Dr. John Bentson, Who Invented a Higher Mind-Imaging Instrument, Dies at 83

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

In the early 1970s, the field of neuroradiology was still in its founding years, and its early practitioners included Dr. John Bentson of UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles. When he was helping patients with the help of new technologies such as CT scanning and computer imaging, he saw an opportunity for innovation.

Neuroradiology is a sub-specialty of radiology and includes the diagnosis and treatment of diseases of the brain, spinal cord and nerves. One of the tools in Treatment is the combination of an angiographic guidewire and catheter, essentially a slender wire and tube; Inserted through the leg, it can aid in the injection of contrast agent for diagnostic brain imaging and treatment of aneurysms. At this point, however, the guidewires were rigid and in the worst case scenario could injure a blood vessel. Mr. Bentson decided to design a better type.

He envisioned a more pliable guidewire that also had a flexible tip, and after UCLA built an early prototype for him, other neuroradiologists began using his model. Cook Medical began manufacturing the device in 1973 and is still commonly referred to as the Bentson guidewire today.

Mr. Bentson died on December 28th in a Los Angeles hospital. He was 83 years old. The cause was complications from Covid-19, said his daughter Dr. Erika Drazan.

“He liked to push the envelope when he thought he could help the patient,” she said. “He liked to say that the vessels in the body are like a tree and that through them he can get where he wants by feeling.”

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, Wisconsin, to Carl and Stella (Hagen) Bentson, who had Norwegian heritage. He grew up on his family’s dairy farm and, as a boy, went to school on wooden skis in winter. His mother made Norwegian dishes like lutefisk.

A grandfather encouraged him to leave the farm and get a higher education. Mr. Bentson graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a BS in Chemistry in 1957 and received his MD from Medical School in 1961.

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

That year, Mr. Bentson joined UCLA Medical Center and became head of the Department of Neuroradiology in 1971. He held that position for three decades until he resigned in 2002, but continued to work in 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 has not registered the device named after him as a trademark and has never benefited much from it. He didn’t regret it, however, his daughter said, and he was glad to know that his device continued to help people. A few years ago she met someone who works for Cook Medical.

“My father invented the guidewire that you sell,” she said.

“Your father is John Bentson?” he answered.

The company soon sent Mr. Bentson a surprise package: a glass display with a coiled Bentson guide wire and an inscription thanking him for his contributions to neuroradiology. Mr. Bentson hung the blackboard on his wall.