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Sir Robert Reynolds Macintosh was born in Timaru, New Zealand. He was the youngest child of Charles Nicholson Macintosh and Lydia Beatrice Thompson. At the age of 18, he traveled to Britain and became a part of the Royal Scots Fusiliers, then the Royal Flying Corps, during which time he was shot down behind enemy lines and taken prisoner. He escaped captivity several times and after the war, he began training at Guys Hospital Medical School. During his time in school, he earned money administering dental anesthetics and this subsequently developed into an interest in anesthetics.
In 1937, Macintosh became the first professor of anesthetics at Oxford University, having been named one of the chairs of medicine after he administered anesthesia to William Richard Morris, 1st Viscount Nuffield. Nuffield donated money to Oxford University and insisted that a fourth chair be added, in exchange for his endowment to the school, for Macintosh to occupy.
Macintosh was instrumental in pioneering the area of anesthetics, the invention of the laryngoscope, an anaesthetic vaporiser, spray and endobronchial tube.