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About Wallace Coulter: A Legacy of Spirit & Vision

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Wallace H. Coulter as a young man
Wallace H. Coulter as a young man

Wallace H. Coulter is described as brilliant, compassionate, eccentric, playful, and humble. A complex man, Coulter left a clear legacy – he focused his intense energy and sharp intellect on making contributions to humanity through science, in the process building a company that regularly broke new ground in clinical diagnostics, medical equipment, and biomedical research.

Clarkson University's former trustee, whose name now graces the School of Engineering, would have fit in well at Clarkson as a student.

"Wallace Coulter saw a common thread between his own work ethic and ingenuity, and those same characteristics in Clarkson students," says Clarkson Emertius President Denny Brown. "Looking at the ambitious and idealistic young faces among our students, Coulter saw future scientists and inventors dedicated to bettering the human condition."

Born in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1913, Coulter was always fascinated by electronics and enjoyed tinkering. He studied briefly at Westminster College in Missouri, then attended Georgia Tech for electrical engineering. The economic constraints of the Depression sent him into the workforce, however, where he continued to pursue his interest in electronics, first with a position as a radio station engineer-announcer, then as a sales and service engineer with General Electric X-Ray, covering Manila, Singapore, Shanghai and the nearby islands. His early adventures in the Far East shaped his global perspectives, appreciation for diversity and working knowledge of hospital laboratories. Later positions included electronic development for Press Wireless and Raytheon Manufacturing Company.

The Coulter Principle
In 1948 while working for Mittleman Electronics in Chicago, Coulter set up a private enterprise in his basement laboratory. The experimentation that took place there led to his invention of the Coulter Principle, a dramatic breakthrough that provided a methodology for counting, measuring and evaluating microscopic particles suspended in fluid.

The Coulter Counter

An early model of the Coulter Counter

The Coulter Counter
He and his younger brother Joseph developed the Coulter Counter instrument for the purpose of counting blood cells, constructed on the basis of the Coulter Principle. After Wallace received a patent for the Coulter Principle in 1953, the brothers began commercial production of Coulter Counters, initially building them one at a time in the basement.

Prior to the Coulter Counter, if a doctor wanted to evaluate a patient’s blood count, a lab technician would have to prepare a slide from the patient’s blood, look at it through a microscope, and manually count the blood cells. This was not only time consuming but prone to inaccuracy. The Coulter Counter increased the number of cells counted by a factor of 100 times, proportionately increasing the accuracy of the result. With the advent of the Coulter Counter, physicians could obtain a fast, affordable and accurate reading of the blood components – today the most commonly performed medical test, the Complete Blood Count (CBC).

Coulter Corporation
The invention of the Coulter Principle and the development of instrumentation to accomplish the measurement of colloidal particles launched Coulter Corporation. Coulter was also intensely interested in the characteristics of cells, and did pioneering work in the development of monoclonal antibodies for the diagnosis and treatment of cancer, lymphoma and leukemia and for the early detection of AIDS. The capability of the Coulter technology reached beyond medical uses; any industry needing to characterize particles in a fluid suspension found the technology beneficial – from chemical manufacturers to food processors.

Coulter Corporation established its headquarters in Miami, Florida, in 1961, and over the next 35 years grew to be one of the largest private diagnostic companies in the world with over 5,500 employees and 80,000 installations on six continents. The company developed entire families of instruments, reagents and controls, not just in hematology, but also in cytometry, industrial fine particle counting, and other lab instrumentation. In 1997, a year before Wallace Coulter’s death, Coulter Corporation was acquired by Beckman Instruments and is now known as Beckman-Coulter, Inc.

Not A Typical CEO
Wallace Coulter was tremendously successful as a businessman; yet he didn’t fit the stereotype of a CEO.

Those who knew Wallace Coulter speak of him with genuine fondness and respect.
Those who knew Wallace Coulter speak of him with genuine fondness and respect.

Part of it was the hat. He always wore a battered canvas fishing hat. But the larger part was his character. Those who knew Wallace Coulter speak of him with genuine fondness and respect. He surrounded himself with a highly diverse team of talented men and women representing many ethnic backgrounds and global perspectives at all levels of the company.

He loaned money to employees who were trying to buy a new home or facing family illness, and he didn’t expect to be repaid. He chastised employees for saying "I" instead of "we," pointing out that all accomplishments were the result of team efforts. He encouraged employees to strive to do their best, to overcome personal difficulties, and to reach to higher levels. He avoided the spotlight for himself, played practical jokes, and always flew coach. Never married, Coulter lived modestly and directed profits back into the company, providing funding in particular for research and development.

"Wallace Coulter was a remarkable man – always curious, always engaged," recalls Egon Matijevic´, Victor K. LaMer Chair of Chemistry at Clarkson. "It’s unusual for a CEO to stay so closely connected to research and to be so familiar with the details of research." Coulter was known for encouraging his researchers to take risks and explore new possibilities.

Curiosity and Adventure
Coulter never lost his youthful curiosity and was an avid reader. It was this desire to explore and discover that led him to his first international adventure, working for General Electric X-Ray in Asia. This experience led him to later develop the Coulter Corporation into a multinational company long before global business operations were a standard.

Early adventures in the Far East also influenced Wallace Coulter’s two personal passions outside of business: an appreciation of Asian artifacts and an interest in exotic tropical fruit. During his travels, he collected jade carvings in a variety of styles and selected fruit seedlings for his farm in Florida. On his farm he grew 50 varieties of mangoes and gained satisfaction from continually striving to develop a better tasting fruit.

Coulter’s success derived from his expansive intellect, never-ending curiosity, and a creative approach to problem-solving. "In addition," says Clarkson Provost Anthony G. Collins, "his ability to combine scientific inquiry with business acumen enabled him to take his discoveries and turn them into products that truly benefited people. Wallace Coulter was able to take ideas through engineering, manufacturing, and marketing to bring them to life."

Coulter set high standards for himself, but he also believed that every one of his employees had the capacity to achieve great things. "If we all came up to our best," he said, "we would be unbeatable." It’s a legacy that Clarkson students should be proud to embrace.