“Many gallant deeds are performed in the face of the enemy, but it requires a very special brand of courage for a man to subject his own body repeatedly to maximum stress and physical danger in order to enable others to be treated and protected…”
Often risking his life during his experiments, Edgar Pask is one of the most extraordinary figures in anaesthesia.
Born in Derby in 1912, Pask trained at Downing College Cambridge (gaining a First in Natural Sciences) and the London Hospital where he graduated in 1937 in medicine and surgery. By 1940 he had become the House Anaesthetist at the Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford and was junior assistant to Prof Robert Macintosh. Pask joined the RAF in 1941 and was sent to its research centre in Farnborough, where he devised some of his most famous and dangerous experiments.
One of his most risky tests was experimenting to see the maximum height that RAF crews could survive if bailing out. He used a mixture of gases with a progressively low level of oxygen (<7%) and built a parachute harness and scaffold to replicate the conditions for an air crew at high altitude. Pask tested on himself for the majority of these experiments, though all subjects in these tests suffered profound hypoxia. In conditions simulating 35-40,000 feet Pask lost consciousness, his muscles began twitching and he had severe problems breathing, yet survived.
He also designed immersion suits for use by Merchant Ship Fighter Units in the North Atlantic. Without them, any pilots that had landed in the water could only survive a few minutes before succumbing to exposure. To test his design, Pask parachuted into the sea north of Shetland. He found that the suit was too hot, though the experiment had to be stopped before the spectators froze to death!
Pask’s most famous experiments were to do with lifejackets. Though the original design used by the military did keep unconscious men afloat, it didn’t keep their heads out of the water and often turned them face-down. In order to test new designs, Pask was anaesthetised with ether, sometimes for several hours and to the point of apnoea having also been pharmacologically paralysed, and put into a pool whilst wearing the lifejacket. Designs were tested in both fresh and salt water, and to replicate rough weather, the team used a pool at Elstree Studios.
In 1944 Edgar Pask was awarded the OBE in recognition of his work. He continued to work in anaesthetics after the war as a Professor and Head of Department until his death in 1966 aged just 53.
In tribute, the AAGBI founded the Pask Certificate of Honour in 1975 to recognise those who had acted with gallantry or given distinguished service. The first award was given to Pask’s wife and the most recent, awarded in 2012, were given to 140 Regular and Reserve Defence Anaesthetists from the Royal Navy, RAF and RAMC who have served in Afghanistan.