Rory Cooper has devoted his life to accomplishing big things for a small segment of the American population.
“Who’s more important to serve than someone who is perfectly healthy, [who] puts their life on the line?” Cooper said in an interview with the Partnership for Public Service. “In America, we talk about the 1 percent (with the greatest wealth), but the 1 percent that’s really important is the 1 percent serving in uniform.”
It would be understandable if Cooper—inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame this year—equated the military with a tragedy he would rather forget, and moved on to other things.
The California native enlisted in the Army at 17. Three years later, while stationed in Germany in 1980, he was bicycling when a bus sideswiped him and sent him flying into a truck, paralyzing him from the waist down. He has responded by overseeing innovation that has improved and changed the lives of others with disabilities.
Cooper is a distinguished professor of rehabilitation engineering at the University of Pittsburgh and a senior career scientist for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. His team has developed more than 100 inventions and received 25 patents related to technologies that include wheelchairs, robots, and wearable instruments.
In fact, Cooper typically wheels around in his creation, the Mobility Enhancement Robotic Wheelchair (MeBot). It maneuvers up and on curbs, on challenging terrains, and even climbs stairs. Other inventions include PneuChair, a wheelchair powered entirely by compressed air; and Virtual Seating Coach, a smartphone app for controlling power seating wheelchair systems.
He says his most important accomplishment is his work as the director of the Human Research Engineering Laboratories at Pittsburgh (HERL). HERL’s SMARTWheel revolutionized wheelchair biomechanics and ergonomics, dramatically reducing shoulder and wrist injuries for its users.
A rugged athlete who won the bronze medal in the 4-by-400-meter wheelchair relay at the 1988 Paralympic Games, Cooper overcame tragedy again in 2019. While competing in the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C., he lost control of his handcycle on a steep downhill. After hitting a curb, he was launched from his cycle and suffered two broken feet and legs among other injuries.
Because no one was around at the time, he finished the remaining 23.2 miles and sought help at the finish line. He passed out from shock and hypothermia, was in an intensive care unit for 10 days and in a coma for nearly four days. A year later, he was back competing at the Pittsburgh Marathon and completed it on his handcycle.
Cooper’s multitude of prestigious awards include the Samuel E. Heyman Service to America Service Medal and the Secretary of Defense Meritorious Civilian Service Medal. But he has often said that his greatest honor is “being part of something that is bigger than yourself.”