John Lamb—‘Mr Oxygen’—dies at 78

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John Lamb—‘Mr Oxygen’—dies at 78

October 01, 2020 - 10:27
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News first broke within the UK rebreather community that John S. Lamb of Vandagraph passed away on Wednesday 29 July 2020. He died at his home in Farnhill, Yorkshire, with his family present. John was aged 78.

John Lamb of Vandagraph spoke at several EUROTEK conferences. He is pictured at the ET.16 Gala Awards Dinner

John Lamb was one of the unsung heroes of the diving industry. Mark Powell, Technical educator / author

John Lamb’s name is synonymous with oxygen. He literally wrote the book on it.

In 1999, John published ‘The Practice of Oxygen Management’ following a chance meeting with two fellow Brits earlier that decade. The late Rob Palmer (cave explorer and technical educator) and Peter Ready (PRISM semi-closed rebreather inventor) introduced John to Nitrox diving in the early 90’s. John later told me “during our first discussion they inundated me with questions and eventually Rob suggested that I put it in a book.” It took John a few years to complete the manuscript.

Oxygen Fascination

John had been fascinated with the gas since 1963. “I was involved with medical products—from design through to service and sales. Oxygen is used heavily. The galvanic sensor revolutionised oxygen analysis, and it all appeared to be magic. I started giving technical lectures to biomedical engineers throughout the UK. The result was a massive increase in sales and a substantial drop in returns. As they learned, they started to change the sensors in a planned maintenance scheme, which resulted in reduced down time and weekend call outs. I am not claiming this is as my idea, but I think the dissemination of the information assisted in their plans.

I was aware that John was keen to get this valuable message out to the divers who needed it. When I co-founded EUROTEK in 2008, I asked John if his company Vandagraph would like to come and exhibit, because the staff would be talking to divers hungry for accurate information. John agreed, and he also kindly spoke at the inaugural event. He surprised me with his generosity of knowledge because he gave every diver who attended his talk, a copy of his book.

John’s presentations at dive shows and technical diving conferences were invaluable in spreading the right information. Mark Powell, Technical educator / author

Early Years

John Slater Lamb was born in 1942 in a maternity home in the village of Gilsland, England. The village is located about a mile from the Roman built Hadrian’s Wall, and is unique in that the village straddles the county border. Half of the village is in Northumberland, the other half in Cumbria. (Today, the former convalescent home for Co-op workers is now the Gilsland Spa Hotel).

John would have died before he was three weeks old, if he had not had lifesaving surgery. At the time, his father was serving in the Marines, and he was brought home to see his infant son—John was not expected to survive. Jean Lamb (John’s wife of 58 years) told me that John regarded all of his years, a bonus.

John was a smart, driven man and he achieved a lot despite his dyslexia. He kept this challenge a secret for the whole all of his life. Jean Lamb stated “since he died I have finally worked out he was actually dyslexic. You can live with someone all of your life, and sometimes there are little things you don’t know. He had told me years ago that even at Junior School he had problems with getting the words the right way around. I always thought his head ran ahead of his hand, and I would proof-read everything he did, his letters, his books.

John always wanted to learn something new. He taught himself to speak German and play the guitar. Jean Lamb, Vandagraph

John was educated at Heaton Grammar School in Newcastle upon Tyne. He then studied Applied Physics at Sunderland Polytechnic. After leaving fulltime education, he started work in the scientific department of the Coal Board, and travelled from Newcastle to Sunderland to attend night classes in order to gain his HNC (Higher National Certificate). John then joined Newcastle Royal Victoria Infirmary, and worked in Medical Physics Electronics Department for three years, where he serviced and repaired medical electronic equipment.

John Lamb sought a commercial career in medical instrumentation. This covered design, service, and maintenance of equipment used in clinical care areas. He subsequently moved to a small medical supply company in Newcastle, and later to another in Yorkshire.

He took on any challenge. Jean Lamb, Vandagraph

The late 1960’s was an interesting time for John because micro-fuel technology was introduced into medicine along with oxygen monitoring. When the Yorkshire company closed down in 1977, these two ‘components’ (micro-fuel technology and oxygen monitoring) became the main product of his newly formed company, Viamed. Jean Lamb stated “John set up his own business, not with any great ambition. He merely wanted to support his family.

John Lamb and Viamed would go on to build a strong reputation for designing, manufacturing and distributing of a wide range of quality medical equipment. It is possible that if you or your family have been treated with a device that uses Oxygen in the UK, John Lamb’s technology would have assisted with your care. Viamed’s items include oxygen devices used for patient monitoring, as well as neonatal intensive care equipment. John was very proud that his VN202 Oxygen analyser was accepted for use with emergency ventilators in the UK during the current COVID-19 pandemic.

