From a childhood fascination with radios to setting global standards, Leo Barnes’s career in biomedical engineering has taken him all over the world.
Barnes is the 2021 recipient of the David Dewhurst Award, which is given annually by Engineers Australia’s Biomedical College to recognise outstanding service to biomedical engineering.
Unlike past recipients, Barnes didn’t study engineering at university.
“When I started out, there simply wasn’t a word for biomedical engineering,” he told create. “When I joined Prince Henry Hospital [in Sydney] in 1977, the job title was ‘electronics technician’.
“I have never attended a university in my life — other than going to Harvard to buy a t-shirt.”
Growing up in Auckland, New Zealand, Barnes had an interest in DX radio. Towards the end of his schooling, his father told him it was time to get a trade, and helped him get a radio technician apprenticeship in 1960.
Between 1961 and 1974 Barnes was on the road in New Zealand and Australia, working in radio and television manufacturing, design and installation. After his daughter was born in 1973 and he became a sole parent, Barnes needed a nine-to-five job that saw him home at night.
“I saw Prince Henry Hospital advertise an electronic technician as a three-month temporary position, and I grabbed it,” he said.
“It came complete with a childcare centre at the front gate. In later years the school bus dropped her there when school finished … The convenience was a major attraction of ‘biomedical engineering’ in the beginning. Then I became involved in the operating theatre for the foundation years of open-heart surgery.”
Setting the standard
Barnes’s role in the pioneering days of complex surgeries gave him the opportunity to write medical device and environment standards that didn’t exist at the time.
“Several biomed tech roles in Sydney hospitals with a cross-section of experience in different medical fields led me to become a member of Standards Australia and International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) Standards,” he said.
“This culminated in 1985 with the creation of the Electromedical Standards Lab with the National Association of Testing Authorities, Australia accreditation. Much to the delight of the medical device sales companies, this meant we could test and certify once for the whole country.”
From there, Barnes was recruited by German technology auditing and certification firm TÜV SÜD to assist with its Asian expansion, and he began working across multiple continents.
“When I was based in Japan, they told me to go and have a chat with China’s Minister for Health in Beijing,” he said. “In the old days, people would just make their own versions of products from other countries.
“The greatest challenge of my career was implementing the European CE mark, as well as the United States’s FDA and TGA medical equipment regulatory requirements. And creating offices and testing facilities in several countries.”
Barnes jokes that his travels — which saw him scale the Great Wall of China, take fast trains across Europe and sail the Caribbean — means he can “speak three words in about 20 or 30 languages: yes, no, and thank you”.
Moving with the times
In a long and storied career, Barnes said the biggest change he has witnessed has been the creation and global enforcement of medical device standards and the environment they work in.
“This has greatly improved the status — not to mention the salary — of biomedical personnel as equipment becomes more and more complicated and support systems are digitised,” he said.
Barnes said he is proud to have helped resurrect the Society for Biomedical Engineering in New South Wales in the 1970s, for which he was awarded life membership in 1996.
“I also helped found and was principal organiser of the annual Biomedical Technician two-day seminars for many years,’ he said. “And creating and operating the only NATA/IEC registered medical device test and certification lab in Australia was also very important to me.
“Finally, being the Standards Australia representative in the 1980s and 1990s on IEC-TC62D committees (IEC 60601 series) was a wonderful experience. Not to mention the experiences of cultures and customs and meeting so many extraordinary biomeds worldwide.”
Barnes believes much of his career has been down to being in the right place at the right time, and living in the moment to accept moves to different countries.
“Surprisingly, I was never asked for proof of qualifications. My track record was sufficient,” he said.
“So when I found out I was to receive the David Dewhurst Award, I was absolutely surprised. I knew David Dewhurst and we had met a number of times, so it is a great honour.
“Being an electronics technician with no university education and having retired in 2014, I am super proud of the recognition of 50 years of input into the biomedical engineering profession.”
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