John W. Severinghaus, MD
1989 Outstanding Contributions in a Selected Area of Research

John W. Severinghaus, MD will receive the 17th AACC Award for Outstanding Contributions to Clinical Chemistry in a Selected Area of Research. The award is sponsored by Roche Diagnostic Systems.

Dr. Severinghaus was born in Madison, WI, where his father was professor of medicine and physiological chemistry, a noted endocrinologist, and Roosevelt’s first Good Will Ambassador. After studying physics at Haverford College, Severinghaus designed radar test equipment at the Radiation Laboratory of MIT during World War II. He then entered the University of Wisconsin Medical School, where he began research on myocardial injury. After two years, he transferred to Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons in New York, completing the M.D. program in 1949. In his senior year, stimulated by discoveries of Stanley Sarnoff, he developed an electrophrenic respirator and constructed six of them for various anesthesia departments, winning the Borden Award.

A two-year rotating internship at Cooperstown, NY, permitted six months of research on oximetry and calcium determination by flame photometry, resulting in his first scientific publication (in J Biol Chem). During his first year of anesthesia residency training with Robert Dripps at the University of Pennsylvania, he measured, for the first time, the uptake of N2O by the body during clinical anesthesia, and presented this at the American Society for Clinical Investigation Plenary Session in 1953. He spent a year in research with Julius Comroe at Penn, and three years at NIH publishing a series of papers on respiratory physiology and gas exchange. He needed to measure pH, pCO2, and pO2. With associates Bradley and Stupfel, he constructed the first accurately thermostated blood-pH electrode system, measured blood CO2 content with the Van Slyke apparatus, and developed highly accurate methods for calculation of pCO2 by use of the Henderson–Hasselbalch equation. The Riley bubble method was used to roughly estimate blood pO2. One could measure no more than 10 blood pCO2 or pO2 values per day.

In 1954, Severinghaus heard Richard Stow present a paper on a CO2 electrode at the fall physiology meetings in Madison, WI. He recognized both the brilliant idea and a problem in Stow’s design, the lack of bicarbonate in the electrolyte, and, after discussing this with Stow, they developed the Stow-Severinghaus pCO2 electrode.

In April 1956, Severinghaus organized a meeting at FASEB of investigators who were trying to measure oxygen in blood and tissue. Leland Clark disclosed his polarographic O2 electrode at that meeting. Severinghaus constructed a stirred sealed cuvette for Clark’s electrode, and added the CO2 electrode to a water bath. This first blood-gas apparatus was displayed at the FASEB meetings in the spring of 1957, was described in J Appl Physiol in 1958, and now is part of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History exhibit on “The Conquest of Pain.”

After a second year of anesthesia training with Stuart Cullen at Iowa, Severinghaus and Cullen moved to San Francisco at Comroe’s invitation to found the Department of Anesthesia at UCSF. His research has included studies of blood-gas effects on regulation of respiration (especially acclimatization to high altitude), cerebral and pulmonary circulations, the cause of high-altitude pulmonary edema, and respiratory dead-space studies. He compiled and published the standard O2 dissociation curve and created a blood-gas slide rule for blood-gas respiratory calculations. He developed transcutaneous pCO2 electrodes and was the first to develop and install multiplexed mass spectrometry in the operating rooms for determination of anesthetic and respiratory gases. His recent work has been with pulse oximetry and with methods for measuring respiratory control during sleep by use of transcutaneous electrodes.

Severinghaus has served as NIH liaison to the National Academy of Sciences, National Research Council; as chairman of an NIH Study Section; and as editor of various journals. He continues his clinical work in anesthesia while spending about 80% of his time in research. He was granted a Research Career Award by NIH in 1963, which he still holds. He is an elected member of the American Society of Clinical Investigation. Severinghaus received the Silver Medal of Columbia University, Doctor of Medicine honoris causa at the 500th anniversary of the University of Copenhagen, and honorary Fellowship of the Faculty of Anesthetics of London (now the College of Anaesthetists). During the past several years Severinghaus, in association with Poul Astrup of Copenhagen, has published several books on the history of blood gases and acid–base balance, and their analysis.

Dr. Severinghaus married Elinor Peck in 1948, and they have four children. Between internship and residency, they spent six months working with Navajo Indians at Ganado, AZ, and with Spanish-Americans in Embudo, NM, at two mission hospitals. They and their children maintain an orientation to nature: to camping, skiing, and climbing, and now to ecological and geological approaches to bettering the environment.

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