Dr. Wilbur Franks: Developing the G-Suit

This article was originally written and submitted as part of a Canada 150 Project, the Innovation Storybook, to crowdsource stories of Canadian innovation with partners across Canada. The content has since been migrated to Ingenium’s Channel, a digital hub featuring curated content related to science, technology and innovation.

Wilbur Franks trying on his G-suit, 1941: Library and Archives Canada PA-063923

Dr. Frederick Banting, best known as the Nobel-prize-winning inventor of insulin, assembled a group of doctors before the Second World War, and they turned their attention to aviation medicine.

In 1941, Dr. Wilbur Franks, one of those researchers at the Banting Institute, developed a flying suit reinforced with fluid channels to help pilots withstand the extreme G (gravitational) forces exerted on their bodies during air combat. When performing high-speed manoeuvres, pilots tended to lose consciousness because the G forces pulled blood to their lower extremities, and the heart could not pump blood to the brain. Dr. Franks’ suit was designed so that, when necessary, the fluid within would expand and compress the pilot’s lower body, forcing the blood to flow upwards and preventing a blackout.

Dr. Franks first tested a tiny version of the suit on mice and then the first full-sized prototype on himself. His suit performed extremely well in trials, allowing the wearer to remain conscious during high-G manoeuvres. However, its weight and bulk restricted the pilot’s normal movements.

Dr. Franks and his team later experimented with air-filled versions of the G-suit, a system that is still used today by military organizations and space agencies around the world.

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Canadian War Museum

The Canadian War Museum is Canada’s national museum of military history and one of the world’s most respected museums for the study and understanding of armed conflict.

The Museum traces its origins back to 1880, when it consisted primarily of a collection of militia artifacts. The Museum opened at its new location on the LeBreton Flats site in downtown Ottawa on May 8, 2005. Its opening not only marked the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe (V-E Day) but also the 125th anniversary of the Museum itself. Since its opening in 2005, the Museum has welcomed approximately 500,000 visitors every year.