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Frank Pantridge: 'I will not leave my bloody bones in Burma'

Frank Pantridge's biographer, Co Down-born Cecil Lowry, reveals the daily ritual that enabled him to survive the notorious Burmese 'railway of death'… and how he learnt to outwit the breathalyser test

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The young Frank during the war

The young Frank during the war

Life saver: Frank Pantridge is recognised internationally for transforming the treatment of heart attacks with his invention, the portable cardiac defibrillator

Life saver: Frank Pantridge is recognised internationally for transforming the treatment of heart attacks with his invention, the portable cardiac defibrillator

Harry S Truman

Harry S Truman

The young Frank during the war

On this, the 75th anniversary of VJ Day, it is only right to remember the story of one of Northern Ireland's greatest war heroes, Professor Frank Pantridge MC.

Hillsborough-born Pantridge attended Friends' School, Lisburn before going on to study medicine at Queens University, Belfast.

When the Second World War broke out, in August 1939, he immediately volunteered for the Royal Army Medical Corps. Eighteen months later, he was posted to the Singapore, where he was assigned as medical officer to the Gordon Highlanders.

On February 15, 1942, when Singapore fell, he was taken prisoner of war and, on April 28, was transported to Thailand to join the thousands of other prisoners already slaving on the infamous Thailand/Burma railway.

Pantridge suffered badly from beriberi during his time on the railway and, in August 1943, he became very ill.

Despite this serious illness, he was determined that he would not die, repeating to himself each day: "I will not leave my bloody bones in Burma."

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Terrible regime: Prisoners of war working the Thailand/Burma railway

Terrible regime: Prisoners of war working the Thailand/Burma railway

Terrible regime: Prisoners of war working the Thailand/Burma railway

On August 15, 1945 - exactly 75 years ago today - Japan surrendered. The Second World War was finally over.

Four weeks later, the hospital ship SS Oranje docked in Singapore. On board was a former colleague of his, Dr Tom Milliken, from Bangor.

Millikin recalls: "The upper half of Frank's body was emaciated skin and bone; the lower half was bloated with the dropsy of beriberi and he weighed under five stones. He was a physical wreck, but the eyes said he was indestructible." Milliken arranged for him to get on board a ship due to depart for Southampton.

On October 17, 1945, Frank Pantridge arrived back home. Tears welled up in his eyes when the Liverpool-to-Belfast ferry entered the mouth of Belfast Lough and he saw his beloved Northern Ireland again.

Despite still being very weak, his priority was to resume his medical career. He managed to get a houseman's position in the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast at a salary of £1 per week, plus free board and lodgings.

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Life saver: Frank Pantridge is recognised internationally for transforming the treatment of heart attacks with his invention, the portable cardiac defibrillator

Life saver: Frank Pantridge is recognised internationally for transforming the treatment of heart attacks with his invention, the portable cardiac defibrillator

Life saver: Frank Pantridge is recognised internationally for transforming the treatment of heart attacks with his invention, the portable cardiac defibrillator

Pantridge began to devote his attention to the heart, embarking on a study of the effects beriberi had on the heart.

He chose pigs for his study, as a pig's heart resembles that of a human more closely than any other animal. To carry out studies on animals, you needed a licence, but such trivia never worried him.

In 1948, the young doctor left Northern Ireland to take up a fellowship at Ann Arbor University in Michigan.

While he was there, Harry S Truman, was elected President of the United States, a fact that delighted him; he was always grateful to Truman for dropping the atomic bombs in August 1945. He said at the time: "President Truman saved my life."

After spending a year in the US, studying the workings of the heart, he returned to Belfast in 1949, where he was appointed a registrar at the RVH. It was well known that most sudden deaths from heart problems occurred as a result of ventricular fibrillation. 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 started looking for a way to take the large and bulky defibrillators that were available in hospitals out to patients.

Along with Dr John Geddes and a bio-engineer, Dr John Anderson, Pantridge set about making a defibrillator that could be fitted into an ambulance.

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Harry S Truman

Harry S Truman

Harry S Truman

In 1965, they produced the world's first portable defibrillator, running off car batteries. The following year, the first ambulance with a defibrillator onboard took to the streets of Belfast, making it the safest place in the British Isles to have a heart attack at that time.

During the late 1960s, Pantridge lived on the outskirts of west Belfast - a five-mile journey from the RVH. He would drive through Andersonstown, despite warnings about taking such a dangerous route; in true fashion, he chose to ignore these.

Several times, he was stopped by young men who wanted his car. His response was always the same: "I'm a doctor in a hurry to get to the hospital to look after your relatives. If you don't get out of my way, the continuity of your anatomy will be in grave danger." They always got the message. "My car was never hijacked," he recalled.

Pantridge became so well known in the USA as the "father of emergency medicine" that he could have run for political office.

In 1999, he was invited as a guest of honour to Uruguay for the First Uruguay Congress of Pre-Hospital Coronary care. He said at the time: "I seem better known in South America that I am in Northern Ireland."

Pantridge was made a freeman of the Borough of Lisburn, an honour that entitled him to "drive sheep through the borough".

Some of his colleagues said that they wouldn't have put it past him to rustle a few sheep and take up the privilege - just for the hell of it.

Frank Pantridge was certainly a genius, but he could haggle over details almost endlessly. He did not marry and much of his social life was centred around meeting friends and acquaintances over a drink after work.

This "lubrication of the synapses", as he called it, often seemed dramatically to unleash his academic ingenuity.

His love of a drink occasionally got him into trouble, though.

One evening, on his way home from a boozy dinner, he was stopped by the police and breathalysed.

He demanded to see the calibration curve on the instrument to ascertain its accuracy. The police were amazed; they had never been asked this before.

As he was unable to give a urine sample, they took him to the station for a blood test, where he insisted that they take it from an artery, as his veins were in bad shape.

Pantridge insisted that a surgeon colleague in the hospital come and take the sample, but as he was not there and so much time had elapsed, the police gave up.

One of his colleagues at the RVH is quoted saying: "Frank had a veneer of arrogance at times, but this often concealed an innate shyness. On a good day, Frank looked as though he owned the world. On a bad day, he looked as though he didn't care who owned it."

The world owes a great deal of gratitude to this humble Hillsborough man.

Adapted from Frank Pantridge MC: Japanese Prisoner of War and Inventor of the Portable Defibrillator by Cecil Lowry, published by Pen & Sword Military, priced £19.99

Belfast Telegraph