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Marlin O. Thurston served as President of Thurston-Bell Associates, located in Columbus, Ohio. He was also a consultant and member of the research team on intraoperative detection of cancer in The Ohio State University’s Division of Surgical Oncology. Dr. Thurston received the Bachelor of Science and Master of Science degrees in physics from the University of Colorado in 1940 and 1946, respectively. He earned his Ph.D. degree in Electrical Engineering from The Ohio State University in 1955.
From 1946 to 1952, Dr. Thurston served as a faculty member and acting head of the Electrical Engineering Department at the U.S. Air Force Institute of Technology (AFIT) in Dayton, Ohio. While at AFIT, he made significant contributions to the development of the graduate program at the institute. During this period he also taught part-time at the University’s Electron Device Laboratory.
Dr. Thurston joined the faculty of the Department of Electrical Engineering at The Ohio State University in 1955, as an Associate Professor, and was promoted to Professor in 1959. He served as Chairman of the department from 1965 to 1977. He retired from the University in 1982 and joined a local company which later became known as Thurston-Bell Associates.
During his academic career, Dr. Thurston was a specialist in semiconductors and solid state electronics. He won wide recognition as a distinguished researcher and produced numerous technical journal articles and four patents. During his tenure as chairman, and director of the Electronics Materials and Devices Laboratory, research activities reached a high level of excellence, and the Department became one of the top electrical engineering departments in the U.S. He was instrumental in establishing successful programs which are still underway. During this period he won the Fellow Award from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, “For contributions to electron devices and for ability as both a teacher and an administrator.” He was an excellent teacher, consistently among the top rated in the department and his students were widely sought by industry.
Dr. Thurston has served as a consultant to numerous U.S. companies, such as Reliance Electric Co., Westinghouse, Battelle, CVI Division on Pennwalt Corp., Floyd Bell Associates, Whirlpool, and others. He has also served as a member of the Board of Directors of Dekker’s series of textbooks on electrical engineering and electronics. In 1968 he served as a member of the Research Advisory Committee of the U.S. Army Nuclear Defense Laboratory. He also served on the USAF Science Advisory Board’s Committee on Electro-Optics, and as Vice-President of the National Electronics Conference.
Dr. Thurston’s service to Ohio State and his profession has been exemplary. He was a member of numerous departmental, college, and university-wide committees. He served as a chairman of the Columbus Section of the Institute of Electrical Engineers from 1965-1966. In 1975, he was named Robert M. Crutchfield Professor to Electrical Engineers “… to be eminently qualified for this honor in recognition of his outstanding achievements as teacher, administrator, researcher and consultant to industry and government.”
In the early 1980s, Dr. Thurston began working with Dr. Edward Martin, cancer surgeon at OSU’s Division of Surgical Oncology, on an electronic device which would help cancer surgeons detect cancers and secondary tumors. Their work resulted in the invention of a hand-held electronic device, called the Neoprobe, that can dramatically increase the success rate for cancer surgery. In addition to his ability to detect cancers which are too small for detection by the surgeon, the Neoprobe results are expected to produce some redefinition of standard procedures for cancer surgery. Drs. Thurston and Martin, and other investors, started Neoprobe Corp. in 1983 to develop and market the device. This model of interdisciplinary work by Drs. Thurston and Martin has resulted in the publication of 17 articles in the medical literature, and the issuance of three patents. One of their patents was one of 20 recognized in 1989 by the intellectual Property Owners Foundation, “… for a method of detecting cancerous tissue while surgery is underway using a hand-held radiation detection probe, to help eliminate the need for a second operation to remove additional cancerous tissue.” In addition, Drs. Thurston and Martin jointly received the 1991 Central Ohio Technical Achievement Award in recognition of this important and outstanding work.
This is an extremely significant invention and a truly superb example of interdisciplinary research. Dr. Martin, a surgeon, could not have done this alone, and Dr. Thurston, an engineer, could not have done this alone. Together, they have produced a marvelous instrument which can save lives and prevent countless numbers of follow-up surgeries. The most common comment following cancer surgery is “I hope they got all of it”. The Neoprobe greatly improves the surgeon’s chances of “getting it all”. It is so sensitive that it has detected cancers of such small size that pathologists have not detected them in routine analyses. The impact that engineering technology has made upon medicine has been very great, and yet it has done very little for the surgeon. For the most part, his only tools are his hands and eyes. Dr. Thurston has put a very powerful instrument in the hands of the surgeon. As Dr. Ridihalgh’s endorsement letter states, the development of monoclonal antibodies targeted to specific tumor antigens introduced scanning technology which can detect tumors. However, this could only be done prior to or subsequent to surgery, after surgery has been completed. Dr. Thurston has brought this technology into the operating room, enabling the surgeon to probe with an even more sensitive instrument after he/she believes the surgery to be completed to see if traces of the tumor remain and continue until it has been removed completely.
In recognition of their work, Drs. Thurston and Martin received the Central Ohio Technical Achievement Award on February 28th, 1991. In recognition of this work and his many other distinguished achievements, Dr. Thurston also received a major award from the Ohio State University College of Engineering on April 26, 1991.
