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Ep. 10: The history of the Iron Lung

July 22, 2019

The iron lung was big, clunky, uncomfortable, and, when it first caught on, was as expensive as a house.  It is completely outdated today, yet at the peak of polio in the 1950s, it worked.  The iron lung successfully saved thousands of lives.

For polio patients who could not even gasp for air, the iron lung meant the difference between suffocating and surviving with a mostly normal life.  Unfortunately, it did mean being closed up in a pressure chamber for weeks or months.  Nevertheless, it allowed people to breath until the polio attack had passed.

By the 1980s, very few people used iron lungs, and even today, only a handful of people around the world rely on iron lungs to breath.  Both polio and the iron lung have become a thing of the past.  Perry's Director of Respiratory Care joins the Pulse to discuss the history of the iron lung and how technology today is different.

Episode Summary

We are fortunate to live in a time in which most contagious diseases are under control.  Ebola cases flair up now and again, usually with only a handful of cases.  In the United States, the flu stands as the highest causes of death from infectious diseases, and one of the only contagious diseases we have to be concerned about and actively avoid.

In the 1950s, people had more to worry about.  Polio was at its peak, with more than 50,000 cases in the United States.  It attacked muscle tissue and weakened it, and could weaken the lung muscles enough that a person could not inhale or exhale.  People literally suffocated to death because they did not have the strength to breath.  For those who managed to respirate enough to survive, it could lasting damage in other muscles.  That is why, for example, President FDR was wheelchair-bound; polio debilitated the muscles in his legs permanently.

Nevertheless, if people could survive until the polio virus ran its course, they could usually be rehabilitated and live life normally after, depending on any permanent damage.  The trick was to survive with weakened lung muscles, which was accomplished through the ingenious invention of the iron lung.  Starting in the 1920s, hospitals used iron lungs to breath for people.  The iron lung was built to hold a person inside, except for their head, and use a vacuum to create negative pressure.  As a result, a person's lungs would expand, drawing air inside.

Over the course of weeks or months, people would practically live inside of the iron lung, until the virus had passed and they could begin rehab.  Although thousands of people used the iron lung decades ago, today only a handful still use them.  Modern technology has made the iron lung obsolete and bulky, replacing it with smaller devices that can even be used at home.  With polio eradicated, such technology is not often needed anyway.  The iron lung served its purpose, and saved thousands of lives.


Tim Schultz, Director of Respiratory Care



Dan Swanson (State Representative - District 74)

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