Thursday, 24 February 2011

Christian Lambertsen

Christian Lambertsen, who died on February 11 aged 93, developed an early model of the frogman’s closed-circuit rebreather, the Lambertsen Amphibious Respirator Unit (Laru), a device used by the American Office of Strategic Services in the Second World War; in 1952 he co-wrote a paper describing his “Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus”, which he shortened to “scuba”


Christian James Lambertsen was born on May 15 1917 at Westfield, New Jersey. After taking a Science degree from Rutgers University, he enrolled as a medical student at the University of Pennsylvania.
Christian Lambertsen
Christian Lambertsen
A keen amateur diver, Lambertsen was convinced that he could design a more flexible device than the heavy metal helmets tethered by hoses to boats on the surface that were standard issue before the war. He began working on his breathing apparatus during his vacations from Rutgers, making contraptions rigged with hoses and a bicycle pump.
His breakthrough came at medical school when he incorporated carbon dioxide filters from anaesthesia equipment. The Laru let divers swim freely and invisibly, and consisted of a mask, breathing tubes, a canister for absorption of exhaled carbon dioxide, a breathing bag and a controllable oxygen supply, all mounted on a canvas vest. The carbon dioxide filters enabled the diver to re-breathe the air he exhaled while underwater, which meant there were no telltale bubbles.
The Office of Strategic Services (the CIA’s forerunner) tested the new system by sending OSS swimmers to infiltrate the heavy defences of the US Navy at Guantanamo Bay and blow up an old barge. The mission was a success, a secret government report concluded, because “Navy sound detection gear did not reveal the presence of underwater swimmers”. The OSS subsequently recruited Lambertsen to establish the first cadres of US operational combat swimmers and to train special underwater forces deployed in Burma.
After the OSS was disbanded in 1945, Lambertsen began demonstrating the Laru to other services, but the device never took off as a commercial product. In 1943 Jacques Cousteau had invented the Aqua-Lung, an improved scuba system which allowed swimmers to dive deeper and stay underwater for longer.
Lambertsen joined the medical faculty at the University of Pennsylvania in 1946 and became a professor of pharmacology in 1952. In the 1950s and 1960s he developed an advanced version of his underwater breathing system which was used by US Navy special operations units until the 1980s. In 1968 he established the Institute for Environmental Medicine, which studies diving-related diseases and explores how human beings can survive in hostile environments. In 1992 he patented inergen, a commercial fire-suppressant.
His wife, Naomi, predeceased him and he is survived by four sons.


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