- Press Release
- Mar 20, 2023
The first black Air Force doctor was also an space pioneer
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. Vance H. Marchbank 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.
As an undergrad at the University of Arizona, 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 dwelled on personal injustices, Marchbanks went on to attend Howard University’s medical school and began his career as a first lieutenant in the Army Medical Corps and soon he was attending the Army Air Force’s School of Aviation Medicine.
“It was a whole new field, full of glamour, but, of course, without thoughts of space,”Jrecalled in a speech to aspiring astronauts.
After the Army Air Force 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 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 lead 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. Marchbanks took on the Army’s policy on sickle cell anemia, an inherited disease, primarily affecting people of African and Mediterranean descent.
During the 1970s, if the Army found the genetic trait for sickle cell in the blood of healthy soldiers, 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 Army that people who carried the trait did not necessarily develop the deadly anemia. The Army ultimately ended its practice of discharging soldiers 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.