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The vitalograph Story













Blazing the trail of excellence in cardio-respiratory
solutions for over half a century





















Foreword by Mark Levy & Martin Miller

The vitalograph Story


The ability to measure lung function using a portable spirometer is now something often taken for granted by today’s clinicians. This booklet outlines the fascinating story of Vitalograph spanning the last 50 years. It summarises the innovation, creativity and ingenuity that has led to the production of reliable lung function testing equipment which has kept abreast of ever changing technological developments.

Margaret and Dietmar Garbe, through their expertise, originality and problem solving abilities, invented lung function testing devices and brought them to market. They created an original and independent company responsible for the ongoing development of medical equipment which has proved essential for the effective management of people suffering from respiratory disease. Margaret and Dietmar’s sons Bernard and Marcus have continued to develop and expand their good work to give us the Vitalograph of today. Over recent years Bernard and Marcus have worked diligently in collaboration with clinical scientists to ensure their equipment is the best. They have also personally contributed enormously with expertise towards setting the standards that lung function equipment must now meet to be sure that the needs of patients and clinicians are best served.

We have been greatly honoured to write this foreword to the ‘Vitalograph Story’ and know that Margaret and Dietmar Garbe would be immensely proud of what Vitalograph has subsequently achieved. Their story and the Vitalograph story endures in the form of this booklet.

Dr Mark L Levy, General Practitioner, London,
Professor Martin R Miller, Institute of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, University of Birmingham, B15 2TT

The vitalograph Story


This book is dedicated to my parents, Dietmar and Margaret Garbe, who never wavered in their determination to create a successful business. When one venture did not grow fast enough they tried another, again and again. Their entrepreneurial vision, grit and determination gave Vitalograph its enduring legacy of innovation and integrity, which I like to think that we retain to this day.

A company is the sum of its people and I would also like to thank our employees, past and present, who over the many decades helped create this wonderful company.

B R Garbe
Vitalograph Managing Director


The birth of spirometry

Forms of spirometers were used as early as around 150 A.D. when Greek philosopher Claudius Galen, a physician, was recorded as experimenting on human ventilation by getting a child to breathe in and out of a bladder. Understanding of respiratory function and disease increased in 1679 when Swiss physician Theophile Bonet used the phrase ‘voluminous lungs’, to report findings of emphysema during autopsy.

In 1816, in France, René Laënnec invented the stethoscope. Known as the ‘father of auscultation’ he correlated sounds, diseases and autopsy findings. He wrote the first description of bronchiectasis and identified emphysema.


In the year 1846 physician John Hutchinson built a spirometer, a device for measuring lung capacity, using an inverted bell floating on water. He used this to capture the volume of air expelled by thousands of people, a measurement for which he coined the phrase ‘vital capacity’. This early spirometer which was capable of giving fairly accurate static lung volumes was developed as a calibrated device and commercialised for use in laboratories.

The inverted bell spirometer developed into many models of water seal spirometer which could measure dynamic as well as static lung volume. Water seals were eventually superseded by bellows and rolling seal spirometers, both of which could be oriented horizontally or vertically. Accurate volume displacement spirometers are still available today and regarded as the ‘gold standard’ for spirometry measurements.

The vitalograph Story

Sir John Hutchinson

The vitalograph Story

Water Bell Spirometer.

The vitalograph Story
The Vitalograph story begins

Modern advances in spirometry over the last 50 years can be explored through the history of Vitalograph, a world leading provider of respiratory devices founded over half a century ago. The Vitalograph story begins with the meeting of Dietmar Garbe and Margaret Gardiner among the devastation of a Europe ravaged by war. From a sheltered upbringing in a town near Oxford, Margaret left Manchester University in 1947 with a degree in Administration and took a job as a probation officer in the bomb scarred city of Liverpool, the first ever female in that role. It was a tough job and she was a tough lady! In 1948 she used her summer holiday to volunteer to help people in Germany who were still struggling in those post-war years. She travelled to Düsseldorf where she met Dietmar, a gymnastics coach, who was trying to find work there following years in hospital recovering from war injuries sustained in Russia.

The vitalograph Story

Margaret & Dietmar Garbe

From translations to medical devices

Margaret returned home and the following year Dietmar travelled to England to find her. The young couple married in 1950 and went on to have four children. They originally settled in Farnborough, Kent, where they started their first business ‘Gardiner’s Translation & Direct Mail Services’. Gardiner’s Translation Service specialised in German to English translation and soon established a reputation for excellent translation of medical device technical manuals.

The vitalograph Story

Gardiner’s Translation Service

Garthur (London) Ltd

Dietmar and Margaret quickly discovered that several German medical device companies were seeking distributors in the UK and, with a partner called Thurston, decided to form Garthur (London) Ltd in 1951 (Garbe/Thurston) to distribute, commission and service these devices. In the 1950s, with rationing still in force and money tight, sales of new equipment were rare, so most of the Garthur business was the repair and adaption of existing equipment. The polio epidemic in the early 1950s led to Garthur distributing iron lungs and ventilators used to assist polio victims with their breathing, the start of an increasing specialisation in cardio-respiratory diagnostics and therapy.

The vitalograph Story

Garthur Exhibition Display

A move to Buckingham in the heart of England
  The vitalograph Story

Maids Moreton House & Joyce Gardiner

In 1956 Garthur moved from Kent to the site of its current head office, Maids Moreton House in Buckinghamshire, with funding from a very generous gift from Margaret’s mother, Joyce. The village of Maids Moreton was chosen for its central location and the potential of the large, and at that time, nearly derelict Victorian property with many outbuildings, some built during the war for a machine tool company.


Within a short period of time Garthur started to also represent UK manufacturers, notably the revolutionary portable positive pressure Barnet Ventilator. This was the world’s first portable ventilator, freeing the patient from the dreaded iron lung. Garthur earned some welcome publicity when, in 1961, a Barnet ventilator device was rushed from Buckingham to the London Hospital under police escort in a successful attempt to save the life of Elizabeth Taylor who had developed double pneumonia whilst filming Cleopatra.

The vitalograph Story

Elizabeth Taylor & Barnet Ventilator

Ground breaking invention of the first
Vitalograph spirometer