Professor James Francis “Frank” Pantridge, physician and cardiologist from Northern Ireland, is born in Hillsborough, County Down, on October 3, 1916. Pantridge transforms emergency medicine and paramedic services with the invention of the portable defibrillator.
Pantridge is educated at Friends’ School Lisburn and Queen’s University Belfast, graduating in medicine in 1939. During World War II he serves in the British Army and is commissioned into the Royal Army Medical Corps as a lieutenant on April 12, 1940. He is awarded the Military Cross during the Fall of Singapore, when he becomes a POW. He serves much of his captivity as a slave labourer on the Burma Railway. When he is freed at the end of the war, Pantridge is emaciated and has contracted cardiac beriberi. He suffers from ill-health related to the disease for the remainder of his life.
After Pantridge’s liberation he works as a lecturer in the pathology department at Queen’s University, and then wins a scholarship to the University of Michigan, where he studies under Dr. F.N. Wilson, a cardiologist and authority on electrocardiography.
Pantridge returns to Northern Ireland in 1950 and is appointed as cardiac consultant to the Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast and professor at Queen’s University, where he remains until his retirement in 1982. There he establishes a specialist cardiology unit whose work becomes well known.
By 1957, Pantridge and his colleague, Dr. John Geddes, introduce the modern system of cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) for the early treatment of cardiac arrest. Further study leads Pantridge to the realization that many deaths result from ventricular fibrillation which needs to be treated before the patient is admitted to hospital. This leads 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 goes on to develop the portable defibrillator, and in 1965 installs his first version in a Belfast ambulance. It weighs 70 kg and operates from car batteries. By 1968 he has designed an instrument weighing only 3 kg, incorporating a miniature capacitor manufactured for NASA.
His work is backed up by clinical investigations and epidemiological studies in scientific papers, including an influential 1967 The Lancet article. With these developments, the Belfast treatment system, often known as the “Pantridge Plan”, becomes adopted throughout the world by emergency medical services. The portable defibrillator becomes recognised as a key tool in first aid, and Pantridge’s refinement of the automated external defibrillator (AED) allows it to be used safely by members of the public.
Although he is known worldwide as the “Father of Emergency Medicine,” Frank Pantridge is less acclaimed in his own country, and is saddened that it takes until 1990 for all front-line ambulances in the United Kingdom to be fitted with defibrillators.
He died in Hillsborough at the age of 88 on Boxing Day, December 26, 2004. He never married.