Nfld. & Labrador

Cluny Macpherson, gas mask inventor, more than a side note of history

Newfoundlanders and Labradorians know Cluny Macpherson as the inventor of the gas mask, but historian Andrew Robershaw says while his role is not known in the U.K., he's the man who brought it "all together."

'We can put a name to the right person,' historian Andrew Robertshaw says

Visitors lean in for a look at the Hypo Helmet invented by Cluny Macpherson. (CBC)

Newfoundlanders and Labradorians know Cluny Macpherson as the inventor of the gas mask, but historian Andrew Robertshaw says that while Macpherson's role is not known in the U.K., he's the man who brought it "all together."

Dignitaries and medical history buffs, including the acclaimed British historian, gathered in the atrium of Memorial University's medical school Monday to unveil an exhibit about Macpherson's accomplishments.

The idea of breathing masks has deep roots in history and were used in deep sea diving and mining when the First World War broke out.

Historian Andrew Robertshaw says Cluny Macpherson is not known in the U.K as the inventor of the gas mask. (CBC)

"People were aware of the need to keep someone alive for a period of time. but it had never been required in war in quite the same way," Robertshaw said.

'You're safe, at least for a while'

Macpherson, serving overseas as Principal Medical Officer, 1st Newfoundland Regiment, developed what he called the Hypo Helmet after the first gas attack on April 22, 1915.

Robertshaw said by that July, the helmets were available on the western front by the hundreds of thousands.

"He actually has experimental examples within a few weeks of the first gas attack. And all the other things beforehand were completely thrown away because they were useless. They were things that you were meant to hold in your mouth, and things that you were meant to actually put gas goggles on or even like driving goggles — ludicrous," he said.

"This meant you had protection over your entire head, nose and mouth and eyes all in one. And it was simple. All you do is put it over your head, do your collar up, it's done. You're safe, at least for a while."

But where did Macpherson get the idea for his design? "There's an account of somebody, and it may have been Cluny Macpherson, seeing a German soldier moving around in the gas cloud with a bag on his head," he said.

Macpherson was able to get ahold of an captured example, and realized what the gas was.

"He got a nurse to sew literally together his experiment … and it worked perfectly," Robertshaw said.

Robertshaw told CBC what is interesting is from his perspective in the U.K. is that Macpherson's role in all of it is not known, whereas in Newfoundland and Labrador it is known.

The real inventor

"Therefore, I suggest that what we've actually got is something that is true, but is sort of being ignored. It's a side note of history," he said.

"People were, 'Oh, we've developed the Hypo Helmet.' But who? Who was it?"

Cluny Macpherson, seen holding a baby, served overseas with the 1st Newfoundland Regiment (CBC)

"Now, we can put a name to the right person, the real inventor ... of this thing that was going to save so many lives."

Robertshaw said someone else could have come up with the invention, "but you needed somebody with medical training, with a knowledge of basic chemistry who also had some imagination, as to what to do. Because people had thought about different elements — something in your mouth, something over your eyes, something that you might be able to get wet when you wanted it."

He said Macpherson realized by adding glycerine to the solution, keeping it damp and putting it in a waterproof bag, that it was ready to use.

"You put it on when you want it. It's basically all in one, " he said.

"You could argue that other people perhaps thought about different elements, he brings them all together in one device, which is effective."


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