Albert R. Behnke

Albert Richard Behnke Jr., MD
Nickname(s) McGinty[1]
Born (1903-08-08)August 8, 1903
Chicago, Illinois
Died January 16, 1992(1992-01-16) (aged 88)
San Francisco, California
Allegiance United States United States of America
Service/branch United States Navy
Years of service 1929 - 1959
Rank Captain
Awards Navy and Marine Corps Medal

Captain Albert Richard Behnke Jr. USN (ret.) (August 8, 1903 – January 16, 1992) was an American physician, who was principally responsible for developing the U.S. Naval Medical Research Institute.[2] Behnke separated the symptoms of Arterial Gas Embolism (AGE) from those of decompression sickness and suggested the use of oxygen in recompression therapy.[3][4]

Behnke is also known as the "modern-day father" of human body composition for his work in developing the hydrodensitometry method of measuring body density, his standard man and woman models as well as a somatogram based on anthropometric measurements.[5]

Early life

Behnke was born August 8, 1903 in Chicago, Illinois.[1] He moved to New Mexico and settled in Whittier, California by 1912.[1] Behnke graduated from Whittier College in 1925 and moved to San Francisco to attend medical school at Stanford University.[1] Stanford Medical School required a one-year internship prior to conferring a medical doctorate.[1] Behnke joined the United States Navy and completed his internship at the Mare Island Naval Hospital in 1930.[1] In 1932, the Navy sent Behnke to the Harvard School of Public Health.[1]

Naval career

Following medical school in 1930, Behnke found his lifelong interest in deep sea diving when he was assigned as an assistant medical officer to the USS Holland and Submarine Division Twenty in San Diego under the command of Chester W. Nimitz.[1] In addition to his other duties, Behnke spent time covering medical watch on the USS Ortolan, a submarine rescue ship, where he performed his first hard hat dive.[1]

In 1932 Behnke wrote a letter to the Surgeon General that was published in the Naval Medical Bulletin outlining the possible causes of arterial gas embolisms he was seeing related to submarine escape training.[1] This separated the symptoms of Arterial Gas Embolism (AGE) from those of decompression sickness.[3] This letter caught the attention of the director of the submarine medicine in the Bureau of Medicine, Captain E.W. Brown.[1] Brown sent Behnke to do postgraduate work at the Harvard School of Public Health and research on diving and submarine medicine with fellow student Charles W. Shilling.[1] Dr. Philip Drinker asked Behnke to stay for two additional years and the Navy allowed it.

Lieutenant junior grade Behnke was then sent to Pearl Harbor in 1935 to the Submarine Escape Training Tower. Later that year, Behnke et al. experimented with oxygen for recompression therapy.[4] Evidence of the effectiveness of recompression therapy utilizing oxygen was later shown by Yarbrough and Behnke and has since become the standard of care for treatment of DCS.[6][7]

Behnke also began to outline his idea for a medical laboratory in 1936.[1] That outline would eventually become the Naval Medical Research Institute (NMRI) now located with the National Naval Medical Center. In 1937, Behnke introduced the “no-stop” decompression tables.[3][8]

After being transferred to Washington, D.C. in 1938, Behnke was assigned to medical duty at the Experimental Diving Unit (NEDU).[1]

The submarine USS Squalus sank in 1939 and Behnke responded with fellow NEDU personnel Commanders Charles Momsen and Allan McCann, Drs. Yarbrough and Wilmon, and Master Diver James McDonald with more divers.[9] They met Dr. Shilling on site to begin work.[9] Divers from the submarine rescue ship Falcon, under the direction of the salvage and rescue expert Momsen, employed the new Rescue Chamber he had invented years earlier but which the US Navy command had repeatedly blocked.[9] They were able to rescue all 33 surviving crew members from the sunken submarine including future Rear Admiral Oliver F. Naquin.[9] The salvage divers used recently developed heliox diving schedules and successfully avoided the cognitive impairment symptoms associated with such deep dives, thereby confirming Behnke's theory of nitrogen narcosis.[3]

Later in 1939, Behnke and Yarborough demonstrated that gases other than nitrogen also could cause narcosis.[10] From his results, he deduced that xenon gas could serve as an anesthetic, even under normobaric conditions but was too scarce to allow for confirmation. Although Lazharev, in Russia, apparently studied xenon anesthesia in 1941, the first published report confirming xenon anesthesia was in 1946 by J. H. Lawrence, who experimented on mice. Xenon was first used as a surgical anesthetic in 1951 by Stuart C. Cullen, who successfully operated on two patients.[11]

Taking advantage of the positive public support for Navy diving following the Squalus rescue, Behnke contacted Franklin D. Roosevelt and with Presidential interest known, received approval for the construction of his research laboratory (NMRI).[1]

On December 7, 1941 when the attack on Pearl Harbor began, Behnke was at sea on the USS Lexington and immediately reassigned to medical posts around Hawaii.[1]

