German Pioneer In High Altitude Medicine

German physiologist Nathan Zuntz 1910 on Teneriffa. source: Mascart: Impressions et observations dans un voyage à Tenerife, Flammarion, Paris 1912, S. 217

German physiologist Nathan Zuntz on Teneriffa in 1910. Source: Mascart: Impressions et observations dans un voyage à Tenerife, Flammarion, Paris 1912, S. 217

Maybe it’s just because I’m not that familiar with German scientists other than Einstein or Frankenstein, or maybe I don’t know my aviation as well as you (this blog is a journey of discovery for me, as well), but I had never heard of Nathan Zuntz.

Name: Nathan Zuntz
Born: October 7, 1847 in Bonn, Germany
Died: March 22, 1920 in Berlin.

Zuntz is considered a German pioneer in high altitude physiology and aviation medicine, as well as research into metabolism, nutrition, respiration, blood gases and exercise – but I prefer to simply call him a pioneer.

While I feel a man’s religion should not be part of the description of him, Zuntz was a Jew in Germany, which means he had some respect but not as much as he could have, as the Jews (at that time) were the victims of near-global anti-Semitic treatment.

But that didn’t stop Zuntz. You just can’t keep a good mensch down.

He was a professor of animal physiology at the Agricultural University in Berlin from 1881 through 1918 where he studied changes in metabolism at rest and during exercise.

Zuntz’s main goal was to discover how people and animals react to extreme stress by excessive heat, cold or high altitude, so he set about inventing ways to test and measure his subjects.

With August Geppert (1856-1937), Zuntz created in 1885 the Zuntz-Geppert Respiratory Apparatus.

The Zuntz-Geppert Respiratory Apparatus.

He then built his Laufband (the first treadmill) in 1889, which was to test the metabolism of animals. You know that treadmill at the gym. Pretty much the same thing as what Zuntz built.

Later in 1914, Zuntz added an X-Ray apparatus to his Laufband treadmill to determine the changes in heart volume during exercise.

Together with a colleague, he was planning to turn of the century pneumatic cabinets. These vaults were used to simulate atmospheric conditions as in 11 000 meters – the basis for experiments, but also for the treatment of tuberculosis patients.

During the early years later in the 1890’s, Zuntz took the same research from his respiratory apparatus and looked to study high altitude physiology. To do this, Zuntz studied the effects of partial pressure of oxygen on the human body – and did this using a hypobaric chamber he created. The climate-control/hypobaric chamber allowed Zuntz to study the effects of exercise under varying and sometimes extreme climates.

While these hypobaric vaults/chambers could simulate conditions up to 11,000 meters in height, he also tried to use it as a means to treat tuberculosis patients – though I don’t believe he actually achieved much success with that.

He was the first to describe the difference between laboratory data gained in a hypobaric chamber and the measurements at high altitude.

By 1893, along with his new partners Adolf Loewy (1862-1936), Angelo Moss (1846-1910) of Italy, and Arnold Durig (1872-1961) of Austria, Zuntz began working at the new international research station at the top of Italy’s Mt. Rosa at an elevation of 4,500 meters, which was where they invented the transportable Gasuhr, a gas exchange measuring device.

The Zuntz Gas (Gasuhr) meter, top view.

It is known that along with performing tests on themselves, they took samples of their own crap to see what effects high altitude had on stool, but really, it was to see what effects were contained within the stool samples.

I just wanted to say stool a few times.

So, all well and good – but where’s the aviation stuff? These inventions are definitely part of aviation history, but his study of high altitude medicine was truly pioneering.

Now… back in 1881 the German Association for the Advancement of Aeronautics was founded, with Zuntz in 1892 given 25,000 Reichsmarks for experiments.

Aha! So that’s where got the money to further his interest and to invent the Respiratory Apparatus and Dry Gas Measuring devices (mentioned above).

In 1902 with his assistant Hermann von Schrötter (1870 -1928) of Austria and meteorologists Arthur Berson (1859 – 1942) of Poland and German Reinhard Süring (1866 – 1950), he made he made two high-altitude balloon ascents in which they reached an altitude of 5000 meters.

An exhaustive study of the effects of high altitude, cold and physical exertion on the muscles and respiratory system was published by in 1906 by Zuntz, in his book Höhenklima und Bergwanderungen in ihrer Wirkung auf den Menschen (High Altitude Climate and Mountaineering and their Effect on Humans).

Later through 1914, Zuntz with did studies with Schrötter and physiologists Arnold Durig (1872-1961) and Joseph Barcroft (1872-1947) via balloons and aeroplanes in the Canary Islands – specifically Pico de Teide.

What I find extremely interesting is that in 1911, Zuntz opened up the very first lab specifically dedicated to sports medicine in Germany.

Sounds all nice and rosy, doesn’t it? However, an Insurance Fund for the Germany Medical Association was actually looking at ways to use Zuntz’s aviation medical data and his solutions with the clinic to provide fast relief of its ‘extreme’ athletes who were getting hurt. In fact, they wanted to halt the average citizen from practicing ballooning.

I don’t see that as such a sport that thousands were partaking in – but insurance companies are insurance companies…   They wanted to avoid having to pay these balloonists who were suffering from altitude complications, and so thanks to the data provided by Zuntz, they created a doctrine regarding the physiology and hygiene of aviation.

Publishing his treatise in 1912, the Insurance Fund and the Germany Medical Association determined that aviation medicine and physiology should be a separate branch of medicine from us landlubbers. In other words, aviators need to be treated differently because of the extremes of altitude they have undergone.

Zuntz’s work on how trips at high altitude affect the human body is spectacular. He is body of work on high-altitude medicine and physiology is why Zuntz is known as the Dean of Aviation Medicine.

Although Zuntz retired officially in 1916, he continued to do some work with Berlin University until 1918, and died on March 22, 1920.

Images are from various Zuntz books.

I will tell you that this blog was a bugger to research as I used Google Translate to translate his German books into English… and then into an understandable English. My apologies if it appears choppy.


About mreman47

Andrew was born in London, UK, raised in Toronto, Canada, and cavorted in Ohtawara, Japan for three years. He is married, has a son and a cat. He has over 35,000 comic books and a plethora of pioneer aviation-related tobacco and sports cards and likes to build LEGO dioramas. Along with writing for a monthly industrial magazine, he also writes comic books and hates writing in the 3rd person. He also hates having to write this crap that no one will ever read. Along with the daily Japan - It's A Wonderful Rife blog, when he feels the hate, will also write another blog entitled: You Know What I Hate? He also works on his Pioneers Of Aviation - a cool blog on early fliers. He also wants to do more writing - for money, though. Help him out so he can stop talking in the 3rd person.
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2 Responses to German Pioneer In High Altitude Medicine

  1. Brandyn says:

    Great article, Looking those pictures now a days its hard to believe those devices were even considered


    • mreman47 says:

      I agree… it’s the spirit of ingenuity at work. Between what you and I have in our house we probably could have flown across the Atlantic – and yet we do not. These pioneers of aviation are really fascinating. I recently read about some 15-yr-old who has a mini particle accelerator in his parent’s basement next to a fooseball table. My initial reaction was – who has a fooseball table, and then it was… he has a WHAT in the basement? Is that safe. I’m guessing that if a kid is smart enough to build a particle accelerator, he probably knows what he is doing. I unclenched my sphincter.


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