Air blast injuries killed the crew of the submarine H.L. Hunley

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The submarine H.L. Hunley was the first submarine to sink an enemy ship during combat; however, the cause of its sinking has been a mystery for over 150 years. The Hunley set off a 61.2 kg (135 lb) black powder torpedo at a distance less than 5 m (16 ft) off its bow. Scaled experiments were performed that measured black powder and shock tube explosions underwater and propagation of blasts through a model ship hull. This propagation data was used in combination with archival experimental data to evaluate the risk to the crew from their own torpedo. The blast produced likely caused flexion of the ship hull to transmit the blast wave; the secondary wave transmitted inside the crew compartment was of sufficient magnitude that the calculated chances of survival were less than 16% for each crew member. The submarine drifted to its resting place after the crew died of air blast trauma within the hull.






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Lance, RM, L Stalcup, B Wojtylak and CR Bass (2017). Air blast injuries killed the crew of the submarine H.L. Hunley. PLOS ONE, 12(8). p. e0182244. 10.1371/journal.pone.0182244 Retrieved from

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Rachel Lance

Assistant Consulting Professor in the Department of Anesthesiology

Rachel Lance is a PhD biomedical engineer specializing in the application of engineering principles to examine the physiology of how the human body "fails" in extreme situations, resulting in injury and death. Her ongoing research investigates the effects of blasts, including safety limits needed to prevent injury, as well as the unique physiological requirements of survival underwater and at lowered pressures. The common thread between each of these scenarios most often tends to be respiratory physiology, as breathing is one of the most immediate needs of the human body. Dr. Lance works out of the Duke Center for Hyperbaric Medicine & Environmental Physiology.


Cameron R. Bass

Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering

Cameron R. 'Dale' Bass is an Associate Research Professor with Duke's Department of Biomedical Engineering and Director of the Injury and Othopaedic Biomechanics Laboratory.

A major research focus of Dr. Bass is the study of blast-related brain injury and injury mechanisms. Past research has concentrated air containing organs, such as the lungs and bowel. Results from the limited evidence of over 80 years of experimentation suggested that the brain tolerance for blast was much greater than the pulmonary tolerance for blast. However, recent anecdotal evidence suggests that many soldiers returning from combat have symptoms that are consistent with underlying brain injuries. The etiology for these injuries is unclear and may include a spectrum of sources from blunt impact injuries to post traumatic stress disorder to primary blast injuries.

The primary goals of this research are to:

  • determine injury thresholds for blast brain injury
  • identify injury mechanisms underlying blast brain injury

This research may help reduce the frequency of brain injury caused by blast events, help identify treatments for such injury, and provide the knowledge to develop better protective equipment to protect against such injuries. Many projects involve multi-disciplinary collaborations between BME, Duke University Medical Center, Durham Veterans Affairs, and other major research institutions.

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