Lucan Pratt: Physiologist whose work assisted allied frogmen during D-Day

Born in Hackney, brought up first in Nottingham – where he recalled his father telling him, on the banks of the Trent in 1914, that what became the Great War would be over in a few weeks – then educated at Liverpool Collegiate School, Lucan Pratt was a physiologist qualified by no less than five degrees from the University of Liverpool. He held a series of hospital appointments in Liverpool, London and Oxford and was Senior Lecturer in Physiology at St Thomas’s when the Second World War broke out in 1939.

His special researches had been into the chemistry of digestion and anaesthesia, but the expert medical evidence he submitted to the Board of Inquiry into the loss of the Thetis submarine in June 1939, led to his appointment as medical officer in charge of the Royal Navy Physiological Laboratory at Alverstoke, with the rank of Surgeon-Commander RNVR. For his services there and at HMS Dolphin, where he was responsible for construction of the submarine escape test tanks, he was appointed OBE.

The most noteworthy of his experiments were those he organised, at great peril to himself, in the spring of 1944, which looked into the physiological effects of underwater explosions at close range. A job he estimated would normally occupy two years had to be completed in eight weeks, in anticipation of the Normandy landings.

The practical outcome was the design of the kapock jacket for the protection of the frogmen clearing the French harbours such as Cherbourg that had to be made available for use in the shortest possible time.

After the War, Pratt moved to Cambridge to take up a post as lecturer in Mammalian Physiology, publishing many papers and a textbook which is still available. He was an enthusiastic and successful teacher. He was elected into a Fellowship at Christ’s College in 1946 and, two years later, appointed a tutor. Promoted in 1950 to be the senior tutor, he was quickly recognised throughout the University as the outstanding senior tutor of his time.

During the 18 years he lived in the College, Christ’s became remarkable for its athletic successes, chiefly in football and rugby union. As he had been a captain of athletics and a rugby player at Liverpool, Pratt was frequently suspected of deliberately going out to recruit likely Blues. This was probably unjust, and an examination of College records, both sporting and academic before, during, and since the period when he was in charge of admissions seem to give no reason to assume otherwise.

That said, his appreciation of sporting prowess was undeniable. The story that he flung a rugby ball at selected admissions candidates undoubtedly has a basis in fact, although the embellishment that those who took the pass and drop-kicked into the waste-paper basket duly won scholarships, has not. What is certainly true is that on one occasion, a student, using the senior tutor’s unlocked door as a late-night entry to the College, heard Pratt descend the stairs and quickly turned into his study to hide. Pratt then entered himself, selected a book and sat on the sofa behind which the student had concealed himself. At 2.30am, Pratt stood up, saying, “I don’t know about you, but I’m going to bed now.” Equally, Tony Lewis, a rugby and cricket Blue who later captained England and was also a Welsh Youth Orchestra player, has written that he was ordered to bring violin as well as rugby boots to College.

Pratt took a prominent role in the University administration. He was a member of the Council of the Senate from 1953 to 1961, where he defended the interests of Christ’s College with energy and a curious eloquence said to be modelled on Mark Twain, but more likely on Thomas Lovell Beddoes. His considerable, if modestly obscured literary culture, combined with a real knowledge of practical affairs, made him a valued Syndic of the Cambridge University Press for two terms of office. He was chairman of its scientific committee and editor of the Journal of Physiology, which it published.

After the expiry of his Senior Tutorship in 1967 he moved from the College to a former pub, The Nag’s Head, in nearby Orwell, which he insisted was named after his wife, Elizabeth. He continued as praelector until his retirement in 1976, when he left Cambridge to live in Dorset. Though a tactfully firm disciplinarian, he was always on the friendliest terms with his charges and he will be remembered with respect and real affection by generations of Christ’s students. He was learned in literature, science and music, and his later years were devoted to his five greenhouses, to winning horticultural prizes in Elizabeth’s name and, with the aid of holidays involving visits to locations such as St Helena in search of rare specimens, to amassing a huge horticultural record.

Christopher Pratt

Clarence Lucan Gray Pratt, physiologist, OBE, MD, ChB, MA, MSc: born Hackney, London 26 September 1906; married Elizabeth (died 2002, one son, four daughters); died 24 March 2009.

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