Dr. Eric Sidney Watkins, an English neurosurgeon, a former resident of Boca Bay, died on Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2012 in London at the age 84.
After completing medical studies at Oxford, he became a professor of neurosurgery at what is now the State University of New York Upstate Medical University in Syracuse in the early 1960s.
He returned to Britain to become a professor at London Hospital in the early 1970s.
In 1978, Bernie Ecclestone, the chief executive of the Formula One Constructors Association, asked Dr. Watkins, a racing fan since boyhood, to become Formula One’s race doctor.
He was chief medical delegate until 2005, then served as president of what is known as the F.I.A.’s Institute for Motor Sport Safety until 2011.
He chronicled his experiences in the memoir “Life at the Limit: Triumph and Tragedy in Formula One,” with a foreword by the Austrian racer Niki Lauda.
Dr. Watkins was considered Grand Prix racing’s top medical and safety official for almost 30 years, is widely considered to have been responsible for vast improvements in the sport’s safety. A 2002 profile in Car and Driver magazine said he “likely saved the lives of more eternally grateful Formula One luminaries in the past 25 years than any single new safety device, track redesign or rules change — although he was the catalyst for many of them.”
Formula One racing is one of the world’s fastest motor sports, and in the 1970s it was one of the most dangerous. Fiery crashes occurred so frequently that drivers were often seriously injured or killed.
Dr. Watkins famously tried to save the life of Ayrton Senna, the three-time Formula One world champion who was fatally wounded in a 1994 race. His lifesaving efforts were often hands-on. In 1989 he pulled the Austrian driver Gerhard Berger from a wreck as fuel from his Ferrari’s ruptured tanks drenched both of them at the San Marino Grand Prix. In 1990 he resuscitated the Irish racer Martin Donnelly after Donnelly crashed with such force that he was thrown clear of his cockpit, despite wearing a seat belt, at the Spanish Grand Prix. In 1995 Dr. Watkins twice restarted the heart of the two-time world champion Mika Hakkinen after he flipped at the Australian Grand Prix in Adelaide. Nelson Piquet, whom Dr. Watkins revived after a 200-mile-per-hour crash at the Imola Grand Prix in Italy, called him “our guardian angel.”
Watkins successfully pushed for stronger seats, collapsing steering columns and puncture-resistant fuel tanks in cars, and more protective racing suits for drivers. He also fought for improved medical care on the Grand Prix circuit, eventually making medical-evacuation helicopters and surgical and resuscitation equipment standard for all races.
Dr. Watkins’s most famous intervention may have been one that failed. At the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, he was the first on the scene after a car part flew off and penetrated the visor and forehead of Ayrton Senna, a three-time Formula One world champion. Senna, 34, died after several hours on life support.
Dr. Watkin’s survivors include his wife, Susan; four sons; and two daughters.
Information obtained through the New York Times
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