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How I Made It: Dr. Gary Michelson

The retired orthopedic surgeon has invented hundreds of instruments, implants and procedures to improve spinal surgeries. With his fortune he supports causes including animal welfare, medical research, online textbooks and tropical rain forests.

June 05, 2011|By Duke Helfand, Los Angeles Times
  • Dr. Gary Michelson shares a five-bedroom home in the hills of Los Angeles with three rescued dogs. Above, he pets pit bull Honey, observed by, from left, German shepherd Abigal, Doberman Lilly (a neighbor's dog) and whippet Gracie.
Dr. Gary Michelson shares a five-bedroom home in the hills of Los Angeles… (Ricardo DeAratanha, Los…)

The gig: Dr. Gary K. Michelson, 62, is a billionaire inventor of surgical devices and a retired orthopedic surgeon who has devoted an estimated $300 million of his fortune to an assortment of causes. Topping the list: animal welfare, medical research, online textbooks and tropical rain forests.

An early influence: Michelson vividly recalls the childhood event in Philadelphia that set him on his path to medicine: His grandmother suffered from a crippling spinal deformity that made it impossible for her to distinguish between hot and cold in her extremities. One day she was in her kitchen preparing lunch for him when he smelled something bitter. His grandmother's hand, touching the stove's flame, had caught fire without her knowing. Michelson screamed. His grandmother doused her hand in water and delivered the words that would change his life.

"She said, 'You'll be a back doctor and you'll fix this for me,' " he recalled. "I was probably in second or third grade."

Big payday: A doctor for more than 35 years, Michelson has invented hundreds of instruments, implants and procedures to make spinal surgeries faster, safer and less expensive. He has 955 patents to his name or pending worldwide.

He spent years fighting a medical device manufacturer over the rights to his work. Medtronic Inc. agreed in 2005 to pay Michelson $1.35 billion to end the legal dispute, catapulting him onto the Forbes magazine annual list of the 400 richest Americans. He was listed at No. 290 in 2010, with a net worth estimated at $1.4 billion. He won't confirm the figures or say precisely how much he gives away. "It's unseemly," he said, urging a reporter to focus on his foundations rather than on him.

The simple life: Michelson says he never thought he'd be rich. He drives an 11-year-old Chrysler PT Cruiser with 70,000 miles on it and admits that he hasn't bought a new business suit in 10 years.

Divorced without children, he shares a five-bedroom home in the hills of Los Angeles with three rescued dogs he treats like his children. There's 6-year-old Gracie, an affectionate whippet. And 4-year-old Honey, a playful pit bull. And 2-year-old Abigal, a German shepherd he calls "The Germ." He keeps framed pictures of the dogs in the kitchen and den.

Working from the house, Michelson oversees foundations, charitable enterprises and research endeavors.

Found Animals: These include the Found Animals Foundation. It supports clinics that spay and neuter dogs and cats, and it runs its own mobile unit in south Los Angeles communities. It also sponsors pet adoptions and a free microchip program that helps owners recover lost pets.

Michelson created a $25-million prize to develop a nonsurgical method to sterilize large populations of cats and dogs to reduce the numbers of strays killed in shelters. He's offering an additional $50 million in grants to pay for the research.

20 Million Minds: The doctor also has tackled the hefty price of college textbooks. Disturbed by accounts of community college students' dropping out of school because they couldn't afford their books, he created the 20 Million Minds Foundation to make texts available free or at low cost over the Internet.

In addition, he's invested more than $100 million to support medical research and has bought 60,000 acres in Panama and Costa Rica to reforest land and open some areas for animal sanctuaries.

The joke's on him: Someone parodied Michelson in a 2008 short video on YouTube, making fun of his wealth and love of animals. It concludes with the line: "I'm Gary Michelson, I'm filthy, stinkin' rich." The doctor said he loved the video and showed it to friends even though he doesn't know who made it. (The culprit, it turns out, was a Santa Barbara songwriter who said she produced it for fun; the writer, Annie Gallup, works as an illustrator for an online newsletter and database called Orthopedic Network News.)

"I thought it was funny as hell," Michelson said of the video. "I'm looking to find who did it because I'd like to hire that person. If they did that for free, imagine what they'd do if you were paying them."

duke.helfand@latimes.com

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