As the world pins its hopes on a new vaccine to counter Covid 19, Peter Walters tells the story of an earlier technological breakthrough that helped patients suffering in another epidemic almost seventy years ago.
In late 1953, in the midst of Britain’s terrifying polio epidemic, a new breathing machine was unveiled that made life much more bearable for patients struggling with the bulky and intimidating ‘iron lung’.
Its inventor was a member of Coventry’s engineering aristocracy, a man who insisted on using his First World War military rank of Captain, but whose compassion turned his agile and inventive mind to medical matters and in particular to a modified and re-designed artificial ventilator.
A new biography of Captain George Smith-Clarke, Coventry, Alvis and the Iron Lung, has just been published, and its author, retired anaesthetist Adrian Padfield, is convinced that more should be done to recognise his achievements.
“His modest and retiring manner endeared him to his friends but may account for the fact that he received no national recognition for his major contributions to innovative engineering designs in both world wars and the automobile industry, let alone his medical modifications and inventions that extended and enriched the lives of thousands.”
Born in Bewdley, Worcestershire in 1884, the son of a brass finisher, George Thomas Smith-Clarke showed an extraordinary inventive streak from the beginning and by the age of sixteen had designed his own tri-car.
He joined the Great Western Railway as an engineer in 1902 and soon after the outbreak of the First World War was sent to Coventry as a member of the Aeronautics Inspection Department, responsible for inspecting aero engines produced in the city by companies like Standard and Daimler.
After the war he joined Daimler as assistant works manager and in 1922 moved to Alvis, TG Johns’ new luxury car company, to become Chief Engineer.
Over the next decade he designed some of the company’s most successful cars, but his fertile mind was already ranging over medical matters as well. In 1926 he took out a patent for a loud-speaking telephone and tried to devise ways of helping children with hearing problems.
His interest in health led to his appointment as Chairman of the Coventry and Warwickshire Hospital in 1935 and he led the emergency committee trying to put the hospital back on its feet after the destructive wartime air raids.
He retired from Alvis in 1950 and during the polio outbreak of the early 1950s was co-opted on to the Birmingham regional committee studying breathing machines.
After witnessing a woman patient in distress while having to undergo nursing care inside a conventional iron lung, he set up a Coventry team to make modifications to the wooden iron lung, resulting in orders from the Ministry of Health to modify all the machines in Britain.
Later he designed a radically new version, the Coventry/Alligator iron lung, which was manufactured by Cape Engineering in Warwick, a company set up by former Alvis employees that he supported.
For his work on the artificial respirator he was awarded the Institution of Mechanical Engineering’s James Clayton prize in 1956, but was too ill to attend the awards ceremony. He died at his home at Gibbet Hill in Coventry in 1960.
Coventry, Alvis and the Iron Lung is published by Hughes & Company of Pershore, Worcestershire at £20 (www.hughesprinters.co.uk).