Vital Times 2021 - 97

HISTORY OF ANESTHESIA
A Brief Biography of
John W. Severinghaus, MD
(May 6, 1922 - June 2, 2021)
Merlin Larson, MD
J
ohn Severinghaus, MD, was born on May 6,
1922, in Madison, Wisconsin. His father, Elmer
L. Severinghaus, MD, was a Professor
of Medicine at the University of Wisconsin who was
close friends with Ralph Waters, MD, and Chauncey
Leake, PhD, both important figures in the development
of anesthesiology as a medical specialty.
After graduation from Haverford College, Dr.
Severinghaus secured a position in the physics
department at MIT to work with radar, but his priorities
changed after the war from physics to medicine.
He entered medical school in 1945 at the University
of Wisconsin. In 1947, he transferred to Columbia
University and received his medical degree there in
1949. His internship was in Cooperstown, New York,
where he was involved in the management of paralyzed
polio patients. Much of his curiosity relating to
respiratory physiology began with his involvement with
the complex issues of ventilating paralyzed subjects.
After internship, he began his anesthesia training at
the University of Pennsylvania. As part of his training,
he did research with Julius Comroe, MD, in respiratory
physiology and performed projects on alveolar dead
space, carotid body function, and the uptake of nitrous
oxide during anesthesia. He finished anesthesia training
at the University of Iowa under the leadership of Stuart
Cullen, MD. When Dr. Cullen became Chair at UCSF,
Dr. Severinghaus joined him in San Francisco, where
Julius Comroe had opened a research institute to study
pulmonary physiology.
His academic career at UCSF was full of new ideas and
innovations. He perfected his innovative 3-function
blood gas analyzer, developed a blood gas slide rule, a
transcutaneous carbon dioxide electrode, and the first
ever in-line anesthesia end-tidal gas monitoring system.
Dr. Severinghaus was the recipient of numerous awards
and honorary lectures. He held an NIH Research Career
Award from 1963-1991 and wrote over 350 papers on
respiratory physiology and high-altitude physiology.
He was appointed as the NIH liaison to the National
Academy of Sciences. As a special tribute to his
extraordinary career as an anesthesiologist, a
lecture on translational science is held in his honor
at each annual meeting of the American Society of
Anesthesiologists.
During his retirement years, Dr. Severinghaus was
active in community affairs relating to health care in
Marin County. He also became interested in the history
of medicine and published the definitive book on the
history of blood gases with Danish chemist Poul Astrup
in 1981.
Dr. Severinghaus passed away after a brief illness at
the age of 99 on June 2, 2021. His wife, Elinor Peck
Severinghaus, to whom he had been married for 66
years, had died in 2015. Their two daughters and two
sons-Jean, Wendy, Edwin, and Jeffrey-continue to
cherish the memory of John's extraordinary life.
What follows this brief biography is a personal tribute
to John Severinghaus written by Philip Bickler, PhD, MD,
Professor of Anesthesia at UCSF and Director of the
Hypoxia Research Laboratory, which Dr. Severinghaus
had founded in 1958.
Annual Publication 2021 | 97

Vital Times 2021

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