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The Irish Cardiologist Whose Invention Saved LBJ

Frank Pantridge miniaturized the defibrillator, making it portable

A statue of Frank Pantridge outside the Lisburn Civic Centre in Northern Ireland. His defibrillator sits beside him. (Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

When someone is having a heart attack, there’s often no time to seek out medical care at a hospital. If they need assistance from a defibrillator, which can send an electric shock that will help their heart beat normally again, they need it now. The longer their heart is in “ventricular fibrillation”—a condition where the heart is beating erratically and not delivering blood to the organs—the less likely they are to survive.

In the 1960s, however, even as coronary heart disease rates skyrocketed, writes Alun Evans for the British Medical Journal, the only places defibrillators were to be found were hospitals. These defibrillators, which used technology originally developed in the 1930s, relied on the hospital’s power supply to work. Then in 1965, a doctor named Frank Pantridge invented a portable version of the defibrillator. Descendants of Pantridge’s machine “are now used a countless number of times daily throughout the world saving an incalculable number of lives annualy,” writes Evans.

Pantridge was born on this day in 1916 in Northern Ireland and graduated from medical school before serving in World War II, writes Peter Crutchley for BBC Northern Ireland. In the middle, though, he was expelled from several secondary schools–a sign of an anti-authoritarian streak that continued throughout his life. A war veteran who never spoke of his traumatic experiences in prison camp, he was driven and hard-to-predict, writes Barry Sherlock, who interviewed a number of Pantridge’s colleagues after his 2004 death.

Pantridge’s original design used a car battery and weighed about 150 pounds, writes Crutchley. It was first used in January 1966: By 1967, Pantridge was able to publish a paper in The Lancet documenting the first treatments made by his mobile cardiac unit which brought care–and defibrillation–to the patient. “Thus it has been shown perhaps for the first time that the correction of cardiac arrest outside hospital is a practicable proposition," he wrote.

After the paper was published, American physicians widely adopted the portable defibrillator. In 1972, when President Lyndon B. Johnson suffered a massive heart attack, he was revived with a portable defibrillator, which helped raise the device’s profile further. (The retired president, however, did not have much longer: Johnson died in 1973.)

It helped that by 1968, thanks to a miniature capacitor made for NASA, the defibrillator had shrunk, changing from the original behemoth that had to be stored in an ambulance to the seven-pound portable device that can be found in many places today. Pantridge’s dream was to have a device that was as easy to use and ubiquitous as a fire extinguisher, Evans writes, “as life was more important that property.”     

"People were getting cardiac arrests in a situation where the heart stops. In the casualty department people were arriving dead, having died in the ambulance," Pantridge said in a 1988 interview. "My objective was to have almost a pocket defibrillator if that was possible."

Pantridge’s quest for bigger and better emergency cardiac medicine led the the development of mobile cardiac units across the United States and in his home country. 

Today, portable defibrillators may not be as common as fire extinguishers, but they are widely found in public settings like airports and casinos, where they continue to save lives.

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