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In Memorium: founding member of department passes away

Emeritus professor and founding member of the Richard and Loan Hill Department of Biomedical EngineeringBert L. Zuber, PhD.

Bert L. Zuber, PhD, emeritus professor and founding member of the Richard and Loan Hill Department of Biomedical Engineering, died June 20, 2023. He was 84.

Professor Zuber was one of four founding faculty members of the Biomedical Engineering (Bioengineering) department in 1965, which at the time was a joint collaboration of the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle (UICC), the University of Illinois College of Medicine (UICM), and Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Hospital (PSLH) (now Rush University Medical Center). UICC and UICM merged in 1981 to create present day UIC. Bert also was an integral part of making sure biomedical engineering did not become just a program, but instead a full-fledged department, one of the first bioengineering departments in the nation.

“Dr. Zuber was quite influential in structuring the makeup of the curriculum, recruiting new faculty, and helping to evolve it toward offering an MS and PhD, in addition to BS degrees,” said Stuart Abrams, former student and colleague of Zuber. Abrams enjoyed working under Professor Zuber, who he said was very supportive and had provided him with a teaching assistantship.

During his career, Professor Zuber is credited with discovering and defining several fundamental operating characteristics of the biological system that controls human eye movements. He focused on saccades – rapid, simultaneous movements of the eyes that abruptly change the point of fixation. Zuber’s research field was first taught to him by his mentor, Lawrence Stark, the founding department head in 1965. Stark is widely known for his research on the control of eye movements, pioneering the application of control theory to neurological systems in the 1950s and 1960s, focusing on pupillary light reflexes.

“I feel Professor Zuber’s impact on students was profound,” Abrams said, “In that, he actually influenced my own decision to major in biomedical engineering as an undergraduate student and later as a graduate student to perform master’s research in eye movements in reading which was one of his specialty areas.”

Dr. Zuber’s research and publications have been cited nearly 30,000 times in scientific literature.

“Professor Zuber brought out his student’s best work,” said Pete Pidcoe, PhD, former doctoral student of Zuber’s, friend, and professor and director of the Engineering and Biomechanics Lab at Virginia Commonwealth University. “He realized where his students could make improvements and helped them take their work to beyond where they thought it was possible.”

Given the unique structure of the department early on, from 1965 to 1973, Dr. Zuber held dual appointments as an assistant to associate professor of bioengineering at UICC and an assistant to associate professor of physiology at the University of Illinois Medical Center. He was also an assistant attending biomedical engineer at Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Hospital from 1965 to 1969 and associate attending biomedical engineer from 1969 to 1976. He was the director of the PSLH neurophysiology laboratory section and director of the PSLH biomedical engineering consulting service from 1965 to 1971 and from 1966 to 1967, respectively.

“He was an ideal professor because he had a real interest in science and with his engineering degree, it was a perfect combination of biology and engineering,” Professor William O’Neill said of his close friend and colleague. “He could talk medicine and biology and engineering. Usually, people know one or the other, but he knew both.”

Professor Zuber served as acting head of the UICC bioengineering program from 1970 to 1971.

He retired from UIC in 1992 but continued to work as an emeritus professor in the Biomedical Engineering Department and Chemical Engineering Department until 1994.

Zuber received his bachelor’s in liberal arts in 1960 and a bachelor’s in chemical engineering in 1961 from the University of Pennsylvania. He later earned a PhD in bioengineering in 1965 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

His biggest contribution to his students was the way he made them think, Pidcoe said.

O’Neill said that Bert will be remembered as an inspiration to his students for the way he approached education and involved them in the learning process directly.

O’Neill shared many memories of times he spent with Dr. Zuber whether it was over lunch on Taylor Street, going on a weekend fishing trip, or more recently when Zuber helped O’Neill to repair his clock.

Bert taught his students to find the weakest parts of the argument, question it, and improve upon it, O’Neill said.

To learn more from and about Professor Zuber, please watch Episodes 1 and 11 of our Founders Series found at: