Book review: Everest – the first ascent. The untold story of Griffith Pugh

This brief book review by Frank Norman was first published in the 2013 Mill Hill Essays.

This is a biography of Griffith Pugh, the physiologist who was involved in the successful 1953 expedition to climb Mt Everest. His daughter, Harriet Tuckey, has written a lucid and very full account of his life and, more particularly, his work. The book’s publicity material talks of the “unflinching honesty” of the author in describing her father. She acknowledges that until quite late in his life she was unaware of the importance of his work, and found him a difficult man to be with. She did not get on well with him when he was alive, but through researching and writing the book came to appreciate him more fully. This biography therefore is not a hagiography: though she clearly respects his scientific achievements she recognises the flaws in his character.

The core of the book is the 1953 Everest expedition, and the years leading up to it. She describes how previous expeditions had failed, due to their being rooted in ideals of ‘gentlemanly amateurism’ that eschewed medical and scientific advice. Pugh was brought in to help the 1953 British expedition when it was realized that if it did not succeed then it was very likely that an expedition from another country (probably Switzerland) would. But his presence was resented by the climbers, who were mostly from that old tradition. The climbers do not come out of the book well, seemingly capricious and stubborn.

The book describes Pugh’s previous career as a medical man, a sportsman and an army trainer in the war. He came to NIMR in 1949, joining a newly established Division of Human Physiology. His previous experience gave him unique insights into high-altitude sports physiology, and he carved out a reputation in this field. After the 1953 expedition he returned to the Himalayas for further studies, and also advised the 1968 British Olympic team going to Mexico City as well as work closer to home.

For anyone interested in human physiology or in outdoor pursuits and endurance sports there is much of interest in this book. Much of current wisdom about sports physiology can be traced back to Pugh. The book is also a story of how a daughter finally came to a deeper understanding of her father, through researching his life.

Everest – the first ascent. The untold story of Griffith Pugh, the man who made it possible by Harriet Tuckey is published by Rider, 2013.


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