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Griffith Pugh: Britain’s first applied sport physiologist

July 29, 2013

This post is motivated by a few things. The first is the anniversary of the London Olympic games, the second is my recent completion of Harriet Tuckey’s superb biography of her late father, Dr. Griffith Pugh. Scientific support for elite performance has been a major strength of Team GB’s Olympic preparations for some time now. Every now and then it is natural to look back and wonder where it all came from, and who deserves credit for giving sport science influence in elite sport.  This post will seem rather limited in geographical scope, since I’m only talking about the UK. I am also really only talking about physiological support (of which I myself am not really part, being an educator and researcher), but the narrative for psychology or biomechanics would be different only in the names used to acknowledge primacy. When all this happened is also roughly the same regardless of which discipline you refer to.  Finally, this is whole post can be considered a failed book review, as I am not a literary critic.

We could look back Olympics-by-Olympics to try to see where it all started, and we would soon realise that prior to the Sydney games, very little scientific support was truly systematic.  In fact, it was only following Britain’s Olympic nadir in Atlanta in 1996 and the subsequent boost received from lottery funding in 1997 did things really change for good.  Prior to that, sport science support was patchy. Britain’s Olympic successes had more to do with good coaching, often at quite a local level, than any high-performance systems. Previous Olympics also flattered to deceive: Moscow and LA were boycotted by a significant number of competitive countries, and Montreal and Munich took place against the backdrop of significant social and economic problems for Britain, when Olympic sport was not a government or cultural priority. Success was the result of the hard work of a few rather than the collective efforts of many.

Who were the few hard-working scientists?  In the early 1990s it was the likes of Peter Keen, then coach of Chris Boardman, who applied science to every aspect of preparation.  That this approach was still considered oddball or revolutionary in 1992 says much about prevailing attitudes in both the British press and the sporting establishment.  One wonders who the first applied sport scientist to really make a tangible impact was.  Ask an undergraduate this question, and the answer is likely to be Nobel Laureate A.V. Hill.  He undoubtely deserves enormous credit for extending his studies into athletics, and for providing some of the key concepts and theories still investigated to this day.  But he didn’t really support athletes directly.  Instead, I would suggest the first applied scientist to have an impact on human performance in the UK was Griffith Pugh.

Harriet Tuckey’s biography, entitled “Everest The First Ascent“, should be required reading for all sport science undergraduates, and for anybody interested in the history of applied physiology.  With that in mind, I won’t present a series of spoilers, but I will justify my assertion that Pugh deserves credit as Britain’s first sport physiologist.  Pugh had been applying science to the practical situation since the second world war, when he was stationed at a military ski school in Lebanon.  His first intervention there was to reduce the soldier’s training loads, resulting in an immediate increase in both morale and performance.  In 1951, through his work at the Medical Reseach Council, Pugh was recruited as a high altitude physiologist with the British and Commonwealth Himalayan expeditions.  His insistence on the use of oxygen, proper acclimatisation, and nutrition, were all pivotal in the 1953 expedition reaching Everest’s summit.

Following his support of the Everest expedition, Pugh was involved in other Antarctic and Himalayan expeditions with Edmund Hillary, with a key focus of the Himalayan work being the physiological effects of chronic hypoxia.  The Silver Hut Expedition, as it became known, remains perhaps the most comprehensive field study of its kind, and the data generated remain highly relevant today.  But Pugh went far beyond these studies in future work, which included providing recommendations for surviving cold water immersion, reducing the risks associated with hiking in bad weather (particularly in the UK), and establishing the likely effect of high-intensity exercise at medium altitude ahead of the Mexico Olympics.  The latter work also included measures of the time required to acclimatise to Mexico City’s altitude.  In doing so, Pugh realised that heat could be as great a threat as altitude, and studied that aspect of physiology in depth too.  Pugh did all this first by talking to those involved at length in order to understand what they perceived the challenges to be.  Then he applied the science, using first principles and relevant data collection, to overcome the challenge.  Those I know in the English Institute of Sport and elsewhere take exactly the same approach today, because it works.

Harriet’s wonderful text tells the above and very much more about Pugh.  Of particular interest are the battles he almost always faced to achieve credit and credibility for what he did.  Some of those were his own doing, but many were the product of British Conservatism and class-based networks which have largely (and thankfully) disappeared from most successful elite sport.  But the systems we see providing scientific support to elite athletes are, I think, exactly what Pugh would have recognised as the right way to do things.  But there is so much more to the book than Pugh’s physiological work.  It is written by an author who had no interest in finding out who her father was until the end of his life, and who only really found out long after he had died.  In that sense this book is almost as much her story as it is his. Consequently, what Harriet found out is both fascinating and deeply moving.

Everest The First Ascent is a brilliant account the life of Griffith Pugh, Britain’s first applied sports physiologist.  Such a book would make any father’s chin rise “with pleasure and pride” (Tuckey, 2013, p. xix).

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