Pyjamas on Everest and in the lab - tales from the National Institute for Medical Research

We have recently witnessed the eruption of what might be called 'Pyjamagate', when the headteacher of Skerne Park Academy in Darlington wrote to parents asking that they dress properly  when dropping off and collecting their children - too many were doing the school run in their nightwear, and she pleaded  for them to set good examples to their offspring

A few days later I was visited by a film crew, to take part in a documentary on the life of Dr Griffith Pugh, the physiologist who is perhaps best known, if he is known at all, as the man whose scientific  expertise in survival and high altitude medicine, contributed greatly to the success of the 1953 British expedition to conquer Everest. The film, being made by Psychology News, is based on the recent award winning biography of Pugh by his daughter Harriet Tuckey.

Psychology News film crew setting up David Cohen (interviewer), Kotryna Sniukaite & Richard Cobelli (lights, camera and sound); Tilli Tansey. Photograph courtesy of Alan Yabsley

My interview was to discuss Pugh’s career and to offer a perspective on, and assessment of, his scientific work.  As a child he had developed an early love of mountaineering, and later exhibited a prowess at skiing that brought him an Oxford Blue and selection for the 1936 Olympic team, although injury prevented him competing.  After qualifying in medicine in 1938 he was called up into the Royal Army Medical Corps, where he served in conventional medical positions in several theatres of war, including the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean.  Four  years later he was recruited  to the  School of Mountain Warfare in North Lebanon where he helped train elite troops in mountain  warfare, studying their physiological reactions  in extreme conditions; and re-designing clothing, footwear, tents and haversacks to promote their endurance and effectiveness. After demobilisation and a brief period working at the Hammersmith Hospital, he was recruited to the newly constituted Division of Human Physiology at the National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR) in Hampstead, London. There his work focussed on survival physiology in extreme conditions.

His experience in the Lebanon and his reputation in scientific and mountaineering circles were such that he was an obvious person to become a scientific member of the team training for an attempt on Everest in 1953, and I spoke at some length to camera about his importance to the success of that expedition. It was Pugh who recommended a period of prior high altitude acclimatisation; Pugh who supervised the provision of sufficient oxygen (and designed the special breathing masks that guaranteed delivery even during sleep); and Pugh who insisted on adequate calorie and fluid intakes. However immediately following the successful ascent, and indeed for many years afterwards, his contributions went unacknowledged by other members of that expedition. Mountaineering was still regarded as an amateur, gentlemanly pursuit, and in some quarters it was deemed embarrassing to admit that science had aided the natural valour and determination of the successful climbers who were hailed as heroes.

What I did not get into my description of Pugh's work, as it was not directly relevant to the scientific work under discussion, was his penchant for wearing pyjamas whilst acclimatising in the Himalayas. Pyjamas, according to the Oxford English Dictionary  definition were originally  ‘loose trousers, usually of silk or cotton, tied round the waist, and worn by both sexes in some Asian and Middle Eastern countries’ the word itself being ‘of multiple origins, partly a borrowing from Urdu, partly a borrowing from Persian’.  As his daughter reported ‘The outfit Pugh wore for the trek – sky blue pyjamas (which soon became grey), a hat, and an umbrella to shade his fair skin from the sun – was also represented as immensely eccentric and comical.  Hunt (John Hunt, the expedition leader) and the other climbers remained impervious to the fact that Pugh’s pyjamas were vastly more practical than the shorts they chose to wear, even when they suffered painful sunburn as a result’ (Tuckey p. 128).

Other scientists, also from the NIMR, came rather closer to wearing their nightwear in their laboratories.  Pugh had been appointed to the NIMR by the rather austere Director Sir Charles Harrington. He was succeeded by the Nobel Laureate Sir Peter Medawar, who was, as more than one ex-member of NIMR staff has told me, ‘like a breath of fresh air’. In particular the strict dress code – jackets and ties for the men; skirts or dresses, definitely no trousers, for the women - was relaxed.  The immunologist Avrion Mitchison whose arrival in 1961 coincided with Medawar’s, attracted considerable attention, even notoriety, among the longer serving staff. Mitchison would appear regularly tieless, in shirt sleeves and, horror of horrors, wearing his bedroom slippers.  Mitchison lived immediately next door to the Institute, at Rhodes Farm and saw no reason why he should change his footwear to go to work.

The previous occupant of Rhodes Farm had been the endocrinologist Alan (later Sir Alan) Parkes, who had been lured to the NIMR from UCL in 1932 by Harrington’s predecessor, Sir Henry Dale. Parkes, a workaholic night owl had managed, in the Physiology department at UCL, to equip a small unused seminar room as a bedroom/office, to which the authorities turned a blind eye.  This allowed him to work at all times of the day and night, throughout the week.  His move to NIMR was the result of what he described in his autobiography as ’a game of academic poker’. Dale offered an increased salary and better lab facilities than those at UCL. Parkes’ boss, Charles Lovatt Evans pointed out that his protégé had the benefit of a bed-study room in the lab. Dale responded that that too would be provided at the NIMR.  Parkes continues the story in his autobiography: ‘Evans, however came back strongly by saying that I had morning tea in bed in Physiology, which seemed to rouse Dale: ‘Look, Evans, he can have breakfast in bed at the Institute! Had Evans been able to trump this one, there is no telling what facilities I might have got.  I did not believe it at the time, but when I arrived at the Institute in January 1932 I found that the women had been turned out of their rest room at the top of the building to provide a bed-study for me. Moreover, the first time I used it to snatch a few hours’ sleep in the morning after a near all-night session in the laboratory and woke like death and longing for a cup of tea, in marched the caretaker, an ex-naval man, with a huge plate of pork chops and fried potatoes’ (Parkes p50).

Whether Parkes was wearing pyjamas at the time goes unrecorded.  There is now some  evidence that foregoing pyjamas altogether might produce a better nights' sleep and it is reckoned that almost a quarter of British people do not even own any nightwear. Irrespective of what happens in labs, if that trend becomes more popular the Darlington  headteacher might soon be writing to parents asking that they DO wear pyjamas to drop off their children.

Tilli Tansey

Further reading:

Clayton, Julie (2014) A century of science for health: the National Institute for Medical Research, Medical Research Council,  London

Hartley, J M & Tansey, E M ‘White coats and no trousers: narrating the experiences of women technicians in medical laboratories 1930-90’ Notes and Records of the Royal Society 69: 25-36

Parkes, A S (1985) Off-beat Biologist: an autobiography. Galton Foundation, Cambridge

Tuckey,H  (2013) Everest: the first ascent. The untold story of Griffith Pugh, the man who made it possible. Routledge, London