Many have referred to Armstrong as “the man who paved the way for astronauts,” but his achievements in aviation had innocent beginnings. After suffering through an open-cockpit flight from Minnesota to Chicago in sub-zero temperatures, the young flight surgeon thought to himself, “If I were as cold in combat as I was on that trip, I would have welcomed being shot down.” Armstrong chronicled his complaints in a letter he sent to the Air Corps medical chief. Six months later, he was assigned to his new job, aiding in the development and improvement of protective flying equipment. The transfer set in motion a career dedicated to the improvement of flight safety.
- In 1934 assigned to the Air Corps Research and Development Division at Wright Field, Ohio.
- The Physiological Research Unit was established in 1935 with Armstrong as the director.
- With co-worker Dr. Heim, they designed the first centrifuge in America allowing scientists to investigate the physiological effects of G-force on humans.
- Solely responsible for developing the medical criteria used for both the XC-35 pressurized military plane and the pressurized strata cruiser developed by TWA for commercial aviation.
- Received the Collier Trophy, along with his co-inventor, for developing high-altitude protection equipment.
- The Command Flight Surgeon of the 8th Air Force in Europe in World War II.
- Named Surgeon General of the Air Force in 1949.
- In 1954 he was assigned as Surgeon of the U.S. Air Force in Europe.
Dr. Harry George Armstrong was born on February 17th, 1899 near De Smet, South Dakota. After graduating from De Smet High School and spending a year at the University of Minnesota, he enlisted as a private in the U.S. Marine Corps during World War I. In 1919, Armstrong returned to the pre-medical program at the University of Minnesota for two years before he entered the University of South Dakota’s medical school, where he earned a Bachelor of Science degree in 1923. He later received his medical doctorate from the University of Louisville in 1925.
After spending several years in private practice, Dr. Armstrong re-entered the military as a First Lieutenant in the Army Medical Reserve Corps. His first assignment was at the School of Aviation Medicine at Brooks Field, Texas, where he was assigned to the Flight Surgeon Training Program investigating medicine and the flight environment in military aviation.
In 1931 he received an appointment as flight surgeon of the First Pursuit group at Selfridge Field, Michigan. He altered the course of his career in 1934 with a letter addressed to the Air Surgeon in Washington, urging the department to give higher priority to improving protective flying gear. This letter caused his assignment to the Air Corps Research and Development Division at Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio, where he established a separate medical research laboratory in May 1935. The Physiological Research Unit, (later renamed the Aeromedical Research Laboratory), with Dr. Armstrong as its director, began designing new flight gear to protect aircrews from extreme temperatures and offering better oxygen supply at high altitudes.
Over the next six years, Dr. Armstrong and a co-worker, Dr. Heim, made numerous contributions to military and commercial aviation. Together they designed the first centrifuge in America allowing scientists to investigate the physiological effects of G-forces on humans. The modern pressurized aircraft is a direct result Armstrong’s work at Wright Field. Dr. Armstrong was solely responsible for creating the medical criteria used in the design of both the XC-35 pressurized military airplane and the pressurized stratocruiser developed by TWA for commercial aviation. Among the many innovations that Dr. Armstrong pioneered at Wright Field were crash helmets, shoulder-type safety belts and a horizontal altitude chamber. He also discovered that blood boils at 63,000 feet, an altitude limit know known as “Armstrong’s Line” and he published 45 original research reports and 31 medical journal articles.
In 1937, President Roosevelt presented the Collier Trophy to Armstrong and co-inventors for their development of high-altitude protection equipment. Armstrong also published Principles and Practices of Aviation Medicine, a standard in the field of aviation for over two decades.
During World War II, Dr. Armstrong was named Command Flight Surgeon of the Mighty Eighth Air Force in England. In England, Armstrong’s efforts greatly reduced the physiological incidents and mortality rates among combat aircrews. His improved techniques for rescues at sea, protection from hypoxia and other efforts are credited with saving the lives of over 2,000 aviators.
After the war, Dr. Armstrong became Director of Research, with the Office of the Air Surgeon in Washington, where he planned research programs for the School of Aviation Medicine and also established the Department of Space Medicine in 1949. In December 1949, Dr. Armstrong became the Air Force Surgeon General and during his five-year tenure in that office, twenty-five new medical treatment facilities were completed and fifty-two were under construction for which he was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal. In 1954, Armstrong became the Surgeon General of the U.S. Air Forces in Europe where he assisted many countries in establishing aviation medicine programs. Dr. Armstrong retired from the Air Force in 1957, and died in 1983 after fighting a long battle against heart disease.
During his lifetime, Dr. Armstrong published 105 scientific papers in the field of aviation medicine and aerospace medicine. He was awarded the Edward Warner Award, the highest honor of the International Civil Aviation Organization and only the second American to receive the award, the first being Charles Lindbergh. In 1985, the Aerospace Medical Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base was renamed in Dr. Armstrong’s honor. In December 1990, when the Air Force consolidated their research laboratories into four super labs, one of those named was the Armstrong Laboratory.
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