Dr Harold Randall Griffith, MD, CM, OC


Dr Harold Randall Griffith was born in Montreal and graduated from McGill University with an MD, CM, in 1922 and a doctorate of Homeopathic Medicine from Hahnemann Medical College of Philadelphia in 1923. We, who practice anesthesia shall be forever indebted to Dr Harold, as he was affectionately known by his peers, because he and his resident Dr Enid Johnson on January 23, 1942 used curare for the first time during anesthesia to produce muscle relaxation. On that day, almost one hundred years after ether anesthesia had been demonstrated by William Morton, he revolutionized the practice of anesthesia by demonstrating that a substance, which until then had been considered a poison, could be safely used to produce muscle relaxation for surgery.

Historians may refer to anesthesia as "before and after Griffith". The introduction of muscle relaxants reduced anesthetic requirements, increased the scope of surgery, improved operating conditions and decreased morbidity and probably mortality. Thus Dr Harold Griffith introduced the most important advance since the launching of the infant specialty and despite the introduction of many advances since 1942, there is nothing that compares with the importance of Dr Griffith's contribution.

This quiet, humble man dedicated his life to anesthesia and made many other significant contributions to our specialty which were widely acclaimed and for which he received many awards. While a medical student he developed an interest in anesthesia and the field fascinated him. He realized that through research and education great improvements could be made in the specialty. He was fortunate in having among his many friends three of the most important anesthesiologists in the world. They were Dr Frank McMechan who founded the International Anesthesia Research Society, Dr Wesley Bourne who became the first Professor of Anesthesia at McGill University and Dr. Ralph Waters of Madison, Wisconsin who was a world expert in cyclopropane anesthesia and the first full professor of anesthesia in a medical school.

Dr Griffith published his first paper on Anesthesia, in which he set out guidelines for the safe practice of anesthesia, in 1922 while still a medical student. He emphasized the importance of observing and charting vital signs and assisting respiration if it appeared to be inadequate. He became the Chief of Anesthesia at the Homeopathic Hospital in Montreal in 1923 and held that position until 1959 continuing to give anesthesia until 1966. In 1923 he believed ethylene was a better anesthetic than nitrous oxide and presented papers on this subject at international meetings attracting the attention of Dr McMechan and Dr Waters who would visit him in Montreal. They quickly recruited him into their cause of advancing and promoting the infant, poorly appreciated, specialty of anesthesia.

His stature as a clinician, teacher, researcher and organizer grew rapidly. Dr Waters was the first to use cyclopropane which he introduced to Dr Griffith who then in 1933 began to use it exclusively and publish extensively on cyclopropane anesthesia. In 1940 Dr Lewis Wright told him that curare might be successfully used to produce muscle relaxation during surgery and that Dr A E Bennett was using it to soften muscle contractions during ECT therapy in psychiatry. He worried about using this poison, but he said, "I argued to myself that if it did not kill Dr Bennett's patients it could hardly do any serious harm to ours because the major danger would be respiratory paralysis and even at that time anesthesiologists were accustomed to maintaining controlled respiration over long periods and so I asked Dr Wright to send me some intocostrin". When he gave it to a young man undergoing an appendectomy on January 23, 1942, muscle relaxation improved and he was able to reduce the concentration of cyclopropane and did not assist ventilation. Twenty-four additional cases were given intocostrin and he concluded that the drug could be used safely to produce muscle relaxation. His paper appeared in Anesthesiology in July 1942. He understood the problems with curare and while others would try it in a laboratory and abandon it, he with wisdom and courage used it in the operating room and demonstrated it to be safe.

Dr Griffith had previously demonstrated courage when during the World War I, he was awarded the military medal for bravery at the Battle of Vimy Ridge. He then transferred to the navy where he served as a surgeon sub-lieutenant giving anesthesia. In World War II, as a Wing Commander in the Royal Canadian Air Force, he developed a crash training program in anesthesia for physicians who would be going overseas to administer anesthetics. Thus he had the distinction of serving in all three branches of the armed forces.

When Dr Wesley Bourne became the first Professor and Chairman of the Department of Anesthesia at McGill University, he invited Dr Griffith to join his staff and the latter used his experience training physicians to give anesthesia during the war to organize the McGill Resident Training Program in Anesthesia. Dr Griffith became Professor and Chairman of the Department of Anesthesia in 1951 on the retirement of Dr Bourne and he held the position until 1956. In 1956 he was named Professor Emeritus in the Department of Anesthesia at McGill University. For 30 years, he was also the Medical Director of the Homeopathic Hospital which would become the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Montreal.

Dr Griffith established the first recovery room in Canada in 1943 and an intensive care unit in 1961. He felt that advances in anesthesia could best be achieved by communication and so he organized the Society of Canadian Anaesthetists in Montreal, which three years later in 1943 would become the Canadian Anaesthetists' Society. He was the Society's first President, a position which he would hold for three years. He was Vice-President of the American Society of Anesthesiologists in 1946, elected President of the International Anesthesia Research Society in 1948 and from 1949 to 1952 served as Chairman of the Board of Trustees. From 1951 to 1955 he became involved in what he probably considered to be his greatest contribution to anesthesia, namely the organization of the World Federation of Societies of Anaesthesiologists. He was elected President at the first meeting held in the Netherlands in 1955 and at the second meeting in Toronto in 1959 was elected permanent Founder-President. He was a trustee and member of the Editorial Board of Anesthesia and Analgesia from 1952 to 1961 and Vice-President of the Academy of Anesthesiologists from 1952 to 1955.

Dr Griffith received many awards during his lifetime including the Feltrinelli Prize Academe dei Lincei Rome 1954, the Hickman Medal of the Royal Society of Medicine, London 1956, the Distinguished Service Award of the ASA in 1959 (the only non American to be so awarded), Founder-President of the World Federation of Societies of Anaesthesiologists 1959, Canadian Anaesthetists' Society Gold Medal 1962, Ralph Waters Award Illinois Society of Anesthesiology in 1970, Officer of the Order of Canada 1974 and Honorary LLD University of Saskatchewan 1974.

The attitude, motivation, energy and courage of Dr Harold Griffith can serve as a role model for all who wish to further our specialty. Dr Harold will always be remembered by those of us who had the good fortune to work with him. He was greatly concerned that anesthesia research should always flourish.

It is therefore most appropriate that McGill University established the Harold R Griffith Research Chair in Anesthesia, the first appointment being in 1992, which fulfills his wishes that research continue and the desires of his many admirers that his contributions to our specialty be remembered in perpetuity.

J Earl Wynands, MD, CM
Professor Emeritus
Department of Anesthesia
Faculty of Medicine
University of Ottawa
June 1998