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Posted 09.16.04
 
 
   

WWI's Red Baron Victim of Traumatic Head Injury Prior to Being Shot Down

MU Researcher Finds Prior Injury Actually Led to von Richthofen's Demise

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Since he was shot down and killed in 1917, much speculation has been made of who shot down the German World War I flying ace dubbed the Red Baron. A team of researchers, including a University of Missouri-Columbia neuropsychologist, found that Baron Manfred von Richthofen never would have put himself in the position to be killed that day had he not suffered a severe head injury nine months earlier. The results will be published this fall in the international journal Human Factors and Aerospace Safety.

By comparing accounts of von Richthofen's injury and medical records, MU Health Psychology Clinical Associate Professor Daniel Orme and retired neuropsychologist Thomas L. Hyatt of Cincinnati have concluded the Baron exhibited classic signs of traumatic brain injury, including personality and cognitive changes, leading to errors in judgment that made him a sitting target in what amounted to a shooting gallery behind British lines.

After suffering the head wound on July 6, 1917, Orme says von Richthofen was disinhibited, a common consequence of a head injury, and did things he never would have before. Among those, he laid his head on a dining table in a restaurant, displaying the open wound in his scalp. The Baron also exhibited "target fixation" the day he was shot down, locking a fleeing British pilot in his sights and pursuing him into British territory at tree line level, making himself an easy target to his enemy. Research has found frontal lobe injuries affect a person's ability to adapt behavior to changing situations. Orme also said research indicates the Baron was more moody after suffering the head injury, another classic symptom of a traumatic brain injury.

"Why did he put himself in this position? That's the unique twist," Orme said. "It is a surprising thing that no one had connected the dots and arrived at this conclusion up to this point. He clearly should not have been flying. Perhaps credit for his being shot down should have been given to that machine gunner nine months before whose lucky shot creased the Baron's skull."

Orme and Hyatt have titled their research "Baron Manfred von Richthofen – DNIF," playing upon the United States Air Force designation for pilots which means "duties not to include flying." Orme, a retired Air Force officer who evaluated aviators for fitness to return to flying following head trauma or neurological illnesses that affect mental skills, said even with 80 "kills," the Red Baron would not have been allowed back in a cockpit under today's standards.

"DNIF is the last thing any pilot wants to hear," Orme said. "His friends knew he was different, his mother complained he was different, even he complained he was different. They didn't have the regulations we do now and there were loopholes around what they had. However, he never should have been allowed back in that plane."

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