Spring 2012

Man in the Moon

The nation's space program got off the ground with the help of an HMS surgeon

Space Savers Issue

  • by Anthony Patton

I vividly recall that October morning in 1957. I was a fourth-year student on the surgical service at the Massachusetts General Hospital on rounds with chief resident Jack Burke. To my surprise, he led me, my tired fellow classmates, and a group of equally exhausted but eager surgical residents, to a high balcony of the White Building. There, in the growing light of the new day, a bright speck shone in the sky. A planet, perhaps? A star?

No. This celestial traveler, we learned, was Sputnik, the first craft launched by humans to travel beyond Earth’s atmosphere. Standing there, looking up, we were awed by this amazing feat. But like others at the time, we also were slightly unsettled; the bright spot meant our nation had given ground to the Soviet Union. That flash overhead galvanized the country on a mission to intensify its scientific and engineering efforts. For several of us on that fall day, that challenge felt like both a personal and a national duty. 

Among young surgeons there is an underlying desire to be the best, to make the dramatic save, and to discover new and revolutionary procedures. Many of us focus our energies on bringing new thinking to the procedures, techniques, and tools of surgery; the number of HMS graduates who have excelled at innovation is legion. One was William Randolph Lovelace II ’34. His efforts not only made his name notable on Earth; they also placed it among the stars.

Fledgling Fancy

Lovelace was a pioneer in aviation medicine. The field grew from the need to solve the health concerns of pilots, which burgeoned during World War II as redesigned airplanes allowed combat crews to test new altitudes and speeds. Hypoxia, hypothermia, and the effects of the enormous forces of gravity at high altitudes were among the medical issues flight crews faced. These challenges did not abate with the war’s end; instead, they expanded to address those confronting astronauts, our “soldiers of space.” 

For Lovelace, the chance to bring his knowledge of medicine to bear on aviation-related health problems seemed tailor made. He was born in 1907, a mere four years after the Wright brothers made their historic flights at Kitty Hawk. This was a time when the public’s interest in aviation soared, and air shows were popular forms of entertainment, especially around Albuquerque, New Mexico, where Lovelace spent his early years. These spectacular events featured daring pilots doing acrobatics in dangerously flimsy machines. It may have been the excitement of flight, or its challenge, or perhaps its romance that captivated the young Lovelace, but whatever the reason, he developed a passion for flying.

In 1926, at age 19, Lovelace entered Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, joined the U.S. Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps, and began taking flying lessons. He was still a college student when he won his wings at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station in Illinois, an institution some 300 miles from where he was attending college.

Graduation brought Lovelace face to face with the need to decide upon a career. His decision was eased, however, by a close bond with his namesake and uncle, William Randolph, a highly respected doctor in New Mexico. Lovelace applied and was accepted to HMS. Among those on the faculty at that time were Walter Cannon and, in the School of Public Health, Phillip Drinker, both known for their research on respiration. By design or by fiat, work on respiration was echoed in Lovelace’s next accomplishment.

Breathing Space

After commencement, Lovelace began a residency at Bellevue Hospital in New York City. At that time, surgical residencies were usually completed in two years and many of the best candidates chose programs that offered the greatest amount of operating experience. This made Bellevue, with its large wards of charity patients, a top choice for many. Following his time at Bellevue, Lovelace became a fellow in surgery at the Mayo Clinic. There, no doubt to his delight, Lovelace found a research group dedicated to the study of the physiological effects of high-altitude flight.  

Lovelace became deeply involved in this research, and, by 1938, was ready to publish what would become a seminal paper on the effects of high-altitude flight on pilots and crews. In this treatise, the 31-year-old Lovelace described a practical rebreathing mask that could be used by high-altitude aviators. The invention, named the BLB mask after its creators, Walter Boothby, Lovelace, and Arthur Bulbulian, would become a vital piece of equipment for both U.S. and British pilots during aerial battles in World War II.

Wild Blue Yonder

The rumor of another world war was fast becoming fact when Lovelace joined the U.S. Army Air Corps and was named head of the Aeromedical Laboratory at Wright Field in Ohio. There, Lovelace continued his work on respiration at high altitudes.

Unable to convince others of the merit of his high-altitude survival apparatus, William Lovelace tested it himself (center, in flight suit).
Unable to convince others of the merit of his high-altitude survival apparatus, William Lovelace tested it himself (center, in flight suit).

