The Conversation

by Austin Elliott , Lecturer of Physiology, University of Manchester


Scientists almost never get to be household names just for doing science. Most who impact the public consciousness, like Brian Cox, Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking, tend to at least combine the science with being best-selling authors. You might just encounter (Francis) Crick and (James) Watson in a pub quiz for their discovery of the structure of DNA, but what about (Alan) Hodgkin and (Andrew) Huxley, responsible for working out the basis of nerve transmission, one of the 20th century’s greatest discoveries in biology?

Given that other pre-eminent discoverers, even Nobel Laureates, remain relatively unknown, it’s probably not a great surprise that you haven’t heard of Griff Pugh.

Pugh – full name Lewis Griffith Cresswell Evans Pugh – was a pioneer of what we now call exercise physiology. Through the 1950s, 60s and early 70s he studied human physiology at extreme altitudes, such as in the Himalayas, looking into survival in cold water and extreme weather, and researching human performance in extreme heat.

In the frame: Hillary and Tenzing. Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Pugh was also a proponent of “physiological expeditions” – the idea that some insights into human performance in extreme environments were best made in those conditions in the field, rather than just re-creating them in the lab. His name is revered in sports physiology circles.

But why should you have heard of him? Because his work made possible, among other things, the first ascent of Mount Everest by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in May 1953. While Hillary and Norgay became household names, along with others like expedition leader John Hunt, memory of Pugh’s work and its critical role in the ascent has been largely consigned to dusty archives and academic literature.

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