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GE research pioneer Walter Robb dies at 91 of COVID-19

GE research pioneer Walter Robb dies at 91 of COVID-19

Instrumental in the successful development of the CT scanner; improvements to ultrasound and MRI machines
GE research pioneer Walter Robb dies at 91 of COVID-19
Walter L. Robb attends GE Global Research's annual Science Day, with fourth grade students on Nov. 7, 2019.
Photographer: Marc Schultz / Staff Photographer

Walter Robb, a research pioneer for the General Electric Co., apparently has become the first Capital Region victim of COVID-19.

According to family members, Robb, 91, died Monday at 5 a.m. at Ellis Hospital.

"Thursday, he was coughing," said Rich Robb, the oldest of Robb's three sons, early Monday evening.

"We were getting ready to move my mother, my brother went out to help deal with my mother's more difficult mobility issues," Robb added. "And he was coughing all night ...Walt got checked out and was admitted into Ellis with potential lung infection. CAT scan showed it likely was COVID, so he was tested. He was immediately put on a respirator."

Robb said his mother, Anne, also was admitted to the hospital. She has tested positive for COVID-19.

Robb also said he and his family were notified late Sunday night that Walter was failing. Robb said he then drove from Boston to Schenectady, arriving at Ellis at 3 a.m.

"The family consulted with doctors and concluded that given he wasn't going to probably leave that room or the hospital .. we cut off life support at that point and he died at 5 a.m.," Robb said.

Robb said his father died of organ failure related to the disease.

Robb also said his father had been in good health.

"He's been full-bore with work every day," he said. "My joke is he hasn't been home for lunch a day in his adult life and it's probably true. He's been full- bore with work, drives. I saw him a few weeks ago, he had to boogie out for a board meeting. He's cut back a little bit because of my mother's difficulties, so he doesn't travel like he used to, but not a beat was skipped."

Robb described his father as a true business hobbyist.

"He had foregone all his other hobbies and was just focusing on business," Robb said. "He was never hyperactive, he was never running around late or trying to pull things together last minute. He was just a totally measured guy."

Robb expressed shock at how quickly the disease affected his father.

"I was telling my friends his age is compromised but his health isn't," Robb said. "And he's a bull. He goes to work every day. If anybody ought to be able to beat it, it would be him ... I don't want to be selfish, he lived to 91, but why couldn't he have lived to be 102?"

Walter Robb joined General Electric in 1951 and began working at the company's Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory.

During the 1970s and 80s, Robb oversaw a number of successes at GE. He was in charge of developing the CT scanner and made marked improvements in both MRI and ultrasound machines. All three were successful.

When Robb returned to Schenectady in 1986, after spending 13 years leading GE's Medical Systems Division in Milwaukee, he was about ready to retire. He also mulled over remaining in Wisconsin and entering the political arena.

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He ended up doing neither and instead became the first engineer to be named director of GE Global Research. His five predecessors had all been pure scientists.

Robb worked at GE for 42 years, retiring in 1993 at the age of 65.

He then became involved with several successful ventures, primarily as founder of his own consulting company, Vantage Management Inc.

“Walt Robb was a true builder in every sense of the word with GE, with the Research Lab and in the Capital Region’s business community," read a statement from GE Chief Technology Officer Vic Abate. "As CEO of GE Healthcare and later head of the Research Lab in the late 1980s and early 90s, he led the growth of new Healthcare businesses in MR and CT imaging and greatly strengthened the connectivity between the Lab and GE’s businesses in advancing cutting edge technologies.

"He was extremely active to his final days," Abate added. "He visited the Research Lab often and has left a legacy with our company and in our community that will have lasting impact for many decades to come."

When Robb left GE in 1993, he was awarded the National Medal of Technology "for his leadership in the development of medical imaging technologies." He also remained busy. Along with his duties at Vantage Management, he served on the board of directors for numerous companies and various organizations.

In the 1990s, he was the owner of two professional sports teams -- the Albany River Rats and Albany Firebirds.

In 2014, Robb wrote "Taking Risks: Getting Ahead in Business and Life." In the book's introduction, he discussed the concern about companies' lack of interest in research.

Rev. Bill Levering, pastor at First Reformed Church in Schenectady, remembered Robb's service as a longtime member of the church. 

"He was an officer, and elder, he served on search committees," Levering said. "There's very little he didn't do there.

"Walt was bright, always interested in finding the new thing, the new perspective," Levering added. "He would send me two or three emails a week about some new perspective on something. He and I had lunch about every two weeks. He went to work pretty much every day, right up until the end. He was a very industrious, very stimulating fellow, a wonderful fellow."

George Wise, a General Electric historian and author, and a longtime staffer at the GE Global Research Center, described Robb as a strong leader and a good listener and learner. 

"He was the same unpretentious, straightforward person to all his co-workers from CEOs to cleaners," Wise said in an email. "His remarkable record of good decisions, especially in championing medical diagnostic technologies, has impacted all our lives for the better."

Michael Davi, who wrote about General Electric in his book "PrivileGEd," said Robb stands tall "among the iconic technology contributors" in the company's history.

"For about the past year I had been attending a monthly Langmuir Luncheon at GRC (Global Research Center) for GRC retirees," Davi said in an email note. "Although I was never a GRC employee, I was invited to attend and also did a book presentation to that group last year. Robb was a regular attendee and always asked very intelligent questions or added interesting comments for the luncheon speakers."

Robb talked about his life in several interviews with The Daily Gazette. Here are some excerpts:

* From 2017:

"My golf game is sufficient enough to play when I have to, but playing golf three days a week would be so boring," Robb said during an interview in his Latham office. "I enjoyed what I did so much I never got into any hobbies. I don't have any woodworking equipment in the basement.

"That's why I set up my own management company," he added. "That's what I love to do. This is my sport."

* From 2003:

Every week, Robb says he gets someone who has a business proposal for him. His years at GE as a scientist and a manager, he says, have given him valuable insight into what it takes to make it.

"I think I am a good judge of the probability that some scientific breakthrough can be made into a successful business," Robb said. "What my experience has given me, I hope, is the ability to see the technology that has a chance to result in people buying it."

One red flag to Robb: scientists who want to be the head of their own company developing their inventions.

"So often, the inventor wants to be the CEO. And the problem is he may be a good chief technology manager, but it's rare that he has expertise in marketing or sales or other aspects crucial to a successful business," Robb said. "Too often the inventor is not the leader needed to drive a business to success."

But that's not always the case -- and those inventors who see the benefits of having a business expert run the business appeal to him.

"Once in a while, you see a good inventor who is smart enough to realize the need to get a CEO," Robb said.

* From 1998:

Robb and his three sons climbed Kilimanjaro, Africa's highest Mountain, in January, 1998. He reflected on the experience, shortly after stepping into the snows of Kilimanjaro and walking in the dark above the clouds.

"My prayers that evening, said at midnight because I had fallen asleep so quickly at 8 p.m., were particularly intense, thanking God for this unbelievable opportunity to spend six days with all three sons in a joint endeavor that had found us up to the challenge. Their unique ability to make friends so quickly made me proud to be their father. Their willingness to give a week of their valuable time to accompany me to the top of Africa made me a very, very grateful father not only to them, but also to our wives and granddaughters at home who had approved this male adventure. This was a very special time, one I would relish forever."

Contact staff writer Jeff Wilkin at 518-395-3124 or at [email protected].

Staff writer Bill Buell also contributed to this story.  

Correction March 26: Walter Robb's age at the time of his death has been corrected. He was 91.

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