May 2, 2006

Larry Patrick, pioneer auto safety researcher, 85



Lawrence M. Patrick, one of the early pioneers in impact biomechanics whose research led to many automotive safety design improvements, including the air bag, died Sunday, April 30, at a hospice in Hendersonville, N.C., after an extended illness. He was 85 years old.

Patrick performed much of the early work in impact biomechanics with mechanical engineering colleague Herbert Lissner that was instrumental in the development of the Wayne State Tolerance Curve. The model is the basis for the current injury criterion for Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 208 and other auto safety standards.

Afflicted with Parkinson’s disease, Patrick had a bad fall Feb. 7, and never recovered, said his only son, James Patrick. Patrick had been living in retirement with his wife, Bess, in Laurel Park, N.C., since 1982.

Patrick was a research director at Wayne State University in Detroit from 1946 and professor from 1958 until 1976. He became director of the Wayne State Biomechanics Research Center in 1965.

Early and succeeding Wayne State researchers, including Patrick, used cadavers to test seat belts, safety glass for windshields, collapsible steering columns, dashboards, air bags and many other automotive safety features today’s motorists take for granted. The data collected were critical in developing the crash sled dummies used by automotive safety researchers worldwide for testing safety devices.

“As late as the 1950s, car manufacturers were on public record as saying vehicle accidents could not be made survivable; the forces in a crash were too great and the human body too frail,” according to Wilkepedia, the online encyclopedia, which identifies Wayne State bioengineering researchers as the first to conduct serious work on collecting data on the effects of high-speed collisions on the human body.

Influenced by its close proximity to the auto industry, engineers, together with physicians at the WSU School of Medicine, began the first controlled laboratory research in trauma biomechanics in 1939. The achievements by these and succeeding WSU researchers, particularly Patrick and Albert King, chair of the

Biomedical Engineering Department, established Wayne State’s reputation as a leader in biomechanics research.

Patrick was a courageous researcher who volunteered himself for many different types of impact tests, including pendulum impacts to his chest as well as crash sled tests, to obtain living human data. Just last December, he was interviewed by British television Sky One film producers for a documentary entitled, “Tested on Humans”, about six leading American scientists who volunteered themselves for their own research.

As a researcher and educator, Patrick instilled in his researchers and students the ethic of hard work, intellectual integrity, and above all, a spirit to help those in need, said King.

James Patrick, a civil engineer in Hendrsonville, said his father’s kindness, compassion and caring touched anyone who met him. “He was a renaissance man and a wonderful father. His work made a difference to society. A lot of lives were saved from what he’s done.”

In 1976, Patrick resigned from the university to become vice president of research and development at Libby-Owens-Ford Company, in Toledo, Ohio, where he led research on windshield and automotive glazing safety materials. In retirement, he and Bess were active in golf and hiking and as members of the First Presbyterian Church.

Patrick received a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering in 1942, a bachelor’s in aeronautical engineering in 1943, and master’s in mechanical engineering in 1955, all from Wayne State.

He received many academic and industry honors. He is a fellow of the Society of Automotive Engineers, recipient of the A.W. Siegel Award for outstanding international research and contributions to crash injury protection, professor emeritus, and member of the WSU Engineering Hall of Fame.

Besides his wife, with whom he was married for 65 years, James Patrick and wife, Gayle, also of Hendersonville, Patrick is survived by daughter, Jody Ard and husband, Eddie, of Smyrna, GA; daughter, Kathryne Patrick and husband, Marty Cipollini, of Rome, Ga.; sister, Catherine and husband, Nelson Johnson, of Sevierville, Tenn; and brother, Col. John Patrick and wife, Barbara, also of Sevierville; and seven grandchildren.

Patrick will be cremated at his request. A memorial service to celebrate his life is scheduled for 3 p.m., Sunday, May 7, at the First Presbyterian Church, 699 N. Grove St., Hendersonville, N.C. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the National Parkinson Foundation, or Four Seasons Hospice and Palliative Care in Hendersonville.