Tag Archives: pilots

The World War II Era Red Wing Studies

A recent piece in Amherst College’s Amherst Magazine looks at the work of psychologist John P. Anderson (right) and colleagues during World War II. In the so-called Red Wing Studies, Anderson, along with Herman Kabat and Ralph Rossen, set out to investigate why Air Force pilots were passing out in flight during high speed maneuvers. Suspecting that the cause was impaired cerebral blood flow, the men tested their hypothesis by employing leather collars that inflated around the subject’s neck (seen on Anderson, right). This procedure was tested first on animal subjects and then on the researchers themselves before it was applied to other human subjects.

The use of this inflatable collar allowed Anderson, Kabat, and Rossen to observe the body’s response to a lack of oxygen to the brain. As the article describes,

The most common symptoms included unconsciousness, dilated pupils, seizure-like movements and loss of bladder and bowel control.

If the experiments themselves are troubling, the choice of test subjects is even more so. The Red Wing Studies of 1943 were conducted on schizophrenic patients and prison inmates, some of whom were in the juvenile court system. Researchers have long debated whether these subjects—who volunteered for the testing, according to records—had the intellectual capacity to truly give what today’s scientists call “informed consent.” ….

At the same time, the Red Wing findings advanced scientific knowledge, laying the groundwork for significant studies on brain physiology and function. They led to the development of the human centrifuge, which is used in the training of pilots and astronauts, and the G suit, a special garment, worn by high-speed aircraft crews, that can be pressurized to prevent blackout during certain maneuvers.

The work on which this article is based has also appeared in the journal Perspectives in Biology and Medicine as “Experimental Arrest of Cerebral Blood Flow in Human Subjects: The Red Wing Studies Revisited,” by Brian A. Smith, Ellen Wright Clayton, and  David Robertson. The abstract reads,

Loss of consciousness in pilots during rapid ascent after bombing missions was a major problem in World War II, and experiments were undertaken to study the cause of this phenomenon. Postulating impaired cerebral blood flow as a likely mechanism, the investigators developed a neck device, the KRA Cuff, which when inflated could shut off blood supply to the brain. With cessation of blood flow for up to 100 seconds, the investigators observed a sequence of responses, including unconsciousness, followed by dilated pupils, tonic/clonic movements, loss of bladder and eventually bowel control, and appearance of pathological reflexes. This study, carried out in prisoners and patients with schizophrenia in 1941–42, largely disappeared from public discourse for a number of years. It has received occasional attention subsequently and been considered controversial. Recently discovered records, including extensive written and photographic data from the studies, shed new light on the methods and motives of the research team. We describe here this new information and its implications for the scientific and ethical assessment of the study.

Read the full Amherst Magazine article, Medical Sleuthing, online here.

via the Society for the History of Psychology (Division 26 of the American Psychological Association) listserve.