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INSIDE Inventor had a life outside of science

By Jeff Hansel

Post-Bulletin, Rochester MN

The Army Air Force contacted Mayo Clinic because World War II fighter pilots were dying from crashes caused by blackouts during dogfights with the enemy.

The fights required steep dives and skyrocket-moves upward. During the spins and rolls of intense combat, pilots would often black out for short periods due to G-forces nine times the weight of their bodies.

Sometimes, they could not regain control of their faculties in time — and crashed.

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Mayo recruited Dr. Earl Wood, now 96, in response to the Army request, said his son Andy, of Rochester.

Because modern versions of the suit, which are still in use, were eventually made more comfortable, they aren’t as effective today as they were during World War II, he said.

Dr. Wood and a research team worked in a secret laboratory at Mayo and used a centrifuge to test the effects of G-forces on the human body. Volunteers, including Wood and his colleagues, tested the limits of human endurance.

After the war, secrecy faded and President Harry S Truman gave Wood a citation for his contributions to the war effort.

That’s when public recognition began, his son said. But Wood had extensive interests outside of science. People called him "The Phantom" for the way he used to break through the opposing football team’s line, his son said.

"What he was famous for in our family is getting up extremely early, like 4 o’clock, and that’s when he’d do his writing. I’d get up in the morning and he’d be downstairs in his bathrobe working on a manuscript. And he did it just for the love of it," Andy Wood said.

Continued working

His father never really retired. Earl Wood left Mayo because of mandatory retirement at 65, but continued working in different locations with U.S. researchers and the Canadian Air Force.

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"It’s amazing that he’s outlived a lot of his students," Andy Wood said.

He easily adopted e-mail at age 85 and wrote papers until age 90.

Between 1938 and 1997 he wrote 700 papers, his son said. A plethora of young researchers who worked with him went on to fame in their own right. They included Dr. Hugh Smith, former chief executive officer of Mayo in Rochester.

Andy Wood said his father also made major contributions to the heart/lung machine and a precursor to the modern-day CT scanner. Almost everyone has had an oximeter placed on a finger, a descendant of another on of Wood’s inventions.

A method of monitoring test subjects who rode the centrifuge was needed.

"If they go high enough, they’ll black out, lose vision," Dr. Wood said in an interview Friday.

So he developed an "ear oximeter" to monitor the volunteers.

It’s an instrument that, today, is placed on a patient’s finger to check to see how much oxygen is in the blood.

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But Wood’s oximeter was placed on an ear so he could tell when a pilot would pass out during testing. The oxygen level would plummet and a moment later, so would the pilot’s head.

"I actually saw the centrifuge spin. I took a ride on it," said Andy Wood. As a young kid, he would sit in the center of the centrifuge where it was safer. He did this "many times," according to his dad.

"It felt like an amusement-park ride," he said. "You could feel the flywheels underneath rumbling." The center axle also wasn’t "true," meaning it wobbled back and forth at the same time as the youngster spun.

"It was freaky," Andy Wood said. Experiments lasted several days because they were labor intensive and expensive to set up, he said.

Farm life

His father started life on a subsistence farm, according to a new film called "Inventing the G-suit: The Life Story of Dr. Earl Wood." The film by film maker Bill Bonde of Nerstrand, Minn. and his sister, producer Karen Bonde, of Minneapolis, won a "legacy" award from the Minnesota Historical Society’s Greatest Generation Film Contest for its potential to impact future generations. There were 52 films entered in the contest.

Karen Bonde and Earl Wood’s niece Marilyn know each other. When the Bonde siblings needed a story idea, Marilyn suggested they should film her uncle.

"We started filming him last year in an attempt to enter the 2007 film project," Karen Bonde said.

But Wood’s life was so complex that it took them until this year to finish and enter.

"We were surprised to learn how much stuff he actually did invent, and how much talent he actually had in his family," Bill Bonde said in a telephone interview.

For example, Earl Wood was an avid hunter.

Hunting, his son said, was in the blood. The elder Wood and his brothers met 40 years in a row for deer hunting in northern Minnesota.

"What you bagged, you used," Andy Wood said.

Family members say the elder Wood also participated in a U.S. government program called "Operation Paper Clip." It was an effort to coax German researchers to the U.S. scientific community after the end of World War II (and to get more than the Russians did). Many, family members believe, were Nazis.

There’s even a street named after Wood in Germany: Earl H. Wood Street.

Perhaps his yearly hunting breaks helped him stay grounded when talking about the importance of the G-suit, which is still in use today, albeit in a modified form.

"He’s a very humble man. Whenever you discuss this, he would say it’s not just me. It’s all of us together," Karen Bonde said. His work ethic, she said, was grounded in his upbringing in the farm setting. The goal was to show that in the film.

"I really wanted to capture how his upbringing affected his life later on," said director Danielle Ibister.

His parents ran Wood’s Hilltop Beach on Lake Washington near Mankato, which gave him lots of social interaction. Yet he always remained more humble than his credits would suggest.

"He’s considered one of the world’s foremost experts in the dynamics of the heart, lungs and circulatory system. He was a career investigator for the AHA, American Heart Association, for sixteen years. He pioneered cardiac catheterization; he and his colleagues could get no one to volunteer for this, so they had to experiment on each other," said his niece, Marilyn Wood. "Catheterization monitored cardiac blood flow. It led to saving countless lives by detecting and locating disorders of the vessels, valves and chambers of the hard. He was also an early pioneer on the heart-lung bypass machine."

"He always told me growing up, that complicated things are just a series of very simple things put together," Andy Wood said.

For more information, go to Postbulletin.com/weblinks.

Inventing the G-suit: The Life Story of Dr. Earl Wood, http://people.mnhs.org/mgg/story.cfm?storyid=1440

Story ideas or to register for the Minnesota Historical Society film competition http://www.mnhs.org/people/1968/film/index.htm.

Dusty Roads Productions: http://vimeo.com/1924164

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