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Dr. John Paul Stapp (1910 - 1999)

Dr. John Paul Stapp, M.D., Ph.D., was an U.S. Air Force officer, flight surgeon, physician, biophysicist, and pioneer in studying the effects of acceleration and deceleration forces on humans. The results of his research helped in areas as diverse as improving seat belts in cars and developing the medical and psychological tests for choosing the first team of Mercury astronauts. Dr. Stapp's lifelong mission in testing the limits of human tissue was to make transportation safer.


Col. Stapp received a bachelor's degree from Baylor University, an M.A. from Baylor University in 1932, a Ph. D. in Biophysics from the University of Texas at Austin in 1940, and an MD from the University of Minnesota, in 1944.

John Stapp entered the Army Air Corps on 5 October 1944 as a medical doctor. His first assignment included a series of flights testing various oxygen systems in unpressurized aircraft at 12,200 m. A major problem with high-altitude flight was the danger of "the bends" or decompression sickness. Stapp's work resolved that problem as well as many others, which allowed the next generation of high-altitude aircraft.


Dr. Stapp worked at the Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico where in 1954 he rode the "Sonic Wind" at 1,1010 km/h, to a dead stop in 1.4 seconds. Colonel Stapp was subjected to more than 40 times the pull of gravity (40 G's), proving that windblast and deceleration of ejection from aircraft at 2,880 km/h and 10,670 m altitude could be survived. Dr. Stapp accelerated in 5 seconds from a standstill to 1,020 km/h. The sled then decelerated to a dead stop in 1.4 seconds, subjecting Dr. Stapp to pressures 40 times the pull of gravity. He was blinded but recovered his sight in a couple of hours, ending up with two black eyes because his eyeballs had shot forward in their sockets.


His 1954 experiment has been compared with being in an automobile crashing into a wall at 80 km/h with the shock of the impact lasting 18 times as long. The sudden stop was accomplished using bucket scoops underneath the sled, digging into a trough of water.


In one of these experiments, an assistant, Capt. Edward A. Murphy Jr., had designed a harness to strap in the rider. The harness held 16 sensors to measure the acceleration, or G-force, on different body parts. There were exactly two ways each sensor could be installed. Captain Murphy did each one the wrong way. The result was that when Dr. Stapp staggered off the rocket sled with bloodshot eyes and bleeding sores, all the sensors registered zero. This led to Stapp being the author of the final form of the principle known as Murphy's law, "Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong."


It was while at Holloman that Colonel Stapp noted that the Air Force lost nearly as many men in fatal auto accidents as in plane crashes. So he began a car-crash study program, putting dummies into salvaged autos and projecting them into wood and concrete barriers. Human volunteers tested safety belts up to 28 g's.

He became an early advocate of seat belts and shoulder harnesses in cars and argued unsuccessfully that airlines should seat passengers backward so the entire back could absorb the shock of a sudden stop.


Colonel Stapp also received many awards and citations, including the Legion of Merit with Oak Leaf Cluster, the Air Force Cheney Award, and the Outstanding Achievement Award from the University of Minnesota.

In 1967, the Air Force loaned Stapp to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to conduct auto-safety research. He retired from the U.S. Air Force in 1970 with the rank of colonel.


As chairman of the Stapp Foundation, he led the annual Stapp Car Crash Conference, which brought together automotive engineers, trauma surgeons and other experts to examine how people died in car crashes. The primary activity of the Stapp group has always been its annual Conference, which attracts between 450 and 550 international researchers and safety engineers every year. The other activity of the group is the distribution of its publications to the scientific community.

Selected publications

  1. Stapp, J.P. (1957) Human tolerance to deceleration.The American Journal of Surgery 93, 734-740. (Link)

  2. Stapp, J.P. (1957) Human Factors of Crash Protection in Automobiles.SAE Technical Paper 570040. (Abstract) (Link)

  3. Stapp, J.P. (1958) Evaluation of the lap-type automobile safety belt with reference to human tolerance.SAE Technical Paper 580336. (Abstract) (Link)

  4. Stapp, J.  (1965) Impact Attenuation for Occupants of Motor Vehicles.SAE Technical Paper650967. (Abstract) (Link)

  5. Stapp, J.P.  (1966) Review of air force research on biodynamics of collision injury.SAE Technical Paper 660805.(Abstract) (Link)

  6. Stapp, J.P. (1969) Human criteria for protection from vehicle crash impact. SAE Technical Paper 690104. (Abstract) (Link)

  7. Stapp, J.P. (1981) Twenty-five years of stapp car crash conferences. SAE Technical Paper811011. (Abstract) (Link)

  8. Sharp, J.E., Stapp, J.P. (1992) Automobile seats and their role as an adjunct to restraint systems. SAE Technical Papers. (Abstract) (Link)

List of John Stapp’s publications (Link)

More about John Stapp (Link)

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