Alaska has been a U.S. possession since 1867. However, not until the 1930s and the build-up to World War II did the federal government began realizing the territory’s geopolitical significance.
After the war’s end, with erstwhile ally the Soviet Union seemingly menacing North America from across the Bering Straits, Alaska assumed greater import. The U.S. government realized how little was known about operating military forces in the far north, and during the mid-1940s it began a series of initiatives to remedy the nation’s lack of readiness to defend Alaska from trans-Arctic aggression.
In addition to increasing the U.S. military’s presence in Alaska, the government began projects to gain scientific knowledge about the Arctic and man’s ability to operate there. One of those projects was the Arctic Aeromedical Laboratory (AAL). (Other programs begun during that period included the Fairbanks Permafrost Experimental Station, and the Navy Arctic Research Laboratory at Point Barrow.)
Originally organized in 1947 at the School of Aviation Medicine at Randolf Air Force Base in Texas, the AAL quickly relocated to Ladd Field (then Ladd Air Force Base) in Fairbanks. According to a 1961 brochure, “The Arctic Aeromedical Laboratory, its History, Mission, Environment,” the AAL strove “to solve the severe environmental problems of men living and working in the Arctic.”
During the lab’s early days at Ladd its facilities were based out of Quonset huts. In 1955 a new facility, consisting of a three-story main building that housed labs, library, offices and conference room; a warehouse; and another building that housed a fabrication shop and “small animal colony,” was completed next to the base hospital,
The main AAL building, which is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, is all that remains. This building, shown in the drawing, was constructed in a modified “International Style” of architecture. Developed in Europe during the 1920s and 30s, the International Style expanded to the U.S. and other regions after World War II. It was the dominant U.S. architectural style for government and commercial buildings up to the 1970s.
The International Style, freed from historic and regional influences and adaptable to varying climates, had truly international appeal. Its designers eschewed ornamentation, preferring clean rectilinear lines. Buildings usually featured flat roofs, and cantilevered design elements were popular. Steel, concrete and glass were the dominant building materials.
From its base at Ladd Field the AAL conducted medical and other studies, using both animal and human subjects. Studies were conducted in Fairbanks, sometimes using two “cold” rooms (which are still there) in the main building’s basement, and at other sites spread across the state. An undated history of the AAL entitled, “Dispelling the Cold Bugaboo,” contains a map showing 18 research sites beyond the Fairbanks area—some as far away as St. Lawrence Island, Point Barrow and Mt. Wrangell.
The lab, during its peak years, was staffed by 25 to 30 military personnel plus an approximately equal number of civilians. Among other things, the subjects studied included the effects of short-term exposure to cold and hypothermia, the process of acclimatizing to cold environs, frostbite prevention and treatment, the psychological effects of living and working in the Arctic, water purification and sewage disposal in the Arctic, development of survival rations, and testing survival equipment and clothing.
The Air Force transferred Ladd Air Force Base to Army jurisdiction in 1961. Most Air Force functions were moved to Eielson Air Force Base, but the AAL remained in Fairbanks. The Air Force began winding down the lab’s operations in the mid-1960s and the AAL was deactivated in 1967.
The AAL’s building is now occupied by the Army Corps of Engineers’ Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory.
Ray Bonnell is a freelance artist, writer and longtime Fairbanks resident. See more of his artwork at www.pingostudio.us.
• Conversations with Elizabeth Cook, Cultural Resources Manager at Fort Wainwright; and Gary Larsen, Fairbanks Operations Manager for Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory at Fort Wainwright
• “Dispelling the Cold Bugaboo: A History of the Arctic Aeromedical Laboratory, 1947-1967.” Steven Nickollof. Cultural Resources Management at Fort Wainwright, no date (c 2015)
• “The Arctic Aeromedical Laboratory: Its History, Mission, Environment.” Arctic Aeromedical Laboratory. 1961
• “The Lab and the Land: Overcoming the Arctic in Cold War Alaska.” Matthew Farish. In “Isis, Journal of the History of Science Society.” Vol 104. No. 1, March 2013
• Tour of Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory at Fort Wainwright, formerly the headquarters for the Arctic Aeromedical Laboratory.