DAN founder Bennett dies at 91

Peter Bennett
Peter Bennett (DAN)

Divers Alert Network (DAN) has announced the death of Peter B Bennett, the British-born scientist who founded the diver safety organisation 42 years ago. He died on 9 August at the age of 91, while with his wife Margaret and son Chris.

Described as a “passionate researcher and entrepreneur”, Bennett was a leading authority on the effects of high pressure on human physiology. He was at the helm of DAN for 23 years from its inception in 1980, before stepping down in controversial circumstances.

Born in Portsmouth on 12 June, 1931, Bennett graduated in chemistry and biology at the University of London in 1951. He went on to work at the Royal Navy Physiological Laboratory until his departure to the USA in 1972. 

During this period he gained a physiology and biochemistry doctorate in 1964 from the University of Southampton, and in 1967 was a charter member of the Undersea Medical & Hyperbaric Society, later serving as its president for a year from 1975 and as executive director from 2007.

Move to USA

In 1972 Bennett became deputy and then director of the FG Hall Laboratory hyperbaric chamber at Duke University Medical Centre in Durham, North Carolina. He would later became emeritus professor of anaesthesiology at the university.

In 1981 he conducted a 43-day experiment called Atlantis III, compressing three divers to an equivalent depth of 690m before decompressing them very slowly to set a world record. 

The previous year the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Association and National Institute of Occupational Safety & Health had approved Bennett’s request for a grant to fund his proposed emergency 24-hour hotline for injured divers, which he and university staff would run.

This grew to become Divers Alert Network, and under his leadership the organisation developed membership, diving accident insurance and medical education programmes along with research and training departments.

“In founding DAN, Dr Bennett accomplished something truly remarkable,” says DAN America president and CEO Bill Ziefle. “It is because of his vision and action that divers all over the world now have the support of an organisation that stands ready to assist in the event of an emergency. Dr Bennett’s inquisitive mind and drive to achieve were gifts to divers everywhere.”

Definitive work

Bennett published six books, including Physiology and Medicine of Diving, described by DAN as a definitive work in the field, along with more than 200 scientific reports. He received a number of awards for his work.

Areas of special interest were trimix, nitrogen narcosis, oxygen toxicity, decompression illness, ascent rates and flying after diving. In the 1960s he was early to describe “helium tremors“, later called high-pressure nervous syndrome (HPNS), the condition that can arise in divers breathing helium at extreme depth for too long. 

In 2003 DAN board members forced Bennett to relinquish his role as president, following an 18-month legal battle concerning alleged improprieties in the handling of corporate funds. 

“Peter Bennett dedicated his life to the advancement of diving,” says DAN America medical director Dr Jim Chimiak. “Few equal his combined accomplishments as a researcher, organiser and leader in diving medicine. He will remain a profound influence on everyone working in this increasingly important area of human endeavour. 

“He displayed an infectious, pioneering spirit that rallied expert, worldwide collaborations that routinely accomplished the impossible. He was a great mentor and friend who will be truly missed.”  

Also on Divernet: The Making of the Biometric DiverDAN Plans To Drive Change On Sustainable Tour, Humpbacks Front DAN Europe



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