James Francis Pantridge was born at Hillsborough, Co Down in 1916, and educated at Friends’ School, Lisburn. In his second year studying medicine at the Queen’s University, he contracted near fatal diphtheria. Nevertheless, he qualified as a doctor and became a house physician at Belfast’s Royal Victoria Hospital in August 1939.
The second world war broke out one month later. Almost immediately, Pantridge volunteered for the Royal Army Medical Corps, but only in April 1940 was he called up and posted to Singapore. After the fall of that ‘impregnable fortress’ to the Japanese in February 1942, he was imprisoned in the infamously brutal Changi prisoner of war camp.
Alongside 7000 British and Australian prisoners, Pantridge was conscripted into the F Force of POWs labouring on the Siam-Burma railway. Decimated by cholera, malaria, ‘jungle ulcers’ and dysentery, F Force also endured savage treatment at the hands of their guards. Pantridge himself almost succumbed to cardiac beriberi.
Perhaps recalling this experience, Pantridge established a cardiac department at the Royal Victoria Hospital in 1951. In the mid 60s, he turned his attention to coronary heart disease and heart attacks, noting that two thirds of deaths from these conditions occurred outside hospital. The use of electric shocks as a way of treating life threatening arrhythmia or ‘fibrillation’ had been known for some time, and in 1965 he converted an old ambulance to carry a portable electric defibrillator of his own devising. The ‘Pantridge defibrillator’ marks the foundation of modern emergency medical services.
An Unquiet Life: An autobiography (1989) by Frank Pantridge; Modern Irish Lives: A dictionary of twentieth century biography (1996) edited by L McRedmond.