In 1939 the outbreak of war in Europe highlighted a need for qualified U.S. Navy pilots and flight surgeons and created an imperative to understand the limits of human performance in aviation. In response to those needs, the Navy established an aviation medicine research and training unit at Naval Air Station, Pensacola, Florida. Between 1939 and 1946, research in aviation medicine was a function of the Medical Department at Pensacola. It was there, in 1946, that the Secretary of the Navy established the Naval School of Aviation Medicine, which included a department-level research function. In 1970, the research department was designated the Naval Aerospace Medical Research Laboratory (NAMRL), and in 1974 NAMRL was designated an independent command under a Commanding Officer.
In the late 1930s, research at the laboratory focused on experiments with the Harvard Fatigue Laboratory that eventually lead to the famous "Thousand Aviator Study." During this time, there was a high rate of attrition from flight training, and researchers sought to determine what separated successful from unsuccessful aviators. Studies began in 1940 to validate psychological and physical testing concepts (Graybiel, 1940). These seminal studies formed the basis for aviation medical and psychological standards still in use today.
From an early date, the laboratory has contributed significantly to the U.S. space program. In fact, NAMRL research was performed on every NASA mission from the Gemini program through Skylab. In the earliest days of the space program, it was decided that before human lives were put at risk, it was necessary to learn if animals similar to humans could be safely sent into space and recovered. In 1959 a squirrel monkey, Miss Baker, became (along with the rhesus monkey Able) the first primate to be launched into space and successfully recovered. Dr. Ashton Graybiel, the NAMRL researcher principally responsible for the Miss Baker project, is closely associated with much of the early history of the laboratory. Dr. Graybiel also conducted landmark studies on the effects of weightlessness and acceleration on human balance, spatial orientation, physiology, and performance to help prepare U.S. astronauts for manned space flights.
Research performed at NAMRL has contributed significantly to understanding health, safety, and performance consequences of flight on humans. Major topics of investigation have included spatial orientation, motion sickness, vestibular function, pilot fatigue, vision research, cockpit display characteristics, aviator selection testing, hypoxia, thermal stress, aviation medical standards, pharmaceutical studies, and aviator performance. Beginning in the 1940s, when the original Pensacola centrifuge was built, the laboratory has been particularly distinguished as a world leader in acceleration and motion-based research. This status was achieved through the efforts of such eminent researchers as Drs. Graybiel, Miller, and Guedry, whose work from the 1940s through the 1990s was facilitated by a unique collection of large research devices, including the Human Disorientation Device, the Coriolis Acceleration Platform, and the Visual-Vestibular Sphere Device. A new generation of unique large research devices is being installed at Dayton to assist NAMRU-D researchers in expanding this long and proud legacy.
Beyond the countless contributions to aeromedical science, NAMRL researchers have also improved the health, safety and performance of naval aviators and aircrew through the development and transition of research products and devices. NAMRL products such as the transdermal scopolamine patch of the 1960s to ameliorate the effects of motion sickness and the Reduced Oxygen Breathing Device of the 2000s to provide hypoxia familiarization training to fleet aviators are two of many such examples of the lab’s historic and ongoing focus on "bench to battlefield" applications from research. NAMRL’s legacy will continue in Ohio, as the world-class scientists, laboratory facilities, and research devices housed at NAMRU-D will position the new lab at the forefront of aeromedical research for the next generation.