Honoring Dr. Marchbanks, Jr
Photo Credit: Smithsonian Institution
This Black History Month, we honor the legacy of Dr. Vance H. Marchbanks, Jr. His historic contributions to aerospace medicine amid systemic racism exemplify the resilience of the Black community as a whole within the field.
Born in 1905, Vance Marchbanks was afforded few opportunities as a person of color. Prior to his medical studies at Howard University in Washington, DC, he suffered racial discrimination as an undergraduate at the University of Arizona, not only being excluded from on-campus lodging and dining but also frequently discovering insects like cockroaches placed in his food. Despite these challenges, he excelled in his career and served as one of the first two Black flight surgeons for the US Army during World War II, albeit in the segregated all-Black units that would come to be known as the Tuskegee Airmen. While Dr. Marchbanks is often remembered for his later work with NASA, such as monitoring astronaut John Glenn during his pioneering 1962 orbital flight and developing life support systems for the Apollo program, it was his relationship with the Tuskegee Airmen that led to one of his greatest accomplishments for Black pilots, astronauts, and aerospace medicine professionals.
In the late 1950s, scientists were beginning to uncover the genetic origins of sickle cell disease, a condition marked by potentially fatal bouts of pain and anemia that has historically been most common in malaria-affected regions of the world. It was found that symptoms of sickle cell disease arose when patients inherited two copies of a recessive genetic variant and that those who inherited only one copy, a phenomenon termed “sickle cell trait,” did not tend to exhibit symptoms. Nevertheless, scientists hypothesized that people with sickle cell trait still had a theoretical risk of being affected by stressful or low-oxygen situations, and the United States Air Force conservatively opted to ban people with even a single copy of the sickle cell variant from flying. Unfortunately, as the majority of Americans with sickle cell variants have African ancestry, this policy disproportionately affected Black prospective pilots and led to the infamous 1979 dismissal of an Air Force Academy candidate with sickle cell trait.
In response, Black physicians urged Dr. Marchbanks to scientifically investigate the matter; as of yet, no rigorous evidence had been collected to justify this policy decision. Using the connections he had built with the Tuskegee Airmen during World War II, Dr. Marchbanks collaborated with Dr. Oswaldo Castro of the Howard University Center for Sickle Cell Disease to recruit Black fighter pilots for a landmark research study. Together, they genetically tested 154 veterans and discovered 10 individuals with sickle cell trait, all of whom had successfully flown in combat without adverse events, including one who had accrued 600 hours of experience. After Dr. Marchbanks published their findings in Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine (now known as Aerospace Medicine and Human Performance) in 1980 and the Journal of the National Medical Association in 1981, the Air Force retracted its former policy on sickle cell trait, quickly followed by similar actions from the other military services.
Dr. Marchbanks’s story is an inspiration for many reasons. But perhaps the most remarkable is the lesson that when the community comes together—fliers, flight surgeons, researchers, and policymakers—we can make the aerospace medicine community a more inclusive environment for all of our members.