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In the News: 'Augie Professor, Inventor Dies at 91'

The following story appears in the May 2, 2012, edition of the Argus Leader:

Augie Professor, Inventor Dies At 91
V. Ronald Nelson Built State's First Heart Defibrillator
By Jill Callison, Argus Leader

If Augustana College’s physics department needed a piece of equipment that wasn’t in its bare-bones budget, V. Ronald Nelson would build it himself.

“He was the founding father of our physics department, and there wasn’t much money so he was always scavenging,” said Milton Hanson, who taught chemistry at Augustana from 1964 to 2004 and now is a professor emeritus.

“They built a lot of their own things.”

One piece of equipment Nelson built was the first defibrillator ever used in a South Dakota hospital. He and physics lab assistant Gary Giedd converted metal kitchen spatulas into the electrodes placed on the patient’s chest.

Nelson died Saturday in Sioux Falls. He was 91. His funeral service is today.

Nelson was born at Webster and was valedictorian at Waubay High School in 1939. He joined the Augustana faculty two years after graduating cum laude from the school in 1944.

It was in 1953 that Dr. Geoffrey Cottam, a heart surgeon at what was then McKennan Hospital, approached Nelson about building what was then called a “heart shocker” or a defibrillator. Cottam knew that a small electrical shock could restore a patient’s interrupted heart rhythm.

The defibrillator now is on display at the Sanford Health Medical Museum. According to an account written by Nelson, Cottam approached him on a Friday and said he wanted the defibrillator in time for a surgery Monday.

The kitchen spatulas cost $2.50. Purchasing the electrodes would have cost about $50. Nelson and Giedd ground the spatulas into the desired spoonlike shape.

Nelson’s account says he built a second defibrillator for McKennan and later constructed models for what was then Sioux Valley Hospital and facilities in Mitchell and Armour. Another account states Sioux Valley used Nelson’s defibrillator first.

Funding for the two original defibrillators came from Cottam, who paid about $200 each. He didn’t need the first defibrillator for that Monday surgery, but it later was used successfully.

Hanson describes Nelson as a gentle man.

“When you came to him with a problem, he was always gracious and would bend over backward to help you,” he said. “He was helpful when you needed counsel; he was helpful if you had a problem.”

In the 1960s, Nelson was asked to investigate a gas explosion at a house. He determined how much wet soil pipeline gas would travel through before the odor dissipated.

“That was when he first began to suspect that some gas valves were defective,” Hanson said. “For the rest of his career, he did a lot of expert witness testimony where defective gas valves caused problems such as fires and explosions.”

Chet Whitney took courses from Nelson at Augustana. Nelson later hired Whitney to teach at the college, and they worked together for 36 years.

Nelson emphasized aeronautics, which was unusual for a college in the Midwest, Whitney said. For a time, Augustana owned an airplane simulator that gave students the experience of being in the air.

Nelson focused on teaching more than research, turning out physics teachers who could help others, Whitney said.

“He was more than usually interested in physics teachers than most physics professors are,” Whitney said. “Secondary school teachers, and at the college level. There was a time when the chairman of every physics department in every college in South Dakota was an Augie grad.”

Nelson and Whitney worked together on building an electronic control system to assemble feed at Zip Feed Mill in Sioux Falls. They used photographic timers that were purchased from a electronics hobby outfit.

“It was a neat little shortcut,” Whitney said.

In 1959, Nelson was honored as the Argus-Leader’s Citizen of the Week. The story noted that Nelson had developed an instrument to assist a music student’s control of pitch, volume and quality. His department also created a “divining rod” that could locate metal or minerals by “signals that penetrated cement, glass, brick, adobe, snow, water, ice or rock.”