The Harvard Fatigue Laboratory (the "Lab") was founded in 1927 at Harvard Business School, Boston, Massachusetts, to study the psychological, physiological, and sociological stresses on human behavior and to apply that knowledge to better understand relevant problems in labor and industry. The driving force behind the creation of the Lab was Lawrence Joseph Henderson (1878-1942), Professor of Biological Chemistry at Harvard University and the Lab's first director. Also involved in the Lab's founding were: Wallace Brett Donham (1877-1954), Dean of Harvard Business School; David Linn Edsall (1869-1945), Dean of Harvard Medical School; William Morton Wheeler (1865-1937), Professor of Entomology at Harvard University; Elton Mayo (1880-1949), Professor of Industrial Research at Harvard Business School; and Arlie Vernon Bock (1888-), who was affiliated with Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston. David Bruce Dill (1891-), who later replaced Henderson as the Lab's director, was initially brought in as Research Director and was responsible for the physical planning of the Lab. Physiologist Ancel Keys (1904-2004) also served on the staff. The initial funding for the Lab was provided by the Rockefeller Foundation.
The staff of the Harvard Fatigue Laboratory encompassed a wide range of disciplines, including physiologists, biochemists, psychologists, biologists, physicians, sociologists, and anthropologists. The research performed by the Lab reflected this diversity of backgrounds and the areas of research included the physical chemistry of blood, exercise physiology, nutritional interactions, aging, and the stresses of high altitude and climate. Equipment utilized by the staff in conducting research included treadmills, a climatic room, an altitude chamber, and an animal room.
The outbreak of World War II saw the activities of the Harvard Fatigue Laboratory shift to meet the needs of the United States armed forces. David Bruce Dill left the lab in 1941 to join the Army Air Corps and William H. Forbes was appointed Acting Director, a position he held until the disbanding of the Lab in 1947. The staff changed significantly during this time, with some staff members joining the military and others joining military-sponsored research efforts, especially after the death of Lawrence Henderson in 1942. Before his death, Henderson was able to secure funding for the Lab from the National Academy of Science and the Quartermaster Corps, as the original funds from the Rockefeller Foundation were running out. The Harvard Fatigue Laboratory was contracted with the War Department to make recommendations on living conditions for military personnel operating in extreme hot and cold environments. Over 150 recommendations were made by the Lab to the military regarding clothing, nutrition, and survival gear.
Despite efforts to transition to peacetime research, the Lab did not survive long after the end of the war. Plans to transfer the Lab to the Harvard School of Public Health were delayed and eventually abandoned, and Forbes oversaw its disbanding in 1947. Factors contributing to the closing of the Lab included the death of Lawrence Joseph Henderson, the departure of Ancel Keys, the dispersal of staff during the war, and the change in Harvard Presidents from A. Lawrence Lowell to James B. Conant. After the Lab closed, its staff dispersed and continued the research they initiated at the Lab. During the twenty years of its existence, the Harvard Fatigue Laboratory produced a large body of research on physiology and biochemistry. The Lab's research on exercise contributed to the recognition of routine physical activity as an important therapeutic and preventive aspect of health, as was the Lab's development and standardization of research techniques, particularly field studies.