Marlin Thurston personifies the lofty ideals of teaching, research and service for which a great university strives. As a classroom teacher, he was outstanding. After a 12-year tenure as chairman, he returned to teaching and research and assembled a group of graduate students that brought a real strength to his Department’s weaker areas before his time, it is now one of the strongest and continues to develop further each year. Many of his students from this and prior periods have gone on to make strong contributions in industry and academia. If it is true that the best test of the quality of a teacher is the success of his students, Dr. Thurston passes the test with the highest marks. Although his teaching years are behind him, his research accomplishments continue to mount. It is interesting to note that the Neoprobe, which will probably be his most significant single contribution, was developed during periods of his life which most people would consider the retirement years. He retired officially from university service in 1982, at the age of 63. A registered professional engineer in the state of Ohio, Dr. Thurston also complimented his teaching and research with a strong commitment to the development and advancement of his profession.
In his endorsement letter, the Rev. Kenneth Whitt, Senior Pastor of Mountview Baptist Church, describes Dr. Thurston as “gentle, compassionate, passionate, soft-spoken, self-giving, optimistic and focused.” “Dr. Thurston incarnates the greatness of the American scientific spirit.” These are all apt descriptions of Dr. Thurston. His faculty colleagues and peers consider him the personification of the word gentleman; he is truly a gentleman in all aspects of his life. During his twelve-year term as chairman of a major electrical engineering department which was growing and expanding in spite of severe budget restrictions, there must have been countless periods of frustration, setbacks and upsetting developments. However, no one ever saw a single manifestation of his troubles in his demeanor. No one in his department has ever heard him shout or behave in any way other than being the perfect gentleman. His personal character traits and integrity are not only beyond question, they are a model of exemplary behavior.
As stated earlier, Dr. Thurston was a consultant to a surgical oncology team. What was not stated before is the fact that he was not a paid employee of the university or of anyone else for his work. He was probably working as hard as he ever worked, the satisfaction of making a contribution to humanity and society, and the feeling of personally making a difference.
Rev. Whitt’s letter tells of the work Dr. Thurston did in designing and installing a computer system “that supports the life and ministry of our church”. When he first became involved with OSU Dept. of Surgery, he saw that their system for managing student records was antiquated and cumbersome. He designed a computer system which brought that phase of operations into the computer age, again a volunteer activity.
It is known that for some period he housed Vietnamese refugees in his home, because they were in need of help. These are the character traits of a caring person, who freely shares his resources and talents with others who can benefit from them.
He taught his students that engineering is a service profession, one in which the primary focus is service to humanity. Dr. Thurston taught this with far more than words; his life is testimony to his belief in this principle.
Yet another indication of his character is shown by the fact that when he was names Critchield Professor of Electrical Engineering, he asked that the substantial salary supplement which this honor carried be given to his department to support worthwhile activities rather than just be added to his salary. Even before this time, he had joined OSU’s president’s club and was one of the principal benefactors of the Department of Electrical Engineering. At a later time, he donated additional funds to fund a graduate fellowship in solid state electronics. He served and helped his department in virtually every way available to an individual.
Dr. Thurston’s busy and productive career of teaching and research primarily also contained a very strong commitment to serving and advancing his profession. Offices and affiliates which he has held include:
- Active duty for four years in the Army Signal Corps and Air Force, 1942–1946
- USAF Ready Reserve from 1946 to 1965 before returning as Lt. Colonel.
- Chairman of Columbus Section IEEE from 1965–1966
- Member, Research Advisory Board, U.S. Army Nuclear Defense Laboratory from 1968–1969
- Vice-President for Conference Affairs, National Electronics Conference, 1970
- Vice-President, National Electronics Conference from 1972–1973
- Member, National Science Foundation Review Panels, 1972–1975
- Chairman, Board of Directors of National Engineering Consortium, 1978–1979
- Consultant to various U.S. companies, such as Reliance Electric Co. Westinghouse, Battelle, CVI Division of Pennwalt Corp., Floyd Bell Associates, Whirlpool, Inc. and others.
- Editor, Marcel Dekker, for series of text books on electrical engineering and electronics.
- Member, Electro-Optics Technology Committee, U.S. Air Force Scientific Advisory Board 1972–-1973, and Consultant to numerous U.S. laboratories and forms.
Dr. Thurston has shown a strong willingness to share his talents and resources with others who can benefit from them. As stated earlier, he designed and installed a computer system to facilitate the administration of his church. Upon seeing that the OSU Dept. of Surgery’s system for managing student records was antiquated and cumbersome, he voluntarily devised a computer system which greatly enhanced the operation of that department’s administrative office. In addition, he and his wife were very active in the local Red Cross unit and through this activity even opened their home to house Vietnamese refugees who had no home.
In the case of Dr. Thurston, however, this writer believes that community service is tightly coupled with his professional activities, if one defines community service as actions which benefit others in the general sense, teachers have available to them more opportunities for this kind of influence than have members of nearly all other professions. A teacher who has a long career enriches the lives of hundreds of other human beings, makes their lives fuller and of higher quality. His influence further ripples through society through the actions of his students. In addition to large numbers of students whom Dr. Thurston influenced in the formal classroom, he personally worked with and advised a large number through their master’s and PhD studies. Many of these have gone on to make strong contributions in industrial as well as academic positions. Some have become entrepreneurs, creating jobs for others in our society. The true influence of a teacher upon society cannot be accurately measured; it can even propagate through many generations in ways which the teacher will never know. Therefore, if one takes a larger view of community service, an outstanding teacher such as Dr. Thurston has been extremely successful.
Dr. Thurston has done conventional things which qualify under the usual definition of community service, but by a larger definition of community service, his contributions are very substantial, and time may well prove them to be monumental.