Public health at the threshold of the universe

Charles Berry

Aerospace medicine was born in part thanks to Harvard School of Public Health and the work of Ross McFarland, a professor in the Department of Industrial Hygiene who was a leading expert on the effects of altitude change and oxygen deprivation. Many of McFarland’s students, who were known as “Ross’s boys” thanks to McFarland’s wife, went on to have illustrious careers in the field, not only in aviation but also in spaceflight.

As the space program began in the United States in the late 1950s, HSPH graduates were there to ensure that humankind was capable of exploring the new frontier. In the program’s early years, doubt and fear about the effects of zero gravity on the human body abounded. Thanks to McFarland’s pioneering work in aerospace medicine, graduates of HSPH were eminently qualified to allay those fears with real scientific evidence.

Two of McFarland’s trainees, Charles Berry, MPH ’56, and Charles Wilson, MPH ’60, had a hand in sending the first American astronauts into space. This group, known as the Mercury Seven, included such household names as John Glenn and Alan Shepherd. Wilson helped develop a battery of stress tests that were used to assess the Mercury candidates’ fitness for space travel. Berry, who was director of medical research and operations for the NASA Manned Spacecraft Center, served on the Mercury Astronaut Selection Committee, contributing to the final selection of seven men in 1959. Another of “Ross’s boys,” Owen Coons, MPH ’56, joined NASA a few years later and worked with Berry as a flight surgeon, monitoring astronauts in manned space flight for the Mercury, Apollo, and Gemini missions.

Berry, writing for the Harvard Public Health Alumni Bulletin in 1967, reflected that training in public health, a discipline that by nature requires multidisciplinary team efforts, was the ideal preparation for the diverse work of assessing man’s readiness for space travel.

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