A lifetime of Innovation from One of the “Greatest Generation”
By Matthew Chin and Joe Donahoo
It was 1941, and young Ralph Crump, who was a senior at Long Beach Polytechnic High School, planned to attend UCLA after graduation in June of the next year.
But as with the many millions of Americans, who are part of what former NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw coined the “Greatest Generation,” Ralph Crump’s story first winds through the history of World War II. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Crump, the valedictorian of his class, took a detour from his plans to attend UCLA by serving the country. He went to work in the local shipyards and later applied for a commission in the Navy. He was accepted to the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy (U.S.N.R.), but first went to sea for a year in 1943-44.
Crump was commissioned as an officer, and completed a bachelor of science in marine engineering. He returned to UCLA in 1946 – four years after graduating high school – and still vividly remembers being greeted with, “Welcome Home,” from the woman at the window of the registrar.
Following graduation in 1950 he started working at a specialty chemical company in the San Fernando Valley, spending 12 years there.
Thanks to his ability to invent – and solve critical problems – Crump became a force in the emerging biomedical industry. After extensive work with the semiconductor Bismuth telluride, Crump invented a tiny refrigerator which he developed with Dr. Charles Kelman, a New York ophthalmologist, into a “cryosurgical instrument” that could freeze and extract cataracts safely. Removing cataracts intact is critical, since they may contain toxic fluid that can permanently harm vision if broken. This technique became the state-of-the-art in eye surgery for 16 years.
“We made it easier on the doctor,” he said. “We did what engineering is supposed to do, and that is minimize dependence on manual dexterity. A lot of engineering devices eliminate hard work, anxiety and tremor.”
Despite moving east to access the New York capital markets, Crump maintained close ties to UCLA. He further developed tiny refrigerators for medical procedures for other parts of the body, including the throat and mouth, the prostate, the cervix, and the thalamus. Many of these procedures were pioneered at the UCLA Medical School.
Crump’s company also invented a soft contact lens that was originally intended to deliver drugs safely to the eye. When he learned that the soft lens was more comfortable for the wearer, they marketed soft lenses for cosmetic use.
In the 1970s, one of Crump’s companies developed a line of tiny plastic lenses to be implanted in the human eye directly after a cataract has been removed. Millions of these lenses have been implanted. That division was purchased in 1986 by Johnson & Johnson.
Crump has been awarded 12 patents in various areas, including film lubrication. Crump and wife, Marjorie ’46, who was his high school sweetheart, have founded businesses in rapid prototyping, reverse osmosis water treatment, institutional furniture, bar code printers, and force and load sensors. These were later sold to the likes of Revlon, General Electric, Vishay Intertechnologies, Sorenson Capital Partners, and others.
After decades of working with UCLA doctors and engineers, Ralph and Marjorie Crump generously funded the UCLA Crump Institute for Molecular Imaging, which focuses on developing unique therapies for the treatment of cancer and immune deficiencies by better understanding human biology. The institute is a nexus for academic research in biomedical engineering and medicine, and was named in honor of the Crump family.
When asked advice he could offer to young engineers, Crump reflected on his own career working with medical doctors and scientists. His advice was that engineers soak up as much engineering as they can so they can be the best asset when collaborating.
“If they come across a doctor that’s interested in some orthopedic application, an ophthalmic application, or dental applications, the bioscientist, the doctor will teach the engineer everything they need to know to help the specialist in that specialty,” he said. “Engineers need to be engineers and doctors need to be doctors, and there’s a delightful symbiosis between the two.”
Crump’s philosophy for entrepreneurial success is pretty simple: “Do it!” Though he cautioned that young entrepreneurs must make informed decisions when it comes to seeking investors.
Ralph Crump, who was awarded the UCLA Engineering Alumnus of the Year award in 1967, is the standard bearer for what the moniker “Greatest Generation” has come to mean. He is a former shipyard worker, naval officer, and merchant marine who became an engineer, entrepreneur, innovator and leader.
For decades, distinguished alumni Ralph and Marjorie Crump have been great friends and supporters of UCLA Engineering and the entire university. The school is proud to call the Crumps family.