The Nervous Flyer: Psychological Disorders and the RAF 1939 - 1945

19 May 2016

Royal Aeronautical Society



From the Second World War, the British public and historians have enjoyed a romantic relationship with the flyers of the Royal Air Force (RAF). The courtship began in the summer of 1940, when the Battle of Britain was fought in plain view of the villages of southern England. The rakishly-angled caps, silken cravats, and winged insignia of the superhuman ‘Brylcreem boys’ provided a tangible link to the war in the air. 

The actions of the wartime air force have been narrated and documented ever since but comparatively little is known of the effects of the war on the minds and bodies of flying personnel. With an academic and popular historiography that prioritises dash, technology, and operations, it is easy to overlook the human element of the air war. 

While flying personnel were ‘heroes’, they were also men who were subjected to significant physical danger and psychological strain in the course of their perilous duties. The RAF had recognised this and mobilised specialist medical knowledge to negotiate the inevitable burden of mental disorders and personnel wastage. 

This lecture will assess the administrative and therapeutic duties of the RAF neuropsychiatric division in the Second World War. The expertise of neurologists and psychiatrists was enlisted to prevent and treat the mental disorders of flying personnel. To meet these key objectives, the neuropsychiatric division undertook important responsibilities in the areas of personnel selection, service discipline, medical research, and the treatment of neuropsychiatric conditions. 
This lecture will therefore assess how neurologists and psychiatrists responded to many of these challenges and contributed to the management of the war in the air.

Registration for this event is being coordinated by the RAF Museum - further details can be found here.

Speaker Details

Dr Lynsey Shaw Cobden

Lynsey Shaw Cobden is an historian of modern medicine, with specific interests in the medical aspects of flight, air power, and modern warfare. 

She works for the Air Historical Branch (RAF) as a Historical Researcher. She recently completed her doctorate on the subject of  ‘Neuropsychiatry and the Management of Aerial Warfare:  The Royal Air Force Neuropsychiatric Division in the Second World War’, at the Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine, University of Oxford. This work was supervised by Professor Mark Harrison and funded by the Wellcome Trust. 

Lynsey has lectured widely on aspects of her research to diverse audiences, including psychiatrists at Harvard University and serving senior officers of the US Army Medical Department. She hopes to publish this work as a monograph, which will be available in an open-access format and continues to research into the medical history of the RAF. 


Royal Aeronautical Society