Many people ask me why I am so fascinated with military aviation medicine. I have been accused of harbouring a morbid curiosity by being interested in the causes and effects of air crashes, airmen passing out from a lack of oxygen, air sickness and burns. For me, this is not morbid at all - I fully sympathise with the men who suffered from these complaints and I hold massive respect for those who died whilst on operations. To me, the history of military aviation medicine is an integral part of military aviation history as a whole. I believe that the two histories are inextricably linked - this may be a statement of the obvious but please stay with me! Although the development of aviation technology and medicine evolved based on different scientific knowledge, the human body had to adapt to the environment and conditions that advances in technology had allowed access to - do you see where I am coming from? For instance, pilots in the Royal Air Force today can reach top speeds of c. 1,335 miles per hour and altitudes of 55,000 feet in the Typhoon FGR4. This is not just a triumph in terms of technology, research into the effects of travelling at such speeds and heights on the body had to be taken into account before air force personnel were allowed to fly these advanced fighter jets. Where did this all start I hear you cry? The origins are visible in the late nineteenth century.
The pioneering work of a French physiologist has convinced me that aviation medicine and the cognate discipline of high-altitude physiology were established in the late nineteenth century. This belief is shared by other historians of science and medicine, including Jorge Lossio and John B. West. Paul Bert (1833-86), who was a French zoologist, physiologist, and politician, is considered to be the father of modern aviation medicine, due to his seminal work on the deleterious effects of high-altitude. In La Pression Barométrique (1878) he argued that medical problems at high-altitudes were caused by low partial pressure of oxygen due to reduced barometric pressure. His work was based on animal research: he placed them in a hyperbaric chamber and examined their reactions when exposed to different levels of oxygen. You can see how this relates to aviation? In the days before oxygen equipment was provided, pilots were deprived of adequate oxygen supply when flying at high altitudes - this is known as hypoxia. This important text was published when medical professionals were concerned with the effects of hypoxia and cold on balloon pilots. Ballooning had become a popular means of military transport and observation across Europe and the British had realised that it could afford a tactical advantage in modern warfare. This was recognised from 1863, when two officers from the Royal Engineers attempted to show the potential value of the balloon, and experiments in reconnaissance ascents were conducted and largely successful. Despite their use of the balloon, the British made no contribution to the study of aviation medicine at this time. This did not mean that they did not understand the effects of altitude and climate on the body.
Lossio showed that British scientists and medical professionals conducted a number of altitude and climate studies in the nineteenth century but these were intertwined with the expansion of their interests around the world and not concerned with aviation. These studies were not only concerned with life at high-altitudes, they aimed to elucidate the processes of acclimatisation and adaptation that the British settlers would have to endure upon arrival in a tropical country or colony. For instance, Lossio showed that in 1891, P.D.G. Clark, the Curator of the Royal Botanical Gardens, Ceylon, prepared a report on the climate and agricultural possibilities of the Perene region of Peru. His report was largely favourable and stated that the Perene did not possess the same unhealthy conditions as most tropical countries, as it was free from malaria, the water was odourless, and the natives had a healthy constitution. The altitude was habitable and the soil was very fertile, meaning that it had potential for agricultural development. Clark’s report resulted in the colonization of the region some years later and the arrival of British families who planted an abundance of coffee. The British therefore had an understanding of the effects of altitude and climate on the body, albeit in a different environment, but did not make the connection between this and aviation.
I hope some of my ramblings have made sense and I would be very interested to hear your own thoughts on the origins of military aviation medicine. Thank you for reading this post and I hope to get some constructive feedback.
 J. Lossio, ‘Life at High Altitudes: Medical Historical Debates (Andean region, 1890-1960)’, (Univ. Manchester Thesis, 2006), p. 18.
 Ibid, pp. 50-1; Lossio was referring to: University College London Special Collections Archive, Report on the Central Territory of Peru by P.D.G. Clark, Curator, Royal Botanic Gardens, Peradeniva, Ceylon, 19 December 1891.