The History of Aviation Medicine In Canada


COPA Flight 8 is well known for the interesting speakers arranged by Flight Captain Mike Shaw. Because the Flight is located in Ottawa, it is not hard to find interesting aviation speakers to address Flight 8, but sometimes Shaw doesn't have to look very far. For the September 2007 meeting Shaw managed to find a speaker with a fascinating presentation, right from the ranks of Flight 8 itself.

This month Shaw recruited Flight 8 member Dr David Salisbury to present a History of Aviation Medicine in Canada.

Salisbury certainly has the background to speak on this subject. Not only is he a physician currently serving as the City of Ottawa's Medical Officer of Public Health, but he also has served in the Canadian Forces as a flight surgeon and pilot, was Base Surgeon at CFB Moose Jaw and physician to the Snowbirds. After serving at National Defence Medical Centre in Ottawa and at a field hospital in Croatia he finished his military career as Commanding Officer of the Defence and Civil Institute of Environmental Medicine in Toronto.

Salisbury started his presentation by discussing the medical standards that were applied to pilots in World War I. Very little was known about human performance in those days and so the Royal Flying Corps required candidates for pilot: 

- to have perfect vision 

- be under 25 years old 

- be able to hear a whisper at 20 feet.

By the start of WWII there was a better understanding of the unique challenges that pilots of the higher performance fighter aircraft of that period faced. Before that war medical researchers had identified that speed, "g" loading and altitude factors were important. As a result the RCAF started a secret aviation medicine research program with the aim of giving the allies a performance advantage over the axis forces.

A joint Department of National Defence and National Research Council aviation medicine research board was set up, chaired by the discoverer of insulin, Sir Frederick Banting, who was serving with the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps.

By 1940, research was being carried out at a secret military facility at Avenue Road and Eglington in Toronto. This unit eventually became the RCAF #1 Clinical Investigation Unit. It carried out research in low temperatures and low pressures using an environmental chamber and human "g" tolerance experiments using one of the first centrifuges. Investigations were also done on human performance in a tropical environment using a special tropical chamber built for the project.

At Avenue Road Dr Wilbur Franks used the human centrifuge to develop the Franks Flying suit, the first anti-g suit. This was a passive, water filled suit that pooled water in the bottom of the suit under "g" load to prevent blacking out. The suit was a success and the work of Dr Franks is the basis of all modern "g"suits.

The Avenue Road research facility also did important work in developing inflatable life jackets, improved oxygen systems, pressure suits and helmets.

By the 1950s, the RCAF had renamed the unit the Institute of Aviation Medicine and it had moved into a new facility at Downsview airport. In the 1970s, the name was changed to the Defence and Civil Institute of Environmental Medicine and it became Canada's centre of excellence for operational medicine and human performance.

During the Gulf War, concerns about the use of biological and chemical agents by Iraq prompted the development of multi-layer protective clothing and cooling equipment suitable for the Sea King and CF-18 crews operating in the middle-eastern theatre.

More recently, the unit has been involved in: 

- a military Intelligent Clothing and Equipment Sizing System, using laser modelling for anthropometric research 

- Simulation and Modelling for Acquisition Rehearsal and Training (SMART) project 

- Low cost virtual reality systems for aircrew use 

- a rapidly configurable cockpit for human performance research use 

- Workplace design studies 

- Simulation and modelling projects 

- Improved aircraft accident investigation, including analysis tools 

- Improved medical assessment recruit screening

The staff of the institute also provide assistance to Transport Canada and the Canadian Space Agency as well as developing medical policy for the Canadian Forces and providing training to flight surgeons and diving medical staff.

As Salisbury illustrated, aviation medical research in Canada has resulted in some world-leading solutions to problems. Most of this history and the accomplishments of Canadian researchers is not well known because of the secrecy that enveloped many of these projects at the time the work was done. Canadians have much to be proud of in the field of aviation medical research, in many ways we have lead the field through much of its history.