Christian J. Lambertsen, who developed early scuba system, dies at 93


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Christian J. Lambertsen, a scientist and doctor who invented an underwater breathing system used by the military in World War II and later coined the ‘scuba’ acronym by which such systems are widely known, has died. He was 93.

He died Feb. 11 at his home in Newtown Square, Pa., outside Philadelphia, Stuard Funeral Directors Inc. said Monday.


Lambertsen, born May 15, 1917, earned a bachelor’s degree from Rutgers University. He began working on his breathing apparatus, using parts of anesthesia machines, even before he enrolled as a medical student at the University of Pennsylvania, according to medical school dean Arthur Rubenstein, who called him ‘one of our institution’s most honored professors.’

Lambertsen’s background as a doctor, inventor and diver made him ‘the right man in the right place at the right time’ for the development of an early version of the device later known as scuba or ‘self-contained underwater breathing apparatus, according to a July biography in ‘The Year In Special Operations.’

In 1941, Lambertsen worked with the Army’s Office of Strategic Services to establish special underwater forces deployed in Burma, and later worked with the Navy to train surface frogmen to become divers. During this service, Rubenstein said, Lambertsen made the first exit from and reentry into a submerged submarine, marking the beginning of modern underwater demolition teams.

Back at the University of Pennsylvania, he converted an abandoned altitude chamber into a laboratory for the study of undersea and aerospace environmental physiology. In 1968, he established the Institute for Environmental Medicine, which has studied oxygen toxicity, diving-related diseases and the effects of hypoxic response in humans, exploring how humans can live in hostile environments from the oceans to space and in extreme temperatures.

Lambertsen retired as institute director in 1987 but continued his research as a professor emeritus, studying how high-pressure oxygen therapy can help in treatment of diseases. In 1992, he patented inergen, a fire-suppression product now used in commercial buildings but developed initially to extinguish fires in submarines and spacecraft, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Among his many honors are the highest civilian awards from the Department of Defense and Coast Guard. In 2000, Navy SEALS proclaimed him ‘the father of U.S. combat swimming.’


Lambertsen is survived by sons Christian, David, Richard, Bradley and six grandchildren.

-- Associated Press