William K. Douglas was born on September 5, 1922 in Estancia, New Mexico. A 1939 graduate of Phoenix High School, in Phoenix, Arizona, he received a Bachelor of Science degree from The Texas School of Mines and Metallurgy (now the University of Texas at El Paso) in 1942. He received his M.D. degree from the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston in 1948, and in 1954, earned a Master of Public Health degree from the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health. The next year he was awarded Flight Surgeon status at the US Air Force Hospital in Langley Air Force Base, Virginia.
On April 1, 1959, Dr. William K. Douglas, a US Air Force lieutenant colonel, was selected to be the personal physician for America’s first astronauts, the “Mercury Seven.” Douglas was the astronauts’ physician for the next three years, working out of Patrick Air Force Base, Florida for the Office of the Assistant for Bioastronautics at the Air Force Missile Test Center. His daily pattern of life would simulate that of the seven astronauts and he would endure much of the rigorous testing they were subjected to, leading some to call him the “eighth astronaut.”
After initial training, each astronaut was tested inside the Mercury spacecraft by one of two medical teams: Douglas and Joe W. Schmitt, or Dr. C. B. Jackson and Harry D. Stewart. Doctors Douglas and Jackson also evaluated the effectiveness of the biosensors’ performance. From 1961 to 1963, Dr. Douglas participated in the space flights of the first four Mercury astronauts: Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, John Glenn, and Scott Carpenter. Due to a minor heart condition, the seventh Mercury astronaut “Deke” Slayton was not allowed to fly until 1975’s Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. Dr. Douglas had objected to the 1962 decision to ground Slayton but was over-ruled.
In 1962, Dr. William Douglas became Assistant Deputy Director for Bioastronautics. He later served as Deputy Director of the Air Force Missile Test Center at Patrick Air Force Base and was responsible for all medical support for NASA manned space flights. From 1966 to 1968, he was Assistant Deputy Chief of Staff for Bioastronautics and Medicine at the USAF Systems Command in Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland. He retired from the Air Force in January 1977 with the grade of colonel.
From 1977 to 1986, Dr. Douglas was a medical consultant and in 1982 was named a McDonnell Douglas Senior Fellow. Douglas authored or co-authored thirteen significant publications in the field of aerospace medicine. His military decorations include the Air Force Commendation Medal and Legion of Merit with one Oak Leaf Cluster. His civilian awards include the Air Force Association Citation of Honor, the Special American Medical Association Honor Citation and the W. Randolph Lovelace Award of the Society of NASA Flight Surgeons.
In 1984, William Douglas was instrumental in establishing the Mercury Seven Foundation, along with the six surviving members of America’s original Mercury Seven astronauts (Malcolm Scott Carpenter, L. Gordon Cooper Jr., John H. Glenn Jr., Walter M. Schirra, Alan B. Shepard Jr. and Donald K. (Deke) Slayton), Mrs. Betty Grissom, widow of the seventh Mercury astronaut (Virgil ‘Gus’ Grissom), and Henri Landwirth, an Orlando businessman and a friend of several of the astronauts. In 1995, the program’s name was changed to the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation. More than 50 astronauts from the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, Skylab, and Space Shuttle programs help with the foundation’s education effort.
Dr. William K. Douglas, USAF Colonel (retired) died on November 15, 1998, of complications from a viral infection and pneumonia, at the age of 76. Douglas had traveled to Kennedy Space Center, Florida to watch his old friend John Glenn return from space on October 29 but became ill while returning to his home in Albuquerque, New Mexico.