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University of Toronto
U of T Great Past

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Whose research was a boon to pilots and was first used by Royal Navy aircraft in 1942?

Answer University of Toronto physiologist Wilbur Franks' research resulted in the world's first anti-gravity suit. Suits used by today's astronauts are a direct descendant.

On March 15, 1827, King's College - the precursor to the University of Toronto - was granted its royal charter by King George IV. Throughout 2002, U of T celebrated 175 years of Great Minds. As part of the celebration, the U of T website featured excerpts from The University of Toronto: A History, written by Martin Friedland, University Professor and Professor Emeritus of Law at U of T.

The University of Toronto led Canada's efforts in aviation medicine. Frederick Banting and others in the Banting Institute, such as Edward Hall, who later became dean of medicine and president of the University of Western Ontario, had started working on aviation medicine before the war. They were later joined by a number of American scientists.

The team investigated the physiological problems caused by high speeds and high altitudes. High speeds, particularly in aerial dives and dog fights, produced blindness and then unconsciousness, as blood was drawn from the eyes and the brain by the effects of accentuated gravity.

Frederick Banting, 1941
Frederick Banting, 1941

Two devices were built by Banting's group at the Eglinton Hunt Club on Avenue Road north of Eglinton Avenue - a decompression chamber to study the effects of high altitudes and an accelerator to test the effects of speed. The decompression chamber, completed in 1941, was the first in North America, though Germany had at least eighty such chambers. Banting was the first to test it, and obtained the equivalent of a height of 25,000 feet at a temperature of -59° F.

Banting tended to be somewhat reckless.

Banting tended to be somewhat reckless. Still suffering from the effects of the mustard gas he had tested on himself, in a confused state in the chamber he wanted to increase the decompression on that first experiment, but the staff wisely said no. One result of their work was an improved oxygen mask.

Physiologist Wilbur Franks, a cancer researcher in Banting's laboratory, developed an idea that resulted in the world's first anti-gravity suit. Franks had noted in his cancer research that his test tubes often broke when subjected to severe centrifugal force. He had solved the problem by first inserting them in larger and stronger liquid-filled bottles.

The same idea, Franks thought, could be employed for pilots, who could wear water-filled outer suits. Mice who would otherwise have died survived when spun in water-filled condoms (presumably with their heads out of the water). A large centrifuge - the most advanced in the world - was built with the help of the department of electrical engineering for experimenting with the concept. It worked, and the so-called 'anti-G suit' was first used in 1942 by carrier-based Royal Navy aircraft in the amphibious landing in North Africa.

Wilbur Franks
Wilbur Franks, 1962

"Our planes," a contemporary report stated, "performed feats of aerobatics deemed impossible without the pilots blacking-out." The present suit used by astronauts is a direct descendant of Franks' flying suit.

Most readers will be surprised to learn that the University of Toronto played a significant role in chemical and biological warfare during the war. Banting was convinced that Germany would use such weapons. In a 1937 memo to General A.G.L. McNaughton, then head of the NRC, Banting had written that "undoubtedly the next development in war will be the utilization of epidemic disease as a means of destroying an enemy."

Plague bacillus, for example, could be delivered "by means of rats harbouring infected fleas." Shells, he went on, could contain "bacteria such as gas gangrene, tetanus and rabies...so that even a scratch would be deadly." The University of Toronto, with the government's and President Cody's blessings, became heavily engaged in both chemical and biological warfare research.

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