James Le Fanu

‘For every problem there is a solution: neat, plausible and wrong’. H.L.Mencken

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Hero who put himself through hell

IT HAS been rumoured that Sir Winston Churchill did not actually smoke cigars but rather used them as a sort of theatrical prop and, whether clenched in his mouth, or between his fingers, they remained unlit. No doubt this is music to the ears of the anti-smoking brigade, but it can’t possibly be true.

In the early Forties, Edgar Pask, an expert in respiratory physiology, was asked to devise a method which would allow Churchill to smoke while flying at altitudes above 8,000ft, which necessitated wearing an oxygen mask. As oxygen is flammable the dangers are obvious. Pask modified a cigar-holder, attaching a side tube with a valve through which the oxygen could flow.

It was an ingenious solution but never got beyond the prototype stage for reasons described by Pask himself: "The device worked unless you happened to put your tongue over the end of the cigar-holder while it was inside the mouth. This caused the oxygen to flow not into Winston Churchill, but out through the lighted cigar… The wretched thing would then burst into a bright white flame, and almost an inch of the best Havana disappeared."

If Churchill was vexed at this disappointing outcome, he would have taken it in good part, knowing that this obscure scientist had, in a series of heroic experiments on himself, made several much more important contributions to the Allied war effort.

Edgar Pask came from a Cheshire business family, and obtained an Open Scholarship to Downing College, Cambridge, from which he graduated with First Class Honours in the Natural Sciences. At the outbreak of war he was a junior anaesthetist in Oxford from where he was seconded to the RAF Pysiological Research Station at Farnborough.

The first problem he tackled was an investigation of various techniques of artificial respiration. Realising the only way of getting reliable results was to experiment on someone who was almost moribund, he persuaded his colleagues to give him drugs so his own breathing stopped. They then worked out the best means of resuscitating him.

Next he turned his attention to the problem of optimum design of lifejackets, as many pilots forced to ditch into the sea were found drowned with their heads under water. Again the experiments had to be conducted on someone who was unconscious, and again Pask volunteered to be anaesthetised for hours at a time. He was thrown into deep water to test out several modifications, which would ensure that an unconscious pilot would rotate into a safe position and remain with his head above water in all circumstances.

The next crucial problem to resolve was the maximum height at which pilots could bale out with a reasonable prospect of survival, as many died of lack of oxygen before reaching the ground. Again, Pask was the first guinea-pig, exposing himself to prolonged and brutal levels of oxygen deprivation until a figure of 40,000ft was arrived at.

Pask then went on to design a protective suit to prevent pilots perishing from cold in the icy northern waters, and tested it under field conditions by being parachuted into the sea off the Shetland Islands.

There is a special reason for recalling Edgar Pask’s heroism. Exactly half a century ago, a motley collection of German doctors were being tried in Nuremburg for "crimes committed under the guise of scientific research". From the moment Hitler came to power in March, 1933, the German medical profession embraced National Socialism, perceiving that its unique function in the new political order was to facilitate the doctrine of racial hygiene.

In July of that year the German equivalent of the British Medical Journal, the Deutsche Arzteblatt welcomed the Sterilisation Act in glowing terms: "Since sterilisation is the only safe method to prevent the inheritance of genetic disorders, the law must be looked upon as an expression of loving care for the coming generations." Within a year the genetic health courts had received 84,525 applications from doctors for compulsive sterilisation.

Later they played a central role in the mass euthanasia programmes of "futile and terminal cases", the practicalities of which provided the core for the annihilation technology of the death camps. And then there were the programmes of medical experimentation in Dachau and Auschwitz. These were not, as has been alleged subsequently, a cruel form of torture, bogus science conducted by a handful of Nazi crackpots. Rather, they were purposefully designed and "properly" carried out to answer (among other things) precisely the same problems that Edgar Pask had tackled: experiments to test the effects of vacating an aircraft at high altitude and of being immersed in freezing water for many hours.

The barbarism of the German doctors tried at Nuremburg – and the rest of the profession – is seen even more clearly when set against Edgar Pask’s personal self-sacrifice. Pask died, aged 52, after a period of chronic ill-health brought on by his wartime exploits. He was an authentic British hero, and his achievements merit wider recognition.

Copyright: Telegraph Group Ltd