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Oct. 12, 1928: Iron Lung, Savior to a Generation

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1928: A young polio sufferer at Children’s Hospital in Boston becomes the first person to use the iron lung artificial respirator. Her recovery from respiratory failure is nearly instantaneous.

Artificial respiration had been attempted before. As far back as the late 1700s, physicians were experimenting with a bellows system. That was discarded, and during the 1800s several methods were tried. None achieved much success.

The iron lung was invented by Philip Drinker, an industrial hygienist from the Harvard School of Public Health. Its cylindrical chamber encases a person’s entire body, save for the head, and uses regulated air pressure to help a patient breathe when the muscle control necessary for normal breathing has been lost.

Poliomyelitis, which can paralyze the victim’s diaphragm and make normal breathing impossible, was widespread in the 1930s and 1940s and most of the people placed in iron lungs were polio sufferers.

The dramatic recovery of the first patient immediately invested Drinker’s machine with credibility, although he didn’t ride the crest of success for very long. An improved version of Drinker’s iron lung, built by inventor Jack Emerson, soon arrived on the scene. It was cheaper, lighter and more efficient and, following some legal wrangling, it replaced Drinker’s lung.

It was the Emerson lung that filled hospital wards during the polio outbreaks that preceded the arrival of Jonas Salk’s vaccine.

Today, with polio nearly eradicated and more sophisticated breathing devices available, the iron lung has pretty much been sidelined as a respiratory therapy. It is still preferred, however, in certain rare conditions.

Source: Various

Photo: Encased in his iron lung, Fred Snite Jr., had a bus specially built so he could look out the windows. Accompanying him are (left to right): Fred Snite Sr.; Snite’s children Marie, Kitty and Pinky, and Mrs. Fred Snite Jr. (Bettmann/Corbis)

This article first appeared on Oct. 12, 2007.

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This article first appeared on Oct. 12, 2007.


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