Remembering Albert B. Schultz

February 22, 2021

Albert B. Schultz, PhD, the Vennema Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics, Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics, and Professor of Biomedical Engineering in the College of Engineering, and Research Scientist in the Institute of Gerontology at the University of Michigan, passed away in July, 2020.

Professor Schultz, born in Philadelphia, received his BS degree from the University of Rochester in 1955 and his MS and PhD degrees from Yale University in 1959 and 1962, respectively. After a stint as an officer in the U.S. Navy, who had financed his graduate education, he taught mechanical engineering and materials science at the University of Delaware and the University of Illinois at Chicago before joining the College of Engineering faculty at the University of Michigan in 1983, where he founded the Biomechanics Research Laboratory. The university was attractive partly because it already had an active milieu of biomechanics research in the areas of automotive occupant safety and industrial ergonomics, and Professor Schultz was recruited as a mid-career faculty member to strengthen its educational and research offerings.

Professor Schultz is internationally recognized for his biomechanics research, reported in more than 190 publications, but his first paper in 1964 addressed the high strain rate behavior of aluminum wire under transverse impulsive loading. While in the Department of Materials Science at the University of Illinois at Chicago he met Drs. George Galante and Ron DeWald, both innovative spine surgeons in Chicago, who interested him in the problem of why an apparently healthy rapidly growing human spine ends up undergoing what appears as torsional buckling in adolescent idiopathic scoliosis. Their first papers in the Journal of Biomechanics in 1970 included a first mathematical model of spine behavior under load and the first study of the effect of the Milwaukee brace in correcting a scoliotic deformity. An image from his classic finite element simulation of the scoliotic spine and rib cage was used by IBM to advertise the novel use of their most advanced digital computers around the world in an arresting full page advertisement. In 1972, his first PhD student, Thomas P. Andriacchi, and he published a follow-up paper on spine modeling in idiopathic scoliosis. Tom would go on to initiate and lead innovative gait research at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Lukes Hospital in Chicago for many years before being recruited to Stanford University. At that time Professor Schultz would also publish a paper on the force-deformation behavior of human ribs with the legendary Swedish orthopedist, Carl Hirsch, who trained generations of innovative spine surgeons around the world. That collaboration led to Professor Schultz working with Hirsch’s protégé, Dr. Alf L. Nachemson, one of the most influential spine surgeons of his generation, as well as his young protégé, Dr. Gunnar B.J. Andersson, in Gothenburg, Sweden. At the time Drs Nachemson and Andersson were carrying out seminal work on the loading of the human lumbar spine by making the first measurements of pressure within the lumbar intervertebral discs of human volunteers in different postural and lifting activities. This research was partly financed by Volvo who were headquartered nearby in Gothenburg and interested in designing a more ergonomic automotive seat. In the late 1970s Professor Schultz spent a sabbatical year at the Sahlgrenska Hospital in Gothenburg where he worked directly with Drs. Nachemson and Andersson, and where Dr. Ashton-Miller who, having seen the IBM advertisement in the New York Herald Tribune, invited him up to Oslo, Norway to give a seminar at the University of Oslo which led to their later decades of close collaboration. Dr. Andersson would go on to be recruited to become chair of orthopedics at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Lukes Hospital in Chicago where he would continue to collaborate with Dr. Schultz and his team for many years and become one of the most highly cited authors in spine research. He and Professor Schultz authored a series of seminal papers in the 1980s to measure the biomechanical properties of spine motion segments and then use those data in finite element models to predict the behavior of the lumbar spine under the trunk muscle forces required to stabilize the spine during quasistatic lifting activities. The models are an example of the early use of optimization methods to solve the indeterminacy caused by having more unknown spine and trunk muscle forces than there are equations to solve for them. These models would form the basis for later models on which the OSHA lifting guidelines were based. It is safe to say that Professor Schultz was instrumental in laying the theoretical and experimental foundation on which modern spine biomechanics research is based. He was an important thesis committee member for PhD students Richard Hughes and Maury Nussbaum who built upon his theoretical work.

In the late 1980s, a University of Michigan geriatrician interested Professor Schultz in the problem of aging and preserving the mobility of older individuals. There followed a decade of seminal work on the biomechanics of aging with Dr. James Ashton-Miller, Dr. Neil B Alexander and PhD students Darryl Thelen and Carl Luchies among others, using experiments and mathematical models to better understand the effects of advancing age and disease on balance and gait in the elderly, and especially the biomechanics of falls. Highly cited are the series of articles on how aging adversely affects the ability of older individuals to develop torque rapidly, recover balance with a single step, and how humans negotiate obstacles in their environment. These include the first studies of how psychological and physical factors interact to affect the success of stepping over an obstacle. In one study, he and his colleagues showed how both healthy young and older humans could be made to trip on a flat floor if they suddenly had to change their stepping pattern in order to step over an obstacle (that actually was virtual) with little notice. These studies involved the first use of a ceiling-supported support harness, now standard in gait labs around the world, to guarantee the safety of the volunteers.

Among his many honors Professor Schultz was elected a member of the National Academy of Engineering (NAE), fellow in the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), and the first engineer to serve as president of the International Society for the Lumbar Spine. He was a cofounder and past-president of the American Society of Biomechanics (ASB). He has received the University of Michigan’s Distinguished Faculty Achievement Award, and the NIH Research Career and Javits Neuroscience Investigator Awards, the ASB’s Borelli Award and the ASME’s H. R. Lissner Award for his outstanding research.

Albert B. Schultz ended his illustrious career at the University of Michigan retiring as professor emeritus in 1999. As with all his decisions, he methodically considered the pros and cons of continuing to work in retirement, or instead to make a clean break in order to make more time for family and other activities. He said he had witnessed too many older colleagues, no longer at the top of their game because of age-related diminished faculties, getting in the way of younger and more able colleagues. In spite of still being one of the most beloved teachers and researchers of his day, he abhorred ever becoming an impediment to others. So he opted for the clean break, saying that he wasn’t sure it would work, but wanted to give it a try anyway. To help ensure that he succeeded, he gave away his entire engineering and biomechanics library to grateful students and colleagues. Now he was free to spend more time with his grandchildren and on favorite pastimes like solving puzzles of all sorts, including the daily New York Times Crossword for which he recognized the person who had set the puzzle from the types of clues they used. He was a wonderful and caring mentor to many young faculty members at his own institution, and beyond. Importantly, he taught his students to have the courage to always use simple mathematical models when simple models sufficed to capture a complex behavior, and to only add complexity as needed. One measure of the quality of his mentoring is his remarkable legacy of no fewer than four Past-Presidents of ASB (Andriacchi, Ashton-Miller, Hughes, and Thelen). Ever generous in the giving of his time to others, he reviewed for NIH and NSF panels as well as many other national and international organizations, and was a popular keynote speaker at national and international meetings. He is survived by his wife Susan, and his two sons and a daughter, and their families. Meticulous in everything he ever did, always humble but with a wry sense of humor, a founder of modern biomechanics will be sorely missed. May you rest in peace, Al.

Fondly,
James A. Ashton-Miller, PhD
Richard Hughes, PhD

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