October 17 – Happy Birthday, Paul Bert

Posted on October 17, 2014

What is “aviation medicine,” and why is today's birthday boy, Paul Bert, the “father” of it?

Paul Bert, born in France on this date in 1833, studied engineering, then law, then physiology. He graduated from university as a doctor of medicine and (later) as a doctor of science, and he became a professor and researcher.

(He also became a politician who worked to liberate “national education from religious sects, while rendering it accessible to every citizen.” In other words, he wanted a good, secular education to be available to all.) 

In Bert's scientific research, he studied many things, but he is especially known for his studies of the effects of air pressure—including high and low air pressure—on animals and plants.

Did you know that oxygen can be a poison if there is too much of it in our body tissues? Divers who breathe oxygen at higher-than-normal partial pressures have to worry about oxygen toxicity, and people who breathe oxygen from tanks for other reasons have to take care as well. Apparently, the new “oxygen bars” available to people for recreational use are dangerous to those with heart and lung disease – so check that out carefully if you are ever tempted to go to one!

Of course, low amounts of oxygen can be an even bigger problem, even quicker—and Bert studied the effects of low air pressure on balloonists and on animals in a hypobaric chamber he invented. With this experimental apparatus he could simulate the conditions of really high altitudes—up to 36,000 feet! He realized that balloonists who travel at high altitudes should take supplemental oxygen.

All of Bert's data was pressed into service by others once people started flying planes in the early 1900s, and aviation medicine became a big area of research at the beginning of World War II. At that point, the scientists who were STILL using Bert's observations realized that he deserved the credit for being the founder of the new branch of medicine.

Aviation medicine is more than just a study of low air pressure—although that is really important, and obviously air travel requires that pilots perform well! Aviation medicine looks at all the stresses of flight: extreme temperatures, radiation, noise, vibrations, forces of acceleration, as well as low air pressure and oxygen deprivation.

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