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Inventor of G-Suit Dies

Dr. Earl Wood was Mayo pioneer in aerospace medicine

ROCHESTER, Minn., March 23 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- Earl Wood, M.D., Ph.D., the Mayo Clinic investigator credited with inventing the high-altitude pressure suit worn by pilots and astronauts, died March 18 in Rochester, Minn. He was 97.

"As both a physician and researcher, Dr. Wood provided nearly five decades of outstanding leadership to Mayo Clinic and scientific advancements to the world," says Denis Cortese, M.D., Mayo Clinic president and CEO. "His achievements made manned spaceflight possible and contributed to American national defense since WWII. His legacy of discovery will benefit society for decades to come."

Dr. Wood was born January 1, 1912, in Mankato, Minn. A 1934 graduate of Macalester College, he also earned an additional bachelor's degree, master's degree, as well as Ph.D. and M.D. degrees from the University of Minnesota. After serving as a National Research Council fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, he taught Pharmacology at Harvard University where he met Charles Code, M.D., who offered him a position at Mayo Clinic.

From 1942, Dr. Wood was an integral member of the Mayo Clinic Aero Medical Unit, which developed the first civilian human centrifuge in the United States. The centrifuge was used to test human reactions to high levels of gravitational (G) forces. The team of Drs. Wood and Code, and Drs. Edward Lambert and E.J. Baldes tested the centrifuge themselves, risking their personal safety to safeguard others involved in their research. They followed the same "do no harm" approach when, later, they tested equipment inside aircraft. Barry Gilbert, Ph.D., a Mayo physiologist who worked with Dr. Wood, says this group didn't hesitate to be their own "guinea pigs."

"People need to appreciate that for four years Dr. Wood and his colleagues got up every day and risked their lives in the service of their country," says Dr. Gilbert.

In large part, their top secret work laid the foundation for the science behind modern aerospace physiology and made travel possible in the upper levels of the atmosphere and outer space. WWII bomber pilots, jet fighter pilots, the test pilots who broke the sound barrier, and today's astronauts wore the suit, in various versions.

The group quickly gained an international reputation that extended to heart, lung and blood physiology and cardiac catheterization. "Dr. Wood was absolutely instrumental in the development of cardiopulmonary bypass, a technology that saves hundreds of thousands of lives every year," says Thoralf Sundt III, Mayo Clinic surgeon.

Directly or in part, Dr. Wood was responsible for:

  • The first G-suit -- a flight suit outfitted with air-filled bladders and a system of valves to protect pilots during high-speed maneuvers by encouraging greater blood flow to the brain.
  • Modification of an aircraft air pressure gauge into an instrument that became the standard tool for measuring arterial blood pressure.
  • The first human diagnostic cardiac catheterization.
  • The M-1 maneuver, a voluntary exhaling technique used by pilots to prevent blackouts, developed by Dr. Wood.
  • Instrumentation and multi-channel recordings that monitored the amount of oxygen present in the blood throughout a surgical procedure.
  • Refinement of the heart-lung bypass machine, which Mayo used to become the first medical center to perform open-heart surgery as a routine procedure.
  • Development of indocyanine green dye, the favored method for measuring heart pump function and diagnosing congenital heart disease for many years and is still used in some applications today.

In 1958, research using the centrifuge got a second boost when the U.S. Air Force and NASA requested that Dr. Wood continue his studies on G forces. He and his team tested prototypes of the Project Mercury astronaut couches on Mayo's centrifuge.

Dr. Wood headed Mayo Clinic's Cardiovascular Laboratory and became a Career Investigator of the American Heart Association in 1962. Countless fellows, visiting scientists and clinicians came to study in his lab and learn new techniques. He was chairman of the Biodynamics Research Unit from 1975 to 1976 and advanced through the academic ranks to become a professor in the Mayo Graduate School of Medicine in 1951 and Mayo Medical School in 1973. Dr. Wood was a prolific contributor to the literature in Medicine, Aerospace Medicine, Cardiology, Physiology and Video Densitometry as well as advanced X-ray imagery of the heart, lungs and circulation leading to the development of the Dynamic Spatial Reconstructor, a 3-D, real-time, X-ray-based computed tomography machine that evolved into the Imatron CT scanner technology.

Dr. Wood published over 700 articles and numerous book chapters. He was president of the American Physiological Society from 1980 to 1981, and president of the Federation of American Societies of Experimental Biology. He was a fellow of the National Research Council. Dr. Wood retired from Mayo Clinic in January 1982.

He is survived by four children, Phoebe Busch, Denver, Colo.; Mark Wood, Fresno, Calif.; Guy Wood, Corvallis, Ore.; and Andy Wood, Rochester, Minn.; and by four grandchildren.

About Mayo Clinic

Mayo Clinic is the first and largest integrated, not-for-profit group practice in the world. Doctors from every medical specialty work together to care for patients, joined by common systems and a philosophy of "the needs of the patient come first." More than 3,300 physicians, scientists and researchers and 46,000 allied health staff work at Mayo Clinic, which has sites in Rochester, Minn., Jacksonville, Fla., and Scottsdale/Phoenix, Ariz. Collectively, the three locations treat more than half a million people each year. To obtain the latest news releases from Mayo Clinic, go to

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