The Navy Medical Research Institute, where the nation's first astronauts were trained and where research advances include the development of techniques that made sperm banks possible, observed its 40th anniversary Saturday, six months early.
Sources at the Bethesda institute, which opened its doors on Oct. 27, 1942, say one reason for the early celebration was to emphasize, while Congress is considering next year's budget, the harm that funding cutbacks could do to research work.
Navy Commander Vern Schinski, the executive officer, said that while the institute's budget had suffered some small cuts, the real problem is that funding has not been increased to keep pace with inflation during the past few years, placing the institute in the position of not being able to keep up with the rising costs of research.
Montgomery County Democratic Rep. Michael D. Barnes told the audience of some 200 naval and civilian well-wishers at an open house Saturday that continued budget cuts and underfunding of research could jeopardize the advances being made at the institute.
"What is the commitment of the United States to the basic research that is done here?" Barnes asked. "Are we going to continue to reduce our research budget and lose our (world) leadership role?"
Barnes said the recently passed Senate budget resolution for fiscal 1983 included an 18-month salary freeze that would affect the institute's 400 employes. He said cuts and reduced funding are "driving the best people out" of government service and added that he plans to fight for a 5 percent raise for institute employes and other government research workers.
Capt. James Vorosmarti Jr., the Navy research facility's commanding officer, said the institute's accomplishments over the last four decades include work on the effects of heat stress on ships, development of protective clothing and development of repellents against sharks and disease-carrying insects, as well as advances in dental and radiation exposure research and tissue preservation.
In the 1950s, the Navy institute became involved in training monkeys, and later human astronauts, for space flight. One of the major advances in this decade was the development of telemetry for transmitting astronauts' physiological data, such as heart rate and blood pressure, from air to ground.
But not every development at the institute was serious. In July 1954, two monkeys, Pete and Repeat, escaped from the labs. According to printed reports, scientists attempted to incapacitate the monkeys by preparing "a banana loaded with enough dope to knock out a full-grown man." But Pete, "not a grown man," was not affected and subsequently was captured by two 11-year-old boys in Kensington.
There was no account of what happened to Repeat, but the good doctors at the institute reportedly were hunting for him with another banana, "with a different dope guaranteed to knock out a monkey."
Back in the laboratories, freeze-drying techniques were explored as they related to tissue preservation for grafting and other reconstructive surgery.
The institute's tissue bank, which was established during the post-World War II years, still leads the world in the procurement and storage of tissue. During the Vietnam War thousands of wounded soldiers were treated with tissue that was collected, preserved and shipped from the NMRI Tissue Bank. Currently the tissue bank has more than 4,000 collaborators involved in using tissues and continuing research efforts.
Navy medical researchers also have pioneered advances in the treatment of septic shock and shock due to blood loss, development of heart-lung machines, studies of survival and resistance training, and frostbite therapy.
In addition to the 1,000 people who attended the open house, four of the institute's former commanders were on hand for the rain-dampened festivities Saturday. In interviews, they discussed what they thought to be the most significant accomplishment during their tenures.
Capt. Otto Van Der Aue, commander from 1956 to 1960, said that on the basis of groundwork laid during the five years preceding his leadership the institute moved heavily into research "in the areas of blood preservation, designing the heart-lung machine and methods for fighting decompression illness," or "the bends."
Capt. Henry Wagner, currently a section chief in the National Institute of Neurological and Communicative Disorders and Strokes, led the Navy Medical Research Institute from 1960 to 1965. He said he couldn't isolate a single event. But it was during Wagner's tenure that the institute researched methods to combat typhus, malaria, schistosomiasis and encephalitis, ailments common to the tropical areas where the Navy was operating at that time.
Capt. Herschel Sudduth, who headed the institute from 1965 to 1970, pinpointed experiments that sought more effective ways to prepare and protect patients on the operating table. The end result was a technique to lower patients' body temperatures for more successful open heart surgery.
Tor Richter, a retired captain and currently associate medical director for Consolidation Coal Co. of Pittsburgh, described the international medical research exchange programs that began just before he started his five-year command in 1970.
Not on display, but evident in the 60 or so photographs lining the walls of the institute's central building, was JIM-4, a product of the international exchange program. The British-built diving system can sustain a man at depths of almost 1,450 feet below sea level. On land the suit weighs 1,100 pounds, in water a mere 60 pounds, according to Arthur J. Bachrach, director of institute's environmental stress program center.
"If an accident occurs at 1,000 feet (below sea level), JIM-4 can be there in less than 10 minutes," Bachrach said, noting the diving system's value in underwater rescue and repair operations.
But the star of the open house was the multimillion dollar Hyperbaric Research Facility. This complex features five connecting dry pressure chambers and a single one that can be filled with water, all of which can be set at various pressure levels.
In addition to research projects on environmental stress, the hyperbaric unit can be used to depressurize divers suffering from the bends and create necessary pressure and gaseous environments to reduce embolisms and infections afflicting burn victims and recent amputees.
"Victims of carbon monoxide poisoning and smoke inhalation have been helped in these chambers," said Senior Chief Petty Officer Wayne Shurtz, a medical technician-diver. He said an atmosphere of pure oxygen could be created in the chamber that is more effective than oxygen mask treatment because all the pores of the body are exposed to oxygen.