John F. Fulton’s Aeromedical Research

By James Labosier

A new archival collection, The John F. Fulton papers (1929–1953),  is now available at the National Library of Medicine for those interested in World War II military and aviation history and particularly the effects of flight on health.

John F. Fulton (1899–1960), born in St. Paul, Minnesota, was an internationally renowned physiologist, specializing with the nervous system, and a medical historian of note. He received both his bachelor’s and medical degrees from Harvard. Between 1921 and 1928, as a Rhodes Scholar, he received a second BA and completed a PhD at Oxford.

He joined the faculty at Yale in 1930 as the Sterling Professor of Physiology, a position he held until 1951. During the 1930s, his laboratory’s experiments involving the removal of chimpanzee brain lobes led to the development of human frontal lobotomy operations which were initiated by Egaz Moniz. Fulton was also founder, in 1937, of the Journal of Neurophysiology.

In 1940, Dr. Fulton established the Yale Aeromedical Research Unit, which was devoted to the study of the physiological problems associated with aviation. The unit’s research, including the development of a high-altitude flying suit, was invaluable to allied aviators during World War II. He was appointed to membership in the National Research Council’s (NRC) Division of Medical Services in 1942, serving with the Committee on Aviation Medicine and the Sub-Committee on Decompression Sickness. The NRC, established in 1916, provided independent advice, often to the U.S. Government, on scientific and medical problems.

The John F. Fulton papers consist of 13 boxes of reports, meeting minutes, photographs, and speeches he collected during his professional life with Yale’s Aeromedical Research Unit and the National Research Council’s (NRC) Division of Medical Services documenting military and aviation physiological studies. These papers mostly represent data collected from various official sources which formed part of the NRC’s research on questions of physiological concern to ground troops and aviators during World War II. Post-war reports and data were obtained in support of the Yale Aeromedical Research Unit’s continued studies. Nothing in the collection was created by Dr. Fulton himself.

James Labosier is Associate Curator for the Archives & Modern Manuscript in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.