Professor James Francis “Frank” Pantridge, CBE, MC, MD, (3 October 1916 – 26 December 2004) was a physician and cardiologist from Northern Ireland who transformed emergency medicine and paramedic services with the invention of the portable defibrillator.
During World War II he served in the British Army and he was awarded the Military Cross during the Fall of Singapore, when he became a POW. He served much of his captivity as a slave labourer on the Burma Railway. When he was freed at the war’s end, Pantridge was emaciated and had contracted cardiac beriberi; he suffered from ill-health related to the disease for the rest of his life.
After Pantridge’s liberation he worked as a lecturer in the pathology department at Queen’s University, and then won a scholarship to the University of Michigan, where he studied under Dr. F.N. Wilson, a cardiologist and authority on electrocardiography.
He returned to Northern Ireland in 1950, and 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. There he established a specialist cardiology unit whose work became known around the world.
By 1957 Pantridge and his colleague, Dr John Geddes, had introduced the modern system of cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) for the early treatment of cardiac arrest. Further study led Frank Pantridge to the realization that many deaths resulted from ventricular fibrillation which needed to be treated before the patient was admitted to hospital. This led to his introduction of the mobile coronary care unit (MCCU), an ambulance with specialist equipment and staff to provide pre-hospital care.
To extend the usefulness of early treatment, Pantridge went on to develop the portable defibrillator, and in 1965 installed his first version in a Belfast ambulance. It weighed 70 kg and operated from car batteries, but by 1968 he had designed an instrument weighing only 3 kg, incorporating a miniature capacitor manufactured for NASA.
His work was backed up by clinical investigations and studies in scientific papers, including an influential 1967 The Lancet article. With these developments, the Belfast treatment system, often known as the “Pantridge Plan”, became adopted throughout the world by emergency medical services. The portable defibrillator became recognised as a key tool in first aid, and Pantridge’s refinement of the automated external defibrillator (AED) allowed it to be used safely by members of the public.
Although he was known worldwide as the “Father of Emergency Medicine”, Frank Pantridge was less acclaimed in his own country, and was saddened that it took until 1990 for all front-line ambulances in the UK to be fitted with defibrillators.
Professional footballer Fabrice Muamba was famously saved using a portable defibrillator and he has done a short feature for the BBC on Professor Frank Pantridge.
You can find more information from BBC Northern Ireland and also this amateur video…
For more from Frank himself, check out his autobiography “An unquiet life”