This month in AFMS history: The birth of flight medicine

  • Published
  • By Ms. Judith Taylor
  • Air Force Medical Service History Office
In 1917 Lt. Col. (Dr.) Theodore C. Lyster was appointed the first chief surgeon of the aviation service of the U.S. Army, and flight medicine was born.

Through his work, Lyster brought awareness to the unique physiological issues affecting pilots. Considering the high pilot death rate of the time, Lyster recommended that a research board be set up to investigate the cause.

In 1918 the Army established the Medical Research Laboratory at Hazelhurst Field, in Mineola, N.Y., to study flight effects on the human body. Under Lyster’s leadership, aviation medics conducted investigations into the cause behind the high loss of aviation personnel.

Shortly thereafter, the first aviation medicine education program for physicians was initiated. With no basis for this new training, laboratory personnel improvised educational courses. In May 1918, the program graduated its first three students.

The term “flight surgeon” had been adopted by laboratory personnel, to refer to those physicians who specialized in care for aviation personnel. Capt. Robert J. Hunter was the first of the three aviation medicine program graduates to arrive at his duty station, earning him the title of the first U.S. flight surgeon.