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Carl Clark, 82; His Research Helped Develop Air Bags for Cars and Planes

September 02, 2006|Frederick N. Rasmussen | The Baltimore Sun

Carl Cyrus Clark, an internationally known expert on human acceleration tolerance and crash protection whose research contributed significantly to the development of air bags for automobiles and airplanes, died of a heart attack Aug. 24 at his summer home in Thetford, Vt. He was 82.

Clark held positions in Washington, D.C., through most of the 1970s and 1980s with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the National Bureau of Standards.

He also established a six-state database for a regional registry that gathered information on traffic accidents from police, ambulance crews, hospitals and coroners and medical examiners, which helped identify safety hazards in automobiles.

"As a scientist, he had tremendous range, and he thought there wasn't a technical problem that he couldn't understand and elucidate. He was one of the most creative scientists I've ever known," consumer advocate Ralph Nader said.

"The bottom line in discussing Carl Clark is that people are safer because of his work. He did more for humanity than 99.9% of the world's scientists," Nader said.

Clark's interest in science began in his childhood. He was born in Manila and, after the death of his father, was raised in missionary homes in New England.

He earned a bachelor's degree in physics from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts in 1944 and a doctorate in zoology from Columbia University in New York City in 1950.

Clark's dissertation on spectroscopy, the study of the interaction between light and matter, led to a job at Coca-Cola, where he developed the shade of green used in its glass bottles.

In 1955, Clark was appointed to head the biophysics division of the Aviation Medical Acceleration Laboratory at the Naval Air Development Center in Johnsville, Pa., where he provided centrifuge training for X-15 pilots and the original seven Project Mercury astronauts.

While conducting experiments on human tolerance of acceleration, Clark became the first person to experience the continuous effects of twice the force of gravity for 24 hours.

From 1961 to 1966, Clark continued his work on acceleration and crash protection at Martin Marietta Co.

"He was a courageous scientist who put his own body on the line, and I remember when he was conducting hydroplane sled experiments and crash studies in Baltimore that helped prove the protective safety and feasibility of air bags," Nader said.

Initially, Clark had intended air bags for use by astronauts but later adapted the idea for cars and airplanes.

"His contributions are incalculable and can be measured by the lives saved by front and side air bags in today's vehicles," said Jack Gillis, author of "The Car Book."

During the last 20 years, Clark was a consultant on highway safety and often was called to testify in crash litigation cases.

He is survived by his wife of 58 years, the former Elizabeth Taylor; three sons; one daughter; a brother; and four grandchildren.

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