The National Center for Rehabilitation Engineering (NCRE)

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Nan Davis addresses the Wright State University commencement.

Nan Davis addresses the Wright State University commencement participants with Dr. Jerrold Petrofsky (right) by her side. On the left are the WSU President Dr. Robert J. Kegerreis, Dr. Roger Iddings, dean of the WSU College of Education and Human Services, and Dr. Chandler Phillips, co-investigator in the WSU research project with Dr. Petrofsky.

The long-sought-after goal of making a paralyzed person walk, became a reality in November 1982 at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. Nan Davis had been paralyzed from the waist down for four years following an automobile accident on her high school graduation night before volunteering with Jerrold Petrofsky’s program. During the second week of November she walked for the first time in Wright State University’s biomedical engineering laboratories.

The event brought a great amount of media attention on the work of Rehabilitation Engineering and Wright State University. TV interviews and even a made for TV movie, “First Steps” were produced in response to Nan Davis and Dr. Jerrold Petrofsky’s achievement.

Nan Davis in her wheelchair
Nan Davis in a chair and harness designed to help build muscle mass

This event marked the climax of Dr. Jerrold Petrofsky’s 13-year research effort which included electrically stimulating a quadriplegic student’s leg to lift a weight, exerting seven pounds of force. That spring, the same student pedaled a stationary bicycle, assisted by a computerized stimulation-feedback system Petrofsky had developed.

Three month later, Nan Davis, who had trained on both the leg trainer chair and the stationary bicycle, building muscle strength and mass, was the first person to ride Petrofsky’s outdoor tricycle. Three months after that, she was able to walk with the assistance of Dr. Petrofsky’s system.

Nan Davis supported by a harness as she gradually builds strength in her legs to walk
Nan Davis stands to walk during her graduation ceremony, June 1983

Dr. Jerrold S. Petrofsky was born in St. Louis, Missouri. He earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from Washington University, St. Louis (1970) and his doctorate in physiology from St. Louis Medical School in (1974-1976). He served as an assistant professor of physiology in the department of Physical Therapy at the same school. In 1979, Petrofsky came to Wright State University, where he served as associate professor of Engineering Physiology and Computer Engineering and Executive Director of the National Center for Rehabilitation Engineering (NCRE) founded in 1983. In 1982 he obtained a bachelor’s of science in biomedical engineering from Wright State University and a bachelor’s of technology in computer engineering from Washington University.

Dr. Petrofsky resigned from WSU in 1987 to continue his research at the University of California at Irvine.

Nan Davis (center) walks holding the hands of Dr. Jerrold Petrofsky (right) and research assistant Don Stafford (left) as she begins her walk to receive her bachelor’s degree from Wright State University during Saturday, June 11 commencement exercises. The portable computer system, which controls the movements of Nan’s paralyzed legs, is in the bag under Dr. Petrofsky’s arm. The system was designed by Dr. Petrofsky at Wright State University.