Wednesday, May 07, 2008

AVM Peter Howard 1925-2007

Peter Howard was born on December 15 1925, the son of a chemist at Aldershot, and was educated at Farnborough Grammar School and St Thomas's Hospital medical school. After a brief period as a house physician and research registrar at St Thomas's, he joined the RAF medical branch in August 1951.

Almost the whole of Howard's long career as a medical officer was spent at the Institute of Aviation Medicine (IAM) at Farnborough. First he joined the altitude section and investigated the effects of decompression sickness. Often he acted as a guinea pig in tests conducted in a specialised chamber, being subjected to explosive decompressions.

Such work led to the development of pressure suits and breathing apparatus for aircrew and "demand oxygen equipment" fitted into aircraft systems. He later became head of the biodynamics division, helping to develop the newly-built human centrifuge. He conducted experiments to explore and measure the effects of sustained acceleration on the body - in particular the effect on lung function, cardiac output, mental performance and blood circulation. He worked on the development and testing of anti-G protective suits developed for aircrew flying high-performance jets.

Despite his fear of heights and dislike of flying, Howard chose to take a brief parachute course to prepare for the rocket seat test. He recalled many years later that he was terrified as he stood in the door of the balloon cage waiting to drop (the first two jumps were from a cage suspended below a barrage balloon at 800ft). It was a fear he never overcame, despite making more jumps, and his determination and courage were greatly admired by his colleagues.

Howard also undertook many tests on an ejector seat rig, which allowed physiological and clinical measurements to be taken; these were used to improve the design of the seats and of aircrew survival equipment. Over many years Howard subjected himself to the extreme boundaries of human endurance. A senior RAF doctor described him as "one of the medical heroes of the RAF".

In 1964 he was appointed a consultant in aviation physiology, and three years later he played a major role in the establishment and accreditation of the Diploma in Aviation Medicine, which was authorised by a conjoint board of the Royal College of Surgeons and the Royal College of Physicians.

The availability of the six-month course, which led to the award of the diploma, gave added impetus to the application of aviation medicine in the civil aviation field. Medical officers from foreign and Commonwealth air forces, as well as civilian aviation doctors from international airlines, attended the course.

In 1973 Howard was appointed director of research at IAM, and two years later he became Commandant, a post he held until he retired in 1988. In 1978 he led a delegation of aviation medicine specialists on one of the first military visits to China after the Cultural Revolution.

Howard's knowledge and skills were also in demand in the arena of manned space exploration. During the American Apollo programme the BBC sought his expertise as a commentator and analyst. He was the medical director to the panel selecting the British applicant for the Juno programme, funded by the Russian space agency and a consortium of British companies, which resulted in Helen Sharman becoming Britain's first astronaut in 1991.

He was chairman of the Defence Medical Services postgraduate council in 1986, and on his retirement became registrar of the faculty of occupational medicine at the Royal College of Physicians.

He was appointed OBE in 1957 and CB in 1989. From 1982 to 1988 he was an Honorary Physician to the Queen. In 1955 Howard was awarded the Lady Cade Medal, given by the Royal College of Surgeons to an RAF medical officer for "outstanding contributions to aviation medicine". He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society and of the Royal College of Physicians. He wrote widely on aviation physiology, medicine and occupational medicine.