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A Lifetime of Connections
Otto Herbert Schmitt, 1913-1998

By Jon M. Harkness, PhD
2001 The Bakken

Otto H. Schmitt
Otto H. Schmitt University of Stockholm, 1951.


Early Years
Washington University
Postdoctoral Years
To Minnesota
War Work
Back to Minnesota
Beyond Campus Borders
Senior Statesman of Science
The Final Years
Note on Sources


Financial support for the production of this piece has been provided by the Schmitt Biomimetic Charitable Foundation through a grant administered by The Bakken Library and Museum. I am especially grateful to David J. Rhees, Executive Director of The Bakken, and Kenneth Young, President of the Schmitt Foundation, for their generous assistance and support. Ken, in particular, was extremely helpful in providing material from the papers of Otto Schmitt in his possession and a manuscript copy of a history of Otto's family and early life, which he has written. I am also indebted to Ellen Kuhfeld of The Bakken for technical guidance and general insight on Schmitt's life and work, and members of the Schmitt Foundation Board of Directors including Bill DeLaittre, Tom Moorhouse, Robert P. Patterson, and Tom Young for support, information, and comments on an earlier draft of this piece. Despite all of this generous assistance, the standard disclaimer applies: errors of fact and interpretation are my own. Also, I should make clear that my contract with The Bakken specified that I had "final editorial control" over this piece. Jon M. Harkness, 15001 64th Avenue North, Maple Grove, Minnesota 55311. A version of this piece was published in the journal Physics in Perspective Vol. 1, No. 4, 2002 pages 456-490. 


Otto Herbert Schmitt had a talent for connections. In the electrical sense, he was truly gifted at devising novel means for connecting wires to create ingenious pieces of equipment. In the social sense, he had a natural affinity for connecting at a personal-even frolicsome-level with a wide variety of people. In an intellectual sense, he was able to draw potent connections between disciplines-which others might see as distinctly unrelated-to reach insightful conclusions. In an almost mystical sense, he was willing to allow for the possibility of connections between phenomena that many divide sharply into two categories: normal and paranormal. Schmitt also correctly perceived clear connections between his early personal experiences and his later career and accomplishments.

Schmitt was born into a remarkable family in St. Louis in 1913-nine years after the World's Fair held in that city to mark the centennial of the Louisiana Purchase. As that grand exposition commemorated the closing of America's western frontier, it simultaneously celebrated the opening of new frontiers in science and technology, including the wonders presented in the Fair's "Palace of Electricity." A contemporaneous account entitled "Electricity at the St. Louis Exposition" captured the excitement of the event's electrical displays: 

An exhibit of the progress in science and in invention of recent years must necessarily include the progress in the use of electricity, for it is around the latter that nearly all things pertaining to either of the former center. Each year, too, sees the use of electricity increased and improved upon more and more. Edisons, Teslas, Marconis, Roentgens, inventors and investigators without number startle us with new discoveries every year, and what the future is to bring forth not even a dreamer like Jules Verne can anticipate.1

Inspired by these early inventors and investigators, Otto Schmitt spent much of his childhood experimenting with electrical phenomena. He refined his natural talents and curiosity to become a fully trained scientist at Washington University in St. Louis. But he would spend most of his career 600 miles upstream at the University of Minnesota, which straddles the banks of the Mississippi River as it passes through the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Throughout his long and full life, Schmitt would employ his talents in electrical engineering-and similar affinities for biology, physics, and mathematics-to push the frontiers of knowledge. Along the way, he helped to forge the new disciplines of biophysics and bioengineering, he inspired others with his unusual creativity and breadth of knowledge, and he dedicated himself to serving science and humanity-setting aside many opportunities for material gain.


Otto's father, Otto Franz Johannes Schmitt, possessed the drive of a self-made man and the love for learning of an autodidact. He was born in 1876 in West Seneca, New York, the son of a Lutheran minister and the seventh of nine children. In 1885, at age nine, Otto F. lost his father to pneumonia and moved with his mother and siblings to Red Bud, Illinois, where they lived with his mother's older brother, another Lutheran clergyman. Otto F. spent a few years in Red Bud, but, after completing the sixth grade at age 12, he struck out on his own for bustling St. Louis, about 40 miles northwest across the Mississippi River. Otto F. scrabbled together a living by working a variety of odd jobs in the riverside metropolis.2 One anecdote from this period serves both to capture the essence of Otto F.'s character and to introduce a prominent figure in Schmitt family lore. Members of the Schmitt family recounted this tale with regularity and relish:

Otto H. Schmitt's parents

A late-life portrait of Otto H. Schmitt's parents, Otto Franz and Clara Schmitt (reprinted from Francis O. Schmitt, The Never-Ceasing Search, p. 13).

From his youth, Father [Otto F.] was endowed with a powerful body and unusual strength, coupled with great determination to accomplish his objectives. On one occasion he was standing on the levee of the Mississippi River when he observed several young men throwing a dog in the river. When the dog swam out of the river they threw him back in. My father, who loved animals, was indignant. He said to one of the men, "If you throw that dog in the river again I will throw you in." They did and he did. . . . Those young men didn't know that, some years hence, my father was to become champion amateur middleweight wrestler in Missouri.

Observing the dog-throwing incident was a relatively old gentleman sitting on the top of the levee. He was so pleased with Father's behavior that he complimented him, introduced himself as Mr. [Jacob] Siler and said that he would like Father to visit him. . . . He had been a photographer, and possibly a secret agent with the Union Army during the Civil War, one result of which was the loss of one arm during the conflict.3

The worldly and wise Siler became a mentor to fatherless young Schmitt, Siler would remain a family friend for years to come, and Otto F. would eventually become the executor of Siler's will when the veteran died in 1925.4

By age 18, Otto F. had gathered sufficient resources to purchase a house in St. Louis, where he invited his widowed mother and a younger sister (both named Anna) to join him. Sister Anna soon introduced her brother to a young woman named Clara Senninger, who had just graduated from St. Louis's Central High School at the top of her class. Washington University in St. Louis had awarded Miss Senninger a four-year scholarship in recognition of her academic promise-at a time when few men and even fewer women attended college-but she sacrificed this opportunity so that she could work for her father, who owned a decorating and painting business. In 1900, Otto joined Clara in matrimony and Clara's father in business. Two years after the formation of Senninger & Schmitt Wallpaper & Painting Company, the senior Senninger died, but Otto and Clara carried on with the business. In 1904, the enterprise had prospered to the point where they were able to buy a large two-story building covering two lots on California Avenue in South St. Louis. For decades to come, this building would serve dually as home and business place for the Schmitts. Husband, wife, children, a changing variety of extended family members, and a few long-term employees (who were treated as family members) worked in the first-floor painting and decorating establishment. The second floor became the family home-and on 6 April 1913 the birthplace of Clara and Otto's third and final child.5

Early Years

Otto Herbert Arnold Schmitt weighed twelve pounds at birth and possessed a hearty constitution to match his size.6 Seventy-eight years later, in 1991, he was asked "Who are you?" and replied, "I'm an accident"-a typically mischievous but probably accurate response.7 When baby Otto joined the Schmitts, his brother, Francis, was almost ten; his sister, Viola, was nearly eleven; his mother was 35; and his father was 37. Young Otto-or Junior, as he was called at home-was a precocious child, and his natural talents were nurtured by the combination of counsel and indulgence often reserved for a late, unexpected addition to a family.  Francis, Viola, and Otto
A photograph of the Schmitt children, left to right: Francis, Viola, and Otto (courtesy of Kenneth and Thomas Young).


Otto began kindergarten in the fall of 1918 at age five, walking to Garfield Elementary School a few blocks from his home. He compressed third and fourth grades into six quarters (rather than the standard eight), which allowed him to complete eighth grade in December 1926 and graduate from  elementary school a semester earlier than usual.8  At around the time he was speeding through third and fourth grades, Otto received a postcard from his father's old friend Jacob Siler. Siler, who was then in his seventies, had evidently come to recognize young Otto as an especially bright child. The postcard notified 'Master Otto Schmitt, Jr.' that Siler 'would welcome [Otto's] presence to discuss scientific and philosophical topics.' The initial invitation evolved into a regular Saturday afternoon routine, with Otto eagerly lapping up the attention and insight of this fascinating and knowledgeable character. Otto's parents were generally supportive of his intellectual activities (and they did grant Otto permission to meet with Siler), but they were philosophically cautious by comparison with the old man. For example, Otto F. and Clara were deeply committed members of the conservative Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod; Siler, by contrast, devoted some of his Saturday discussions with Otto to comparative theology. Decades later, Otto specifically recalled these theological sessions as especially significant in broadening his worldview. As a mature man, Otto frequently turned to his tales of time spent with Siler to explain his wide interests and love for learning (see Sidebar 1).9  Otto H. Schmitt

Otto H. Schmitt's eighth-grade graduation portrait (courtesy of Kenneth and Thomas Young).


Sidebar 1: An Influential Mentor
Siler once talked about money and savings and then gave Otto a $100 bond if he would be willing to take it home and begin a savings account. They discussed chemistry, physics, religion, one subject after another. Siler fed Otto information about all sorts of things; perhaps more important, he stimulated his curiosity even more regarding the world about him. As an adult Otto was still continually asking penetrating questions, with an open mind, probing, searching for explanations, wanting to be convinced and then going on to the next subject. Jacob Siler played a vital part in Otto's childhood development although he dealt with him only a few years as a child. Jacob Siler
A photographic self-portrait of Jacob Siler taken in 1904 (from the Siler materials in the possession of the Schmitt Biomimetic Charitable Foundation).

