Aerospace medicine school kicks off centennial celebration

Brig. Gen. (Dr.) Theodore Lyster, considered by many to be the ‘Father of Aviation Medicine,’ was instrumental in establishing the United States Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine. (Courtesy illustration)
Brig. Gen. (Dr.) Theodore Lyster, considered by many to be the ‘Father of Aviation Medicine,’ was instrumental in establishing the United States Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine. (Courtesy illustration)

One hundred years ago, on Jan. 19, 1918, the U.S. Army Air Service formally chartered the Medical Research Laboratory at Hazelhurst Field on Long Island, New York. Over the course of a century, that lab became what is today the United States Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine, part of the Air Force Research Laboratory’s 711th Human Performance Wing at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

As the school kicks-off its centennial celebration, there is perhaps no more fitting exemplar to highlight than retired Brig. Gen. (Dr.) Theodore Lyster, often called the “Father of Aviation Medicine.”


Lyster, a veteran of the Spanish-American War, entered the service as an assistant surgeon in 1900. By War Department order, on Sept. 6, 1917, he became the first chief surgeon of the U.S. Army Signal Corps’ Aviation Section. In addition to what his biography describes as “relentless efforts to create the new post and the manner in which he proved the importance of the position as its first occupant,” Lyster is the one who originally lobbied for the creation of the Medical Research Lab.

After only one month, the Army was convinced. With Lyster’s help, they had the lab up and running by January, in part to help select aviators, train them and keep them safe.

Beyond pioneering aviation medicine, Lyster was also primarily responsible for standardizing physical examinations and organizing the Medical Research Board. He also conducted numerous research studies on the “care of the flyer,” which led to substantial improvements in treatment and recovery.

In his biography, Lyster is quoted as saying, “It is one thing to build machines and train men to fly them, but another to maintain these men and machines in the air by the constant supervision necessary. This is a far reaching problem, which is imminently involved in the evolution of the Air Service, and it largely falls upon the medical service to keep these fliers at their greatest efficiency.” While that was no doubt said in regard to the lab as it existed in 1919, it is still relevant today, 10 decades later, as USAFSAM continues its mission of optimizing Airmen’s health and performance.

It was with an eye to Lyster’s legacy that the school recognized and commemorated its heritage recently. The day started with remarks from seven of USAFSAM’s former commanders, describing what the school was like during their tenure. The day also included tours, a lunch and cake-cutting ceremony and a lecture by Dr. Jay Dean on “Your Body in Flight: Aero Medical Research in American during World War I.” The day concluded with a capstone presentation by Surgeon General of the Air Force Lt. Gen. Mark Ediger.

In keeping with the day’s theme, Ediger reflected on the past but also looked to the future. From its very beginnings, he said, USAFSAM has been a persistent advocate for Airmen and has been dedicated to finding new ways to help Airmen succeed. He charged the school with taking that critical mission forward.

“It’s USAFSAM that will put the flight medicine teams, public health teams, bioenvironmental teams, aerospace physiology teams and aeromedical evacuation and critical care air transport teams into the field with ever-evolving and modernized capabilities but also with greater capacity,” Ediger said. “USAFSAM will continue to lead the way with technology, knowledge and skills. USAFSAM will put teams into the field that we don’t even know about yet – teams they will create based on what the mission requires.”

To mark a century of operation, USAFSAM will celebrate throughout 2018. The year will include special heritage events as well as a monthly article highlighting a key “exemplar” from the school’s rich history.