When Howard A. Minners, M.D. ’57, M.P.H., was a boy growing up in Garden City, N.Y., his parents hoped he’d aspire to be a doctor. But Minners had other ideas. Living on Long Island near Roosevelt Field, where Charles Lindbergh launched his dramatic flight across the Atlantic Ocean, he dreamed of doing something related to aviation. Minners did succeed in combining the two aspirations, becoming a flight surgeon for the astronauts in the early days of the space program. (As a flight surgeon, Minners took a mandatory jet qualification course, but never flew solo.)
“It was a matter of being in the right place at the right time, and having the right training,” says Minners, who was recently named chair of the board of trustees of the Yale Medical School Alumni Fund. After graduating from medical school he spent a year getting a master’s degree in public health at Harvard. Next came a year at the U.S. Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine in San Antonio, followed by a year of supervised residency training in aerospace medicine, eight months of which were spent with the NASA Space Task Force, then located at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, Va.
As a flight surgeon for more than four years with NASA in Houston, Minners tended to the everyday health care of the astronauts and their families. On launch days he conducted a final medical exam and helped the astronauts suit up. He also conducted immediate postflight medical exams, often aboard an aircraft carrier.
One of his fondest memories is of John Glenn’s 1962 Project Mercury flight, which had to be temporarily scrubbed for technical reasons. After lying supine in his spacecraft for nearly four hours, Glenn returned to the astronauts’ quarters to remove his space suit. With yet another mission postponement, there was public concern about the astronaut’s mood. “John liked music, and suddenly I heard him singing, so I harmonized with him,” Minners recalls. “With the whole world waiting, there we were singing. It was a delightfully private experience uncomplicated by all this stuff that was going on.”
But there were also stressful experiences, like the time an astronaut missed his landing site. “There’s a period during spacecraft re-entry when, due to atmospheric ionization, you have no communication, so we didn’t know where he was,” Minners says. “It turned out fine, but for a while we were very concerned.”
While working with the space program, Minners researched orthostatic hypotension—the lightheadedness you may experience if you get up quickly after you’ve been lying down—to see if it was accentuated after flight in space. In part as a result of his early work, exercises have been developed for astronauts to perform while they’re in space to maintain cardiovascular fitness.
After leaving the space program in 1966, Minners joined the U.S. Public Health Service at the National Institutes of Health, first in the Office of International Research and two years later at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. He worked in vaccine development, immunology and tropical medicine. He went on to become chief of the World Health Organization’s research office in Geneva before serving as an assistant surgeon general and deputy director of the Public Health Service’s Office of International Health. He spent the last 10 years of his career as science advisor to the head of the Agency for International Development, with oversight for agricultural, environmental, energy and natural resources research, as well as biomedicine.
Minners says his education at the School of Medicine prepared him well for a career in the sciences. He cites as an example the research he did for his medical school thesis. “Having been a chemistry major at Princeton before coming to Yale, I was trying to develop a chemical process whereby we could accurately and more simply measure urinary estrogen levels,” he says. “We couldn’t come up with what we were trying to do, but that in itself is part of the learning process.”
As chair of the medical alumni fund, Minners wants to make the kind of education he received at Yale more affordable.
“When I learned that the scholarships we offer aren’t always as competitive as at some other medical schools, I decided then and there that we need to [do more],” he says. Three years ago he established the Howard Minners Family Scholarship for medical students. “I still believe that the education you receive at Yale, and notably, under the Yale System, is better than anywhere else. But it doesn’t come inexpensively.”