Dr. John Bentson, Who Invented a Better Brain-Imaging Tool, Dies at 83

Dr. Bentson was a neuroradiologist who came up with an improved way to provide imaging of problems in the brain and spinal cord. He died of complications of Covid-19.

This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.

In the early 1970s, the field of neuroradiology was still in its formative years, and among its early practitioners was Dr. John Bentson, at UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles. As he helped patients with the aid of new technology like the CT scan and computer imaging, he saw an opportunity for innovation.

A subspecialty of radiology, neuroradiology involves diagnosing and treating ailments in the brain, spinal cord and nerves. One of the tools used in treatment is the combination of an angiographic guidewire and catheter, essentially a slender wire and tube; inserted through the leg, it can aid with the injection of contrast dye for diagnostic brain imaging and the treatment of aneurysms. At the time, however, guidewires were rigid, and at worst, could injure a blood vessel. Mr. Bentson decided to design a better type.

He conceived of a more supple guidewire that also featured a flexible tip, and after UCLA built an early prototype for him, other neuroradiologists started using his model. Cook Medical began manufacturing the device in 1973 and, still in use today, it is commonly known as a Bentson guidewire.

Mr. Bentson died on Dec. 28 at a hospital in Los Angeles. He was 83. The cause was complications of Covid-19, his daughter Dr. Erika Drazan said.

“He liked to push boundaries if he thought he could help the patient,” she said. “He liked saying that the vessels in the body are just like a tree and that he could get where he wanted through them by feel.”

Thousands of patients have benefited from his innovation, The American Society of Neuroradiology said after his death.

John Reinert Bentson was born on May 15, 1937, in Viroqua, Wis., to Carl and Stella (Hagen) Bentson, who were of Norwegian heritage. He was raised on his family’s dairy farm and as a boy traveled to school during winter on wooden skis. His mother prepared Norwegian fare like lutefisk.

A grandfather encouraged him to leave the farm and pursue higher education. Mr. Bentson graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a B.S. in chemistry in 1957 and earned his M.D. at its medical school in 1961.

He traveled to the rain forests of Peru in 1965 as a medic on a missionary team, and a tribe he worked there with taught him how to hunt with a spear. He served as a radiologist in the U.S. Army in South Korea and he explored the country in his spare time on a motorcycle. He married Sheridan Murphy in 1969.

That year, Mr. Bentson joined the UCLA Medical Center, and he became the chief of its neuroradiology department in 1971. He held the position for three decades until he stepped down in 2002 but continued to work at the hospital before retiring in 2014.

In addition to his daughter, who is a pediatrician, he is survived by his wife; another daughter, Krista; a son, Derek; and six grandchildren.

Mr. Bentson did not trademark the device named after him and never profited much. He harbored no regrets though, said his daughter, and he was glad to know that his device continued to help people. A few years ago, she ran into someone who works for Cook Medical.

“My dad invented that guide wire you sell,” she said.

“Your dad is John Bentson?” he replied.

The company soon sent Mr. Bentson a surprise package: a glass display containing a coiled Bentson guidewire along with an inscription thanking him for his contributions to neuroradiology. Mr. Bentson hung the plaque on his wall.

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