John learns to Scuba Dive

In 1986, John was persuaded to join Bradford Sub Aqua Club (BSAC Branch 44, founded 1957) by Viamed colleague Steve Nixon. At the time, John was depressed because his father had died, and John was in need of an activity or a decent distraction outside of work. The suggestion was made that John should learn to scuba dive.

We loved Scotland where we walked, cycled, motor cycled and scuba dived many times. Our diving boat has now been given to friends in the Mull of Kintyre. Jean Lamb, Vandagraph

John, together with his wife Jean, soon became passionate UK scuba divers. John Womack Snr—the respected Otter drysuit manufacturer—and his family were also members of Bradford Sub Aqua Club. His son—Paul Womack of Indepth Gas Solutions—told me of happy times where the two families would explore and dive Scotland.

John and Jean Lamb certainly enjoyed diving around the British coast. In later years, they lived in Seahouses overlooking the North Sea. It was located not far from the iconic Northumbrian seal colony and dive site, the Farne Islands.

We were lucky enough to go out diving at the Farnes on John and Jean’s boat. A place they both knew and loved, and where we found out and experienced John’s exhilarating fondness of spirited RIB skippering. Paul and Hilary Child, Weezle Diving Services

John Lamb was actively involved with Bradford Sub Aqua Club for many years, and served both as Chairman and Trustee from 1993 to 2003. He helped ensure that the dive club was well managed. John also physically supported the club by helping train many of its members during the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. The club thrived.

Vandagraph_John-Lamb_Rosemary-Lunn_Roz-Lunn_X-Ray-Mag_XRay-Magazine

The birth of the Oxygen Analyser

Today, Nitrox is a standard gas for all divers that want to use it. In fact, some instructors will teach an Enriched Air Nitrox or EANx course to their open water students, so that they can breathe this gas on their qualifying dives. It will therefore seem inconceivable to many reading this article that Nitrox was once considered ‘Devil’s Gas’.

EANx was first dived in the very early 90’s by the more adventurous divers, because many of the recreational training agencies initially banned this gas. However, one agency acted more sensibly. In 1993, the Sub Aqua Association in the UK acknowledged and endorsed the Nitrox training their members had undertaken with one of the tech agencies. (The SAA's first recreational Nitrox qualification was issued in April 1993. The SAA's first Nitrox instructor was Vic Bonfante, and he was certified in September 1993).

John Lamb noticed the genesis of Nitrox diving, and acted accordingly. In 1993, he combined his affection for diving with his extensive knowledge of oxygen, and founded ‘Vandagraph’ with his wife, Jean. He realised that there was a safety need for analysing and monitoring oxygen when nitrox diving. He had the vision and expertise to take a medical oxygen analyser and manufacturer an analyser specifically for scuba divers. It is thought that this Vandagraph unit was the first oxygen analyser invented for this market.

It is my understanding that the VN202 MK.I was the first oxygen analyser built specifically for divers. Ryan Swaine, Vandagraph

Jean Lamb told me that this vital piece of safety equipment had come about after John had visited the dive club to fill his cylinders. He had found other Bradford members adding oxygen to their cylinders. “He knew that these divers needed to know what they were breathing. He took a medical oxygen analyser to the club and taught other divers how to use it." This led to John designing a ‘diver proof’ analyser.

In the beginning we had people building and soldering printed circuit boards and it progressed from there. Vandagraph grew as diving on Nitrox changed from being called ‘that dangerous gas’ to a safer mix for ‘Technical Divers’. Jean Lamb, Vandagraph

Paul Womack of Indepth Gas Solutions recalled dealing with John Lamb in a professional capacity—when Paul was managing the family dive centre in Bradford. “I knew John for years through the dive club and because we (Divers Warehouse) dealt with him and Vandagraph. We bought his analysers. John was a nice guy. He was educated and friendly, and had a wealth of knowledge. When everyone was starting to get into tech he knew what would be needed regarding oxygen processes and analysers."

Vandagraph first showcased their VN202 Oxygen Analyser at ‘DIVE.94’ – the 1994 Birmingham Dive Show, England.

Rebreather Cells

Sensors, like sharks, have suffered from some bad PR. Rosemary E Lunn

On 2nd April 2010 Teledyne Analytical Instruments issued a press release stating that they would no longer supply oxygen sensors for the commercial and rebreather markets. This was allegedly because on 4 October 2008 a British diver apparently suffered from an oxygen problem on a rebreather dive in Egypt. Upon surfacing they questioned the quality control of the oxygen cells. Over time the situation escalated and lawyers became involved. Teledyne settled out of court, and then made the decision to pull out of the rebreather market.

The action of Teledyne pulling out of providing oxygen cells to recreational and technical rebreather divers was catastrophic. Some divers kept on diving their Teledyne oxygen sensors beyond the time they should. I know of at least two fatalities because .

