Why "unrecognised Coventry hero" George Smith-Clarke deserves public recognition and honour, says biographer - The Coventry Observer

19th Aug, 2022

Why "unrecognised Coventry hero" George Smith-Clarke deserves public recognition and honour, says biographer

A RETIRED anaesthetist in Cheltenham has written an enlightening new biography about an “unrecognised Coventry hero” who helped modernise the ‘iron lung’ during the 1950s polio epidemic – before a vaccine was developed.

Dr Adrian Padfield first heard about Captain George Smith-Clarke – chief engineer of The Alvis Car and Engineering Company in Coventry between 1922 and 1950 – in the early 1960s by chance after buying an Alvis car.

He discovered that during the 1950s polio epidemic the retired engineer led a team in Coventry to modify the wooden ‘Iron Lung’  – a large, cumbersome device which saved the life of many patients. This resulted in orders from the Ministry of Health for kits to modify all iron lung ventilation machines in Britain. Smith-Clarke then designed a radical new version called the Coventry/Alligator iron lung and continued in the field of medical engineering for the rest of his life. In 1956 he was awarded the prestigious James Clayton prize of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

Dr Padfield first began writing a short biographical account of the Captain’s life in 1970 – and now 50 years later has finished a book.

He said: “Some may wonder why an elderly retired anaesthetist decided to write this biography. I qualified at Bart’s (St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London) in April 1961 and I wanted a sports car but a modern one was too expensive. Several Barts’ students had Alvis 12/50s so I bought a 1927 Alvis TG 12/50 and joined the VSCC.

“I became a trainee anaesthetist in 1963 and bought ‘The Alvis Car 1920 to 1966’ by the late Ken Day. In it are some details of Smith-Clarke’s medical work, particularly with regard to the ‘Iron Lung’ and artificial ventilation, with some minor errors.

“Artificial ventilation is frequently used during general anaesthesia, so that triggered my interest in his life and achievements.”

So why did Dr Padfield feel so compelled to complete the biography?

He said: “Simply because I believe George Thomas Smith-Clarke was overlooked by his country and the establishment and should have been honoured for more than one of his many endeavours.

“I hope readers will enjoy reading my book that they will agree that he was fully deserving of public recognition and honour.

“Over the years I’ve discovered a remarkable amount about this unsung hero of Coventry. During the Great War he was responsible for inspection of all the aero engines produced in Coventry, Birmingham, Derby and Dumfries, and standardised Carburretor jets.

“After joining Alvis in 1922 he upgraded the 10-30 to the 12-50 which won the JCC 200 mile race in 1923. Not content with that he designed several FWD Alvis and at Le Mans in 1928, a 1½ litre model won its class. The Speed 20 sports cars with IFS and all synchro gearboxes were the epitome of the 1930s sports cars.

“When WW2 began Alvis turned to military manufacture and George Smith-Clarke was responsible for several shadow factories that overhauled, manufactured and tested aero engines including those of Rolls-Royce and Packard.

“He became chairman of the board of the Coventry and Warwickshire Hospital in 1935 and his devotion to the Coventry hospitals continued for the rest of his life. His medical inventions and modifications, which he regarded almost as a hobby, extended and enriched the lives of thousands.

“Actually, he had many hobbies; the major ones; astronomy and amateur radio occupied his spare time until it the polio epidemics of the 1950s. For his work then, in 1956 he was awarded the James Clayton prize of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

“He was too ill to present the lecture which is a brilliant exposition of his work modifying and completely redesigning the ‘Iron Lung’ as well as other medical equipment. To say that he was a genius may be thought to be stretching the definition but he was referred to as an engineering genius in motoring journals.”

A run of 1000 copies of Coventry, Alvis and the Iron Lung: A biography of Captain George Thomas Smith-Clarke (1884-1960) by Adrian Padfield has been published by Hughes & Company, in Pershore, Worcestershire priced £20 plus p&p. To order a copy contact e-mail: hughescompany@btconnect.com, Tel: (0)1386 803803 or go to hughesprinters.co.uk

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