Lives of the fellows

John Ernsting

b.21 April 1928 d.2 June 2009
CB(1992) OBE(1959) BSc London(1949) LRCP MRCS(1952) MB BS(1952) PhD(1964) MFOM(1982) MRCP(1985) FRCP(1991)

Air Vice Marshall John Ernsting was recognised worldwide as a leading authority in aviation medicine. Due to the pioneering work that he did in developing special life-support equipment, both military and civilian aircrew were able to survive operating at extreme altitudes.

Born in Greenwich, London, he was the son of Reginald James Ernsting, a dental surgeon, and his wife, Phyllis May Josephine. His nephew, David Lyndsay Smith, was also a physician. Educated at Chislehurst and Sidcup County Grammar School, he studied medicine at London University and Guy’s Hospital. Qualifying in 1952, he did house jobs at Guy’s the following year and at Guy’s neurosurgical unit at the Maudsley Hospital in 1954. Later that year, he was commissioned into the RAF and spent the next 25 years working in the altitude division of the Institute for Aviation Medicine (IAM), becoming its head in 1971, with responsibility for research, teaching and the direction of the specialist staff.

On joining the IAM he immediately began to study the physiological aspects of flying at high altitudes. The potential of the new combat aircraft that were being introduced at that time created a need for emergency protection of the aircrew when the cabin lost pressure, or there was a need to fly higher in order to escape. While working on specialised clothing and breathing apparatus, he was happy to be a ‘human guinea pig’ and, during one test in a decompression chamber, came very close to death and had to be resuscitated. He also carried out research into the effects of loss of cabin pressure and, on his recommendations, some of the design features of Concorde were changed and its recommended pressure level altered.

During the late 1960s he was the RAF’s aeromedical project officer for the development of British versions of American built aircraft. He also directed research into the development of a special respirator that was built into flying helmets to combat exposure to nuclear, biological or chemical contamination. Spending a sabbatical year in the US at the American air force school of aerospace medicine, he conducted research into provision of oxygen in combat aircraft which was later used in the design of the Harrier jet.

At the IAM he was appointed deputy director of research in 1976, then becoming director in 1985, and finally commandant in 1989. Chairing working parties on the aeromedical and life-support systems for the Tornado and the Eurofighter project, he was able to forge close links between the research physiologists and the design engineers which was highly productive. He also played a key role in the development of an aviation medicine training centre for the RAF. In 1992 he retired from the service but continued as a civil consultant for two years.

Moving to King’s College, London (KCL) when he retired from the RAF, he taught a human and applied physiology MSc course. After a while KCL asked him to set up a research laboratory and he was active there, both in teaching and research, for a further 16 years. Additionally he was a visiting professor at Imperial College and, in 1998, was appointed head of the human physiology and aerospace medicine group of the Guy’s, King’s and St Thomas’s school of biomedical sciences. Among various consultancy roles, he was aeromedical advisor to BAE Systems and a member of numerous national and international working groups. The author of many scientific papers on subjects such as aviation physiology and aircraft oxygen systems, he also co-edited Aviation medicine (London, Tri-Med, 1978), a standard reference work in the field which is now in its fourth edition and retitled Ernstinge’s aviation medicine in his honour.

During his life he was awarded many national and international prizes. He was elected a fellow of the Aerospace Medical Association and of the Royal Aeronautical Society. He was honorary surgeon to the Queen from 1989 to 1993 and president of the International Academy of Aviation Space Medicine from 1995 to 1997.

Devoted to his work - he was in his office the day before he died – he had little time for other interests. But he was an avid reader and he developed many of his ideas while listening to classical music. Gardening was also a pleasant distraction.

In 1952 he married Patricia née Woodford and they had a daughter and two sons. She died in 1969 and, the following year, he married Joyce Marion née Heppel (‘Joy’). When he died, Joy survived him, together with a son and daughter from his first marriage, one son having predeceased him.

RCP editor

[The Daily Telegraph - accessed 12 February 2015; Wikipedia - accessed 12 February 2015]

(Volume XII, page web)

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