40 years of service to Underwater Medicine

Published on LCDR Joel Hissink (author)

Location(s): HMAS Penguin

Topic(s): HMAS Penguin, Submarine and Underwater Medicine Unit (SUMU)

Commanding Officer HMAS Penguin, Commander Paul Doble, RAN makes a presentation to Mr John Pennefather, honouring his forty years of service to underwater medicine. (photo: Unknown)
Commanding Officer HMAS Penguin, Commander Paul Doble, RAN makes a presentation to Mr John Pennefather, honouring his forty years of service to underwater medicine.

Forty years of service to Navy’s submarine community by Scientist Officer Mr John Pennefather, BSc (Hons), was commemorated at a function at HMAS Penguin last week.

Mr Pennefather began working at the Submarine and Underwater Medicine Unit (SUMU), then known as the School of Underwater Medicine, in 1972. As a young physiologist with an interest in animal climate physiology, and having studied the oxygen consumption of grazing sheep, he sent a letter addressed to the “The RAN, Canberra” outlining his design idea for a closed-circuit rebreather diving set. The letter reached SUMU and John was invited to the unit to discuss his ideas. The discussion evidently went well as John was subsequently offered a job as the SUMU Scientific Officer.

Over his 40 years’ service, John has been involved in countless projects and areas of research in an effort to improve safety within the diving and submariner communities. The clearance divers of today are probably stronger and more capable after John conducted research that found that clearance diver trainees were burning more energy than they received, leading to increased food rations and more sleep while on their training courses.

John is co-author of a highly regarded diving medicine textbook, Diving and Subaquatic Medicine, which is now in its fourth edition and regularly consulted by diving physicians across the globe. He has helped to study the effect of bubbles on the brains of rabbits (which may explain the current rabbit plague at HMAS Penguin), worked tirelessly on the complex problems of submarine escape and rescue, as well as the maintenance of a healthy submarine atmosphere. John has investigated hundreds of military and civilian diving accidents and has provided design advice on diving and hyperbaric-related equipment ranging from portable two-man re-compression chambers to methods to keep live fish fresh during transit.

Every RAN diver, medical officer and underwater medic has been fortunate to have crossed paths with John at some point during their careers. He has taught divers about physiology, subjected them to experiments in his laboratory and has educated every medical officer and underwater medic in various aspects of underwater medicine. Perhaps it is John’s enjoyment of his work combined with his habit of frequent walks along Balmoral Beach or lunchtime swims in the Penguin pool over summer that have kept him in good health over the years. John intends retiring in 2013 but is eager to continue to provide expert advice to the RAN whilst in retirement. It is likely that such advice will be sought frequently, as his replacement will be difficult to find.

John is held in very high regard among diving and submarine medical communities all over the world and continues to be asked for his opinion on a diverse range of underwater medicine topics. John’s 40 years’ service and dedication to the continuing improvement of diver and submariner safety is unparalleled and is an admirable achievement.