Otto was only twelve when Siler died in 1925. But Siler's will directed that Otto be given the first choice and be allowed to select one hundred books from Siler's library. Otto kept some of these books all his life as well as many photo plates and other memorabilia and artifacts."10

As a young boy, Otto also fell under the influence of his paternal grandmother, who continued to live with the family until her death in 1920, when Otto was almost seven. Indeed, she may have affected him more in death than in life. As Otto prepared himself for a day of first grade on the morning of 1 February 1920, his father informed him that he should not go to school because "Grossmutter" was gravely ill. Otto retired to his room while some other family members maintained a vigil at the bedside of the elderly woman. Alone in his bedroom, Otto received a visit from Grossmutter, who offered him a final farewell filled with love and reassurance. Later that day, Otto's father broke the news of Grossmutter's death, but Otto replied that he had already learned of her passing from the visit she had made to his bedroom. His father explained, in turn, that Grossmutter had never left her bed that day. Later in life, Otto Schmitt would often credit this experience for his persistent belief in an afterlife and his lifelong willingness to consider the authenticity of other so-called paranormal phenomena.11

The Schmitt building on California Avenue was full of energy and hard work during Otto's youth. Operating hours for the first-floor decorating business ran from 6:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m., and Father and Mother Schmitt contributed jointly to the enterprise-which meant minimal separation between work and family life. Otto F. and Clara Schmitt also engaged in significant activities beyond those associated with running a business, maintaining a household, and raising children. Father Schmitt bred and trained dogs, particularly Great Danes, which he showed at numerous competitions around the country. Clara Schmitt employed her organizational skills on behalf of the Lutheran Church, eventually serving as founding president of the national Lutheran Women's Missionary League in the early 1940s.12

Otto began attendance at Roosevelt High School in January 1927. In the spring of that year, his talented older brother, Francis, received a doctoral degree in physiology after several years of study at local Washington University. Later that summer, Frank Schmitt embarked on a two-year scientific sojourn that included postdoctoral appointments at the University of California in Berkeley, University College in London, and the Kaiser-Wilhelm Institute in Dahlem, Germany, just outside Berlin.13 Years later Otto would often declare that he had skipped his final year of high school so that he could join Frank in Germany. For example, in 1991 he told an interviewer, "I am a high school drop out. I've never graduated from high school, because my brother was going as a post doctoral [student] to the Kaiser-Wilhelm Institute (now Max Planck Institute) in Berlin to study Biology, and so instead of finishing high school we went there."14 Judged against documentary evidence, Otto's recounting of his high school career is inaccurate, but his revision contains important kernels of truth: Otto must have been inspired by the globetrotting scientific exploits of his older brother, Otto quite certainly learned more from Frank than the teachers at Roosevelt High School during his final year at that institution, and Otto did leave high school before he received a diploma.

After completing his fifth semester at Roosevelt High, Otto embarked on a ten-week vacation to Europe with his parents during the summer of 1929. The threesome sailed from New York on 4 June, landed in London a week later, and spent the second week of the trip winding through Britain, Belgium, and Holland en route to Berlin to see Frank, who was at the Kaiser-Wilhelm Institute. The exact length of young Otto's stay with his older brother in Germany is unclear, but the visit could not have lasted more than a few days. After Berlin, Otto and his parents traveled to more than twenty additional European cities before they rejoined Frank in Bremerhaven on 9 August and sailed back across the Atlantic together on the same ocean liner. After some east coast deviations, the Schmitts arrived back in St. Louis on 31 August 1929.15   Otto and his parents
The 1929 passport photograph of Otto and his parents (courtesy of Kenneth and Thomas Young).


Otto re-entered Roosevelt High School for the fall semester of 1929-without missing a day of school due to his European tour-and Frank returned to Washington University, his hometown alma mater, to assume a new position as assistant professor of zoology. The appointment held extra appeal for Frank because the zoology and botany departments had moved into a new building that same fall. But with the excitement came challenge: while Frank had ample space in his new quarters, he was almost completely without laboratory equipment. He turned to his sixteen year-old-brother for help. Otto Herbert Schmitt was nothing short of a prodigy with electrical instruments. Otto's genius for gadgeteering (his term) had some early practical manifestations in Frank's new laboratory, where his older brother credited him with constructing "highly original and very effective instrumentation."16 (Sidebar 2 offers a glimpse of another early-if less practical-outcome of Otto's facility with electrical equipment.) In return, Frank was able to offer his kid brother the excitement of participating in real scientific research, along with access to the high-quality libraries of Washington University. 

Sidebar 2: Hair-raising Adventures
Some of Otto's early adventures with electricity were hair-raising-literally. This tale probably dates from Otto's final year in high school, 1929-30, and demonstrates his sense of adventure, his love for mischief, and his lifelong fascination with another polymathic electrical inventor, Nikola Tesla:

"You know how kids get a little money for gifts? I saved up my Christmas presents and bought a second-hand pole pig for $25.00. That's a 2000-watt line transformer that goes out on the power pole and steps down the 2000 volts to 110 or 220. I discovered that if I climbed onto the pole and moved the wires so that the line for my father's store ran into our house, I had 220 volts in my room. When I connected the thing in parallel for 110 volts, I found that this transformer was sturdy enough so that, for a few minutes, it would take 220 volts on its 110-volt output and step it up not to 2200, but to 4400 volts at about 5 kilovolt-amperes.

"With 5 kilovolt-amperes, a rotary spark gap, and a suitable coil, you've got the makings of some really high-voltage stuff. And so, I made my own Tesla coil, using automobile starter cable for the primary winding. I wound the secondary coil with number 40 silk covered wire and connected them in series. The question now was how to tune the transformer to the right frequency. How do you tune that much current at that voltage?

"I simply borrowed my mother's dishpan, put mason jars in it with lead electrodes in them and added salt water. I tuned the thing by adjusting the amount of saltwater until it resonated. To lower the frequency, add a little saltwater; to raise it, take some away. Once in resonance, that thing really went.

"I needed a rotary spark gap, so I placed some electrodes around a thick old Edison phonograph record and ran it with a motor I had rewound. The thing roared around and broke the gaps and produced about 200,000 volts at 150 to 200 kilocycles. It was great fun.

"What was marvelous was to assemble an insulated stool, made by placing a breadboard atop four big, strong, old milk bottles, then another layer of milk bottles, and another breadboard. I carefully crawled onto the stool and placed my hand on the ball, and oh, boy, was that ever fun! Your hair stood on end, sparks a couple of inches long came out of your nose and ears and off the tips of your fingers.

"I demonstrated this to my pals, who turned out the lights to better see the sparks. My mother heard the roar of the spark gap and came in to investigate. When she opened the door and found me standing there surrounded by fire, she fainted dead away. I was in the doghouse for awhile, but at least I had my 200,000-volt Tesla coil."17

Washington University

While Otto toiled with electrical apparatus in Frank's laboratory, his talents were on display for other faculty members to see. According to Frank's recollection, Professor Arthur L. Hughes, head of the Washington University physics department, who sometimes stopped by Frank's lab, "couldn't understand why so brilliant a student [as Otto] should still be in high school." Hughes suggested that Frank should inquire with the administration about early admission for Otto to Washington University, and Hughes offered his personal support for Otto. Frank approached the dean of the College of Liberal Arts, who agreed that Otto could enroll for the fall semester of 1930, if he passed a series of entrance examinations. In the spring of 1930, near the end of his seventh high school semester (or just after the completion of classes at Roosevelt High-the exact timing is unclear), Otto embarked on an intense period of study for these exams. He had the assistance of an illustrious assemblage of tutors from the faculty at Washington University, including Lee DuBridge in physics (who later went on to serve as president of Cal Tech). 18 

Otto passed these tests in impressive fashion and began classes at Washington University on 18 September 1930-one semester shy of his high school diploma.19 He was positioned for multi-disciplinary study from his first day as a college student: he had a clear affinity for physics, electronics, and mathematics; he had had an opportunity to work with (and, no doubt, wanted to keep up with) his big brother, the physiologist; and his natural curiosity and love for learning had been fired to an intense glow by childhood experiences such as his meetings with Jacob Siler. Frank recalled his brother's remarkable undergraduate years in the following (somewhat understated) terms: 

As an undergraduate in college [Otto] made his headquarters in one of my labs and quite naturally, therefore, he was aware of the kinds of experimental work I was doing and how he could be helpful. We published a number of papers together, although most of his papers were published by himself alone.20

In fact, eight publications arose from Otto's undergraduate work (Frank co-authored five of them). Otto's first publication, "A Vacuum Tube Method of Temperature Control," appeared in the 13 March 1931 issue of prestigious Science magazine, during the second semester of his freshman year-24 days before his eighteenth birthday.21  Otto received his A.B. degree, with majors in both zoology and physics, from Washington University in June 1934 and moved seamlessly on to graduate study at the same institution in the same two departments. For several years Frank had been applying "biophysical and biochemical methods" to the study of "the molecular organization of cells and tissues with particular reference to nerve fibers."22 For his graduate research, Otto took this general topic as a starting point and moved off in his own direction. Employing his talents in electrical engineering, Otto developed a complex electronic device to mimic the generation and propagation of action potentials along nerve fibers. Frank (left) and Otto Schmitt
Frank (left) and Otto Schmitt as young men (reprinted from Francis O. Schmitt, The Never-Ceasing Search, p. 115).

Frank later offered an  especially crisp description of this piece of equipment: "Attached to a vertical relay rack were 15 units in each of which the electrical parameters, e.g., resistance, capacity, voltage gain, etc., could be separately adjusted. The output of each unit was fed into the next unit so that, when spread across the face of an oscilloscope tube, one saw a curve ('artificial action potential'), the shape and other characteristics of which were depicted on the tube."23  

relay rack
Otto Schmitt (seated, center) with the relay rack he constructed as a graduate student at Washington University. He is shown with others including his brother, Frank, on his immediate right (reprinted from Francis O. Schmitt, The Never-Ceasing Search, p. 96).

Otto's detailed report on the design, construction, and function of this remarkable apparatus served as his doctoral thesis, which he defended on 19 May 1937 before a diverse 18-member examining committee, which included Arthur L. Hughes, the head of the physics department, who had championed Otto's early admission to Washington University seven years earlier; Caswell Grave, the head of the zoology department; and big brother, Associate Professor F. O. Schmitt. Otto finished his career at Washington University with a Ph.D., majoring in both physics and zoology and with a minor in mathematics.24  

As Otto put the finishing touches on his thesis, he also submitted for publication several brief reports on electronic innovations that he had designed during his doctoral research. At several junctures during his struggle to imitate nerve impulses with electrical equipment, Schmitt had drawn on his considerable powers of invention to develop some new types of electrical circuitry. One of these devices was the differential amplifier, which has become a basic instrument in the recording and measurement of biological potentials.25

Postdoctoral Years

During his final semester of graduate school, Otto successfully applied for a National Research Council fellowship to fund a year of postdoctoral study in the laboratories of Professor A. V. Hill at University College in London. Hill had won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1922, was secretary of the Royal Society, and was widely recognized as a founder of biophysics, which was then emerging as a scientific discipline. Otto was again, to some extent, following in his brother's foot steps. When Frank had finished his Ph.D. ten years earlier, he had also received a grant from the National Research Council to fund his postdoctoral research, which had included a period of study at University College.26 Hill had visited Washington University in October 1936 (quite likely at Frank's invitation), and Otto had seized the opportunity to discuss his doctoral research with the esteemed English guest. In May 1937, Otto began a letter to Hill by referring back to that conversation. He went on to report that he had been granted an NRC postdoctoral fellowship and that he hoped to use this funding to work with Hill:

Since yours is the laboratory in which so much of the fundamental work on the nature of the nerve impulse is being done, I should like very much to come there for the next year to continue with my present investigations or to work on some related problem under your direction, should you be willing to have me do so.

