INFORMS NEWs: In Memoriam - Charles D. Flagle (1919-2016)

Charles D. Flagle, a pioneer in bringing operations research to bear on public health issues through his groundbreaking work at Johns Hopkins University and Johns Hopkins Hospital starting in the mid-1950s, passed away Sept. 4. He was 97.

An INFORMS Fellow, Dr. Flagle received the George E. Kimball Award in 1984 from INFORMS for distinguished service to the profession of operations research and the management sciences from the Operations Research Society of America (ORSA), a forerunner of INFORMS, and in recognition of his role in the establishment and growth of the ORSA Health Application Section. In 2002, he published an article concerning the origins of operation research in medicine and health sciences as seen through the lens of his career.

A Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health professor emeritus, Flagle’s work in operations research and health services touched upon numerous subjects throughout his career. His work in the field helped advance the application of O.R. in key medical areas such as disease screening, diagnosis and therapy and medical application. He also studied the allocation of hospital resources and personnel scheduling problems.

“Dr. Flagle was among the founders of the field of health services research,” said Karen Kruse Thomas, historian of the Bloomberg School. “He pioneered applying mathematical and managerial approaches to streamline large-scale health systems, including computerization and progressive patient care. His reforms at Johns Hopkins Hospital to group patients by their need for intensive, medium or semi-independent levels of care were adopted by hospitals to increase their admissions and improve the quality of care. The American health system owes him a great debt of thanks.”

Born and raised in the Baltimore, Md., area, Dr. Flagle received his bachelors of engineering degree in 1940 from Johns Hopkins University, and went on to design jet engine controls for the United States Army during the Second World War. He returned to Johns Hopkins in the 1950s as a graduate student, and worked under Robert H. Roy, the dean of the Johns Hopkins’ Department of Engineering, where he was introduced to the Hopkins’ Operations Research Office (ORO).

Dr. Flagle completed his doctoral program in 1955 and began teaching courses in queuing theory and stochastic process as an assistant professor in operations research and industrial engineering at Johns Hopkins. It was around this time that personnel in the ORO were beginning to work their way into the various Johns Hopkins Medical institutions. Visiting these facilities, Flagle noted, “Everywhere I looked, there were stochastic processes.” In 1956, Flagle was appointed head of the Operations Research division of the Johns Hopkins Hospital Director’s staff.

Dr. Flagle was invited to join the United States’ Public Health Service intramural research team in the late 1950s to evaluate the progression of patient care. Working with the USPHS, Flagle learned that he was not the only one interested in bringing O.R. principles to health services. With the sponsorship of the Nuffield Provincial Hospitals Trust, Dr. Flagle organized the first meeting on operations research and healthcare issues between professionals from the United States and the United Kingdom in 1960.

Dr. Flagle served as a special assistant to the U.S. surgeon general for applied health technology from 1967 to 1968, where he worked to implement electronic medical records systems. In 1978, he was elected to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences.

After retiring from teaching and being named a professor emeritus at Johns Hopkins, Dr. Flagle maintained a close relationship with his alma mater. The Charles D. Flagle Fund provides awards to graduate students at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. The Alumni Association at Hopkins awarded Dr. Flagle its Distinguished Alumnus Award in 2000.

“What I will remember most about him was his incredible wit and good humor,” said Ellen J. MacKenzie, a Johns Hopkins public health professor and chair of the Department of Health Policy and Management. “He was a great storyteller and very much a Renaissance man. He also cared deeply for the students and was, himself, a great teacher and mentor. He will be sorely missed by many.”

Sources: INFORMS, Johns Hopkins,
Carroll County Times, Baltimore Sun