By Jeff Hansel
Post-Bulletin, Rochester MN
The inventor of the G-suit that many believe helped U.S. pilots turn the tide and win World War II died this week at the age of 97.
Pilots were dying of blackouts because blood rushed from their heads during dogfights. Dr. Earl Wood and his team developed air bladders that prevented the blood in the pilots’ bodies from pooling in their legs, thus saving many lives.
Wood was recruited to Mayo Clinic after the U.S. Army asked Mayo for help with the problem.
Wood continued working until the age of 90, even though he retired at age 70, said Barry Gilbert a member of the Mayo Department of Physiology and Biomedical Engineering research staff.
Mayo built the first human centrifuge in 1942, "just months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor," a clinic statement says.
Wood and his team used "recycled materials" taken from the 40-ton wheels of an old brewery to make the centrifuge, according to Mayo.
Wood and his team developed multiple medical advances, Gilbert said, including:
- The ear oxymeter to measure oxygen in the blood using a device attached to the ear.
- Green dye that helped physicians measure heart function.
- A method for checking blood pressure using blood-vessel needles.
Dr. Jan Stepanek, medical director for the Aerospace Medicine Program at Mayo’s Arizona campus, said he didn’t meet Wood until the elder man was 88 or 89 years old.
"I got to know him actually as a result of a military order in the Swiss Air Force," Stepanek said.
Stepanek was asked to evaluate G-suits as a Mayo Foundation scholar.
The Swiss Air Force wanted him to review which G-suits were best — during flight — on humans. He called back to Mayo in Rochester and asked who had expertise in that area. Eventually, he reached an elderly Wood — who was still working.
Stepanek would send an e-mail to Wood seeking an answer to a particular problem or question.
He had to be sure to get to work by 5:30 or 6 a.m., "because I would have to feed the fax machine with about two reams of paper."
Wood sent detailed notes, research studies and, sometimes, data that had never been published before.
"This turned out to be one of the most fruitful and prolific exchanges in my life," Stepanek said.
Many of the documents included the word "confidential," which had been crossed out. That piqued Stepanek’s interest.
Stepanek obtained permission to search Mayo’s archive about the centrifuge research and developed into a late-in-life friend to Wood.
"I feel very blessed that I had that opportunity," Stepanek said.
Gilbert said Wood acted as a mentor to many.
"He was very good at finding out where people’s interests were and then supporting them financially and with moral support, essentially until they could fly on their own," Gilbert said.
Wood developed fast-scan CT technology and "his ideas and that machine were 35 years ahead of their time."
Wood would spare no expense and "go to almost any length" to make sure things he thought would be needed for "next-generation" technology got done.
"I could go on and on. This guy was a towering figure. There won’t be anybody like him ever again," Gilbert said.
"To be taught by him and really him having given me a lot of the knowledge of his early career," Stepanek said from Arizona.
"It’s a tremendous blessing, and he’ll be missed."
Remembrance is a weekly feature that highlights the life of a person who recently died and had an impact on others in our area. Send story ideas and comments to Michael Hohbergerat (507) 285-7791.