By the time Homer Warner died last weekend, the only wonder was that he made it to the age of 90. Officially, he died of pancreatitis, but it might have been just simple exhaustion.
When did this man ever rest?
His life's summary is the obituary page's version of "War and Peace," and it only scratched the surface. What did he do? What didn't he do. During his lifetime he was a scientist, inventor, football player, Navy pilot, Scoutmaster, sailor, missionary, bishop, father, husband, editor, medical pioneer and founder of a scholarly journal.
It was four lifetimes crammed into one.
Most of us never heard of Homer Warner, but his work probably helped save the life of someone you know and continues to serve as the backbone of modern medicine. I would try to tell you about all the wonderful things he did with computers and medicine, but I'm not smart enough to explain them and, frankly, you're not smart enough to understand them, so I offer you only a general sense of things, and an abbreviated one at that.
In short, he pioneered the medical application of computers, beginning in the 1950s and '60s before anybody visualized their potential.
Warner, who worked at LDS Hospital and later at the University of Utah, developed computer models that analyzed pressure waves to determine the volume of blood the heart is pumping at a given time. Before that, doctors could make only a rough guess by injecting dye into the blood and then looking into the ear to see when the dye passed. It was the equivalent of starting a fire by rubbing sticks together.
"This led to the development of all the techniques that enable people to live a lot longer with heart disease," says Dr. Vivian Lee, senior vice president for health sciences at the University of Utah.
Warner became the father of medical informatics – the use of computers programs to analyze lab reports, drugs, disease and treatment history, patient history, X-rays, etc., to tell doctors in a matter of seconds what was happening in a patient's body and what treatment protocols were recommended (it became known as the HELP system). He founded the first department of medical informatics in the country, at the U.
"His name is known around the world for being one of founders of medical informatics," Lee says.
"Nobody had computers in the hospital until he started doing it," says Dr. Richard Black, Warner's son-in-law. "LDS Hospital was probably the first in the world to have them. Now they're everywhere."
He pioneered the use of computers to diagnose congenital heart disease more accurately. He authored a textbook on medical informatics. He founded and edited the Journal of Computers and Biomedical Research, reading thousands of papers submitted for publication.
The truth is, Warner invented and developed so many computer models and algorithms that they could've resulted in considerable commercial success for himself. But he never had the time or the interest in taking out patents or starting private companies. He was driven by science, developing ideas, the quest for knowledge and the means to help people. As one family member said: "He just wasn't interested in the money side of things. Others made billions from derivatives of his work."
Early in his career he received a lifetime grant from the American Heart Institute, essentially telling him that the organization believed his work was worth supporting for as long as he wanted to do it. That was all he needed.
Warner was a brilliant man. Many of his early ideas came largely from taking two seemingly unrelated classes at the University of Utah — Fourier analysis in the engineering department and calculus in the math department. He married the two fields, applying mathematical and engineering principles to medicine. Specifically, he began to create computer models of how the cardiovascular system works and how its performance could be quantified. Warner and his peers created a whole new field of discipline – biophysics and bioengineering, which later came to be called informatics. They established the department of biophysics and bioengineering at the University of Utah, and other schools followed their lead.
Says Lee, "It made me realize how a phenomenal mind can start with basics and see opportunities."
Warner's mind was always working. During a trip to Switzerland with his mother, he wrote the original computer model for the HELP system in his hotel room. "He worked around the clock for three days while his mother was out shopping," says Warner's son, Homer Jr. "He got so into this, that he locked himself up and finished it."
This is how brilliant Warner was. Later in life, he learned the complicated art of sailing – including Morse code and celestial navigation – from books. He learned it so well, and was so confident in what he learned, that he not only competed in a sailboat race from Victoria, British Columbia, to Maui, but he recruited several family members to serve as his crew.
"You just don't go in the open sea without knowing what you're doing," says Homer Jr.
Somehow, around all the work and study Homer managed a balanced life. He played football and tennis for the University of Utah and East High. He flew airplanes off a carrier in California. He and his late wife Kay raised six children and later served as medical missionaries in Europe. He served as a Scoutmaster for 10 years, and later as a bishop. He skied, biked, golfed and sailed his boat on the Great Salt Lake.
It was a full life. Homer Warner passed away last Friday, leaving a legacy of work that has benefited millions.
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