To this end I have applied for, and have been granted, a National Research Council Fellowship. . . . I could leave here as early as the middle of August should that be desirable, but tentative plans have been made to work at Woods Hole this summer and this would make it more convenient to arrive in late September.27

Hill agreed to Otto's request and allowed the young American to move forward with his plan for a late summer research stint at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory on the Cape Cod coast. Frank had worked at Woods Hole during several previous summers, and the brothers were eager to go there together to use Otto's new electrical apparatus on the unusually large nerve axons of squid, which were abundantly available at the seaside research center. The brothers did not know it at the time, but these weeks in Woods Hole would be their last opportunity to carry out research together.28 

However, before Otto traveled east he established a partnership with Viola Elise Muench, who would stand by his side in matrimony- and in many laboratories-for decades to come. Viola, another St. Louis native, had entered Washington University in the fall of 1930, the same time as Otto, and the two soon met while taking mathematics courses together. Viola received an A.B. with a major in Latin in 1934 and stayed on to earn a Master's degree in mathematics in June 1935, after a year of graduate study. While Otto remained at Washington University for two additional years to finish his Ph.D., Viola moved about 100 miles north to teach high school Latin and mathematics in the small town of Mendon, Illinois, just east of the Mississippi River. Viola returned to St. Louis in the summer of 1937 to live with her parents, to help Otto with his work, and to prepare for marriage on August 1st.29 The hours surrounding the wedding rites would foreshadow their remaining years together. According to Otto's recollection, Viola had been up with him the entire night before their marriage to help break down his electrical equipment so that it could be loaded into his DeSoto; when they finished the job around 6 a.m., he dropped her off at her parents' house; he went to pick her up again at around noon for the ceremony, which was held at his parents' place; and that afternoon the newlyweds left for Woods Hole to join Otto's brother for a honeymoon of scientific investigation.30   Viola and Otto
A wedding portrait of Viola and Otto Schmitt (courtesy of Kenneth and Thomas Young).

After several successful weeks of research at Woods Hole, Otto left his brother and crossed the Atlantic with Viola, arriving in London in late September 1937 as planned.31 Otto set to work at University College, where he was "allowed full participation" in A.V. Hill's "program studying nerve and muscle quantitatively."32 During the early months of his stay in England, Schmitt also applied himself to the task of preparing some additional reports for publication on the technical novelties he had contrived during his graduate work. One of the reports he prepared in England concerned a device that he initially called the "thermionic trigger." This ingenious piece of circuitry was soon eponymously relabeled the "Schmitt trigger" and has perhaps brought Otto Herbert Schmitt his most lasting fame. The abstract for Schmitt's original report on the thermionic trigger published in the January 1938 issue of the Journal of Scientific Instruments encapsulates the essentials of the innovation:

A simple hard valve circuit is described which provides positive off-on control with any desired differential from 0.1 v. to 20 v. Less than 10-6 amp. is required at the input, but up to 20 ma. at 200 v. is available in the output. Either positive or negative control is possible. The operation cycle occupies about 10 m sec. Applications to cathode ray oscillography, to "thermostating" and to lighting control are illustrated.33  

Thermionic or Schmitt trigger

A diagram of the Thermionic or Schmitt trigger (reprinted from the Journal of Scientific Instruments, vol. 15, January 1938, p. 25).

Schmitt suggested in this abstract that his trigger would have multiple applications; the many ways in which electrical engineers and-later-computer designers have employed the Schmitt trigger have amply confirmed this prediction.

While in England, Schmitt worked closely with several other researchers who had gathered around Hill's laboratories at University College, including Bernhard Katz, J. Z. Young, William A. H. Rushton, Alan Hodgkin, and R. J. Pumphrey. The locus of research occasionally shifted to the Marine Biological Station at Plymouth, where Schmitt and his collaborators could gain easy access to squid, whose giant axons, he later mused, were "obviously evolved by nature to promote basic nerve science." Schmitt also drew on Hill's patronage to obtain admission to the weekly sessions of the Royal Society. While dressed in the requisite tie and tails for the meetings of this venerable scientific body, Schmitt rubbed elbows with many of the leading figures of the scientific world. 34

As Schmitt's year of support from the National Research Council was drawing to a close, Hill found funds to keep the bright young American at University College for an additional year of research. With some deft tugs from Hill on various political strings, Schmitt was awarded a Sir Halley Stewart Research Fellowship, the ostensible purpose of which was the "alleviation of human suffering and the propagation of religious knowledge."35 Meanwhile, Frank Schmitt was back in St. Louis attempting to pull his own strings to find a faculty position for his brother at Washington University. Frank did not find success in his local efforts, but he encouraged colleagues at the University of Minnesota, who were interested in establishing a biophysics program, to pursue Otto.36

To Minnesota

In February 1939 Otto received a letter from Dean John Tate, "the grand old man of physics at Minnesota," containing an official offer to join the University of Minnesota faculty as an instructor, with dual appointments in the departments of zoology and physics, beginning in the fall of 1939. Otto accepted the Minnesota position, and he and Viola sailed from England on 18 August as winds of war swirled in Europe; they landed in New York on 26 August-six days before Hitler's forces invaded Poland.37 Four decades later, Schmitt offered an assessment of his initial appointment and the intellectual setting he found upon his arrival:

I was invited to come as instructor in Zoology and Physics. . . . The appointment was already identified with Biophysics, with fully symmetrical membership in both departments, reporting jointly to Dwight Minnich [zoology] and J. W. Buchta [physics], heads respectively of the two departments. Limited office and laboratory facilities were provided in both departments and a teaching and research program on nerve axon, membrane electrophysiology and biological ultrasonics was initiated with a substantial undergraduate teaching load to earn my $2500.

There was already important Biophysical research and development at Minnesota in several widely scattered locations and subdisciplines. Karl Stenstrom pursued an active research in Radiation Biophysics, E. J. Baldes was well established in Biophysical research at Mayo and was fully cooperative in building an integrated faculty group including Mayo. Earl Wood was already distinguishing himself in Biophysics-Bioengineering at that time with his giant flywheel human-rated "G" tester. C. F. Code and Julia Herrick willingly participated. Burr Steinbach-general physiology-and Maurice Visscher in human physiology, who was one of the instigators of the plan, also conferred their blessing on the formation of a loose graduate Faculty Confederation to consolidate Biophysical Science academically at Minnesota.38

A month into his first semester at Minnesota, Otto confided in a letter to his brother that he was teaching full time and had "little prospect of getting much done this year."39 This contemporaneous account offers a more gritty glimpse of the experiences of a first-year teacher with instructor status at a large university-especially a young scientist undergoing a transition from two years in the rarefied atmosphere of a prestigious European research laboratory.

In the spring of 1941, during Otto's second academic year at Minnesota, Frank Schmitt would play an instrumental role in hoisting his brother from the lower rungs of the academic ladder. Frank, whose career had been flourishing in St. Louis, was being courted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to come to Boston to head the MIT biology department "and to bring to that department the study of life science as nearly as possible at the molecular level." As Frank later retold the story, "one of the desiderata that [he] had stipulated when considering the MIT position was that Otto be offered a position at MIT on a tenure track." As a result, MIT officials from the departments of physics and electrical engineering invited Otto to Boston for a visit, and Otto was soon offered assistant professorships in both departments.40 In mid-March 1941, Otto informed J. W. Buchta, the head of physics at Minnesota, about his attractive offer from MIT. Buchta asked Otto to wait a day before accepting and sprung into action to avoid the loss of this promising young talent. One day later, Buchta was able to counter MIT by offering Otto tenure as an associate professor (skipping past the rank of assistant professor), a 28% pay raise, tripled research funding, and guaranteed support for two graduate students.41 The administrators at MIT caught wind of Minnesota's counter-offer and asked Frank if he wanted MIT to pursue Otto further. Frank decided that the time had come for Otto to strike out on his own:

After thinking about it for some time, I made a decision that would very importantly affect the careers of both Otto and myself for the rest of our lives. I felt that Otto would be best served by being completely independent of me and of the kind of work in which we had been so closely collaborating. I advised [MIT] that I had nothing further to suggest.42

Otto happily accepted the Minnesota offer, and Frank merrily went on his way to MIT. The two brothers would maintain close contact over many years to come, but the maneuverings that brought Otto tenure would, in a sense, be Frank's last act as a big brother. From this point forward, Frank and Otto's association shifted toward a relationship between equals.

War Work

During the same month that Otto leaped from instructor to associate professor at Minnesota, he received a letter from Vannevar Bush appointing him as an "Official Investigator" for the National Defense Research Committee "in connection with the contract between the Committee and the University of Minnesota."43 In June 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had established a federal organization under Bush's leadership to coordinate and fund scientific work that held potential for military application. This federal entity was known as the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC) during the first year of its existence; in June 1941, the NDRC evolved into the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) with greater power and funding-Bush's hand remained firmly at the helm of American science throughout the war to come.

