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PHOTO ESSAY

African Americans in the Space Program

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Vance H. Marchbanks

Maj. (Dr.) Vance H. Marchbanks Jr. in Italy, 1944.Courtesy Nellis Air Force Base/U.S. Air Force.

No one was entirely certain of the effects of space travel on the human body when the first astronauts went into space. Consequently, John Glenn, Neil Armstrong, and other pioneers had to have their vital signs monitored. How to do this—in space, from Earth—posed a problem, which was solved by Col. Vance H. Marchbanks, M.D. Given personal responsibility for John Glenn's health, Marchbanks collected data on vital signs before, during, and after the astronaut's flights. During Glenn's orbit of the earth, Marchbanks monitored the astronaut's condition from a tracking station in Kano, Nigeria, using a process Marchbanks helped to develop. Marchbanks' achievements professionally, like those of other African Americans, came during a time when legal discrimination was a huge obstacle. According to Jerry White of Nellis Air Force Base, "As an undergrad, Marchbanks was not permitted to live in a dormitory. Because of his color, he was forced to live in a boarding house off campus. The only place he was permitted to eat was at the local railroad station where he often found cockroaches had been placed in his food." Marchbanks retired from the Air Force in 1964, but continued his research. His studies on sickle-cell anemia, in which Marchbanks found that many people carrying the gene for the disease did not necessarily develop it, led the military to change a policy that put a premature end to the careers of many soldiers of African and Mediterranean descent.

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