Coulter. Medical diagnostics.
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Coulter is one-half of Beckman Coulter, a Research!America member and a company that boasts nearly $6 billion in market capitalization. And that half of a multi-billion-dollar, multinational company began with research on paint for the U.S. Navy.
Such unlikely beginnings are the reason that Wallace Coulter has been named the first recipient of the Golden Goose Award for 2013. More winners will be named during the coming months.
The press release announcing the award explains Coulter’s research: In his time away from working for various electronics companies in the 1940s, Coulter built a lab in his garage and earned a grant from the Office of Naval Research. His task was to standardize the solid particles in the paint the Navy was using on its warships; but to do that, he first had to identify the reasons for inconsistencies among the paints.
He developed a device that would help him count the number of particles in a given volume of paint. Comparing different colors and batches would help him understand how to standardize.
But through a series of coincidences — not the least of which was that his samples had been left open and dried out — he was unable to use the paint he had been supplied. Coulter then found a substance similar to paint that made his device work: blood.
During his time as a medical equipment repairman, Coulter realized there was a significant need for a machine to quickly and accurately count blood cells. Thus he set about securing a patent; five years later, with patent in hand, he began manufacturing the Coulter Counter. The series of tests known as the complete blood count, which employ Coulter’s invention, is the most ordered medical diagnostic in the world, according to the press release.
For this, he has been inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame and received the prestigious John Scott Award for Scientific Achievement. And later this year, Coulter will be posthumously honored with one of the Golden Goose Awards, which were started last year to honor federally funded research that seemed quirky or obscure but turned out to have substantial, positive benefits for mankind. The awards were the brainchild of Rep. Jim Cooper (D-TN) and enjoy bipartisan support in Congress. A number of Research!America members and affiliates — AAAS, United for Medical Research, the American Sociological Association, the Association for Psychological Science, the Biophysical Society and IEEE-USA among them — support the Golden Goose Awards.
“Wallace Coulter’s discovery exemplifies the combination of genius, hard work and serendipity that is so often critical to successful science, and that the Golden Goose Award honors,” Cooper said in the press release. “When the federal government supports science, some of the most important benefits might have little to do with the original reason for the research. In this case, anybody in the United States or throughout much of the world who has needed a blood test has benefited from federally funded research that started out with a focus on paint.”
“Mr. Coulter’s request for federal funding of his groundbreaking research would undoubtedly have been ridiculed today,” said Rep. Charlie Dent (R-PA). “You can almost imagine the pithy sound bites that would be used to denigrate his request – ‘Government paying people to watch paint dry’ – or something along those lines. Instead, what the American taxpayers received was a technological boon with economic impact across major economic sectors like health and manufacturing. Imagine how many people gained employment because of Mr. Coulter’s genius … The next time you hear someone disparaging government supported basic research with a one-liner, realize that they might be mocking a device or process that could bring great benefit to people across the world.”