According to Schmitt's recollection, his "biophysical science missions had to be mothballed" soon after he received Bush's letter. Instead, he set to work on developing "solid state electronic controls and measurements via the Uranium Semiconductor Thermistor strategy" as part of the NDRC contract with the University of Minnesota. Schmitt underwent investigation by the FBI to gain security clearance, and his highly classified research at Minnesota took place in new "'secure' laboratory quarters in the sub-basement" of the Physics Building, where, in Schmitt's words, "we had the bare earth floor concreted and built a 'Dungeon.'" By this point, Viola had become a valuable-yet unofficial-research assistant for Otto; however, the strict standards of secret military research did not allow for informal participants. And Minnesota's anti-nepotism rules, which were then common at universities, made hiring Viola a tricky proposition. Otto later recalled a clever-if rather exploitive-solution to this conundrum: "my wife had to be hired on the project in order to obtain military clearance but at a salary of zero dollars per year to meet Minnesota nepotism rules."44

John Tate, the prominent physicist who had brought Otto to Minnesota in the fall of 1939, had, meanwhile, taken a leave from the university to head the OSRD division for antisubmarine warfare research. Soon after the official entry of the United States into the war in December 1941-with German U-boats sinking American ships on the Atlantic at a devastating rate-Tate called Schmitt to join his research team. In late January 1942, Schmitt was granted a leave of absence from Minnesota so that he could answer Tate's call. Otto initially moved to Rhode Island near Quonset Point Naval Base, where a group of PBY "Catalina" amphibious bombers were based. Tate had come to know Schmitt's amazing facility with electrical engineering, his unusually creative approach to problem-solving, and the young investigator's broad scope of scientific knowledge; he must have been optimistic that Schmitt would make valuable contributions to the crucial technical challenge of finding Nazi submarines as they lurked beneath the surface of the Atlantic. Schmitt quickly proved his worth. As he later recalled: "Within one month we were able to get into the air working MAD prototype detector systems depending upon sensing the tiny magnetic anomalies in the earth's field due to the presence of a steel submarine."45 Schmitt's central role in developing the MAD (Magnetic Anomaly Detector or, sometimes, Magnetic Airborne Detector) system is especially impressive given that he had previously shown no particular interest in terrestrial magnetism. 


Over the next few months, Schmitt worked to further refine MAD devices along the way, he learned to fly the Navy PBY aircraft in which the prototype MAD components were installed for testing. Occasionally, he went on actual missions over the Atlantic in bombers outfitted with equipment he had designed. In the summer of 1942, Schmitt and a few of his early wartime colleagues transferred to Mineola, Long Island, to form the core staff of a new, top-secret research facility, the Airborne Instruments Laboratory (AIL). the Airborne Instruments Laboratory
An exterior photograph of the Airborne Instruments Laboratory in Mineola, New York (reprinted from Newsday, 24 April 1946, p. 24).


Sometime in the midst of this move, Otto convinced AIL administrators that his wife would make a valuable addition to the research staff. In early June 1942 Otto wrote to Viola suggesting the plan. She left Minneapolis for Mineola at the end of the month-no doubt eager to join her husband in the lab and in the house he had leased just down the road from the AIL building. Initially, she was the only woman on a research staff of more than one hundred; by the end of the war, only one additional female would join the AIL ranks.46  

Viola Schmitt
Viola Schmitt working at AIL (reprinted from Newsday, 24 April 1946, p. 24).


As 1942 wore into 1943, the menace of Nazi submarines diminished in the Atlantic-largely due to the effectiveness of MAD systems mounted in many American bombers. Otto,  who was named supervising engineer in charge of the AIL Special Devices Division, turned his talents toward myriad other technical projects of a military nature. A full accounting of Schmitt's work during this period is difficult because of the vale of secrecy that shrouded his efforts, but a few examples serve to capture the broad scope of his engineering labors.  Otto Schmitt
Otto Schmitt (right) examining a piece of equipment with an AIL colleague (reprinted from Newsday, 24 April 1946, p. 24).

Otto developed "deGaussing" techniques to minimize the magnetic signature of a ship, which reduced detection by the enemy and diminished the threat of magnetically activated mines; he designed a realistic flight simulator that was eventually used to train hundreds of naval aviators; he devised radio antennas for high-speed aircraft that functioned without creating excessive aerodynamic drag; and he worked on techniques to jam enemy radio signals (see Sidebar 3). 

Sidebar 3: Unconventional Warfare
Otto Schmitt's 1994 recounting of this tale from his wartime days at Airborne Instruments Laboratory shows that he brought his sense of creative mischief even to the deadly serious business of air combat:
"How do you prevent a several thousand watt radar station from communicating with its fighter pilots, directing them as to where to find our bombers? Our bombers had only a little transmitter in them. What should we modulate those transmitters with to keep the fighter planes confused?
"I came up with a very simple solution to this, which worked remarkably well. Wire recorders were brand new then; it was before tape recording. We had our people go to the various military camps and get the dirtiest barracks stories (and apparently military people have the filthiest of all possible stories), translate them into German, wire record them, and use that on the wavelength of the [German] instructions on where to find the [American] bombers. And those fighter pilots just couldn't avoid listening to that filth; they just couldn't listen to their instructions with those stories going on. It worked. It gave us about a 20 dB advantage over just plain, sheer noise."47


Schmitt also worked on the development of a device that enabled the visual presentation of electronic data in three dimensions through stereoscopic viewing of side-by-side cathode-ray oscilloscopes. Otto-with mathematical assistance from Viola-configured this apparatus to work in conjunction with radar, allowing for the three-dimensional display of radar images from a variety of perspectives. An article on the invention published in the St. Paul Pioneer Press after the war offered the following explication of the complex machine: Otto Schmitt
Otto Schmitt peering into an instrument employing side-by-side cathode-ray oscilloscopes (reprinted from the St. Paul Pioneer Press, 18 June 1948).

Schmitt's invention, coupled to radar . . . will not only allow the radar to pick up the oncoming airplane, but it will move its point of vision and take a look at the plane from all angles.

All this is done by the turning of a few dials. . . . From then on the electric mind of the apparatus whirls into action and in a split-second performs difficult problems of mathematics.

In turning the dials, the operator actually tells the machine the location from which he wishes to view the plane. The result is a three-dimensional picture seen from the point the operator has chosen.

This mobility allows the observers viewpoint to change so that he can: Look down on the plane from above, up from below, or to move over and take a look from alongside.48

Schmitt was eventually granted numerous patents for inventions he contrived while working at AIL. He assigned his rights for these patents to the United States government, and he presumably filed the applications at the insistence of AIL administrators. Schmitt himself had been granted one previous patent during his final semester as an undergraduate at Washington University. He later reported to a colleague that an unpleasant run-in with a bullying lawyer from a corporation, which he believed was infringing on his patent, had soured him on the arduous patent-application process.49 His attitude toward patents also draws attention to a fundamental aspect of Schmitt's character: he was emphatically not motivated by dreams of wealth. Two comments made by Schmitt later in life serve to further emphasize this important point:

I invent to accomplish a job, perform a task. If I wanted to make money off these things, I'd have to go into business, and I don't want to do that.50


I've never wanted to be a businessman. I didn't want to make money; I always wanted to advance ideas. I could have made a lot of money by starting business, but I did not want to.51

When World War II ended in August 1945, AIL did not cease operation. On 1 September 1945, the government-owned research facility became "AIL, Inc."-a privately held corporation. But AIL administrators had established this private enterprise largely at the urging of high-ranking Navy officials who predicted-correctly-that military competition with the Soviet Union would quickly replace World War II as a national defense emergency.52 Without making a move, Otto and Viola switched from war research to cold war research. Otto summarized his situation in a letter dated 30 September 1946: "Military pressure to continue and to complete certain phases of this work did not ease with the end of the war but instead has increased sharply during the last few months and it is because of this declared urgency that I am still at the Airborne Instruments Laboratory."53

Back to Minnesota

Toward the end of 1946, Otto and Viola finally arranged to extract themselves from AIL and made preparations for a March 1947 return to Minnesota.54 J. W. Buchta, who remained head of the physics department at Minnesota was, of course, aware of these plans. Editors at the Minneapolis Star decided to prepare a piece for the paper's 1947 New Year's Day edition centering on a pair of questions that epitomized widespread anxieties of the new Atomic Age: "Will science, during 1947, uncover new instruments to push civilization closer to the precipice of destruction?" and "How will researchers in the field of physics-who developed the atomic bomb-fare in the new year?" A reporter from the Star approached Buchta for comments on these questions. In general, Buchta predicted a bright-and peaceful-future for physics. In particular, he pointed to the growing relationship between physics and medicine as the "most hopeful augury for the future" of physics. As a "signpost" of this trend, Buchta referred specifically to "the approaching return of Dr. Otto Schmitt to the university faculty under a unique, joint appointment in biology and physics." The reporter drew a sharp contrast-with some help from a typesetter inclined toward the use of boldface-between Schmitt's wartime work and his impending return to Minnesota:

Schmitt has been on leave of absence for four years during which he has been associated with many major military developments.
When he resumes his university work, he will devote his efforts to strictly affirmative pursuits to help mankind.55

If financial security had been the primary concern of Otto and Viola Schmitt, they almost certainly would have remained at AIL. When AIL became a private corporation in September 1945, Otto and Viola were awarded salaries of $6,600 and $3,900, respectively. At Minnesota, Otto returned to an annual compensation package of $4,300 as an associate professor, and Viola was once again relegated to the role of unpaid assistant.56 Otto was quite likely happy-at a superficial level-in his work at AIL. As he admitted in a revelatory letter written after his return to Minnesota, he had a "love of 'gadgeteering' and applied science." But he had come to see his facility with gadgeteering as related to a "weakness" for becoming "immediately and perpetually immersed in a continual flow of practical problems of immediate importance." Otto and Viola Schmitt returned to Minnesota with the hope that they could pursue a higher vision, untempted and unperturbed by distractions:

There is … one factor … which caused me to return & here from an interesting and permanent engineering position at a sacrifice of some fifty percent in income. This is the persistent belief that fundamental biological phenomena can be understood in relatively simple physical and chemical terms once the painstaking effort has been made to study them adequately by quantitative biophysical methods.57

Otto Schmitt would remain as a full-time faculty member at the University of Minnesota for the duration of his long career, with two major transitions in status: in 1949, he was named full professor; in 1983, when he reached the age of 70 (mandatory retirement age at the time), he became professor emeritus. A complete catalogue of his many research activities during these years is not practical within the confines of this relatively brief biographical treatment. Two major areas of investigation stand out, however, and serve to illustrate his central concern with a thoroughgoing biophysical approach in his work. After his days at AIL, he returned to the detailed inquiries of nerve function that he had begun as a graduate student. In the spring of 1950, he offered an explanation of this line of investigation to a visiting reporter:

It's just about been proved that a nerve carries impulses to and from the brain electrically, on coaxial cables, much like those used in television but on a miniature scale. We are trying to find out how the nerve puts in the energy to keep the impulses going. Our analysis tells us some details about the conversion of the energy in a live nerve. It tells us there is a definite surface in the nerve where liberation of electric energy takes place. It also tells us something about the speed of the reaction involved: when, during the nerve action, the energy is liberated, and the kind of electric system from which it comes. From this information we can begin to relate the electric to the biochemical and physical-chemical processes which are somewhat better understood.58  

In 1950, Schmitt projected accurately that his research on this front would continue for at least ten more years. During this span,  Otto, Viola, and various graduate students made several additional summer trips to Woods Hole, where they could gain access to the coveted giant axons of squid, which did not survive transport to the midwest. At Minnesota, Schmitt's research team extracted nerve fibers for their tests from several hardier species including lobsters, which, Schmitt joked, "serve[d] science in more ways than one": "Their nerves go to research and what's left of them goes to satisfying the appetites and building up the morale of the researchers!"59 Otto Schmitt
Otto Schmitt working with two graduate students on equipment designed to explore the nature of nerve transmission. Viola Schmitt is in the foreground taking notes (reprinted from The Minnesotan, vol. 3, April 1950, p. 1).


