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Wilbur Rounding Franks with the Franks Flying Suit
Wilbur Rounding Franks. Photo from University of Toronto Archives

Defying Gravity

Professor Wilbur Rounding Franks developed the first G-suit used in combat

Given the airborne talents of astronauts and fighter pilots, it’s easy to overlook the role of their high-tech uniforms. This picture from 1962 shows Wilbur Rounding Franks, a professor in U of T’s Banting and Best Department of Medical Research, posing with the Franks Flying Suit. It is the first anti-gravity or G-suit used in combat, and is still the foundational design for contemporary fighter-pilot and astronaut pressure suits.

Franks earned his BA at Victoria College in 1924, graduated from medical school at U of T in 1928 and worked in cancer research. After the death of his mentor Frederick Banting in 1941, Franks continued Banting’s research into aviation medicine and the problem of Allied fighter pilots losing consciousness during high-speed exercises. The pilots were subject to immense gravitational forces, making it difficult for the heart to pump blood to the brain.

Franks initially came up with the idea of a water-filled G-suit. By filling an outer layer with water that pressed on the legs and abdomen to prevent blood from pooling in the lower parts of the body, Franks could keep the pilots’ blood circulating normally. His preliminary tests were on mice surrounded by condoms filled with water, and Franks eventually subjected himself to a barrage of successful tests in real aircraft. Later designs used air pressure instead of water pressure, and included an inflatable bladder. The Franks Flying Suit was first used in combat by the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm in an invasion of North Africa in November 1942.

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