Lives of the fellows

Basil Martin Wright

b.20 Dec 1912 d.4 March 2001
MB BChir Cantab(1939) MA(1942) MRCP(1986) MD(1988) FRCP(1989)

Martin Wright was a born inventor who devoted most of his adult life to inventing affordable, lifesaving medical instruments, most notably the peak flow meter for assessing the degree of bronchial resistance in asthmatic patients; and one of the first reliable and accurate breathalysers to reduce deaths and damage from drink-driving. He was one of those rare individuals who single-handedly contributed more to the health and comfort of his fellow human beings than many a large and generously supported team publicising its small steps for mankind at international conferences.

Basil Martin Wright was born the son of a clergyman, without any evidence of a hereditary propensity for innovative inventions. But there was a strong family leaning towards mathematics which probably manifested itself in his insistence on precision in measurement, however simple and disposable the tool might be. Although of his many inventions the peak flow meter and his breathalyser (the alcolmeter, designed with Tom Jones of the Lion Laboratories) are the most widely known, he himself judged the portable syringe driver to be his most valuable contribution to medical care.

He was educated at Winchester College where his talent for repairing the watches of his masters and school friends was greatly appreciated. He then went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, from which he graduated with a first in physiology.

After clinical training at St Bartholomew's Hospital he joined the Royal Army Medical Corps in 1942 where he spent some time on research into the physiological effects of tank warfare. He was later charged with developing a laboratory service for the army in Freetown, West Africa, and later in Singapore; a challenge which needed his inventive skill.

After the war Wright was recruited by Charles Fletcher [Munk's Roll, Vol.X, p.146] at the MRC pneumoconiosis unit at Llandough Hospital in South Wales. He joined an intellectually throbbing group of medical physiologists and epidemiologists devising methods and means for measuring the quality and quantity of coal dust in the mines and to relate this to the impairment of lung function and associated X-ray appearances in coal miners. The impact of the pneumoconiosis unit on the South Wales coal industry and on social conditions was matched by the Wright flow meter which allowed objective measurements to be made of respiratory disability in claims for compensation.

The subsequent simplification and miniaturisation of the peak flow meter brought it into much wider use in medicine, particularly for assessing lung function in patients with asthma. It is now a much smaller and easier to handle instrument for patients to use at home, at work and in school which enables them to anticipate major deterioration in their asthma and take appropriate action. More than eight million of these meters have been sold to date with great profit to the Medical Research Council, the patent holders.

Recognising his unique skill, the MRC transferred Wright to the National Institute for Medical Research to work solely on instrument developments but he missed the daily, informal contact with clinicians seeking practical solutions to clinical problems. Thus he gladly moved in 1969 to the newly opened MRC Clinical Research Centre where he became involved in a wide variety of projects, many of them with wider application than the original project. Important examples are the pocket sized portable syringe driver which can be used in the patient's home to administer and adjust the amount of pain-relieving drugs, insulin or other medications. A typical Wright touch is that the adjustment can be made with a nail file on the premise that the patient or the attendant is more likely to have available a nail file than a screwdriver.

Other inventions include an apnoea alarm to alert patients to any irregularities in their infant's breathing which might be the harbinger of sudden cot death; a noninvasive method based on ultra sound for measuring an infant's intracerebral pressure in meningitis; and many one-off occasions when his inventive mind eased an individual patient's problem with a simple and easily produced gadget or helped epidemiologists to overcome bias in taking blood pressure measurements with his random zero sphygmomanometer.

But Wright's most widely known invention must be his breathalyser which is sold to more than 50 countries and in 1969 won the Queen's Award for Industry. Most importantly, it continues to prevent tragic deaths caused by irresponsible behaviour.

Martin's quiet speaking voice and unassuming manner hid a competitive yachtsman who kept his boat immaculately shipshape. He cared little about financial gain or professional advancement and he had no postgraduate or formal professional training or qualification. Recognition of his uniquely personal contribution came late in life. The College elected him a Fellow on the basis of his contributions to the comfort and benefit of mankind; and the University of Cambridge, his alma mater, conferred a doctorate on him in 1988.

Robert Mahler

[References:Brit.med.J.,322,2001,1309;The Daily Telegraph 21 March 2001]

(Volume XI, page 641)

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