Next year marks the 100th year of U S Naval Aviation. In this series, I review the history of aviation medicine in the U S Navy.
The U S naval aviation establishment underwent dramatic growth during World War I, and naval aviators actively participated in combat missions against German submarines and shore facilities. But naval aviation medicine as a discipline and as an organization lagged the pilots’ progress in operating increasingly capable machines in increasingly demanding conditions. This may not have been entirely the doctors’ fault, however. Navy research pioneer C E Bell wrote “Early medical research and development in the Navy was not a planned or orderly function. Development was the rare request by the engineers for help or by aviation medical people inserting themselves by brute force or conniving into programs.”
Slowly, navy medical men did insert themselves into aviation programs. In 1924 the Bureau of Aeronautics (BuAer) and the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery (BuMed) agreed upon qualifications for naval flight surgeons: a three-month course at the Army School of Aviation Medicine and three months’ satisfactory service in an aviation unit before designation. The rules did not require flight surgeons to actually fly, except in emergencies and or if the medical officer otherwise expressed the desire. In 1927, the navy initiated its own flight surgeon course, given at the Naval Medical School in Washington, on the site of the current BuMed, on the grounds of the old Naval Observatory directly across 23rd St NW from the U S State Department.
It wasn’t until 1932 that U S navy flight surgeons first undertook a formal research program. This came out of the appreciation, learned in the late war, that the centrifugal forces (“‘g” forces) created by aircraft maneuvering could cause pilots to lose consciousness. The Germans began research in the matter in 1932. In the same year, Lt Commander J R Poppen, MC, USN initiated a Navy-sponsored investigation into the physiological effects of the high acceleration and deceleration that aviators encounter in dive-bombing and other violent air-combat maneuvers. The research, carried out at Harvard University, pointed to the advisability of developing anti-blackout gear (we’d say “anti-G” suits), which followed in 1933, when the Naval Aircraft Factory produced an abdominal belt based on Dr Poppen’s specifications. In 1940, naval officials approached a New York corset make to create an inflatable belt following Poppen’s suggestions. They did so, integrating a valve that could adjust the belt pressure according to the g forces encountered. The same year, John Fulton suggested that pressure leggings, inflated by a common source, could be added to the set-up. Suits based on these principles and crafted by the Naval Aircraft Factory under Dr Poppen’s supervision, showed, in 1943 trials, that pilots’ tolerance to g-forces encountered in gunnery runs could be increased by three- to four-fold. Today’s anti-G suits still use the principles established by this early Navy work.
In August 1939 BuMed detailed a medical officer to the Bureau of Aeronautics to work on establishing an aviation medical research unit, and in November the Navy School of Aviation Medicine accepted its first class of 9 Naval Reserve medical officers. These moves laid the foundation that would permit Navy aviation medicine to play a full role in research and care to the fleet in the approaching war.