Written By: Jacob Poliskey
Interventional Radiologists use catheters nearly every day. A useful tool for many procedures, you might say we take their availability for granted: we pick up a sterile tube that looks like a million others and carefully position it in the patient. Standard procedure, right? But can you imagine having to fashion and assemble a catheter on your own every time a patient was in need? Dr. Frederic Foley (1891-1966) certainly was not satisfied with this system.
The curious and innovative Dr. Foley first fashioned his famous catheter to control bleeding after removal of the prostate. Urinary catheters of the 1920s had been used for years for the same purpose, but each individual urologist had to cement the parts together in a homemade style: catheter, bag, and the duct to swell the bag to hold the catheter in place in the bladder. Constructing a catheter by this method was time-consuming and designs weren’t the same from doctor to doctor. Then Dr. Foley stepped in.
His design was innovative: it used a stretchy rubber — latex — made from one piece, a serious step forward. This “latex” method simultaneously allowed a portion of the catheter to balloon outward while having the rest of the catheter be sturdy. A single-piece catheter stopped variability in between physicians’ use because they did not have to build or assemble the pieces themselves.
The project was not without its hurdles. It took Dr. Foley three years of experimentation — often with a boiling pot of latex on his wife’s stove — and a brief time of abandoning the project before a breakthrough came when he partnered with a rubber chemist. With that partnership in place, the first Foley appeared in 1935.
The inventors did not patent their product and an identical invention was patented a year later by the Davol Rubber Company. While they tried but failed to get the patent back, the name Foley stuck. Aside from no longer being made of latex, the Foley catheter in use today is very similar to the original innovation of Dr. Frederic Foley.1
1. Tatem, Alexander J., et al. “Frederick Eugene Basil Foley: His Life and Innovations.” Urology, vol. 81, no. 5, 2013, pp. 927–931., doi:10.1016/j.urology.2012.12.035.
2. Figure 1 Jacob Poliskey