Lessons from ‘Not the John West who Rejects’

Everyone loves new stuff. Superhero movies have clearly found new ways to spawn. There are teams all over the world working on new ways to restore vision. Of course there’s new Coke I guess. Maybe not all new things are great.

There’s sometimes focus from people in the online space about the great examples of new medicos and researchers out there doing things in what seems like new ways. Communicating in new ways. Open access. Taking up new opportunities.

The thing is sometimes I’m not sure any of this is new. It’s just clever people using the means available to them that weren’t available to generations of particular clever people before. There are plenty of examples of people who have been around a long time who already showed the way in a manner that looks very familiar.

Which gives me the chance to mention a personal favourite of mine that most people don’t know: John B West.

Not the Fish Guy

This particular John West is probably pretty much known to medical types and not many others. That’s because he is responsible for a tiny little book which pretty much covers all of the physiology of breathing. But more on that later.

To understand why John West provides so many inspiration points for a lowly researcher slogging away at a PhD, it’s worth knowing a little of his CV.

He started out in Adelaide way back in 1928. Obviously I wasn’t around but I’ve been to Adelaide and I am pretty confident it wasn’t a huge city back then. It’s certainly pretty low key now.

While in Adelaide he picked up his undergraduate medical degree (back in 1952). He headed across to London to work and casually picked up a PhD in 1960 (he’d already picked up his MD in 1959).

The 1960’s led him to find a new height to climb – a bit literally actually. He joined an expedition to the Himalayas with some Hillary guy to be one of the trip physiologists. Posts in Buffalo and back in London followed then he spent 1968 with the NASA Ames Research Centre in California. One year later, in 1969 he joined the faculty at the University of California at San Diego as professor of medicine and physiology.

He headed up a trip to Everest in 1981 and was chairman of the Science Verification Committee for Spacelab 4 in 1983 for NASA.

And along the way he knocked out a classic of the medical literature: his respiratory textbook.

I’ve actually left out huge slabs of his achievements, posts and awards.

As a novice researcher, I take a glance at this guy who wrote one of my favourite physiology nerd books and pretty quickly think ‘well that can’t be done’.

And it might not be possible to match him as a researcher because a) he’s obviously very good at it; and b) he hasn’t been doing so much of the clinical work near as I can tell.

There’s still a bunch of things to inspire a young researcher though and plenty of them pretty much mirror things I’ve learned from people who impress me from slightly more contemporary times.

So here follows a list of lessons not to reject from John B West:

1) There’s more than one way forward

It can be easy to think there’s only one path to a research career. And while the landscape might have changed, John B West describes his research training as “extremely haphazard”, further adding “in terms of formal research training I grew like Topsy”. This is reassuring if say, you end up trying to learn how to do research in prehospital helicopter work.

2) Get out and try stuff

West went to London as a doctor partly to see the world. Being in London bumped against the Postgraduate Medical School doing respiratory research. There happened to be the first cyclotron designed for medical research just opening. Getting out there got him somewhere he didn’t necessarily plan.

3) Find teams

The breathing guy further describes the team around London as providing “a very stimulating intellectual atmosphere with chemists, physicists, and engineers all working in the same unit”. Maybe it’s the team around you and the stimulation they offer that can really drive you. No man is an island of heaving lung tissue etc. etc.

He really isn't the fish guy. But hear is a majestic bear anyway.

He really isn’t the fish guy. But here is a majestic bear running with a salmon anyway.

4) Take up chances

It’s hard to know when they might strike and it’s probably easier to say ‘yeah … nah’ than ‘sure’ but serendipity can work out sometimes. West: “I happened to be sitting next to someone at a meeting of the Physiological Society in England who told me of plans for the Himalayan Scientific and Mountaineering Expedition, which was to take place in 1960 and 1961. At that time I had no special interest in high altitude but was selected by Sir Edmund Hillary to go as one of the physiologists, and the expedition was a great success… I helped make the first measurements of maximal oxygen uptake at an altitude of 7,440 m on Mount Makalu.” He would later end up leading a team to Everest in the early ’80s and describing the first measurements of oxygen uptake at the summit. That was a pretty good chance to take way back in 1960.

5) Be generous

John West could probably sit on his laurels and relax a little now. Played hard. Done good. That sort of stuff. He could probably spend his time turning a buck from his accumulated knowledge and expertise too. Yet back in 2011 he posted a series of lectures covering his accumulated wisdom on respiratory physiology online. Look, you can go and watch right here.

This is actually a pretty generous thing to do. Sharing his knowledge as much as possible probably gives it more of a chance to get out and help more people too. It’s enough to make me forgive the awful title music. And even the bow tie.

6) Don’t waste a word

Well, this one is aspirational rather than something I can claim I do. I fling words around like a toddler with confetti at a wedding. A long time ago the good Prof. West condensed his encyclopaedic knowledge of all things breathing into a text. It’s still the best text out there on matters respiratory. And it’s small. Not much over 150 pages.

If you actually sit down and read it though, every page is packed with profound stuff. When I finished my anaesthesia training my copy was so chewed up I replaced it. It’s shiny.

Really shiny.

Really shiny.

The Rest

Actually I don’t know the rest. I’m still getting things from this guy. And I’ll still be getting things from him for a while yet. Even in person. Because John B West, who must be around 87 years old is keynote speaker at a conference in Australia this year. He’ll be telling the crowd about research up on Everest. And maybe wearing an awful bow tie even though it’s Darwin.

Still getting out there at 87. I may not take his example on work-life balance.



A lot of the stuff about John B West’s career came from this profile at the American Physiological Society site. Oh, yeah. He was President of that group too.

The image of the bear with the salmon is from flickr’s Creative Commons area under CC 2.0. It was posted by Lake Clark National Park and is here in an unaltered form.




3 thoughts on “Lessons from ‘Not the John West who Rejects’

  1. Great post Andy! No, I’d not heard of John B West before – he sounds as inspirational and influential in medicine as Hillary has been in mountaineering and third world aid circles.
    On a mostly unrelated matter, but one that sprung to mind with your theme of ‘not that John West’… I believe it was Winston Churchill who (besides being British PM was an author if wartime histories) was contacted by another Winston Churchill who lived in the USA. The American Winston was (would you believe) also an author (I can’t remember now for sure if the genera was the same) but he wrote to advise the PM that he was willing to add a middle initial to his name to avoid any confusion between their works. The PM Winston Wrote back, replying that he thought American Winston was a fine fellow to suggest this, splendid idea, please proceed. The disappointing bit is that I can’t remember what initial American Winston chose, but it doesn’t stand for anything it’s just a letter to differentiate the two authors.
    At least your John West already had a convenient middle initial. Any idea what the B stands for?

  2. Pingback: Reviews of Everyday Things – A Conference | The Flying PhD

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