However Teledyne’s decision was wholly understandable. The CCR market is miniscule and it was alleged that their entire profits from this sector had been used up in legal costs and the settlement.
The rebreather manufacturers and divers needed reliable oxygen sensor cells. Without them we were effectively left with a very expensive white elephant – an undiveable rebreather. Jean Lamb told me “when rebreather diving became popular, oxygen sensors that were never intended to be used at depth needed to be redeveloped and John with Steve Nixon were in the right place at the right time to become involved.

Technical diving educator and author Mark Powell stated “In the early years of the sports rebreather market there was a lot of confusion and misunderstanding about oxygen sensors; how they worked and what the failure modes were. John was key in spreading knowledge about sensor technology and dispelling myths and rumours.

When it comes to manufacturing reliable, stable oxygen sensor cells for rebreathers, there are lot of considerations that need to be accounted for. For instance the sensor has to work under pressure in a moist, warm atmosphere. This is hardly conducive for optimal, long-lived performance. John used his expertise to create a better product, and the diving fraternity benefited from his products and his knowledge.

Becky Kagan Schott heard John Lamb speak at EUROTEK.2016 about oxygen cells. She later posted on social media "He [John] says not to mix different manufacturers cells, remember the sensor starts declining the day after manufacturing. Store it in its bag in a comfortable temperature. Wait an hour or longer after putting it in the unit, so the MV can level out. Overnight would be best. Direct sun and heat can damage the membrane. If you flood a sensor, ditch it. Even if it dries out it can corrode on the inside. After 12 months it's typical for a sensor to lose 10% in MV. Just a guide. Failures can happen between 12 and 18+ months and beyond."

The Oxygen Books

John was answering so many queries by divers on the use of oxygen that he eventually published his book, ‘The practice of Oxygen Management’. This led him to be regarded as ‘The Expert’. Jean Lamb, Vandagraph

When John published his first book at the turn of the century, CCR recreational diving was very new, hence the rebreather section was only four pages long. Jump forward almost two decades and there was a pressing need for reliable and up-to-date information. In 2017 John published ‘Oxygen Measurement for Divers’.

This book has a big emphasis on closed circuit rebreathers, and it’s stuffed full of nuggets of significant information that CCR divers need on oxygen sensors. The resulting publication was soon endorsed by some of the big names in the diving industry because it is an invaluable resource.

His book is a must read for any diver using any form of oxygen analyser, whether it is a simple Oxygen Analyser or in a complex rebreather.” Paul Toomer, RAID

If you want to break through the mire of misinformation and be better informed about diving safety, this is a must-read book.” Jill Heinerth, Explorer

This is an invaluable resource and should be compulsory reading for any rebreather diver.” Mark Powell, SDI / TDI / ERDI Training Advisory Panel

Ryan Swaine

I have lost not only a boss, but a great mentor and a friend. Ryan Swaine, Vandagraph

Back in the mists of time (mid 90s - early 2000s) two colleagues and I worked for John Womack Senior at Divers Warehouse / Otter Waterports. Brett Thorpe and Ryan Swaine were full time staff, and I would run the OMS stand for John Senior at the dive shows. Brett Thorpe left to start up 'DiveLive' in Manchester, and Ryan Swaine was headhunted by the Lamb's to join them at Vandagraph / Viamed.

Ryan Swaine told me "I have known John and Jean since I started my training at Bradford BSAC in 1990, because they were present on some of my earliest trips. I remember when Vandagraph was first formed - I was working for Divers Warehouse at the time - and we were starting to look at supplying Nitrox, John's advice was extremely helpful to us.

It was while on an annual club trip to the Farnes in 2004 that over a pint, John invited me to come and visit him at the office. This was to change the course of my future. Since then I was fortunate enough to spend 16 years working alongside John, as part of his medical company and Vandagraph. I have learned from him and shared his passion and enthusiasm for the business and travel.

John's passing has been a great loss to our industry and the medical industry too. But on a personal note, I have lost not only a boss, but a great mentor and a friend."

Ryan Swaine at a UK Dive Show in 2014. He was in excellent form considering he was very jet lagged. Ryan's job with Viamed / Vandagraph meant he would regularly travel abroad for work. He'd literally landed back in the UK just a handful of hours before this dive show opened.

Tributes from Others

He was the gentleman in the industry. John Routley, Narked at 90

John Routley of Narked at 90 recalled meeting John Lamb in about 2002. “I met him at the dive shows where he was showcasing the Vandagraph sensors and analysers, and we started doing business together in about 2006. John was the gentleman of the industry.