Behnke returned to Washington and soon opened NMRI as the "research executive" in October 1942.[1] Behnke focused his interest in how physical fitness and fat content effects inert gas elimination and started projects to evaluate this relationship. His research lead us to consider him the "modern-day father" of human body composition for "his pioneering studies of hydrostatic weighing in 1942, the development of a reference man and woman model, and somatogram based on anthropometric measurements underlie much current work in body composition assessment"[5][12]

When the people of Occupied Germany were suffering from starvation, Behnke focused his attention to increasing their food ration.[1]

Behnke remained at NMRI until 1950 when he was transferred to his final assignment at the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory (NRDL) at the San Francisco Naval Shipyard.[1] His work on physical fitness and body habitus continued in projects surrounding radiological shelters and decontamination.[13]

In 1950, Behnke earned the Navy and Marine Corps Medal "for saving the life of a civilian skin diver who surfaced too quickly off Monterey. Behnke, then a Navy captain, spent two days in a decompression chamber with the man."[14][15]

Upon retiring from the Navy in 1959, Behnke turned over command of the NRDL to Captain Harry S. Etter.[14]

Civilian career

Upon his retirement from the Navy in 1959, Behnke became a professor of preventive medicine at the University of California and Director of the Institute of Applied Biology, Presbyterian Medical Center, San Francisco, California.[1]

Behnke served on the first Board of Advisors for the National Association of Underwater Instructors and taught medical aspects of diving at their first Instructor Candidate Course that started on August 26, 1960 in Houston, TX.[16]

The bends prevention and safety program for crews working in underground caissons to build the Bay Area Rapid Transit system was designed by Behnke in 1964.[15][17]

Behnke with several other researchers founded the Undersea Medical Society (now the Undersea and Hyperbaric Medical Society) in 1967.

The term "oxygen window" was first used by Behnke in 1967.[18] Behnke refers to early work by Momsen on "partial pressure vacancy" (PPV)[19] where he used partial pressures of O2 and He as high as 2-3 ATA to create a maximal PPV.[20] Behnke then goes on to describe "isobaric inert gas transport" or "inherent unsaturation" as termed by LeMessurier and Hills,[21] and separately by Hills,[22][23][24] who made their independent observations at the same time. Van Liew et al. also made a similar observation that they did not name at the time.[25] The clinical significance of their work was later shown by Sass.[26]

In 1975, Behnke was involved with experiments on cosmic particle radiation for the Apollo program.[27]

Behnke award

Starting in 1969, the Behnke award is given annually has been given each year by the Undersea and Hyperbaric Medical Society, Inc. to a scientist for outstanding scientific contributions to advances in undersea biomedical activity. The award carries an honorarium and a plaque. The first recipient was Dr. Behnke.[1]

Awards and honors

Established in 1916 and awarded by the Association of Military Surgeons of the United States, the Sir Henry S. Wellcome Medal and Prize is awarded annually for "the research work most valuable for the military service performed in any branch of medicine, surgery, or sanitation". Behnke was the 1941 recipient.[28]

Dr. Behnke received the American College of Sports Medicine's Honor Award in 1976.[5][29]

The Navy dedicated the NMRI Hyperbaric Research Facility on July 1, 1981 to Dr. Behnke.[2]


