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Coventry, Alvis and the Iron Lung: A biography of Captain George Thomas Smith-Clarke

By Adrian Padfield

2022 review by Autolycus

Dr Adrian Padfield is a retired anaesthetist. So why did he write this biography? He heard about Captain George Smith-Clarke when buying an Alvis in the early 1960s, and then found that Smith-Clarke – chief engineer of Alvis between 1922 and 1950 – achieved just as much with his work on the iron lung.

The book will appeal to those with an interest in the history of Alvis but, as the author explains, much has already been written about the firm. Readers will therefore find a detailed and thoroughly researched biography of the man, with some reference to his excellent design work for Alvis but equally a picture of the engineer’s wide range of interest, from astronomy through amateur radio to medical matters, the last of which led him in retirement to make significant improvements to the crude iron lung – so essential to the treatment of polio sufferers before the development of a vaccine but a frankly barbaric device until Smith-Clarke was co-opted to the committee reviewing its design. He made an almost immediate positive impact and eventually designed a radically different and far more effective piece of equipment.

The author is commendably meticulous about quoting his sources throughout the book. This does, however, often interrupt the flow of the story. A better approach might have been to use numbered references that could be expanded upon in an appendix. But a little patience will reward the reader with a fascinating history of a fine engineer who has hitherto been insufficiently honoured.

For those who prefer Alvis rather than iron lung history, the extensive appendices include Smith-Clarke’s address to the Automobile Division of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, containing much of importance in the history of the Alvis company. Other appendices cover Smith-Clarke’s lectures on the iron lung, which do give an insight into the approach of a true engineer to a life-and-death medical challenge.

This book is not a conventional motoring history book. It will, however, appeal to those with a wider engineering interest.

Publisher: Hughes & Company, in Pershore, Worcestershire. To order a copy, you can e-mail, or telephone them on 01386 803803.

Price: £20 plus postage and packing.

Description Hardback with illustrated cover, published without dustjacket (247 x 182 mm), 208 pages; black & white and a few colour images.

ISBN: 978-1-8382150-0-2

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