While we honor our war heroes, not everyone serves on the frontlines. Carl Guthrie was recently honored by The Cherokee Nation for his service as a researcher who helped to develop hearing protection devices for the Army. Though he is a humble man who says that he does not think he deserves such an honor, especially when compared to those who lost life and limb while serving their country, he worked on devices that saved the hearing of hundreds, if not thousands, of soldiers over the years.
Guthrie was born in Tahlequah, Oklahoma in 1939. He went to the Haskell Institute in Lawrence, Kansas and went on to earn a degree as a medical technologist from the Gradwohl School of Medical Technology in St. Louis. “The draft was on when I was a young man,” Guthrie said. “Once I got out of medical lab school in St. Louis there were few opportunities for young Cherokee boys back then, or any Indian, as far as that goes, back in the late ’50s and early ’60s. I had just gotten out of school and got married. I knew I was going be drafted, so I joined because I wanted to get some Army medical training. I went in December 1961 and finished my training in June 1962. I initially got assigned to the U.S. Army Medical Research Laboratory in Fort Knox, Kentucky.”
Guthrie spent his entire Army career doing research at Fort Knox. He was assigned to the Experimental Psychology Department to research and develop hearing protection for the common soldier. “You can expose animals or human subjects to impulse noises, and there are several different kinds, from rifle fire to tank fire to you-name-it,” Guthrie said. “The tests used temporary hearing loss which you can correlate to permanent loss, which is what we did. The acoustic reflex device was developed while I was there; if something comes near your eye, you don’t have to tell your eye to bat, it will close on its own, it’s an automatic response. If you get a loud blast in your ear you have a muscle that tenses the bone in the middle ear and dampens the amount of noise that goes into the acoustic nerve, that’s nature’s way of protecting your hearing. On electrically fired devices, like tanks and artillery, this device would give you a series of clicks to the earphone just before the cannon went off, which would trigger that muscle, providing protection for the ear. Tank crews are on an intercom system and that’s where it was used. There are some other missiles, like the MIM-72 Chaparral, that had it incorporated into its system, because they were electronically fired.
“We did animal experiments, we exposed monkeys, chinchillas, and other animals to extremely loud noises and we did some histology, which meant going in and collecting data from where the mechanical energy is converted to electronic energy in the inner ear,” Guthrie continued. “The hair cells are excited by fluid moving over, and that’s how your hearing is converted from mechanical to electrical energy and goes to your brain; that’s how it’s deciphered into hearing. If the sound was intense enough it destroyed some of those hair cells. We counted the hair cells to see how many were damaged by noise. There’s an old saying that research and development is like an elephant having sex and giving birth, there’s a lot of trumping around and yelling and it takes three years for any results to show up. It takes a lot of time to develop something, especially when you’re dealing with the military.”
After his three years in the Army his position was converted to a civilian position and he was hired by the Army to stay on. He worked there for another 14 years. “After 14 years the Army consolidated some of the labs. They wanted me to go to Fort Rucker in Alabama to work at the U.S. Army Aeromedical Research Laboratory, but I had just bought a new home, I had two young daughters, one of them had just started school. My wife was a nurse working for the government at the time, and I didn’t see going down there, so I worked at the Fort Knox Hospital in Medical Technology. I stayed there until 1994.”
Though Guthrie was happy in Kentucky, he would take his daughters back home to visit his Cherokee relatives in Oklahoma, and his daughters loved the culture so much that they moved to Oklahoma when they were grown and finished with their schooling. “After I retired I nearly wore out my vehicle driving out here to see my grandkids, so we sold out and moved here to Oklahoma to be close to them. I have 300 acres here in the Oklahoma hills and I do a little farming, I got a few cows. At 72 years old, I’m not going to do a whole lot the rest of the time,” Guthrie laughed.