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James LeVoy Sorenson, who earned a fortune inventing groundbreaking medical devices and making wise real estate investments, and then gave large sums of it back to the community as a philanthropist, died Sunday morning of prostate cancer. He was 86.
Sorenson had been in hospice care at his Holladay home at the end of a remarkable business career that helped remake medical care and left him Utah's richest man. Forbes magazine pegged his worth at $4.5 billion, 68th on the worldwide list.
Funeral arrangements are pending.
The Rexburg, Idaho, native is best known for co-developing the first real-time computerized heart monitoring systems. But among his 40 patents are an array of pioneering medical devices, including disposable surgical masks, noninvasive intravenous catheters and blood-recycling and -infusion systems.
His interests branched into genetic genealogy research and the formation of bioscience companies and foundations.
Through the Sorenson Legacy Foundation, his family name is affixed to numerous Utah buildings and organizations - health care facilities and programs, community centers, places of worship for a variety of religions, teacher education programs and fine arts programs for children in public schools.
Sorenson emerged from humble beginnings. In his autobiography Finding the Better Way, he described his upbringing as a Grapes of Wrath story, his family driven by the Depression to move from their struggling Idaho farm to California. Financial hardships were compounded by learning difficulties; an elementary school teacher once told his mother he was mentally retarded and probably incapable of reading.
But like his hard-working father, Sorenson never gave up. He learned to read. By 1955, he was a drug salesman for Upjohn Co., lucratively dabbling in real estate on the side.
Then he watched an 11-year-old boy die on an operating table in what is now Salt Lake Regional Medical Center. Sorenson took note of equipment problems the doctors faced trying to stem the boy's bleeding. He set his analytical mind to work, devising scores of instruments that moved from being state-of-the-art to commonplace in medical institutions.
And he never stopped pushing, consistent with his belief it is "important to learn something every day."
Utah Jazz owner Larry Miller saw that in Sorenson when they interacted just two weeks ago.
"His mind was working all the time. He was always talking about new concepts and doing things in different ways," said Miller, recalling Sorenson's efforts to promote peace in Jerusalem through youth recreation centers. "James believed that if the kids could play soccer together, maybe they could teach their parents to get together in peace."
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, called Sorenson "an absolute genius . . . one of the greatest entrepreneurs Utah has ever had. Almost everyone who has had a serious operation has benefited from his medical devices."
In a prepared statement, Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. applauded Sorenson for "making people's lives better. [His] creativity in the medical fields and business were made only more impressive by his philanthropic endeavors." The governor's father, Jon Huntsman Sr., is now the state's wealthiest person, worth $1.9 billion, according to Forbes.
His wealth notwithstanding, Sorenson endeavored to avoid the trappings of money. He frequently flew coach on airplanes. He enjoyed playing squash at the old Deseret Gym. Hiking was a favorite pastime. He was devoted to his wife, Beverley, whom he met at a Mormon church talent show in 1945, and to their eight children, 47 grandchildren and 28 great-grandchildren.
Not all of his business ventures succeeded. But most did, from staking uranium claims to sewing "modest lingerie."
"His brilliance was in taking ideas and making them a reality," said Gary Pehrson, a longtime friend and vice president at Intermountain Health Care. The patient care tower at its new Murray hospital bears Sorenson's name. "He didn't give us money for recognition, but to perpetuate what he started many years ago to create a place of beauty and tranquility."
The issue of name recognition on a medical building turned out to be his worst career experience. In 1989, Sorenson was subjected to public scorn when the University of Utah pledged, then rescinded, an offer to name its hospital and medical school after him in exchange for a $30 million donation.
"My vanity was getting in the way," he said, regrouping afterward to concentrate his resources on things "that can make the most difference to society."
One such venture involved telecommunications devices for the deaf.
"He revolutionized the way the deaf communicate," said Dave Johnson, whom Sorenson hired to promote the company after Johnson left the Salt Lake Organizing Committee during the Olympic bribery scandal.
The University of Utah business school also benefited from his attention, most recently through the creation of a center for discovery and innovation studies.
Said Dean Jack Brittain: "He was really a character, a real American original. I don't know if there will be any more like him because of the times when he grew up and the set of circumstances in which he worked."
James LeVoy Sorenson made
a name for himself in part by inventing medical products that revolutionized patient care and have become standard operating instruments in hospitals worldwide. They include:
* A real-time heart monitoring system.
* Disposable surgical masks.
* Plastic IV catheters.
* An autologous blood recycling system.
* A continuous flushing catheter.
* A disposable venous catheter.
* Single-use sterile packaging.
* An automated IV drug pump.
* Born July 30, 1921, in Rexburg, Idaho. First job in a canning factory in 1934 in Lincoln, Calif.
* Receives basketball scholarship in 1940 to Placer College near Lincoln.
* Begins 27-month LDS Church mission to the Northeastern U.S. in 1942. Joins the U.S. Maritime Service in 1945.
* Marries Beverley Taylor in the Logan LDS Temple in 1946.
* Takes a pharmaceutical sales job in 1946 with the Upjohn Co. and relocates from San Francisco to Salt Lake City.
* Buys first home in Rose Park neighborhood of Salt Lake City in 1947 and begins investing in real estate.
* Forms Deseret Pharmaceutical with Dale Ballard and Victor Cartwright in 1957.
* Sells his interest in Deseret Pharmaceutical in 1960 and focuses on LeVoy's, a sewing company that made modest lingerie.
* Forms Sorenson Research in 1962, manufacturing and marketing more than 500 medical products.
* Sells Sorenson Research in 1980 to Abbott Laboratories for $100 million, uses proceeds to start or expand businesses such as DataChem Inc., Sorex Medical, Sorenson BioScience.
* His reputation in 1989 takes a hit in controversy over a University of Utah proposal, later withdrawn, to name the hospital and medical school after him in return for $30 million donation.
* Founds predecessor company of Sorenson Genomics in 1993, which provides DNA testing.
* Begins development of Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation in 1999.
* Launches Sorenson Video Relay Service in 2003 and established relationship with Gallaudet University, which caters to the deaf and hard-of-hearing.
* Unveils massive real estate project near Jordanelle Reservoir in 2007, donates millions of dollars for discovery and innovation center at University of Utah business school, Primary Children's Medical Center, Intermountain Health Center for patient tower and lung-and-heart center, Unity Center on Salt Lake City's west side.