Although the BLB mask had proven itself to be a life-sustaining piece of equipment during flight, the mask could not save pilots who had to bail out. There was, in fact, no method to provide oxygen during high-altitude drops. Consequently, there were no survivors of parachute jumps from lofty heights. Lovelace applied himself to this problem and developed a light tank that attached easily to an airman’s leg and contained what Lovelace calculated would be a supply of oxygen sufficient for survival. Although Lovelace was convinced that this simple device could save lives, others considered it impractical. It remained untested until Lovelace literally took matters into his own hands.

On June 24, 1943, Lovelace convinced a B-17 pilot to take him to 40,200 feet, an altitude that had proved deadly to parachutists. In what would be his maiden jump, Lovelace, a BLB mask strapped across his face and an oxygen tank cinched to his leg, leapt into the sky. Knocked unconscious by G-forces, he awoke in time to guide his nearly disintegrated chute to safety. His only injury: frostbite on a hand that had become gloveless during the fall. Although his commanding officer probably thought a court martial was in order, Lovelace instead was toasted for his discovery and for his courage. The latter earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross for “heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial flight.”

At war’s end, Lovelace was appointed chief of a surgical division at Mayo, and his career seemed settled. Sadly, however, two young sons contracted polio and died.

Grief stricken, Lovelace; his wife, Mary; and their three remaining children returned to Albuquerque, where he joined his uncle’s multispecialty clinic. Lovelace’s tenure at Mayo, however, had planted the seed of an idea; he convinced his uncle to reformulate the Albuquerque clinic using the Mayo model. The clinic soon grew to become a hospital, linked with the local veterans’ hospital, and located near the medical school at the University of New Mexico. Despite his busy life as a surgeon, Lovelace established a new medical research facility, one that spoke to his interest in aviation medicine. The Lovelace Respiratory Research Institute remains a noted center for research on respiratory diseases and on aviation and space medicine.


In the late 1950s, as it became evident that the Space Age was upon us, the federal government bolstered its already strong support for Lovelace and his clinic by tapping him to become the chairman of the Committee on Life Science at the newly operational NASA.

When the Mercury Project began, it was Lovelace’s Institute that conducted rigorous physiological tests on the group of pilots and scientists from which the first cohort of seven U.S. astronauts was selected. Lovelace also pioneered the idea that women should be astronauts; 13 women, in fact, underwent the extensive testing regimen at the Institute and were considered mission ready. Lovelace was encouraged financially in this work by an old friend, Jacqueline Cochran. Known as the First Lady of Flight, Cochran was widely recognized for her aerial achievements, including becoming the first woman to pilot a plane at speeds exceeding that of sound.

The ceremony at which Lovelace (fourth from the left) was appointed NASA’s first Director of Space Medicine included President Lyndon Johnson (left) as well as members of Lovelace's family.
The ceremony at which Lovelace (fourth from the left) was appointed NASA’s first Director of Space Medicine included President Lyndon Johnson (left) as well as members of Lovelace's family.

President Kennedy’s announcement of the moon initiative in 1961 energized NASA and, with new funding from Congress, the agency began work on the Apollo program. Part of that effort involved researching how the human body adapted to low-gravity environments without air pressure or oxygen. In short, how humans would fare in space. The call went out for an experienced physician who excelled in aeronautical medicine. It was answered in 1964, when Lovelace was named NASA’s Director of Space Medicine.

Sadly, his appointment was brief. In December 1965, Lovelace and his wife lost their lives in a plane crash near Aspen, Colorado, perishing after the pilot lost his bearings and flew the small craft into the wall of a canyon. Lovelace was 58 years old.

Firmament Fixture

It is not easy to dissect all the factors that make a career successful. For Lovelace, the factors included being a skilled surgeon, a brave aviator, a bold investigator, and an able administrator. Records from those who knew him add that he was a fine gentleman with a great sense of humor.

There are many HMS graduates who became famous surgeons, physicians, or scientists. Hospitals, buildings, and laboratories throughout the world are named for some of these luminaries. But in special tribute to his career and his life’s work, Lovelace is the only HMS graduate to be honored with a named moon crater, about as permanent a monument as there can be.

Knowing this, I look up at the full moon with a sense of awe and also a sense of pride, for a bit of HMS shines brightly above. 

Anthony Patton ’58 is a retired thoracic and vascular surgeon whose career was centered at Salem Hospital in Massachusetts.

Images: NASA/JPL/USGS (top); Courtesy of the Lovelace Respiratory Research Institute