Updated with memorial fund information: Biomedical Engineering Chair Joseph Izatt Dies

Biomedical engineering chair Joseph Izatt
Biomedical engineering chair Joseph Izatt

Izatt was a skilled researcher and inventor who played a foundational role in the development of optical coherence tomography (OCT). The non-invasive medical imaging technique uses optical interferometry to peer through layers of soft tissue, such as the retina at the back of the eye, to provide richly detailed images that guide diagnosis and treatment decisions. 

Izatt’s decades-long interdisciplinary collaboration with Dr. Cynthia Toth, a medical doctor and Duke professor of ophthalmology, helped bring this research directly to patients. Their work to improve the accuracy of examination and surgery of the eye led to handheld OCT systems for infants and the first intraoperative OCT-guided system for surgery. 

Izatt advised and collaborated with talented students and staff in his Biophotonics Group to advance OCT technology. Together, they developed new methods to improve non-invasive medical diagnostics, in vivo tomographic microscopy, and real-time image-guided robotic surgery. The lab’s expertise in OCT technology has also allowed them to expand their reach beyond the realm of biomedical imaging to other endeavors, such as investigating how OCT could help autonomous robots and vehicles to see better. 

In recognition of these impressive scientific contributions, Izatt was named a Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors (NAI) and the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering (AIMBE). 

Beyond his research, Izatt was recognized as a kind and dedicated mentor and leader within Duke Engineering. He received the Pratt School’s Capers and Marion McDonald Award for Excellence in Mentoring and Advising in 2008 and the Graduate School Dean’s Award for Excellence in Mentoring in 2017. He also helped shape the direction of the wider university, serving as chair for both the Pratt 2039 organizational visioning exercise and the Search Committee for Duke’s Vice President for Research and Innovation. 

Izatt took up the mantle as chair of Duke BME in 2022. In this role, he helped support the department’s trajectory of success by recruiting outstanding new research and teaching faculty. He also worked with the BME Strategic Visioning Committee to ensure that the department continues to educate ethical, well-rounded engineers who can guide and transform the future of the biomedical engineering field. 

This is a significant loss for the academic community Izatt championed, and the impact of his legacy will be felt for years to come. 

“The loss of Professor Izatt leaves us and the Pratt community with a profound sense of sorrow as his dedication to his family, students, faculty and staff were the hallmarks of who he was as a person,” said Dean Lynch. “I am especially saddened to have lost a school leader who proudly led with his heart and who cared so deeply for the members of the BME and Pratt community.” 

In recognition of Professor Izatt's impact and legacy, in lieu of flowers, the family requests contributions be made to the Dr. Joseph Izatt Memorial Fund. Donations can be made at Duke's giving portal. Visit https://gifts.duke.edu and click "Or choose an area" at the bottom of the screen. On the next screen, click "Still can't find your designation of choice?" which will reveal a box that states "Which area of Duke would you like to support?" In this text field, please type "Dr Joseph Izatt Memorial Fund" to ensure your gift is appropriately directed.