliate, is located at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in Alexandria, Va.

The hall’s 2019 inductees include 11 posthumous honorees and two women, Richards-Kortum and computer scientist Chieko Asakawa, the inventor of the first web browser for the blind. The names and biographies of all 19 inductees are available at

An induction ceremony and gala are planned for May 1-2 in Alexandria and Washington, D.C.

Richards-Kortum is a member of the National Academy of Engineering, the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society. She is a fellow of the American Institute for Medical and Biomedical Engineering, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Biomedical Engineering Society, the Optical Society of America and the National Academy of Inventors.


About Jade Boyd

Jade Boyd is science editor and associate director of news and media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.