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Capt. Edward Flynn: Honoring the legacy of an undersea medical officer

By Naval Sea Systems Command Office of Corporate Communications | March 21, 2019

When U.S. Navy undersea medical officers had a question about decompression theory or undersea medicine, there was one man who knew all the answers. But when retired U.S. Navy Capt. Edward Flynn Jr. passed away recently, he took with him his encyclopedic knowledge of all things Navy diving.

"He spent his whole career immersed in diving medicine," said Undersea Medical Officer Capt. Edward Waters, Deep Submergence Biomedical Development Program Manager. "He was the expert. He was the go-to guy for complicated problems."

Flynn built an impressive reputation during his more than 25-year active duty career, pioneering research and policy that would impact nearly every facet of Navy diving. 

"There's not an aspect of decompression diving that has not been influenced by him," said Dr. David Southerland, diving medicine advisor for the Supervisor of Salvage and Diving (NAVSEA 00C). "He either developed the policy or inspired the policy."

Flynn joined the Navy in 1967. After undersea medicine training, he was assigned to the Navy Experimental Diving Unit (NEDU), where he refined the Navy's techniques for deep saturation-excursion diving.  He served as an experimental subject on a 600-foot saturation dive and was the on-scene medical officer for a world-record-breaking saturation dive to 850 feet off the coast of California.

In 1971 while assigned to the Naval School, Diving and Salvage, he authored the Diving Medical Officer Student Guide, the definitive U.S. Navy diving medicine text at the time, used to train a generation of diving medical officers.

During his time at the Naval Medical Research Institute (NMRI), he performed research related to decompression theory, oxygen toxicity, and the respiratory and thermal limits associated with diving.  That year, he received the Oceaneering International Inc. award for the development of unlimited duration helium-oxygen saturation-excursion diving procedures.

In 1991, Flynn assumed command of the Naval Medical Research and Development Command, where he oversaw all the Navy's medical research laboratories worldwide.  

After retiring from active duty in 1994, Flynn worked for the Navy at NEDU and NAVSEA as a subject matter expert in diving and undersea medicine.  At the time of his death, he was supporting NAVSEA 00C.  

His modification of the surface-supplied helium-oxygen decompression tables to decrease risk of oxygen-induced convulsions allowed the Navy to successfully raise the engine and turret from the civil war ironclad USS Monitor.  He most recently authored the U.S. Navy Submarine Rescue System Decompression Plan, the official manual providing the methods and procedures to decompress personnel from a pressurized disabled submarine.

A prolific writer and avid collector of historical navy diving data, Flynn left behind an extensive library with a detailed catalog system, indexed and cross-referenced, which Waters and his counterparts will keep for posterity at the NEDU library.

"I think he was afraid he wouldn't have time to get that information out to the community," said Waters. "He organized all of it and handed it over to us so we could have his archives and not lose his life's work."

"He wanted everyone else to be smarter. U.S. Navy diving is safer thanks to his contributions." 

Flynn will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery, and Waters hopes his legacy will be preserved in other ways as well.  Discussions about this are only just beginning. 

"It's all still very fresh. We were hoping to have him around for much longer than we did."