Cluny MacPherson

Cluny MacPherson: Contributions to Medical Science

Doctor Cluny MacPherson was born in St. John's, Newfoundland in 1879.

He received his medical education from Methodist College and McGill University. MacPherson started the first St. John's Ambulance Brigade after working with the St. John's Ambulance Association.

MacPherson served as the principal medical officer for the first Newfoundland Regiment of the St. John's Ambulance Brigade during World War I.

In response to the Germans' use of poison gas in Ypres, Belgium, in 1915, MacPherson began researching methods of protection against poison gas. In the past, a soldier's only protection was to breathe through a handkerchief or other small piece of fabric soaked in urine. That same year, MacPherson invented the respirator, or gas mask, made of fabric and metal.

Using a helmet taken from a captured German prisoner, he added a canvas hood with eyepieces and a breathing tube. The helmet was treated with chemicals that would absorb the chlorine used in the gas attacks. After a few improvements, Macpherson's helmet became the first gas mask to be used by the British army.

According to Bernard Ransom, curator of the Newfoundland Provincial Museum, "Cluny Macpherson designed a fabric 'smoke helmet' with a single exhaling tube, impregnated with chemical sorbents to defeat the airborne chlorine used in the gas attacks.

Later, more elaborate sorbent compounds were added to further developments of his helmet (the P and PH models) to defeat other respiratory poison gases used such as phosgene, diphosgene and chloropicrin. The Macpherson helmet was the first general issue gas countermeasure to be used by the British Army."

His invention was the most important protective device of the First World War, protecting countless soldiers from blindness, disfigurement or injury to their throats and lungs. For his services, he was made a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George in 1918.

After suffering from a war injury, MacPherson returned to Newfoundland to serve as the director of the military medical service and later served as the president of the St. John's Clinical Society and the Newfoundland Medical Association. MacPherson was awarded many honors for his contributions to medical science.