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 Bornmann, Robert (1992). "Dr. Behnke, Founder of UHMS, Dies". Pressure, newsletter of the Undersea and Hyperbaric Medical Society. 21 (2): 1–4. ISSN 0889-0242.
  2. 1 2 Teven, Lyn (1981). "NMRI's new hyperbaric research complex dedicated to Dr. Behnke". Pressure, newsletter of the Undersea and Hyperbaric Medical Society. 10 (4): 1–2. ISSN 0889-0242.
  3. 1 2 3 4 Acott, Chris (1999). "A brief history of diving and decompression illness.". South Pacific Underwater Medicine Society Journal. 29 (2). ISSN 0813-1988. OCLC 16986801. Retrieved February 18, 2010.
  4. 1 2 Behnke, Albert R; Shaw, Louis A; Messer, Anne C; Thomson, Robert M; Motley, E Preble (January 31, 1936). "The circulatory and respiratory disturbances of acute compressed-air illness and the administration of oxygen as a therapeutic measure". American Journal of Physiology. 114 (3): 526–533. Retrieved February 18, 2010.
  5. 1 2 3 McArdle, William D; Katch, Frank I; Katch, Victor L (2006). Exercise physiology: energy, nutrition, and human performance. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. p. xxiii. ISBN 0-7817-4990-5. Retrieved February 18, 2010.
  6. Yarbrough, OD; Behnke, Albert R (1939). "The treatment of compressed air illness using oxygen". Journal of Industrial Hygiene and Toxicology. 21: 213–218. ISSN 0095-9030.
  7. Berghage, Thomas E; Vorosmarti Jr, James; Barnard, EEP (1978). "Recompression treatment tables used throughout the world by government and industry". US Naval Medical Research Center Technical Report. NMRI-78-16. Retrieved February 18, 2010.
  8. Behnke, Albert R (1937). "The application of measurements of nitrogen elimination to the problem of decompressing divers". US Naval Medical Bulletin. 35: 219–240.
  9. 1 2 3 4 Behnke, Albert R (1939). "Log of Diving During Rescue and Salvage Operations of the USS Squalus: Diving Log of USS Falcon, 24 May 1939-12 September 1939". U.S. Navy, reprinted by Undersea & Hyperbaric Medical Society in 2001.
  10. Behnke, Albert R; Yarborough, OD (1939). "Respiratory resistance, oil-water solubility and mental effects of argon compared with helium and nitrogen". American Journal of Physiology (126): 409–15.
  11. Marx, Thomas; Schmidt, Michael; Schirmer, Uwe; Reinelt, Helmut (2000). "Xenon anaesthesia" (PDF). Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. 93 (10): 513–517. PMC 1298124Freely accessible. PMID 11064688. Retrieved February 18, 2010.
  12. Behnke, Albert R (September 1942). "Physiologic Studies Pertaining to Deep Sea Diving and Aviation, Especially in Relation to the Fat Content and Composition of the Body: The Harvey Lecture, March 19, 1942". Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine. 18 (9): 561–585. PMC 1933871Freely accessible. PMID 19312284.
  13. Behnke, Albert R (March 1959). "Physiologic and psychologic factors in individual and group survival". Arizona Medicine. 16 (3): 189–210. PMID 13628431.
  14. 1 2 Baugh, Ken, ed. (1959). "The history of the US Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory" (PDF). Retrieved February 18, 2010.
  15. 1 2 staff (February 1, 1992). "Dr. Albert Behnke; Expert on Divers' Problems". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved February 18, 2010.
  16. Tillman, Albert A; Tillman, Thomas T. "The history of NAUI" (PDF). Scuba America Historical Foundation. Retrieved February 18, 2010.
  17. Behnke, Albert R (December 1967). "Work in compressed air: medical aspects". Journal of Occupational Medicine. Industrial Medical Association. 9 (12): 630–1. PMID 6065140.
  18. Behnke, Albert R (1967). "The New Thrust Seaward". Transcript Third Marine Technology Society Conference. San Diego: Marine Technology Society. Retrieved February 18, 2010.
  19. Momsen, Charles (1942). "Report on Use of Helium Oxygen Mixtures for Diving". United States Navy Experimental Diving Unit Technical Report (42-02). Retrieved February 18, 2010.
  20. Behnke, Albert R (1969). "Early Decompression Studies". In Bennett, Peter B; Elliott, David H. The Physiology and Medicine of Diving. Baltimore, USA: The Williams & Wilkins Company. p. 234. ISBN 0-7020-0274-7.
  21. LeMessurier, DH; Hills, Brian A (1965). "Decompression Sickness. A thermodynamic approach arising from a study on Torres Strait diving techniques". Hvalradets Skrifter. 48: 54–84.
  22. Hills, Brian A (1966). "A thermodynamic and kinetic approach to decompression sickness". PhD Thesis. Adelaide, Australia: Libraries Board of South Australia.
  23. Hills, Brian A (1977). Decompression Sickness: The biophysical basis of prevention and treatment. 1. New York, USA: John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 0-471-99457-X.
  24. Hills, Brian A (1978). "A fundamental approach to the prevention of decompression sickness". South Pacific Underwater Medicine Society Journal. 8 (4). ISSN 0813-1988. OCLC 16986801. Retrieved February 18, 2010.
  25. Van Liew, HD; Bishop, B; Walder, P; Rahn, H (1965). "Effects of compression on composition and absorption of tissue gas pockets". Journal of Applied Physiology. 20 (5): 927–33. ISSN 0021-8987. OCLC 11603017. PMID 5837620. Retrieved June 11, 2009.
  26. Sass, DJ (1976). "Minimum <delta>P for bubble formation in pulmonary vasculature". Undersea Biomedical Research. 3 (Supplement). ISSN 0093-5387. OCLC 2068005. Retrieved February 18, 2010.
  27. Look, BC; Tremor, JW; Barrows, WF; Zabower, HR; Suri, K; Park, EG; d'Urso, JA; Leon, HA; Haymaker, W; Linberg, RG; Behnke, Albert R; Asch, H; Hampton, RW (April 1975). "The effects of cosmic particle radiation on pocket mice aboard Apollo XVII: IV. engineering aspects of the experiment and results of animal tests". Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine. 46 (4 Sec 2): 500–13. PMID 239672.
  28. Firth, Margaret A (1956). "Handbook of Scientific and Technical Awards in the United States and Canada (1900–1952)". Special Libraries Association. Retrieved February 18, 2010.
  29. "Past Honor/Citation Recipients". American College of Sports Medicine. Retrieved February 18, 2010.

External links

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