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ME Alumnus Who Invented EpiPen Elected to National Inventors Hall of Fame

September 16, 2016

The coop program at Northeastern University allowed alumnus Sheldon Kaplan, ME'62, to be able to go to college and later invent the famous Epi-Pen. The late Kaplan was inducted this year into the National Inventors Hall of Fame for his invention.


Source: News @ Northeastern

The response to the steep increase in the price of the EpiPen—a life- saving treat­ment for severe allergic reactions—received a shot in the arm last week with the announce­ment of two legal actions.

New York’s attorney gen­eral launched an inves­ti­ga­tion into whether Mylan, the com­pany that owns the device, engaged in anti- competitive prac­tices in its sales to schools, and an Ohio lawyer filed a suit alleging that the rock­eting price—from about $104 in 2009 to more than $600 this May—constituted price- gouging.

What would Sheldon Kaplan, a North­eastern alumnus and the inventor of the EpiPen, have made of all this?

Shel, as his wife, Sheila, calls him, did not live to see the controversy—he died in 2009 from cancer at the age of 70. But he was well aware of the huge impact his inven­tion had on people’s lives. So was the U.S. Patent and Trade­mark Office, which in May inducted him into the National Inven­tors Hall of Fame, in Wash­ington, D.C., noting that “since its intro­duc­tion in 1980, the EpiPen Auto- Injector has saved count­less lives.”

Shel was proud to know that his inven­tion had affected tens of mil­lions of people, had kept them alive,” says Sheila, over the phone from her home in Clear­water, Florida. Serving him tea in her kitchen on their third or fourth date, when she was 24 and he was 30, they shared their life goals. “I want to do some­thing that’s going to leave the world a better place than when I got here,” he told her. “Being an engi­neer working in med­ical prod­ucts, I think I can do that.”

He really did accom­plish what he wanted to do,” says Sheila. “That’s a sort of miracle.”

Road to a miracle

The road to that mir­acle began at Northeastern.

Born on June 6, 1939, in Everett, Mass­a­chu­setts, Shel Kaplan, E’62, “always wanted to be an engi­neer and to go to North­eastern,” notes his son, Michael, by phone from his home­town of Coralville, Iowa.

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Sheldon Kaplan, E’62, right, with his son, Michael, at Michael’s wed­ding, Sep­tember 24, 2005.

He was very ana­lyt­ical but also very cre­ative,” says Michael. “He could decon­struct and fix any problem if he under­stood the mechanics.” Com­puters, med­ical devices, model rail­roads, even, lit­er­ally, the icing on a cake. “‘Give me a shot at it,’ he’d say. ‘I’m an engi­neer.’ My father was a maker before that was how people described them­selves on Twitter.”

One of Shel’s co- ops was cut­ting the fabric at a nearby com­pany that made rain­coats, says Sheila. “Had he not been able to go through the [co- op] pro­gram, he would not have been able to go to col­lege,” she says. “He was very thankful for that.”

Had he not had that oppor­tu­nity, the EpiPen would not have existed. The device, whose 1977 patent bears Sheldon Kaplan’s name, auto­mat­i­cally injects a pre­cise dose of epi­neph­rine to block ana­phy­laxis, a life- threatening allergic reac­tion char­ac­ter­ized by dif­fi­culty breathing, a drop in blood pres­sure, nausea, and shock. According to a recent study by the Asthma and Allergy Foun­da­tion of America, ana­phy­laxis likely occurs in about one to 50 Amer­i­cans, with the rate prob­ably closer to one in 20.

My father was a maker before that was how people described them­selves on Twitter.
— Michael Kaplan, Sheldon Kaplan’s son

Shel’s child­hood friend and class­mate Allan Davidson, E’61, who played the trumpet in the North­eastern marching band, credits North­eastern with giving him, too, the skills to pursue a career he loved: working on propul­sion sys­tems in the Elec­tric Boat divi­sion of Gen­eral Dynamics, where he par­tic­i­pated in the sea trials of the nuclear sub­marines the com­pany built for the Navy. Over the phone from his home in Venice, Florida, Davidson recalls the motor scooters he and Shel rode in their com­mute to and from the uni­ver­sity that changed their lives. “A German- made scooter called TWN, or Triumph- Werk Nurn­berg,” he says, laughing.

We spent a lot of time with Shel Kaplan’s family,” says Davidson’s wife, Har­riet, who met Al when he was in his junior year at North­eastern. “Their home was like Al’s other home.”

Doing the impossible

After grad­u­ating from North­eastern with a degree in mechan­ical engi­neering, Shel moved to a suburb of Wash­ington to work at NASA’s God­dard Space Flight Center designing and ana­lyzing hard­ware for mete­o­ro­log­ical and sci­en­tific satel­lites. “In 1962 he got on a bus with one suit­case,” says Sheila. “His heart’s delight was to grow up and work for NASA.”

A few years later he joined Rodana Research Cor­po­ra­tion, which later became Sur­vival Tech­nology, Inc. There he designed the first emer­gency med­ical kit for the Apollo Moon Missions—a ter­rific source of pride for young Michael, who wore a NASA tie pin on his shirt when he brought the kit to school for show- and- tell. He still has the kit: It lived in his sock drawer until he loaned it to the Inven­tors Hall of Fame Museum after his father’s induc­tion and will return there after the exhibition.

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Sheldon Kaplan, right, E’62, assem­bles the first emer­gency med­ical kit for the Apollo Moon Mis­sions, which he designed.

At Sur­vival Tech­nology, where Shel worked from 1965 to 1978, he devel­oped the Pneu­moPak, a pres­sure dressing for high- altitude recon­nais­sance pilots, before being charged with redesigning the company’s AtroPen (called the AstroPen by NASA), an auto- injector product with lim­ited use­ful­ness: It could be used only for drugs, such as Atropine, that remained stable while in con­tact with its stain­less steel car­tridge. Using glass was tricky, given its fragility, but plas­tics turned out to be unten­able, as the vapor trans­mis­sion rates through plas­tics were too high. “Sev­eral engi­neering firms that Sur­vival Tech­nology con­sulted with said using glass was just not pos­sible because the casing would break,” says Sheila.

That didn’t stop Shel, she says. He rebuilt the AtroPen from the ground up, tem­pering and cush­ioning the glass and uniquely cal­i­brating the spring that acti­vated the mech­a­nism to dis­pense drugs while keeping the casing intact.

First named the Com­boPen, the device was ini­tially used by the U.S. mil­i­tary to deliver an anti­dote to a new Soviet nerve agent cap­tured by the Israelis during the Yom Kippur War. Shortly after­ward, Shel reengi­neered the Com­boPen into the EpiPen, to deliver epinephrine.

No one has been able to match his design prowess since, says Michael. It’s uncanny, he says. “To create the com­pe­ti­tion to make the EpiPen afford­able, someone is going to have to solve the same problem my father solved in 1976.”

Shel left Sur­vival Tech­nology shortly before the EpiPen came to market and con­tinued to develop med­ical equip­ment at global cor­po­ra­tions including Abbott Lab­o­ra­to­ries and Baxter Healthcare.

Shel was math­e­mat­i­cally gifted, there was nothing he couldn’t figure out,” says Sheila.

Michael echoes the sen­ti­ment. “He was not ego driven,” he says. “He didn’t spend time trying to figure out how to do things that were flashy or that would make him famous. Every day he was com­mitted to solving impor­tant prob­lems that no one else could.”