The other major focal point of Schmitt's postwar research centered on an effort to transfer technology that he had initially developed at AIL for military purposes to his preferred area of activity: biomedicine. Essentially, he took the three-dimensional oscilloscope that he had originally employed for the presentation of radar images and attempted to apply this to an improvement in the visual display of electrocardiographs. Schmitt decided "to go the Europeans one better with their long compound names," when he termed the resulting machine the stereovectorelectrocardiograph; an abbreviated label, SVEC, soon emerged for obvious practical reasons. Over a number of years, Schmitt and his assistants developed and refined the SVEC; however, the basic idea behind the technology, as outlined by a reporter in 1950, persisted:

The principle behind the electrocardiograph is this: When muscles of the heart contract, electric currents are generated. These currents flow to all parts of the body. The electrocardiograph picks them up through electrodes, or "leads," attached to six points on the body. The electric currents (and thus the contraction of the heart muscles) are represented in the form of a mathematical curve on a tape of graph paper, automatically traced by a moving pen hooked up to the electrodes. . . .

Now, the Schmitt heart machine goes a step further than the standard electrocardiograph. It has a built-in computer which, when attached to an oscilloscope or a camera, provides a picture of the heart voltage as it exists in space-in three dimensions instead of one.60

Addressing cardiologists in 1962, Schmitt clarified an additional important feature of the SVEC. A small computer built into the machine, which he dubbed "the spatial resolver," allowed the three-dimensional electrical image of the heart to "be turned this way and that, as if held in the hands."61

Schmitt published numerous reports on his investigations, but, as his career developed, he became decreasingly concerned with communicating his ideas in written form. A former colleague observed that Otto was "not a prolific writer," but was instead "an 'idea' man" whose lab was "like a Mecca to electrocardiographers and biomedical engineers, who came to seek new ideas."62 Toward the end of his life, Otto became more systematic about distributing his ideas to others (see Sidebar 4). The sole book in Schmitt's bibliography is also emblematic of this tendency toward verbal rather than written scientific communication. Electronic and Computer-Assisted Studies of Bio-Medical Problems is in fact a verbatim transcript of a three-day meeting that Schmitt organized in September 1961 (with funding from the U.S. Public Health Service).63

Sidebar 4: Idea Stealing Program
As he told an interviewer in 1991, Otto became convinced late in life that the most effective way to distribute his many ideas was to allow them to be stolen:
"Let me tell you about the 'idea stealing program.' This is the most rewarding thing. There are a lot of people who are very eager and competent and intelligent; they're good money managers, they're promoters, salesmen, but they don't have anything to promote. . . . If you receive one of these eager fellows who come in and talk about themselves and how bright they are, if you give one of these people the new idea-something well worth developing- it'll be rejected. Do you know why? They just can't see it is of any good if it is just given to them. But, if you act just a little stupid, fumble around the ball, and expose this new idea under the covers of being a little dumb, if they get this idea, they will run and just steal it. So I can get ideas stolen up to about one a month by these people who are entrepreneurs, who are active politicians. And so it's one way . . . of disseminating new things. This is a marketing technique where what I want to do is to get the thing in service to people without having to do all the financial and governmental mess for it."64

Soon after Schmitt's return to Minnesota from AIL, he established a "semiformal biophysics faculty in the Graduate School … in order to provide a vehicle for students doing Master's or Ph.D. degrees in the multidiscipline of Biophysical Science." The course-work requirements for these advanced degrees was minimal, but the path toward a Ph.D. was especially rigorous, "requiring proof of basic competence at about the Master's level in the basic Biological , Physical, and Mathematical or Computational fields."65 Schmitt recognized the imperative to get a graduate student "into productive science before he is middle aged."66 Nonetheless, among students at Minnesota, Schmitt had a reputation for leading a slow-but fascinating-crawl toward the completion of a doctoral degree.67 Roughly thirty students did manage to finish their doctoral degrees under Schmitt during his long tenure at Minnesota. In 1993, he reflected on the group with almost paternal pride: "It's remarkable how many of these students have become productive and famous in their own areas. And, they keep coming back-each time with new titles."68

During the final decades of his teaching career, most of his classroom contact with students took place in a Biophysics Course that he taught each year. He employed an unconventional teaching style, which he described in the following terms: 

I let my students teach me. I raise questions, and then we explore them. It's surprising how different it is from simply preaching. Pretty soon a student will go off and research a topic further, and eventually somebody is doing a thesis on it.69

At the end of his courses, Schmitt would present his students with an exam consisting of three or four notoriously difficult questions-which may or may not have been explicitly covered during class meetings. In keeping with Schmitt's principle of self-directed learning, he expected his students to spend time in the library to produce acceptable test answers.70

In 1981, Schmitt asserted that he had "carefully avoided formation of a Biophysics Department [emphasis his]" at the University of Minnesota because "this entity would have to reside in one or another school or college and would thus lose the symmetrical multidisciplinary aspect of the program."71 A report titled "Expansion of the University of Minnesota Program in Biophysics," which Schmitt prepared for university administrators during the 1959/60 academic year, suggests that Schmitt did harbor departmental dreams earlier in his career. Indeed, the document contains an explicit statement of such sentiments: "Ultimately a greatly strengthened biophysics program is envisioned which will probably involve the establishment of a Department of Biophysics within the University structure."72

Otto Herbert Schmitt had many talents, but skillful maneuvering within the byzantine politics of a large university was not among them. Rather than an academic empire, Schmitt created a personal fiefdom-and his territory was filled with electrical equipment. Almost every one of the various profiles published about Schmitt during the later stages of his career are accompanied by a portrait of him before a bewildering array of laboratory apparatus.  The south half of the Physics Building basement served as the initial locus of his postwar operations. In 1965, he transferred to "greatly increased space" in ten rooms of a World War II-era "temporary" structure. These labs in Temporary North Court Engineering (TNCE) served as headquarters for Schmitt until his shift to emeritus status in 1983. At that point, Otto (and Viola) took up diminished professional lodgings in the basement of the old Music Education Building.73

As Otto Schmitt progressed past middle age at the University of Minnesota, some of the distinctive aspects of his personality came to have decidedly eccentric manifestations (see Sidebar 5). Schmitt also developed a love for linguistic license that some of his peers found frustrating. One of his colleagues vividly recounted this tendency:

I became aware of a game that Otto played. When he had an idea to propose, he couched it in obscure language. On many occasions I heard him propound these ideas to people who nodded politely without having the faintest idea of what Otto was saying. [Someone] assumed the role of asking Otto to explain what he meant. Otto would then rephrase his idea in a more intelligible form. [Someone] then asked for further clarification, and finally we got a statement which we understood. Almost invariably it was a solid idea.74

Sidebar 5: Eccentric Manifestations
On Otto's pockets:
"His pockets bulge with the essentials of everyday life. He carries with him three watches, one on each wrist and a penwatch in his pocket ('you have to have a nonreplicate redundancy tiebreaker'); several rulers; a flashlight ('to light up the page on conference programs when they have the lights out!'); a 2-inch-high stack of membership cards for the various organizations throughout the world to which he belongs; a handful of multicolor pens; a stack of index cards filled with reminders and addresses of friends and former students he'd like to contact; a surgical knife; a Navy electrician's knife; a lighted magnifying glass; and packaged tasties, all keeping company with the usual keys, airline tickets, and money."75

On Otto's tie clips:
"He had several working tie clips, including one with a slide rule, one with an abacus, and one with a gun which could be charged with gunpowder. On several occasions he brought dead silence to a large gathering by firing the gun."76

On Otto's eating habits:
"He loved to eat and a great variety, once he boasted that he could have a different breakfast 125 days in a row. His penchant for fun and mischief came out also re food, e.g. he told with delight of serving chocolate covered grasshoppers or canned rattlesnake to unsuspecting guests. After they expressed pleasure he would tell them what they had eaten and then they would no longer like it."77

On Otto's Rogues Gallery:
"Many years ago he obtained an advanced version of the Polaroid camera. He uses later models of the camera to photograph visitors for his 'Rogues Gallery.' His 13 photo albums include over 2,000 pictures and at least six Nobel Prize winners."78

On Otto's day-to-day data gathering:
"Schmitt is a . . . man of inordinate curiosity, a data junkie, the consummate empiricist. He calls it 'keeping track of the world.' . . . 

"Schmitt's laboratory . . . is wired so that every time a door is opened, a graph in his office records exactly when the door was opened and how long it stayed open. Some of his windows have similar sensors. So do his electrical outlets. Those are connected to a master indicator box in the front entranceway. If the coffeepot is left on, Schmitt knows. If the compressors or the distillation system in the lab aren't working, he knows.

"Schmitt also records the instances of all incoming phone calls. He knows if the phone rang while he was away. It registers on another graph.

