Harvey Picker

BMJ 2008; 336 doi: (Published 05 June 2008) Cite this as: BMJ 2008;336:1314
  1. Caroline Richmond

    Inventor and philanthropist

    Last month’s announcement of UK patients’ increasing satisfaction with their experience in hospital (BMJ 17 May, p 1091) was funded by the Picker Institute, which was founded by the philanthropist Harvey Picker. A talented and prolific inventor, he used the profits from his medical equipment company to set up the Picker Institute—with branches in the USA, Germany, and Britain—to conduct research into patients’ experiences and suggest needed reforms.

    His inspiration was his wife, Jean, a journalist for Life magazine and US ambassador to the United Nations. She suffered from a head and neck fistula that eventually killed her. The medical care she received was excellent, but it was not always humane, sympathetic, or geared to her needs.

    The name Picker will be familiar to anyone using medical imaging equipment. For two decades Harvey was head of the family business, Picker Medical, now part of GEC. It was a long established maker of x ray equipment, and at the forefront of introducing new imaging technology. For decades the company’s profits were put back into researching and implementing ways of improving patients’ experiences.

    Harvey inherited the company from his father, who founded it. His mother was a teacher. He graduated in physics from Colgate University in Madison County, New York State, which was founded by the toothpaste and Palmolive soap tycoon. He graduated in 1936, took an MBA at Harvard Business School, and spent a year reading politics and economics at Oxford. At Oxford he rescued a woman whose canoe had capsized and was cited for bravery.

    On returning to the US in 1938 he joined the family firm, Picker X-Ray. One of his first innovations after the outbreak of the second world war was to adapt existing x ray equipment for use in battle: he made it compact enough to fit in a 3 foot locker and sturdy enough to be parachuted into a battlefield. It became the workhorse of the allied medical services.

    He joined the US navy in 1940 to contribute more directly to the war effort. He was seconded to work on top secret radar development at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He developed ultrasound for oceanography. After the war, he and his father sent the US treasury a cheque for $3m because they did not want to profit from the war.

    When the war ended Harvey returned to Picker Medical, which he led into groundbreaking medical technology, including the first commercially available machines for cobalt radiotherapy and nuclear imaging. He also adapted oceanic ultrasonography for medical imaging.

    He married Jean Sovatkin in 1946. She was later appointed US ambassador to the United Nations by Lyndon B Johnson. Despite ill health she retained the post through three administrations and wrote, with Eleanor Roosevelt, a book about the UN.

    At the age of 50 Harvey retired from Picker Medical and did a PhD at Columbia University, New York. He taught at his alma mater, Colgate University, and introduced interesting and unusual courses, including the politics of assassination, and the social content of science and technology. He was invited by Columbia University, New York, to be dean of its school of international and public affairs. He then founded the Picker engineering programme at Smith College, Massachusetts, his wife’s alma mater.

    In 1982, when he was nearing 70, he moved to Maine, where he bought Wayfarer Marine, a large east coast boatyard, from his friend Tom Watson. He reorganised it, employing 100 people all year round instead of 35 seasonal workers. He immersed himself in local philanthropic affairs. A colleague on the Maine Health Care Finance Board said, “Harvey is one of the most remarkably intelligent and modest doers I’ve ever met. He’s used his money extraordinarily well in underwriting national models to improve patient care in hospitals.”

    Harvey was a member of the US National Science Board and the International Atomic Energy Agency. He served on the board of the New York Philharmonic, two local hospitals, three mental health foundations, the Research and Education Foundation of the Radiological Society, and local civic and marine organisations.

    He and Jean founded the US Picker Institute in 1986, and in 1994, when he was 80, he took over its management. The institute aims to advance patient centred care “as seen through the patient’s eyes.” It pioneered patient satisfaction surveys to improve the delivery of medical services. These have become a standard measure of patient care throughout the world. Jean died in 1990 from a chronic infection of her fistula.

    The UK Picker Institute is based in Oxford and is run by Angela Coulter. It is the engine behind many patient centred advances in NHS care, undertaking a unique combination of research, development, and policy activities. It works with patients, health professionals, and policymakers to promote an understanding of the patient’s perspective in policy and practice.


    • Harvey Picker, physicist, inventor, philanthropist, and businessman (b 1915), d 22 March 2008.