James Francis Pantridge: The Father of Emergency Medicine

October 22, 2012
by Diana Bradley, Staff Writer
Thousands of heart attack survivors across the globe owe their lives to James Francis Pantridge (October 3, 1916-December 26, 2004), inventor of the portable defibrillator. Delivering a controlled electric shock to the heart, Pantridge’s device is responsible for saving 40 percent of the heart attack victims under the age of 65 it’s used on.

During the second half of World War II, the future“Father of Emergency Medicine” could be found wasting away in the unforgiving slave labor and death camps of the Burma-Siam railway and Tanbaya. Protein deficiency led the young Irish medical officer to develop the often deadly cardiac beri-beri, perhaps inspiring a lifelong interest in heart disease.

After his liberation in 1945, he worked as an adjunct lecturer in the anatomy department of Belfast’s Queen’s University, researching the affliction that had nearly claimed his life. President Lyndon Johnson’s cardiologist and the world authority on the electrical measurement of heart disease, Frank Wilson, soon took Pantridge under his wing when he won a research fellowship to the University of Michigan. Later, Johnson would suffer a heart attack during a visit to Charlottesville, Va., only to be rescued by Pantridge’s pioneering work.

But after working with Wilson for a short time, he returned to Northern Ireland as a physician at the Royal Victoria Hospital. It was there that the chief of medicine’s suggestion about heart attack victims receiving medical aid at the scene of the attack would serve as inspiration for Pantridge.

Historically, a main power supply had been the only way hospital-based defibrillators operated, so Pantridge and his colleague, Dr. John Geddes, set to work, developing the portable defibrillator in 1965. Powered by car batteries and weighing as much as the average man – around 155 lbs -- the first version of the device was still bulky, but by 1968, Pantridge had refined the instrument -- a bright red object the size of a large transistor radio -- down to a mere 6.6 pounds, incorporating a NASA-manufactured miniature capacitor.

He went on to install the portable defibrillator in a Belfast ambulance, which was converted into a mobile coronary care unit. He pushed to have more of these vehicles equipped under what would be called the Pantridge Plan. Although this plan was adopted in emergency service departments elsewhere in the world, it was not until 1990 that funding was made available to equip all frontline ambulances in England with the equipment.

In a 1966 Lancet article, Pantridge and Geddes reported a cardiac arrest survival rate of only 31 percent at the Royal Victoria Hospital if the event occurred in a general medical ward or casualty department, compared with 62 percent in an intensive care area. But after 15 months utilizing their new invention, a later Lancet article the doctors published revealed they had recorded 10 successful resuscitations and a 50 percent long-term survival rate, revolutionizing emergency medicine. In fact, upon seeing the article, journalists at Time Magazine suggested installing a defibrillator in the White House.

Further to making the defibrillator portable, Pantridge developed the automated external defibrillator, a fail-safe mechanism that determines whether a shock is necessary. This enabled his device to be used safely by members of the public – professionals and amateurs alike.

Throughout his life, Pantridge received various awards, including Fellowship of the Royal College of Physicians in 1957, and Commander of the British Empire (CBE) in 1978. He also inspired the creation of the Pantridge Trust, a charity raising funds and sponsoring activities in the fight against cardiovascular disease. The City of Lisburn, Northern Ireland commissioned a statue crafted in his honor, which sits outside the Lisburn City Council Offices.