"'Keeping track' is also part of the reason Schmitt drives a 1962 Jeep and a 1964 Buick (both have 'prosthetic fenders' covered with epoxy fiberglass so they won't rust), each with an altimeter, an accelerometer, an incremental volt meter, an input-output ammeter, and an instantaneous mileage meter."79

Otto's fondness for verbal play included a liberal use of neologisms; one of the many terms that he coined has entered the lexicon of scientists and engineers in a permanent and profound fashion: biomimetics. The term made its first appearance in Webster's Dictionary in 1974, accompanied by the following definition: "the study of the formation, structure, or function of biologically produced substances and materials (as enzymes or silk) and biological mechanisms and processes (as protein synthesis or photosynthesis) especially for the purpose of synthesizing similar products by artificial mechanisms which mimic natural ones."80 This idea had been inherent in Schmitt's own work since the early stages of his career-including his effort to produce a device that explicitly mimicked the electrical action of a nerve for his doctoral research. By 1957, Schmitt had come to perceive what he would later label "biomimetics" as a disregarded-but highly significant-converse of the standard view of biophysics: "Biophysics is not so much a subject matter as it is a point of view. It is an approach to problems of biological science utilizing the theory and technology of the physical sciences. Conversely, biophysics is also a biologist's approach to problems of physical science and engineering, although this aspect has largely been neglected."81

The exact date that Schmitt invented the word "biomimetics" is unclear. However, he used the term at least as early as 1969, when it appeared in the title of a paper he presented at the Third International Biophysics Congress in Boston.82 An informal survey of scientists now engaged in biomimetic science and engineering reveals a minimal level of awareness of Schmitt's linguistic contribution.83 But this is consistent with a purposefully unaggressive approach that he had adopted for the promotion of new concepts. One of Schmitt's articles of faith was "Pavlov's Principle of Gradualness." As a teenager, Otto had registered for an International Physiological Conference that was to be held in Moscow. He had no intention of attending but enjoyed the vicarious thrill of applying to participate. The conference organizers sent Schmitt an envelope filled with meeting materials including an engraved, multi-language version of the "Principle of Gradualness" as conceived by the great Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov, which Schmitt kept posted on his laboratory wall throughout his career.84 Late in life, Schmitt paraphrased this principle as follows: "we must advance new . . . ideas at a rate that will be slightly irritating, but not grossly offensive to existing state of the art masters."85 Schmitt's willingness-even eagerness-to have his best ideas "stolen," as addressed in Sidebar 4, perhaps also partially explains the lack of glory that he has garnered for coining the term "biomimetics." 

Beyond Campus Borders

During the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, Schmitt's work at the University of Minnesota was punctuated by frequent travel for professional engagements across the nation and around the world. In 1960, for example, Schmitt logged 80,577 miles of air travel. A few years later, Viola, who frequently carted Otto to and from the airport, quipped in a letter to her parents that "Willy (the Jeep) should be able to go out there [to the airport] by himself by this time, but I still go along."86

If Schmitt sometimes struggled in his efforts to establish biophysics as a unified discipline with a high degree of visibility at the University of Minnesota, he-somewhat paradoxically-had more success in such efforts at a national and international level. Schmitt played a pivotal role in the founding of a number of professional societies including the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society, the Biophysical Society, the Biomedical Engineering Society, the Association for the Advancement of Medical Instrumentation, the International Federation of Medical and Biological Engineering, and the International Union of Pure and Applied Biophysics. He also played an important part in a successful push to obtain a disciplinary funding source for biophysics from the National Institutes of Health with the establishment of the NIH Biophysics Study Section in the mid-1950s.87 

Schmitt's political effectiveness on a national and international level arose largely from his clear and compelling vision for biophysics as a discipline (see Sidebar 6). Also it seems likely that colleagues away from his home university would have been more inclined to view Schmitt's eccentricities as harmless and amusing; while some of Otto's fellow faculty members at the University of Minnesota might have found his oddities distracting-perhaps even annoying-during the day-to-day realities of campus life.

Sidebar 6: Biophysics as a Discipline
Otto Schmitt offered a particularly cogent statement on his conception of biophysics as a discipline in an unpublished paper dated 4 May 1957:

"Historically, . . . as subject matter and theory have grown in the sciences, we have seen the creation of one after another specialty, each of which becomes a new subject for subdivision. . . . So far there has been relatively little recondensation of major areas because within our lifetime science . . . has been expanding almost exponentially. There has been mainly splintering, subdivision, and specialization. Knowing the habits of exponentials, . . . you must realize that this process cannot continue very long. Some sciences must die and some must recombine. To date biochemistry is the biggest single area of recombination. . . . 

Biochemistry, the sister science to biophysics, . . . began to grow to prominence in Liebig's time around the middle of [the] last century and is now well established. It has departments in every major school, it has its societies, financial support, and a solid record of achievement.

"Biophysics is just starting to blossom even though its growth started some years ago. We must expect it to expand much as biochemistry did, but I suspect it has even a larger destiny. . . .

"What do biophysicists work on scientifically and technically? I have found it convenient in my own thinking to separate their work into three categories of interests: biophysical structure, biophysical function, and biophysical organization.

"In the first category [biophysical structure], we find such challenging topics as ultrastructure of cells and macromolecules where we hope to learn the atomic and molecular makeup of cells and tissues with the aid of electron microscopy, X-ray diffraction, interference microscopy, and allied techniques. Also included are such contrasting items as the aerodynamic and hydrodynamic design of fishes and birds and the mechanisms of antigen-antibody reactions.

"Under the biodynamics or function category we find much of what is now of concern to physical science oriented physiologists. How does a muscle utilize oxidative energy efficiently at low temperature to produce mechanical movement? Is the mechanism of color vision an antenna design problem rather than a biochemical one? How do crabs keep track of tidal cycles when isolated in a uniformly lighted room away from the sea? What is the oscillatory pulse code modulating mechanism common to vision, hearing, chemical senses and proprioception? Can we design control mechanisms with dual non-linear functions like those of the animal? How can we measure bodily functions accurately with the aid of biophysical instrumentation? Can we utilize artificial links in temporarily disabled biological systems? How can we find simple theoretical principles common to contraction, secretion, electrical generation?

"In the last and most exciting category come problems of brain function, conscious behavior, computer functions, and the whole amazingly effective multiple electric and chemical feedback and feed-ahead system which coordinates the animal, or the plant for that matter."88

Schmitt also served on a number of corporate, military, and government advisory panels during the postwar phase of his career. Two are especially noteworthy. He served as chair of the Armed Forces-National Research Council Bioastronautics Committee from 1958 through 1961-the urgent, early years of the Space Race following the Soviet Sputnik launches of 1957 . Schmitt led this twelve-member panel, which had been established to facilitate communication between scientists and engineers in the military and academic realms on biomedical topics relevant to space exploration. Schmitt's committee had been created with backing from the U.S. Air Force, which was vying in the late 1950s with the newly formed National Aeronautics and Space Administration for bureaucratic authority over the national drive toward manned space flight. In short, NASA won this political turf battle. As a result, a parallel advisory committee affiliated with NASA came to supplant the role of the AF-NRC Bioastronautics Committee in the early 1960s, as Schmitt's tenure as chair came to an end.89

Beginning in 1971, Schmitt chaired a committee established by the American Institute of Biological Sciences at the request of the Navy to examine the possible biological effects of extremely low frequency (ELF) magnetic fields. The question arose when the Navy proposed to assemble a massive system of buried cable that would stretch across much of northern Wisconsin. This ELF installation, which the Navy dubbed Project Sanguine, would provide a worldwide communication link with the nuclear-armed Polaris submarine fleet. Activists of environmental, anti-military, and general not-in-my-backyard leanings had raised the concern that the ELF magnetic fields generated by the proposed system might be harmful to human health or to the ecosystems of northern Wisconsin. During the early 1970s, Schmitt led the deliberations of AIBS committee and initiated his own line of research on the topic. After painstaking investigations in his own laboratory (with assistance from graduate students including Bob Tucker) and careful consideration by his committee, Schmitt "found no evidence that the Sanguine fields constituted any demonstrable or even plausible detrimental [biological] effects."90

Senior Statesman of Science and Engineering

Schmitt's research and extensive professional activities brought him an impressive array of awards and honors during the final decades of his career. In 1960, Schmitt received the Lovelace Foundation Award from the Lovelace Foundation for Medical Education and Research. Schmitt was granted the Morlock Award by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers in 1963. The Franklin Institute presented Schmitt with the John Price Wetherill Medal in 1972. In 1978, Schmitt was inducted into the Minnesota Inventors Hall of Fame. A year later, in 1979, he was elected to the National Academy of Engineering. In 1987, he received both the Centennial Medal from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and the Life Achievement Award from the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society. The Minnesota-based Medical Alley Association presented Schmitt with the Medical Alley Award in 1988. And in 1992 the Association for the Advancement of Medical Instrumentation bestowed its Laufman Prize on Schmitt. 

As Schmitt became increasingly secure in his status as a senior statesman of science and engineering, a persistent personal concern that his intellectual abilities were somehow misspent on mere electrical gadgeteering pushed him toward a greater focus on more socially oriented matters. "What I'm trying to do," he told a newspaper reporter in 1981, "is to bring ideas to bear on the community, not just on gadgets."91 Beginning in the early 1970s, Schmitt was drawn to healthcare policy, which he perceived as a realm in which debates were "usually resolved by adversary policy procedures and judicial eloquence." Viewing such policymaking procedures as irrational and-literally-unhealthy, Schmitt strove toward the "possibility of improving [medicine] significantly, both economically and medically, via algorithmic Biophysical Science insight and research."92

However, within Schmitt's vigorously rational approach to healthcare was an allowance for a real-if not fully understood-relationship between mind and body. He expressed his perception to an interviewer in 1991 that "current medical people do not think that you're able mentally to do major things to your regular health and body functions"; by contrast, Schmitt firmly believed that mind and body "are very heavily related . . . so that much of your sickness and your disease . . . are intimately related to neural phenomena."93 Schmitt's dually mathematical and spiritual approach to health and wellness is perhaps best encapsulated in his Santosha Index, which he developed in the 1970s. "Santosha" is a Sanskrit word meaning "the best combination of all good things." Schmitt designed the Santosha Index to provided a quantitative measure for an individual's quality of life, by combining numerical ratings for various factors including "fear of death, sex drive, fulfillment, business plans, fame, wealth, research goals, ethics, and shared consciousness."94

Schmitt's general interest in paranormal phenomena-which dated back to his childhood experience of his grandmother's death-became more pronounced later in his life. His general stance on the topic was that "there are frauds, but there is also important reality."95 He was willing to take seriously the possibility of some people possessing telekinetic powers. In an interview he spoke of one woman in particular, "a senior psychiatric nurse at Mayo Clinic," who had "discovered she had almost unlimited ability to bend forks simply by wishing it and gently turning them with a finger with no effort." Schmitt asserted that "there's not much doubt about it's being real," but he added: "the magnetic effects-nobody knows about that." However, he went on to offer broad-ranging suppositions informed by a lifetime of work with electromagnetic phenomena: 

I suspect that there is another whole layer of biomathematics dealing with these mental processes-radiation-like phenomena, but probably not just ordinary Maxwell's Equations things. . . . We traditionally think of electromagnetic fields as having an H vector and an E vector and that each generates the other . . . so I came up with this notion that there could be a non-orthogonal electromagnetic field which of course wouldn't really bother with the shielded wires and so on, have different properties, and that Maxwell simply hadn't run his mathematics into these special mathematics.96

Perhaps foremost among his late-life goals was a desire to pass on his open-minded, creative, and rational approach to problem-solving. He worked about once a month with local sixth graders in a high-achievement program to expose them to what he termed "mental jogging." Drawing on a conversation with Schmitt, a reporter offered the following explanation of this analytic technique:

"Mental jogging" involves approaching any problem "simultaneously down three paths to tackle it in three different ways." The three paths, Schmitt said, are high level philosophy, "just feelings," and technical facts-and if all of the answers received to a particular problem are identical when approached from all three directions, "you can be pretty sure you are right. If you don't get a consensus, do your homework over."97

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Schmitt imagined an elaborate institutional manifestation for his vision of improved creativity and accelerated invention, which he called a Center for Innovation and Technology Utilization or CITU (see Sidebar 7). Although Schmitt's CITU proposal would remain unfulfilled, the details of the plan stand as testament to the broad scope of his late-life interests.

