Development & Alumni Relations Office 



FRANK PANTRIDGE: JAPANESE PRISONER OF WAR AND INVENTOR OF THE PORTABLE DEFIBRILLATOR  

02 March 2020

A new book by County Down-born author Cecil Lowry on the life of Professor Frank Pantridge – one of Queen’s most outstanding graduates and a former member of University staff – is to be published by military publishers Pen & Sword in May 2020.

Often referred to as the ‘Father of Emergency Medicine’, Frank Pantridge was responsible for inventing the portable defibrillator, which was listed in 2018 as one of the UK’s 100 best breakthroughs for its significant impact on people’s everyday lives including American President Lyndon B Johnston's whose life was saved by a Pantridge defibrillator over 50 years ago.

Written by Cecil Lowry, this is his fourth book related to WW2 in the Far East where his father, like Frank Pantridge, was a prisoner of war.

Originally from Downpatrick in Country Down, Cecil Lowry was educated at Down High School before he left for college in England in 1966.

The synopsis of the book below outlines Pantridge’s life the Royal Army Medical Corps, his three and a half years in the notorious Changi prisoner of war camp and the invention of the defibrillator in the 1960s, which has saved millions of lives since:   

This book tells the life story of Frank Pantridge, the Northern Irishman who invented the portable defibrillator.  When WW2 broke out in 1939, Pantridge, a young doctor from the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast, headed for the army recruiting offices to join the Royal Army Medical Corps.

Eighteen months later he was posted to Singapore in the Far East where he was attached to the Gordon Highlanders as their medical officer.

Shortly after midnight on 8 December a large Japanese force landed on the beaches of Thailand and Malaya. For the next 70 days they pushed the defending Allied forces down the Malayan peninsula towards Singapore. On 15th February 1942 the allied forces surrendered and 137,000 Allied troops, including Frank Pantridge and my own father, were taken prisoners of war.

During the fighting in Johore prior to the surrender, Pantridge was awarded the Military Cross. His citation stated that 'He was absolutely cool under the heaviest fire and completely regardless of his own personal safety at all times.'

For the next three and a half years, Pantridge and my father were to endure dreadful hardships at the hands of a brutal and callous enemy in Changi prisoner of war camp and on the notorious Thai/Burma railway.

On the 6th and 9th August 1945, the lives of both men were saved when US President Truman authorised the dropping of Atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  

On returning to Belfast in October 1945, despite still being very weak from the weight loss, vitamin deficiency and hypertension, Pantridge's first priority was to resume his medical career.  After his experiences whilst enduring beriberi in the prisoner of war camps, he began to specialise in diseases of the heart, resulting in him being appointed consultant physician and cardiologist at the Royal Victoria Hospital Belfast.

It was known from as early as the late 19th century that most sudden deaths from heart problems occurred as a result of ventricular fibrillation, a disturbance in the heart rhythm. Pantridge was convinced that if an electric shock could be applied to the chest as soon as possible after a cardiac arrest, the patient might be saved. He reasoned that if the problem lay outside of hospitals, ventricular defibrillation should be applied where it occurred, in the workplace, the home or in the street or in an ambulance. Statistics proved that survival chances decreased by 10% for every minute that passes after a cardiac arrest. Such thinking resulted in him looking for a way to take the large and bulky defibrillators that were available in the hospitals, out to patients.

Pantridge produced the world's first portable defibrillator in 1965, initially operating from a specially equipped ambulance, his prototype ran off car batteries and weighed in at around 70 kilos. As a result, Belfast became the safest place in the British Isles to have a heart attack during the late 1960s.  His initial defibrillator gradually evolved into the small compact units so prevalent in workplaces today, and subsequently into the mini implantable devices placed into the chests of patients.

American President Lyndon B Johnston's life was saved by a Pantridge defibrillator in 1972 when he had a heart attack. Johnston said at the time: 

'Almost certainly, only one cardiologist has conducted pioneering work that saved my life and those of thousands of others. This distinction goes to Dr James Francis “Frank” Pantridge, professor at Queen’s University, Belfast, Northern Ireland. During a visit to Charlottesville, Virginia, I had a heart attack in 1972, which a mobile coronary care unit successfully treated with a Pantridge Portable Defibrillator. I owe my life to the invention of this former Japanese prisoner of war.'

Frank Pantridge's autobiography, 'An Unquiet Mind' went out of print many years ago. This biography retells the story of a man whose invention has saved countless lives over the last half century.

Born near Hillsborough in County Down, Frank Pantridge’s interest in cardiology may have been sparked by his own experience. After graduating from Queen’s School of Medicine, Dentistry and Biomedical Sciences in 1939, he was posted to the Far East. While there he contracted the usually fatal cardiac beriberi – where protein deficiency damages the heart.

He later worked as a lecturer in the pathology department at Queen's before being granted a scholarship to the University of Michigan, where he studied under cardiologist Dr FN Wilson. On his return to Northern Ireland he was appointed as cardiac consultant to the Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast and Professor at Queen's University, where he remained until his retirement in 1982.

Frank Pantridge: Japanese prisoner of war and inventor of the portable defibrillator is to be launched on 13 June at an event in Lisburn to be hosted by Alun Evans, Professor Emeritus at the Centre for Public Health at Queen's, and Dame Mary Peters, Honorary Graduate of the University and former Olympic Gold Medal winner. For details contact Cecil Lowry.

For enquiries about this story, or to submit your graduate news item, please contact Gerry Power, Communications Officer, Development and Alumni Relations Office (DARO), Queen’s University Belfast, on telephone: +44 (0)28 9097 5321.

Photo credit (main & headline images): Cecil Lowry

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