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EpiPen inventor helped millions and died in obscurity

By Kevin Smetana, Times Staff Writer
In Print: Thursday, September 24, 2009

Danielle Davis, a Charleston, W.Va., high schooler with severe nut allergies, holds an EpiPen, an autoinjector containing epinephrine, that could save her life.
Danielle Davis, a Charleston, W.Va., high schooler with severe nut allergies, holds an EpiPen, an autoinjector containing epinephrine, that could save her life.
[Associated Press (2008)]

CLEARWATER — He led a normal, middle-class lifestyle. With a home in the suburbs and two modest cars in the garage, it's not what you might expect from a man who had a hand in inventing a product bought by millions.

For Sheldon Kaplan, that was just fine.

Mr. Kaplan was one of the inventors of the EpiPen, an autoinjector that contains epinephrine, which is used to treat anaphylaxis. Basically, it's a handheld device that saves people who are prone to fatal allergens.

Millions of EpiPen prescriptions have been filled over the years, according to the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. As an employee of the company that originally manufactured it, Mr. Kaplan never received royalties and few people connected the dots between him and the device.

"He was not famous; he was not wealthy," said his son, Michael Kaplan, 35. "And I don't think he would've liked to be. I don't think he expected that."

Experts praise the EpiPen, calling it a life-saving invention. It's used in emergency situations and owned by those who are allergic to certain foods, like peanuts and eggs, or to bees and wasps.

The possibility of inadvertently coming into contact with an allergen is a dangerous reality for those at risk. Carrying an EpiPen makes some feel at ease, said Dr. Richard Lockey, an allergist and professor of medicine at the University of South Florida.

"They feel much more secure going out into the world and doing normal things as long as they have their epinephrine with them," he said. "It improves the quality of life immensely for these patients."

• • •

Mr. Kaplan landed a job as an engineer at NASA after graduating from Northeastern University in 1962. A few years later, he started working at Survival Technology in Bethesda, Md., where he would revolutionize the autoinjector.

He invented the ComboPen, a device that treated nerve-agent poisonings and was used in the military, his family said. He later manipulated the contraption to hold epinephrine, and the EpiPen was born.

Although the EpiPen went on to become a household name after its creation in the mid-1970s, Mr. Kaplan did not. His family says he was the lead engineer and inventor on the project. His name, along with three others, is on the patent. But he never owned it.

He was simply an employee who made a salary and followed orders.

"I don't think that diminished the fact that he felt he had a legacy, that he made a difference," Michael Kaplan said. "My dad was an extremely talented engineer, an analytical guy who delighted in solving technical issues."

Just before the EpiPen hit the market, Mr. Kaplan left the company and moved on as a biomechanical engineer, developing medical equipment. He didn't follow closely the EpiPen's success.

"My husband was always looking for a new challenge, and he tended not to look backward," said his wife, Sheila Kaplan, 64.

• • •

Last month, Mr. Kaplan found out he had Hepatocellular carcinoma, a cancer of the liver. Not knowing it would be his last trip to see his dad, Michael Kaplan traveled from Iowa to visit Mr. Kaplan in Clearwater, where he lived since 2000.

His illness quickly worsened, and on Monday, Mr. Kaplan died at his home. He was 70. Before he passed away, Mr. Kaplan's son shared a story with him. The EpiPen had saved a close friend's life, Michael Kaplan told his father. And in the 1980s, it did the same for his mother-in-law, the son explained.

From the start of his career, Mr. Kaplan's wife of 39 years said, he sought to help mankind.

"He achieved his life goal," Sheila Kaplan said. "I don't think many of us can say that, and I'm extremely proud of him."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Kevin Smetana can be reached at or (813) 661-2439.

. Biography

Sheldon Kaplan

Born: June 6, 1939.

Died: Sept. 21, 2009.

Survivors: Wife, Sheila (Potts) Kaplan; son, Michael Kaplan and wife, Bethany; sister, Phyllis Goldenberg; nieces and nephews.

Service: Memorial service 2:30 p.m. today at David C. Gross Funeral Home, 6366 Central Ave., St. Petersburg.

[Last modified: Sep 23, 2009 09:31 PM]

Copyright 2009 Tampa Bay Times

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