Sidebar 7: Innovation Center Proposal
Schmitt on his proposed Center for Innovation and Technology Utilization:

Election to the National Academy of Engineering a few years ago opened up direct access to glaring evidence of our deplorable state of technological and social misuse of resources, both technical and environmental, but even more important, of human resources in our competitive battle to keep ahead of internal and external competition. . . .

Out of this examination has emerged the skeleton of a design for a local microcosmic test of theory applied to this area of social science, health science, technology, law and public opinion. It is more than a little related to marketing and regulation as well.

Minnesota happens to be an ideal local region in which to test the feasibility of a Biophysical Science devised approach to this problem. We have high technology and computer industry but also agriculture and manufacture. We have a locally accessible state and local government as well as a large and diversified University representing academia as well as R & D.

Based somewhat on this theory and the invention theory, and taking large pieces out of the success patterns of rapidly progressive foreign nations-European and Asiatic-a compendium of design for a CITU or Center for Innovation and Technology Utilization has been evolved. This design emphasizes strong and transponsive cooperative interaction between the University, local industry and commerce along with direct participation by government and regulatory agency representatives.

This class of interactive center requires development of strongly catalytic procedures that retain autonomy while encouraging exchange. . . . This CITU proposal can be thought of as a massive popularized attempt to initiate a national program based on several decades of development of the Unified Biophysical Sciences concept.

Proposed Functions of Innovation Center 

1. To provide technically competent screening service for evaluating proposed system, device, or service designs, professionally qualified supplementation of such designs, and approval.

2. To provide forums for synthesis of societally and community beneficial systems inventions and their innovation.

3. To provide marketing services for center-developed results, be they devices, systems, services or even figures of thought. 

4. To provide utility patent, copyright, trademark service; patent worthiness evaluation, office actions, searches, licensing, regulatory negotiations, confidentiality decisions. Much of this is available inexpensively through industry. 

5. To make jurisdictional assignment and provide referee service within the umbrella of center participants. 

6. To support "birddogging" within government, industry and academic resources to initiate and carry out basic as well as applied research relevant to approved projects. 

7. Provision of multiple-user or uniquely needed service facilities to do the modern equivalent of a central shops function, e.g. dedicated microcomputer cobble-up shop. 

8. Legislative, industrial and community lobbying service, or more discretely stated, an information and news service. 

9. A service location service to find for a particular client or problem; who knows, who can do, who has access to, needed information or facilities. 

10. A service to develop policy and decision procedures in awarding "consultant benefits," awards, patents, regulations within center financial and other resources. 

11. To provide mechanisms for recruiting potentially participating organizations and individuals. 

12. To provide a working group to develop problem conforming language and figures of thought-mathematical, computer, or narrative-in which problems become succinctly clear and tractable. 

13. To provide legal and liability services for participating individuals and organizational units participating. 

14. To establish a working study to develop community and citizen "quality of life" based optimizing procedures to established dimensioned and scaled estimators of acceptable risks and optimal choice of technologically accessible options. 

15. To provide a standards and regulating drafting service to generate scientifically sound yet industrially and politically attractive verbiage for proposed regulation or legislation. 98

The Final Years

Viola Schmitt died unexpectedly during the night on 24 March 1994. For almost 57 years, she had been Otto's loving wife and faithful research assistant. The couple never had children, and their lives together revolved almost entirely around Otto's work. Indeed, there seems to have been no sharp boundary in their relationship between the professional and the domestic spheres. They also enjoyed a genuine bond of love and affection throughout their long marriage. A former student and colleague recalls that he would often spot Otto and Viola walking home hand-in-hand after they had spent a day together at the lab.

In a real sense, Viola's death marked the beginning of the end of Otto's life. He lived for almost four more years, but he struggled to maintain himself at work and at home without the support that he had come to depend on from Viola. In the final years of Schmitt's life, it also became increasingly clear to family and friends that he was suffering from the mental deterioration associated with Alzheimer's Disease. He spent his final days in a Minneapolis nursing home and died on 6 January 1998-four months short of his 85th birthday.


Otto Herbert Schmitt is most widely known as the inventor of the Schmitt trigger, which he developed as a graduate student in the mid-1930s. He remained an active scientist, engineer, and intellectual until the mid-1990s-six decades that brimmed with energy, effort, and insights. Viewing his life in full context suggests that the Schmitt trigger was a mere prelude to his greatest innovation, which Schmitt fully articulated near the end of his career: the concept of a biomimetic approach to science and engineering-an idea rather than a gadget.

Note on Sources

A reasonably complete bibliography of Schmitt's published writings can be found on the Schmitt Biomimetic Charitable Foundation website. Tom Young provided me with copies of most of Schmitt's published pieces through the mid-1960s. I also had access to various published accounts of Schmitt's career including newspaper articles, brief biographical pieces published in magazines and journals, and a number of obituaries published on the occasion of Schmitt's death (all of which I have cited somewhere in my own article). Ellen Kuhfeld provided me with a videotape copy of a very informative autobiographical presentation that Otto gave at the Pavek Museum of Broadcasting in 1994. The memoir published by Schmitt's brother, The Never-Ceasing Search, is also very helpful, especially on Otto's early life. An unpublished history of Otto's family and youth prepared by Kenneth Young also proved invaluable in constructing the early years of this biography. Ken also provided a thick file of newspaper clippings from Otto Schmitt's personal papers, photocopies of several pivotal pieces of correspondence, some other important unpublished documents, and interview notes and transcripts. Young has made an initial pass through the voluminous personal papers that remain from Schmitt's life, and I benefited from having a copy of his notes from this foray. For this relatively small-scale biography, I did not engage in a full review of Otto Schmitt's personal papers and artifacts. That worthy task awaits an archivist or historian. 


1 Charles Alma Buers, "Electricity at the St. Louis Exposition," The American Inventor, 15 May 1904, as reproduced at "Terry's 1904 World's Fair Page,"

2 Kenneth Young, "Otto Herbert Schmitt" (photocopy provided by Kenneth Young), pp. 1-3. The document is undated, but internal evidence makes clear that Young wrote the piece after Otto Schmitt's death in 1998.

3 Francis O. Schmitt, The Never-Ceasing Search (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1990), pp. 5-6. Francis was the older brother of Otto H. Schmitt.

4 Young, "Otto Herbert Schmitt," pp. 14-15.

5 Young, "Otto Herbert Schmitt," pp. 3-4, 12 and F. O. Schmitt, Never Ceasing Search, pp. 6-7.

6 Young, "Otto Herbert Schmitt," p. 13. Otto Schmitt stopped using his second middle initial ("A."-for "Arnold") in the mid-1930s. Young explains that Otto disliked "Arnold" because he thought it had "a traitorous ring."

7 Kenneth Young's notes on Otto H. Schmitt's presentation to the Theosophical Society, "Reminiscences on a Singular Life," 20 May 1991 (photocopy provided by Kenneth Young).

8 Young, "Otto Herbert Schmitt," p. 13. I am also grateful to Kenneth Young for providing a photocopy of Schmitt's transcript from Garfield Elementary School.

9 Otto H. Schmitt, Autobiographical Presentation, Annual Radio Workshop, Pavek Museum of Broadcasting, Minneapolis, 16 January 1994, videocassette recording (I am grateful to Ellen Kuhfeld of The Bakken Library and Museum, Minneapolis, for providing a copy of this videocassette); Jill S. Williams, "Laufman Prize Winner Otto Herbert Schmitt: Man of Ideas," Biomedical Instrumentation & Technology (November/December 1992): 452; and Young, "Otto Herbert Schmitt," p. 15.

10 Young, "Otto Herbert Schmitt," p. 15.

11 Young, "Otto Herbert Schmitt," pp. 1-2, and Bill DeLaittre to Jon Harkness, email messages, 6, 11, and 12 June 2001.

12 Young, "Otto Herbert Schmitt," pp. 4-6, and F. O. Schmitt, Never Ceasing Search, pp. 8-9.

13 F. O. Schmitt, Never Ceasing Search, pp. 71-82, and Otto Schmitt's transcript from Roosevelt High School, St. Louis (photocopy provided by Kenneth Young).

14 Otto H. Schmitt, interview, 10 December 1991 (photocopied transcript provided by Kenneth Young), p. 4. The interviewer is not indentified.

15 Young, "Otto Herbert Schmitt," p. 20 and F. O. Schmitt, Never-Ceasing Search, p. 93. Young has based his account, including the specific dates of travel, on a diary maintained from 1929 through 1934 by Otto's mother, Clara Schmitt, which is in his possession.

16 O. H. Schmitt's Roosevelt High School transcript, and F. O. Schmitt, Never-Ceasing Search, pp. 95-98, 114.

17 "The Radio Workshop [based on a presentation by Otto Schmitt on 16 January 1994]," Pavek Museum of Broadcasting Newsletter, vol. 5, no. 1 (January-March 1994).