Paul and Hilary Child of Weezle Diving Services first met John and Jean when the thermal protection manufacturer joined Bradford Sub Aqua Club. “We got to know John and Jean well because we all exhibited at the Dive Shows. John was always generous with his time and knowledge. The Lambs were old hands as exhibitors, they kindly took us out at one of our first DEMA dive shows when we didn’t know many people. Through the years we have appreciated their support of both us personally, and of our dive club. John spoke at one of the first Yorkshire ‘Y~Dive’ BSAC regional conferences and was so enthusiastic, people stayed into their lunch break to listen.” Hilary Child, Weezle Diving Services

Mary Tetley, BSAC CEO paid tribute and stated “I was saddened to hear about the passing of John Lamb of Vandagraph. He was a well-known character in the diving world and especially of Bradford SAC. He gave many of his years as a volunteer to BSAC and I know all will sorely miss him.

Jill Heinerth, cave explorer wrote “John was such a pioneer. His book on Oxygen is still is an important book and his work has made us all safer.

The following tributes were posted on social media by divers and the diving industry.

Barry Wheeler stated “I bought his book...well that's what I started talking to him about, and ended up £500 down, coming away with an analyser too. Great book though.

John Williams posted “He was always very helpful if you called for advice, never dismissive.

Scapa Flow skipper, John Thornton wrote “He was a lovely fella, really enjoyed his straight forward views.

As for me, I always found John Lamb very supportive. He backed me when I co-founded EUROTEK and he sent some of his key staff out to the USA to attend Rebreather Forum 3 when I organised it in 2012. When I established TEKDiveUSA in 2014, again John Lamb sent over key staff to attend and talk to divers about oxygen sensors. He was a kind, straight forward man, who just wanted to help others. His passion was keeping us safe and informed, when we dived gases that contained non-standard amounts of oxygen.

John's passion was keeping us safe and informed, when we dived gases that contained non-standard amounts of oxygen. Rosemary E Lunn

Final Days

John had not been well for about eight years, and had suffered from spells of ill health. He’d lost a kidney to cancer, had a prostate operation and heart problems. When he dropped me an email in December 2016 he was pretty upbeat about his health. “As I am rapidly approaching 75 I cannot complain when things wear out. It is usually due to being over used eg like diving. The only downside is energy and stamina which are becoming limited.

I last saw him at John Womack Senior’s funeral in December 2018. Jean, John and I had slowly made our way up the hill from the church and walked back to the wake at the hotel. We had quietly talked of cabbages and kings - non-consequential things. Part way along, we had stopped and sat, resting on a stone wall, and I knew in my heart John didn’t have much time left on this mortal coil.

Jean Lamb remarked that the couple were able to have a full and active life until last year when his condition gradually deteriorated. “In the current circumstances (COVID-19) we felt fortunate that he was able to be cared for at home for his last days where he was able to see all his close family (some by Skype video) and share many happy memories.” John Lamb officially died of heart failure at home, with Jean, his one-true-love by his side. He was a father of three (Peter, Susan, Derek), grandfather of five, and great grandfather of four.

One True Love

John and I have been friends, partners and soul mates since we met in our school days 64 years ago. Jean Lamb, Vandagraph

I for one cannot imagine John Lamb without Jean. The husband-and-wife team were very much a couple, and married in 1962. I asked Jean how they had met.

John and I have been friends, partners and soul mates since we met in our school days 64 years ago. I was 15 and John was 14 when we met at a Presbyterian Church in Newcastle. Some of my friends went to the clubs at this church – Badminton, that kind of thing, and I joined in.

John and I did everything together – even running youth clubs. We lived near a railway station, so after church we would catch this train in the evening and walk along one of the beaches on the north east coast. We’d walk from one station to the next, and then we’d catch the train home again.

We had a wonderful life together – we felt sufficient in ourselves. We would go anywhere in the world and share a meal with someone from the medical or diving fraternity. We had a really good life. The last time we were on holiday in Jerusalem we walked from Tel Aviv to Jaffa and back again in the sunset. In lots of ways there is nothing either of us regret.

I did know that John had a very romantic mind, thought he didn’t display it much. I never knew he could write poetry. As we prepared his funeral I found the following poem he had written. Our son read it during the service."

John and Jean Lamb with Steve Nixon at EUROTEK's pre-dinner drinks reception

It is only fitting that I leave the last words to John S Lamb.

'Too Old' by John S Lamb

They say that we are too old for our true love to last
that it must have vanished somewhere in the past
They say we just live as friends, companions at best
When we talk of love they smile and sometimes jest
We are too old

When we were young and first met often we would walk
along the beach in moonlight, hand in hand we'd talk
We'd plan our lives together, a lifetime it would be
Our love would last forever until eternity
We are too old

Our children now have grown up, have children of their own
each of them searching for a true love of their own
and when at last their search is over, their partners they have found
we will nod our heads with knowing smile and know it needs no sound
We are too old

The time will soon be coming when one of us must part
leaving the other stranded here with a broken heart
but until that time of parting comes, we will still walk hand in hand
finding moonlight beaches, talking in the sand
We are too old
We are too old
So they say

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