Christian J. Lambertsen, MD, founder and former director of Penn’s Institute for Environmental Medicine, and inventor of what is known today as “SCUBA” (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus), died on Friday, February 11. One of our institution’s most honored professors, Chris began his long association with Penn Medicine as a first-year medical student in 1939. Over this remarkable career, Chris’ research had an immense impact on the study of human physiology, environmental medicine, and physical medicine. Dr. Lambertsen taught at Penn from 1946 and was most recently a Distinguished Emeritus Professor of Environmental Medicine. Our thoughts go out to his family on this sad occasion.
Even before enrolling at Penn, Chris began work on an apparatus to breathe underwater, using parts from the rebreathing circuits of anesthesia machines. By his second year of medical school, he had already published his first two papers. With the help of Dr. Henry Bazett, his professor of physiology, he offered his improved device to the United States Navy in 1941. The Navy, however, seemed satisfied with its hose-to-helmet diving techniques. Dr. Lambertsen was referred to the Office of Strategic Services, a branch of the Army, which turned out to be more enthusiastic about his device and ideas. Throughout World War II – and continuing through medical school and his internship at Penn – Dr. Lambertsen worked with the OSS to establish the special operational underwater forces, which were deployed in Burma.
After the war, Dr. Lambertsen joined Penn’s Department of Pharmacology. However, the Navy called him back soon thereafter to train its surface frogmen to become divers. It was during this service that Chris made the first exit from and re-entry into a submerged submarine. His work marked the beginning of modern underwater demolition teams and Sea, Air, and Land teams. According to the Defense Media Network, Dr. Lambertsen’s “comprehensive background and experience as a doctor, inventor, and diver made him a unique all-in-one asset.” His education and research in the new fields of undersea diving and hyperbaric medicine “gave him vast empirical and practical knowledge of the physiological effects and dangers of such conditions as oxygen toxicity, hypoxia, prolonged activity underwater at depth, and other dangers.”
Back at Penn, Dr. Lambertsen converted an abandoned altitude chamber into a positive-pressure thermal laboratory – we all still pass this facility today as we enter the John Morgan building from the east side. The lab soon became a mecca for those interested in undersea and aerospace environmental physiology from throughout the globe. In 1955, Chris organized the first Symposium on Undersea Physiology, sponsored by Penn, the Office of Naval Research and the National Research Council. The Institute for Environmental Medicine (IFEM) was officially established in 1968 under Chris’ direction to coalesce these activities. The IFEM was the site for a series of pioneering multidisciplinary studies that probed the pathophysiology of oxygen toxicity, diving-related diseases, and mechanisms of hypoxic response in humans. Among the more recent findings of Dr. Lambertsen and his associates was a means for markedly increasing oxygen tolerance. In 1985, Aron B. Fisher, M.D. ’60 succeeded Dr. Lambertsen as the institute’s director.
Dr. Lambertsen’s alma mater honored him early on: he won student research prizes as well as the Spencer Morris Prize at his class’s commencement. In 1965, he received the University of Pennsylvania Alumni Award of Merit. He also received the 1989 Distinguished Graduate Award, the highest honor bestowed on alumni by our School of Medicine. Since 1986, the Department of Pharmacology has sponsored The Christian J. Lambertsen Honorary Lecture, which brings leading researchers to the Penn campus.
As recently as last year, Dr. Lambertsen received a major honor: The John Scott Award, presented by Philadelphia’s Board of Directors of City Trusts. First given in 1822, the award is presented to inventors whose inventions have contributed to “the comfort, welfare, and happiness” of humans. Among the recipients have been Madame Curie, Thomas Edison, and Jonas Salk. Dr. Lambertsen was honored for inventing “the underwater breathing apparatus known as SCUBA.”
Among Dr. Lambertsen’s many other honors are a Commendation from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (1969); the Aerospace Medical Association Award (1970); the Undersea Medical Society Award (1970); the Distinguished Public Service Award from both the Department of Defense (1972) and the United States Coast Guard (1976), their highest civilian honors; and the New York Academy of Sciences Award for Research in Environmental Science (1974). In 2000, the Navy SEALS proclaimed him “the Father of U.S. Combat Swimming.” A Fellow of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, Dr. Lambertsen was also elected a member of the National Academy of Engineering (1977).
As noted in the text of his Distinguished Graduate Award, Dr. Lambertsen was also “a loyal Penn parent”. His four sons have earned degrees from four of Penn’s professional schools, including Christian Lambertsen Jr., MD, graduated from our medical school in 1976.
Dr. Lamberten’s life will continue to serve as an inspiration to all of us, and his legacy is unparalled.Those who would like to send condolences to the Lambertsen family may send them as follows:
c/o The Office of Alumni Development and Alumni Relations
3535 Market Street, Suite 750
Philadelphia, PA 19104
or email PennMedicine@alumni.med.upenn.edu