18 F. O. Schmitt, Never-Ceasing Search, p. 114, and Young, "Otto Herbert Schmitt," p. 22.

19 Ibid.

20 F. O. Schmitt, Never-Ceasing Search, p. 114.

21 Francis O. Schmitt and Otto H. A. Schmitt, "A Vacuum Tube Method of Temperature Control," Science 73 (13 March 1931): 289-290; Francis O. Schmitt and Otto H. A. Schmitt, "The Nature of the Nerve Impulse: The Effect of Cyanides upon Medullated Nerves," American Journal of Physiology 97 (May 1931): 302-314; Otto H. A. Schmitt and Francis O. Schmitt, "A Precision Aperiodic Thermostat," Review of Scientific Instruments 3 (September 1932): 467-473; Otto H. A. Schmitt and Francis O. Schmitt, "A Universal Precision Stimulator," Science 76 (7 October 1932): 328-330; Otto H. A. Schmitt, "A Method for Realizing the Full Amplification Factor of High Mu Tubes," Review of Scientific Instruments 4 (December 1933): 661-664; Francis O. Schmitt, Helen Tredway Graham, and Otto H. A. Schmitt, "Action of Beratrine on Medullated Nerve," Proceedings of the Society for Experimental Biology and Medicine 31 (1934): 768-770; Otto H. A. Schmitt, "An Entirely Non-Mechanical Method for the Production of Automatically Synchronized Voltages for the Spreading of the Oscillograph Beam and for Stimulation," American Journal of Physiology 34 (1 July 1934): 94; and Otto H. A. Schmitt, "An Automatically Regulated Precision High Voltage Source," Review of Scientific Instruments 5 (December 1934): 435-437.

22 F. O. Schmitt, Never-Ceasing Search, p. 96.

23 F. O. Schmitt, Never-Ceasing Search, pp. 114-115.

24 "Washington University: The School of Graduate Studies: Final Examination of Otto Herbert Arnold Schmitt, A.B., Washington University, 1934, for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy" (photocopy of examination program provided by Kenneth Young).

25 Otto H. Schmitt, "A Simple Differential Amplifier," Review of Scientific Instruments 8 (April 1937): 126-127. Although Schmitt arrived at his version of the differential amplifier independently, L. A. Geddes has recently pointed out that a few others developed a similar device at around the same time: L.A. Geddes, "Who Invented the Differential Amplifier?" IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Magazine 15 (May/June 1996): 116-117.

26 F. O. Schmitt, Never-Ceasing Search, pp. 61-62, 71-94.

27 Otto H. Schmitt to Prof. A. V. Hill, 6 May 1937 (photocopy provided by Kenneth Young).

28 F. O. Schmitt, Never-Ceasing Search, p.116.

29 Viola E. Schmitt, "Questionnaire: Soldan High School Fiftieth Year Class Reunion," 1980 (photocopy provided by Kenneth Young).

30 O. H. Schmitt, interview, 10 December 1991, p. 7.

31 Frank and Otto's work at Woods Hole later resulted in a publication: Francis O. Schmitt and Otto H. Schmitt, "Partial Excitation and Variable Conduction in the Squid Giant Axon," Journal of Physiology 98, no. 1 (1940): 26-46.

32 Otto H. Schmitt, "An Adventure toward Development of the New Biophysical Science and Technology," April 1981 (photocopy provided by Kenneth Young), p. 2.

33 Otto H. Schmitt, "A Thermionic Trigger," Journal of Scientific Instruments 15 (January 1938): 24-26. A useful but highly technical review of the Schmitt trigger can be found in Bryan Hart, "Picturing Schmitt's Trigger," Electronics World (December 1999): 1040-1046.

34 O. H. Schmitt, "An Adventure," p. 2-3.

35 O. H. Schmitt, interview, 10 December 1991, p. 7 and O. H. Schmitt, Autobiographical Presentation, 16 January 1994.

36 Kenneth Young, notes on Schmitt Papers (photocopy provided by Kenneth Young). This multi-page, handwritten document represents the personal notations made by Young as he made an initial review of the voluminous personal papers of Otto Schmitt.

37 Young, notes on Schmitt Papers, and O. H. Schmitt, "An Adventure," p. 3.

38 O. H. Schmitt, "An Adventure," pp. 3-4.

39 Otto Schmitt to Frank Schmitt, 21 October 1939, as quoted in Young, notes on Schmitt Papers.

40 F. O. Schmitt, Never-Ceasing Search, pp. 119, 124.

41 Young, notes on Schmitt Papers.

42 F. O. Schmitt, Never-Ceasing Search, pp. 124-125.

43 Vannevar Bush to Otto Schmitt, 8 March 1941 (photocopy provided by Kenneth Young).

44 O. H. Schmitt, "An Adventure," p. 4.

45 O. H. Schmitt, "An Adventure," pp. 4-5.

46 O. H. Schmitt, "An Adventure," p. 5; V. E. Schmitt, "Questionnaire"; Young, notes on Schmitt Papers; and Helen Dudar, "Reveal War Service of 'Mystery Building,'" Newsday, 24 April 1946, pp. 3, 24-25, 46

47 O. H. Schmitt, Autobiographical Presentation, 16 January 1994.

48 "U Expert Perfects 'Miracle' Machine-Radar Taught New Tricks," St. Paul Pioneer Press, 18 June 1948.

49 David B. Geselowitz, "In Memoriam: Otto H. Schmitt," Annals of Biomedical Engineering 26 (1998): 739-740

50 Anthony P. Carideo, "Patently fine: He takes an inventive approach to the growing field of bioengineering," Minneapolis Star, 16 June 1981, p. 4C.

51 O. H. Schmitt, interview, 10 December 1991, p. 5.

52 D. M. Miller, "August 31, 1945," AIL Record 1 (September 1955): 5.

53 Otto H. Schmitt to H. M. Chadwell, 30 September 1946 (photocopy provided by Kenneth Young).

54 Young, notes on Schmitt Papers.

55 "Scientist Predicts Closer Medicine, Physics Link," Minneapolis Star, 1 January 1947.

56 Young, notes on Schmitt Papers.

57 Otto H. Schmitt to Sherwood Moore, 2 April 1948 (photocopy provided by Kenneth Young).

58 "How does a nerve work? One of the secrets of life itself is being studied by U researchers," The Minnesotan 3, (April 1950): 1.

59 "How does a nerve work?" p. 2.

60 "How does a nerve work?" pp. 2, 10.

61 Otto H. Schmitt, "Application of Computers in Cardiovascular Disease," Circulation Research: An Official Journal of the American Heart Association 11 (Sept. 1962): 513.

62 David B. Geselowitz and Pentti M. Rautaharju, "Otto H. Schmitt: Professor Emeritus, Inventor, Biophysicist, Pioneer in Vectorcardiography," Journal of Electrocardiology 31 (1998): 155.

63 Otto H. Schmitt and Cesar A. Caceres, eds., Electronic and Computer-Assisted Studies of Bio-Medical Problems (Springfield, Ill.: Charles C. Thomas, 1964).

64 O. H. Schmitt, interview, 10 December 1991, pp. 11-12.

65 O. H. Schmitt, "An Adventure," pp. 7-8.

66 Otto H. Schmitt, "The Emerging Science of Biophysics," 4 May 1957 (photocopy provided by Kenneth Young), p. 5.

67 Robert P. Patterson, interview by the author, 28 March 2001.

68 "The Right Connections," Items (spring 1993): 27.

69 "Right Connections," p. 27.

70 Patterson, interview.

71 O. H. Schmitt, "An Adventure," p. 8.

72 Otto H. Schmitt, "The Expansion of the University of Minnesota Program in Biophysics," internally dated to 1959/60 academic year (photocopy provided by Kenneth Young).

73 O. H. Schmitt, "An Adventure," pp. 6-7; Jacqueline Hesse, "Retired EE Professor Inspires from Cozy Cluttered Office," Minnesota Daily, 25 June 1990, p. 1; and Bill DeLaittre to Jon Harkness, email message, 6 June 2001.

74 Geselowitz, "In Memoriam," p. 740.

75 Williams, "Laufman Prize," p. 451.

76 Geselowitz, "In Memoriam," p. 740.

77 Kenneth Young to Jon Harkness, email message, 11 June 2001.

78 Williams, "Laufman Prize," p. 451.

79 Carideo, "Patently fine," p. 1C.

80 Merriam-Webster OnLine, s.v. "biomimetics."

81 O. H. Schmitt, "Emerging Science of Biophysics," p. 2.

82 Otto H. Schmitt, "Some Interesting and Useful Biomimetic Transforms," Third International Biophysics Congress, Boston, 29 August-3 September 1969.

83 On 20 June 2001, I submitted a query regarding awareness of Schmitt and his coining of the word biomimetics to an on-line discussion group for scientists and engineers engaged in biomimetics, which is located on the World Wide Web at The query has generated four responses to date (18 July 2001). None of these respondents has expressed a previous awareness of Schmitt or his linguistic invention of biomimetics. Similarly, an electronic search for "Schmitt" in the online archive for this discussion group (which dates back to October 1998) did not generate any relevant hits.

84 O. H. Schmitt, Autobiographical Presentation, 16 January 1994.

85 Otto H. Schmitt to Ray Paton, 12 July 1993 (photocopy provided by Kenneth Young).

86 Viola Schmitt to her parents, 1 April 1966, as quoted in Young, notes on Schmitt Papers. The mileage tally is also taken from Young's notes on Schmitt Papers.

87 O. H. Schmitt, "An Adventure," pp. 11-14; Herman P. Schwan, "Early Organizations of Biomedical Engineering in the U.S.," IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Magazine 12 (September 1993): 25-29; Herman P. Schwan, "Remembering Otto Schmitt," IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Magazine 17 (July/August 1998): 7-9; Geselowitz, "In Memoriam," p. 740; and Williams, "Laufman Prize," p. 449.

88 O. H. Schmitt, "Emerging Science of Biophysics," pp. 2, 5-6.

89 O. H. Schmitt, "An Adventure," pp. 10-11, and John A. Pitts, The Human Factor: Biomedicine in the Manned Space Program to 1980 (Washington: NASA, 1985), pp. vii-xii, 40-41.

90 O. H. Schmitt, "An Adventure," pp. 14-15. and Daniel Burbank, "An Attractive Entity: Bio-Physics Professor Otto Schmitt in his 'Environment,'" Minnesota Technolog 53 (March 1973): 6-7.

91 Carideo, "Patently fine," p. 4C.

92 O. H. Schmitt, "An Adventure," pp. 15-16.

93 O. H. Schmitt, interview, 10 December 1991, p. 15.

94 Williams, "Laufman Prize," p. 452.

95 Williams, "Laufman Prize," p. 451.

96 O. H. Schmitt, interview, 10 December 1991, p. 14.

97 "'Mental Jogging' Boggling," unidentified photocopy of newspaper clipping (provided by Kenneth Young), internal evidence dates the piece to 1979.

98 O. H. Schmitt, "An Adventure," pp. 19-20, and Otto H. Schmitt, "Center for Innovation and Technology Utilization: Design and Documentation, 6 December 1979 (photocopy provided by Kenneth Young).

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