Who is the real Alice King Chatham, sculptor of helmets worn by monkey astronauts?
That was the question posed to a panel of four celebrities—one of whom was Betty White—in the August 31, 1964 episode of the game show To Tell The Truth. The host, Bud Collyer, presented three people to the panel, all of whom claimed to be King Chatham.
Straight out of the past, here’s that episode of To Tell the Truth. I remember watching that show when I was a sproglet. King Chatham is the last contestant.
During the height of 1960s space and flight exploration in the United States, Alice King Chatham worked behind the scenes creating partial-pressure pilot suits, test dummies, oxygen masks, space beds, and helmets for NASA and the U.S. Air Force. She even helped design suits for the television show Star Trek.
In the early 1940s, King Chatham was working as an artist and sculptor when she was recruited by the Air Force to help make the first successful oxygen breathing masks worn by all American World War II pilots. She was involved in an array of major experiments, studies, and projects, from creating space helmets for the 1963 first man-in-space program Project Mercury to designing prototype suits for monkeys that flew in the Aerobee sub-orbital rocket tests during the 1940s.
It was not uncommon for female artists to be recruited into the U.S. Army for their skills during wartime. Around 1943, King Chatham had been sculpting ducks, dogs, and horses at the Art Institute in Dayton, Ohio, when she received a request from the head of the anthropology unit at Wright Field’s Aero-Medical Laboratory, Francis Randall. “As an artist and sculptress she understood the human body,” reported Lee Street for The Baltimore Sun in 1953.
King Chatham became an expert of the flight helmet and the lab’s equipment specialist for personal protective gear. She is credited with developing a new pressure helmet that improved an iteration of the 1946 S-1 pressure flight suits, and special ear counter-pressure devices.
Scientists came to King Chatham with a list of different criteria for different kinds of helmets—one with a breathing tube, a microphone, and an opening for liquid feeding. She would, over several months, fashion experimental models out of rubber, plastics, and fabrics.
“The professional men at the Laboratory admit they don’t know how she does it,” Street wrote.
The full story of King Chatham’s contributions is at Atlas Obscura.