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Thomas E. Hutchinson, invented eye device for disabled, dies t 77

Thomas E. Hutchinson, a University of Virginia engineering professor who created scratch-and-sniff technology by accident and later invented a device to help disabled people communicate by sending commands to a computer through the movement of their eyes, died Sept. 2 at a hospice in Charleston, S.C. He was 77.

He had a stroke in 2009, his ex-wife, Colleen Hutchinson said, and had complications from dementia and heart ailments.

In 1952, while playing in a high school football game in his native South Carolina, Hutchinson suffered a severe concussion. He was unconscious for eight days and, when he awoke, was temporarily paralyzed.

"It was the essence of terror," he told the Charlotte Observer in 1999. He soon recovered from his injuries, but he determined that, if given the chance, he would do whatever he could to devise a method by which people who were paralyzed or disabled could communicate.

Thirty years later, soon after he joined the School of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Virginia, Hutchinson visited a center for disabled children. He was dismayed to find them virtually helpless.

"Except for their wheelchairs," he told People magazine in 1987, "I saw nothing we had done for them. I thought, 'Technology has failed them.' " At about the same time, Hutchinson watched a nature show on television about elephants. He noticed that their eyes reflected light when they were filmed at night with infrared cameras.

He realized that the light in an elephant's eye could offer a lifeline to the disabled children and others who were immobilized and unable to speak.

Hutchinson, who had medical degree and a doctorate in physics, brought together physiology, optics, computer science and biomedical engineering and, by 1984, had invented and patented what he called eye-gaze technology.

Thomas Eugene Hutchinson was born Aug. 1, 1936, in York, S.C., and grew up on a dairy farm. He was married to Colleen Ray in 1958. They divorced in 2007 but continued to live together in Mount Pleasant, S.C.

Other survivors include their two children, Rachel Hutchinson of Mount Pleasant and T. Eugene Hutchinson Jr. of Seattle.

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