John Wendell Severinghaus was born in Madison, Wisconsin on May 6, 1922, under chloroform anesthesia requiring version from a transverse lie and foot first extraction. His Mother’s obstetrician suspected the baby was brain damaged, and was not relieved of that worry until he attended the dinner at which the AOA scholarly medical fraternity admitted Severinghaus to membership after his first year of medical school.
After an undistinguished academic record in Madison public schools and Haverford College, he used his physics degree at MIT on radar during WWII. He met Elinor when she was a sophomore at Wellesley. In September 1945 he entered Univ of Wisconsin Medical School, transferred for the last two years to Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York. He and Elinor married before his senior year, then spent two years of internship (for most doctors, one is enough) at Cooperstown, NY, where life’s pace was leisurely. He considered several biophysics labs but was persuaded to study anesthesiology at Penn by Robert D. Dripps, a very persuasive and perceptive leader in the field. A year of science there with Julius Comroe in Physiology and Pharmacology determined his career direction. After 4 years research at NIH and a second year of anesthesia residency with Stuart Cullen at Iowa, Comroe persuaded both Cullen and Severinghaus to move to San Francisco where Comroe came to start the Cardiovascular Research Institute.
He spent his career as a research anesthesiologist, teaching in the operating rooms one day per week plus night calls. He developed the oxygen and carbon dioxide electrodes invented by others to make the first useful blood gas analysis apparatus and assisted various manufacturers in marketing such devices. His interests included physiology of respiration and circulation, particularly brain and lung, blood gas transport, acid base balance, and especially high altitude effects on brain and lung.
He published about 250 papers and books, plus 200 abstracts of talks. He seemed addicted to scientific meetings, particularly in Scandinavia, with or without lecturing. He took 4 sabbatical leaves, 2 in Copenhagen, in The Netherlands and Oxford. His major honors were an honorary degree, Dr. Med. H.C. Copenhagen, and Honorary member of the Royal College of Anesthetists of UK. His UCSF laboratory became a major center for testing accuracy of pulse oximeters, an activity that continues to date at age 80, despite moving to alternate space 4 times.He acts as a physiology referee to various medical journals and edits a column summarizing interesting high altitude papers for the Journal of High Altitude Medicine and Biology.
He and Elinor have 2 sons and 2 daughters, and live in the same house in Ross, CA they bought on arrival in the Bay area in 1958. After being reared in Congregational and Presbyterian Churches, and educated by Quakers, he and Elinor chose the Unitarian ideology and community shortly after arrival in Marin County. He was elected in 2000 as a director of the Marin Healthcare District Board to help improve services at Marin General Hospital and break a clearly illegal lease.