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AF flight surgeon makes mark during historic space flight

(U.S. Air Force graphic/Sylvia Saab)

(U.S. Air Force graphic/Sylvia Saab)

Maj. (Dr.) Vance H. Marchbanks Jr. in Italy, 1944.

Maj. (Dr.) Vance H. Marchbanks Jr. in Italy, 1944.

Maj. (Dr.) Vance H. Marchbanks Jr. interviewing 1st Lt. Felix J. Kirkpatrick

Maj. (Dr.) Vance H. Marchbanks Jr. interviewing 1st Lt. Felix J. Kirkpatrick

The 332nd Fighter Group Medical Detachment in 1944.

The 332nd Fighter Group Medical Detachment in 1944.

FORT GEORGE G. MEADE, Md. (AFNS) -- The American public remembers John Glenn for his solo orbit around Earth. They remember Neil Armstrong for his walk on the moon.

But few remember how Col. (Dr.) Vance H. Marchbanks Jr., one of the first black flight surgeons in the Army and the first in the Air Force, made it possible for them and all other astronauts to complete their historic journeys.

Marchbanks, head physician for the Mercury Project, monitored Glenn during his flight around Earth. Responsible for determining the effects of space flight on man, Marchbanks collected vital medical data on the astronauts before, during and after their flights.

Before that moment, he was already one of the pioneers in both aeronautical research and aerospace medicine.

Marchbanks was actually associated with the military from birth, born at Fort Washakie, Wyo., the son of an Army cavalry NCO who would go on to be a warrant officer and later a commissioned officer. In addition to attending schools in Chicago, Marchbanks would spend his early years at Fort Huachuca, in southern Arizona, and would attend college at nearby University of Arizona at Tucson.

As an undergrad, Marchbanks was not permitted to live in a dormitory. Because of his color, he was forced to live in a boarding house off campus. The only place he was permitted to eat was at the local railroad station where he often found cockroaches had been placed in his food.

Not one to dwell on personal injustices, Marchbanks went on to attend Howard University's medical school and residency before heading to Tuskegee, Ala., to work at a veteran's hospital. It was there he met Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., who would play a role in Marchbanks involvement during World War II. He began his military career when he was called to duty in 1941 and was commissioned as a first lieutenant in the Army Medical Corps at Fort Bragg, N.C. Marchbanks later completed the correspondence course for the Army Air Corps' School of Aviation Medicine.

"It was a whole new field, full of glamour, but, of course, without thoughts of space," he recalled in a speech to aspiring astronauts.

After a brief stint as a flight surgeon with the 302nd Fighter Squadron at Selfridge Field outside of Detroit, Marchbanks re-connected with new commander, Lt. Col. Benjamin O. Davis Jr., before deploying to Italy with the unit in early 1944.

Maj. Marchbanks became one of the first of the unit's flight surgeons to centralize medical support under one Army Air Corps organization. He and his staff faced everything from frostbite and ear infections from pilots in poorly heated, high altitude cockpits to combat casualties and routine sick calls at the main camps.

After the Army Air Corps became the nucleus of the modern-day Air Force, Marchbanks continued to distinguish himself. Among the many honors during his lifetime, Marchbanks received two Air Force Commendation Medals for research projects. One was for the design of an oxygen mask tester that became a standard item on air base equipment. The other was for his work with B-52 Stratofortress crews, in which he studied the signs of stress and developed a rating system for testing the effects of high-altitude air travel on B-52 crews. The stress tests and rating system he developed was later used in astronaut training.

After his retirement from the Air Force in 1964, he oversaw medical testing of the moonsuit and backpack that were eventually used in the Apollo space missions. However it was his pioneering study of sickle cell anemia that led to the inclusion of more blacks as pilots and astronauts.

It was his friendship with the Tuskegee Airmen that helped him right a wrong that ended many military careers or kept young men from even applying. Marchbanks took on the military's policy on sickle cell anemia, an inherited disease, primarily affecting people of African and Mediterranean descent.

During the 1970s, if the military found the genetic trait for sickle cell in the blood of healthy service members, they were discharged. In a three-year study Marchbanks drew blood from black Airmen he knew during World War II.

He published his findings in an essay titled "Sickle Cell Trait and the Black Airman." The essay helped to convince the military that people who carried the trait did not necessarily develop the deadly anemia. The military ultimately ended its practice of discharging service members who had the trait.

A man who saw many doors closed -- and later opened -- to blacks in the military, Marchbanks was no stranger to racial discrimination. But his sheer determination and will to succeed made him an aerospace leader.

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