Lives of the fellows

Otto Gustaf Edholm

b.14 June 1909 d.18 January 1985
BSc Lond(1930) MRCS LRCP(1933) MB BS(1934) FRCP(1975) Hon DSc Surrey(1979)

Otto Gustaf Edholm was born in London, of Swedish parentage. From Tonbridge School he went to King's College, London, where in 1930 he took a BSc with honours in physiology before graduating in medicine from St George’s Hospital in 1933. From 1934-35 he combined hospital appointments with general practice but his interest in physiology led him back to King’s; first as a research fellow and then as an assistant lecturer.

In 1938 he was appointed lecturer in physiology at Queen’s University, Belfast, where Henry Barcroft and he carried out pioneering work on human peripheral circulation. During the war, under the aegis of the shock committee of the Medical Research Council, Barcroft and Edholm, using their plethysmographic methods, collaborated with McMichael and Sharpey-Shafer [Munk's Roll, Vol.V, p.372] who had introduced cardiac catheterization in the UK, in studies of circulatory changes induced in man by severe haemorrhage; this work elucidated the mechanism of the post-haemorrhagic fainting reaction.

In 1944 Edholm returned to London as professor of physiology at the Royal Veterinary College where he and his associates worked on the venous valves in the giraffe, the okapi, the camel and the ostrich. Otto’s dramatic description of his ride from the Zoo to the College, with the head of his dismembered giraffe staring at unbelieving passers-by through the side window of his taxi, once heard was never forgotten. He also resumed his work at Hammersmith, applying plethysmographic techniques to clinical problems.

In 1947 Edholm was persuaded to take the chair of physiology in the University of Western Ontario, and it was during his stay in Canada that he became interested in the effects of extreme climatic conditions on man. His book Man in a cold environment, London, E Arnold, 1955, written with A C Burton, remains a classic work.

After the war, when it was clear that the Services would have to adapt to extremes of temperature and climatic conditions, the Medical Research Council - which was already involved in research on heat adaptation - decided to set up a division of human physiology at the National Institute for Medical Research with a primary remit to study adaptation to cold. Edholm was invited to head the division, and he returned to the UK in 1949 to face the formidable task of supervising the building of the unique climatic chambers at the Institute. Inevitably, and with a rapidly increasing momentum, the division became the hub of environmental studies of a highly diverse nature, as requests for help poured in from various sources. Edholm remained at the centre with his fingers in innumerable pies, for the baking of which he was not of course entirely responsible but which, without his inspired advice, direction and coordination, both at Hampstead and on the relevant committees and working parties, might never have reached the oven. But he was not office-bound. He was seen - a lean, smiling, Parka-clad figure striding through a snowstorm over the cluttered decks of a minesweeper, to view at first hand the testing of the latest inflatable life-craft designed to increase the rate of survival at sea. He collaborated with nutritionists in energy expenditure studies on officer cadets at Sandhurst, after a general had expressed concern that in their supposedly arduous life the cadets were not gaining weight for lack of good red meat. He participated in studies of the Bedouin in the Negev. The work of his division included high altitude studies which contributed to the conquest of Everest by the Hunt expedition, the unique investigations made on the Tristan da Cunha islanders during their stay in the UK, and advice to athletes due to compete at high altitudes or in the heat. Edholm took increasing responsibility for the planning and evaluation of polar physiological research. The Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic expedition leaned heavily on him for advice. His division provided a base for medical officers and physiologists participating in the British Antarctic Survey; there they prepared their research projects, often using modest unsophisticated equipment,and they returned there to evaluate and write up their results under the guidance of Edholm and his team. It was fitting that just before his retirement Edholm went to the Antarctic in the Royal Research Ship Bransfield, calling at the Falklands and South Georgia to see for himself those stations from which so much hard won and interesting data had been obtained. Perhaps the largest and most elaborate physiological experiments ever mounted in the UK were carried out after the divisional climatic chambers, built originally for work on cold, were modified for heat acclimatization and men acclimatized in those chambers were flown to Aden and elsewhere for testing. A practical system for artificial acclimatization resulted from this work.

To his staff Edholm’s enthusiasm and interests seemed to have no bounds. He was an excellent teacher and it is fortunate that some of those he worked with have continued to practice and teach climatic physiology. Although immensely hard-working himself his door was always open to anyone seeking discussion, advice or encouragement on matters either professional or personal. One of his former staff remarked that he set an example of what a good boss should be like.

Edholm’s philosophy as a human physiologist was that the proper study of man is through experiments on man himself. He expressed this forcibly at one International Physiological Congress when he wrote on the blackboard in capital letters ‘MAN IS NOT A RAT’. This firmly held conviction radiated from him and energized others into human studies.

After his retirement from the Institute in 1974 Edholm became visiting professor at the School of Environmental Studies at University College London, where he applied himself to the difficult problems of the built-up environment. He continued to write; indeed only two days before his death he saw advance copies of his last book, written with R P Clark, Man in his thermal environment, London, E Arnold 1985. His publications - scientific papers, reports and books - were numerous. He was a member of many societies, and a founder member of the Ergonomics Society. Many honours came his way: the College made him a Fellow, the University of Surrey gave him an honorary DSc, he was consultant to the Army in applied physiology, and he was proud to be Bellinghausen Medallist of the Antarctic Committee of the USSR Academy of Sciences.

In spite of these honours and all his outstanding achievements, Edholm remained an essentially modest man. He was both an enthusiast and an incurable optimist. Although severely crippled in his last years by painful disorders he retained until the end that cheerfulness which had always characterized him. He was a great conversationalist and his alert and questioning mind could move at ease in the realms of music and the arts, and also into philosophy, politics and international problems. He called forth a loving loyalty from his staff, and he was a marvellous companion and friend.

He married Elizabeth Frances Margaret, daughter of William Bevan OBE, and they had three daughters.

H Barcroft
S Howarth

[, 1985,290,569; Lancet, 1985,1,650; The Times, 16 Feb 1985]

(Volume VIII, page 141)

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