Lives of the fellows

John Stuart Pepys Rawlins

b.12 May 1927 d.27 July 2011
KBE(1978) MBE(1956) CBE(1960) BM BCh Oxon(1946) MRCP(1973) FFCM FRAaS FRCP(1978)

Surgeon Vice-Admiral John Stuart Pepys Rawlins was a pioneer in aviation medicine and diving research. Born in Amesbury, Wiltshire, he was a descendant of the famous diarist, Samuel Pepys, His father, Stuart Williams Hughes Rawlins, was an army colonel and, as a former commandant of the chemical research establishment at Porton Down, he was the only career soldier to have an obituary published in the journal Nature. Educated at Wellington College in Berkshire, he studied medicine at University College, Oxford and St Bartholomew’s Hospital.

While he was still in training, he volunteered in 1944 to treat the injured returning from the D-Day landings and remained to do house jobs at the Royal Hants County Hospital when he qualified in 1946. On moving to the London Chest Hospital the following year, he was called up to do his National Service and joined the navy volunteer reserve. Rumour had it that it was after a particularly convivial mess dinner that he signed up to do the course in aviation medicine which was to shape his future career. He joined the crew of the aircraft carrier Triumph and served in the Mediterranean for two and a half years. During that time he taught himself to dive in the warm waters off Malta and built his own compressed-air diving equipment which incorporated a hydrostatically controlled demand valve. This device was copied by the navy five years later and incorporated into their breathing apparatus.

On leaving the service, he taught anatomy at Bart’s and the Charing Cross Hospital but the navy made him ‘an offer he couldn’t refuse’ in 1951 and he accepted a post at the RAF Institute of Aviation Medicine (IAM) with a permanent commission. At the IAM he was responsible for the development of safety equipment and his first task was to design an automatically inflating ‘G-suit’ to prevent air crew blacking out during extreme manoeuvres due to lack of blood supply to the brain. The design he produced, adapted from an American model, was used exclusively for six years by both military and civilian test pilots.

His next task was to design a protective helmet sufficiently strong to prevent brain injury and provide high acoustic insulation but light enough to allow provision for radio communication. During the course of his research he carried out many in-depth studies of brain injuries and learnt how to machine rubber on a lathe by first deep freezing it. The subsequent helmet was a great success with both services and he lent his expertise to the British Standards Institute, advising them on the necessary standards for motor-cycle, horse-riding and racing helmets. Another successful product he designed was developed to overcome the problem of flight deck crew being unable to hear instructions above the increasingly noisy sound of jet engines. This involved incorporating a magnetic loop hearing device in the helmet.

In 1956, prompted by a tragic accident the previous year when an aircraft went into the sea off the flight deck of the carrier Ark Royal, he began work on a device to enable aircrew to escape from a jammed cockpit canopy. He developed a successful ejection system which solved the problem even when the pilot was unconscious. At a time which pre-dated computer modelling, he tested his products on himself and his team and managed to break his coccyx into six pieces testing the evacuation system on the ground.

He began work on diving research at the Royal Naval Physiological Laboratory in 1958 and then returned to the IAM in 1961 as surgeon commander. Three years later, in 1964, he was selected as the navy’s ‘man of the year’ and spent the next three years as principal medical officer to the Ark Royal. Seconded to the US navy in 1967, he worked on ‘Project Tektite’ at the medical research unit at Bethesda, Maryland. During investigating the problems inherent in spending long hours at great depths, he designed thermal clothing for scientists submerged for lengthy periods of time.

Returning to the UK, he became the director of health and research in the navy from 1973 to 1975, dean of the Institute of Naval Medicine from 1975 to 1977 and finally, medical director general of the navy with the rank of surgeon vice-admiral. Honorary physician to Her Majesty the Queen, he retired in 1980, having been appointed MBE in 1956, OBE in 1960 and KBE in 1978.

After retirement he continued to work on various aspects of underwater technology and was on the boards of a number of companies involved with deep water exploration. He was the first president of the Historical Diving Company whose members he referred to as the ‘hystericals’ – a reference to the squeaky voice sounds produced by divers using helium gas. Continuing to write papers on aviation and diving medicine, as he had throughout his career, he was much in demand at conferences and as an after dinner-speaker. Widely read, he would embellish his speeches with quotes from Shakespeare, Virgil and Ovid and was said to know Omar Khayyam by heart.

President of the judo club at Oxford, he continued playing and was captain of the Ark Royal’s judo team. He went on diving as long as he was able and also enjoyed fishing, stalking and riding.

In 1944 he married Diana Margaret Freshney née Colbeck, the daughter of Charles Freshney Colbeck, who was a civil servant in the ministry of agriculture and fisheries. During the Second World War, she had worked as a linguist at Bletchley Park. Diana predeceased him in 1992, and he was survived by their children, Caroline, Nicholas, Sarah and Juliet and nine grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

RCP editor

[Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Rawlins_(Royal_Navy_officer); The Telegraph both accessed 2 September 2015; The Times 5 August 2011]

(Volume XII, page web)

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