Lives of the fellows

Henry Lindsay Roxburgh

b.5 December 1909 d.28 January 1989
CBE(1966) OBE(1951) BSc(1932) PhD(1934) MB ChB Edin(1940) FRAeS(1965) FRCPE(1966) *FRCP(1972)

Harry Roxburgh, known affectionately by his colleagues as ‘Roxy*, was the son of John Roxburgh, a bank manager. He was born in Cape Town, South Africa, and educated at George Watson College, Edinburgh, and Edinburgh University where, having gained honours in chemistry in 1932, he was engaged for three years in postgraduate research on the kinetics of the decomposition of phosphine, for which he was awarded a doctorate. He then entered the medical school and on graduation was initially drawn to orthopaedic surgery but, having developed an interest in altitude physiology, he decided to join the medical branch of the RAFVR in 1941. His potential value to research in aviation medicine was recognized during his initial induction; after two weeks as a junior medical officer at the RAF, Bicester, he was posted to the RAF Physiological Laboratory at Farnborough in July 1941 to join the team of medical officers and physiologists which had been established by Bryan Matthews in 1939.

Roxburgh was soon involved in research relating to the effects of altitude on man and methods of alleviating them, the research area in which he became a leading national and international figure. His first exposure to simulated high altitude in the decompression chamber at the Laboratory nearly ended in disaster. At a simulated altitude of 38,000 ft he collapsed and, on recovering consciousness, found that he had loss of muscle power in one leg and that his vision was impaired, and this persisted for several days; some of these effects of altitude were poorly understood in 1941. Having found that he was relatively susceptible to decompression sickness, Harry Roxburgh explored, -using himself as the subject - the reproducibility of symptoms produced by exposure to 35,000 ft. and also determined the effectiveness of pre-breathing oxygen in preventing decompression sickness. This study typified the bravery of the man, who continued to undergo repeated exposures to a highly hazardous environment. His experimental studies and authoritative reviews are an enduring contribution to the literature of the subject.

Stimulated by the need to protect the pilots of photographic reconnaissance and interceptor aircraft operating above 40,000 ft, Roxburgh and his colleagues explored the limits of protection afforded by breathing 100% oxygen. The results led to the development of pressure breathing equipment and provided strong medical evidence of the need for pressurization of cabins in high altitude aircraft. In both these areas, Harry Roxburgh made important contributions to aircrew safety and efficiency. Roxburgh flew frequently to make physiological measurements on aircrew or to test and observe performance of prototype items of equipment in a flight environment. He then decided that he should learn to fly himself, which he did in 1942. He was awarded the RAF pilot’s brevet in 1948. In the latter part of the war, Harry became involved in the problems of integrating various items of clothing and equipment on man, and in testing the performance of equipment in aviation and survival environments. This kindled his interest in the integration of items of life support equipment into complete assemblies, to which he brought scientific method and common sense in the ’50s and ’60s. He laid the foundation of the precepts for integration which have been followed so successfully in the UK over the last 30 years.

With the advent of peace in 1945, Harry Roxburgh decided to remain in the RAF. He was appointed deputy head of the RAF Institute of Aviation Medicine, as the Physiological Laboratory was renamed in 1945. During the next 20 years he played a major role in directing the development of the Institute, especially in altitude and climatic research, in the development of advanced protective systems for military aircrew, and in bridging the gap between aviation medicine specialists and aeronautical designers and engineers. In the postwar years Roxburgh continued his interest in oxygen equipment, contributing much to the design of oxygen systems and pressure clothing. He made a major contribution to the specification, design and testing of the open circuit oxygen system used so successfully in the first ascent of Everest in 1953. He also played an important part in the application of aviation medicine research to commercial passenger aircraft. He was the British co-chairman of the Anglo-French Aeromedical Group for Concorde and his vast experience, tact and humour, did much to foster the close collaboration between specialists in France and the UK which characterized this project. He was elected a member of the Physiological Society in 1960.

The early 1960s saw general dissatisfaction at all levels with the standards of aviation medicine in the UK. Following extensive discussions with the College, a course was established at the RAF Institute. The diploma in aviation medicine was recognized by the College, and the College and the RAF agreed to appoint jointly a professor of aviation medicine to organize and direct the course. The then Air Commodore Roxburgh was appointed the first RCP professor of aviation medicine in 1966 and under his able leadership the course rapidly gained a high international reputation. It markedly raised the standards of practice and aviation medicine owes much to Harry Roxburgh for the success of this programme.

Roxburgh commanded the RAF Institute of Aviation Medicine from 1967 until he retired, with the rank of Air Vice Marshal, in 1973. It was a difficult time in that it was the beginning of a period of retrenchment in government research and development, but he did much to establish close links between the Institute and its major customers. His contributions to aviation medicine and the RAF were recognized by the award of the OBE in 1951 and the CBE in 1966. From 1971-73 he served as an honorary surgeon to HM The Queen. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society in 1965, and awarded the Lady Cade medal of the Royal College of Surgeons that same year. In 1972 he was elected a Fellow of the College in recognition of his contributions to physiology and aviation medicine.

On first meeting, Harry appeared somewhat reserved but on closer acquaintance he offered friendship and support to all those who worked for him and with him He had a whimsical sense of humour and his friendship was valued by his colleagues for whom he and his wife, also a doctor, performed many individual kindnesses. He was an excellent mentor to young persons engaged in research, passing on freely his vast experience in applied research and enjoying their successes with them.

On retiring from the RAF in 1973, Harry and his wife took up residence in Alderney where he was able to devote time to gardening and his lifelong interest in cultivating camellias. In 1988 they returned to England to bring them closer to their grandchildren but after a short illness Harry died a year later. His wife Hermione, née Collard, was the daughter of a Naval officer. They had one son and two daughters.

J Ernsting

* Elected under the special bye-law which provides for the election to the fellowship of "Persons holding a medical qualification, but not Members of the College, who have distinguished themselves in the practice of medicine, or in the pursuit of Medical or General Science or Literature.."

[Brit.med.J., 1989,296,1028]

(Volume IX, page 453)

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