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He was a mechanic, gifted at saving lives

John W. Holter, who invented a shunt that won worldwide acclaim for helping hydrocephalics, has died. He was 87.

Published December 27, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG - John W. Holter was not a doctor when he invented a revolutionary shunt that drained water from the brain. In fact, he had never gone to college.

But in 1956, with his infant son suffering from the effects of hydrocephalus, the trained mechanic focused his creative energy and skill with his hands on solving a problem surgeons had been unable to overcome.

Mr. Holter's shunt went on to save hundreds of thousands of lives, and he went on to become a celebrated medical inventor and philanthropist, who had homes in St. Petersburg and Lakeland. He died Monday (Dec. 22) in Devon, Pa., of a heart attack. He was 87.

He recently suffered a stroke and was in ill health, his nephew Eric Holter said.

Mr. Holter created a variety of medical devices, including an apparatus to treat cervical cancer, kidney dialysis pumps, artificial heart valves, finger tendons, even artificial bladders.

But his most famous creation was the first successful shunt valve for water on the brain that was a departure from previous, metal fittings that doctors had invented, and used a simple rubber design like a nipple on a baby bottle.

"I think it was worth the Nobel Prize," Pennsylvania neurosurgeon Eugene B. Spitz said in 1993.

Mr. Holter was a mechanic, or, as he jokingly called himself, a "knuckle-knicker" who was working for Yale and Towne, a company that made door locks, at a research lab in King-of-Prussia, Pa.

He threw himself into a quest for a new shunt valve after the birth of his son, Charles Case Holter, or Casey, as they called him.

Mr. Holter and his wife, Mary, had tried for 10 years to conceive a child, but their boy was born with meningomyelocele, a sac on his back filled with nerve tissue and bits of spinal cord.

Doctors could handle the sac, but one of the side effects of that condition was hydrocephalus.

Mr. Holter's breakthrough device allowed his son to live until shortly before his fifth birthday, when he died from complications related to an episode of cardiac arrest he suffered while an infant.

While doctors in America devoured Mr. Holter's new invention, he kept Casey's memory alive by taking the shunt valve to medical meetings in other countries, providing them free to those in need.

In 1976, the University of Sheffield in England awarded him an honorary doctorate for the development of the shunt valve. He became the first nonmedical member of the Society for Research into Hydrocephalus and Spina Bifida.

In the final years of his life, he lived at his waterfront apartment on Snell Isle. He paid regular visits to his mother, Favian E. Holter, at a St. Petersburg nursing home until her death on April 27, 1996. She was 102.

Between 1989 and 1993, he donated more than $600,000 to local charities.

"I'd rather do it while I'm alive and see it do some good," he said in 1993, "rather than have an estate and have the lawyers fighting over it."

In 1991, he gave a $100,000 charitable annuity to the United Way of Pinellas County. The gift, in the form of stock, was to transfer to the United Way upon the deaths of Mr. Holter and one other person, whom he declined to name.

"I don't believe in leaving my money to Uncle Sam, and I'm not interested in owning 110-foot yachts," said Mr. Holter.

He is survived by three nephews and a niece.

- Information from Times files was used in this obituary.

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