Iron Lung Survivors

I was never in an iron lung, but do remember seeing a couple of them lined up out in the hall at the hospital in Lancaster County, PA. This summer, we took a picture of an old Emerson iron lung (on left) while vacationing in Canada. It was at the Potato Museum on Prince Edward Island, in the little village of O'Leary.

The Drinker respirator was designed by Philip Drinker in 1928. It was manufactured by Warren E. Collins Company (Boston, MA). The Collins-Drinker tank respirator (commonly called an iron lung) was a life-saver for many Bulbar Polio patients. John Emerson, a Harvard engineer, simplified the machine making it easier to manufacturer and thus, less expensive.
These iron lungs were widely available in the 1940s and 1950s saving many lives.

It seems that about 200 iron lungs exist today, and they can be recirculated among people who need them. But, production of the iron lungs ended in the early 90s. I was really surprised to learn that there a few people still living in an iron lung, needing a respirator, or other breathing devises, often full-time.

Marilyn Rogers is a polio survivor from 1949 who spends over 90% of her time in an Emerson iron lung. Yet, she still manages to live a full life. In the book, A Paralyzing Fear, Marilyn talks about "Sunday afternoon" visits that many Polio survivors who were hospitalized remember all too well. It was the only couple of hours each week when the "powers to be" would "allow" visits in those days. I am amazed that Marilyn was able at her very young age to advocate for herself as well as others to get increased visits from family. And, it seems her father devised a wheelchair for her to use from a lawn chair put on wheels. This way she was able to recline in the way some [very expensive] wheelchairs are designed today.
["A Paralyzing Fear: The triumph Over Polio in America" by Nina Gilden Seavey, p. 25-34]

Dianne Odell from Tennessee, has lived in iron lung over 50 years (since age 3 when she got Polio). But, this didn't stop her from graduating from high school, attending college and writing a book. She is presently working on her aurobiography.

John Prestwich from England has a wonderful website with his wife, Maggie. John is listed in the Guiness Book of World Records.

Mrs. Laurel Nisbet (1912-1985) from California was in an iron lung for over 37 years. And, Mark O'Brien (1949-1999) spent most all of his life in an iron lung.

The book, The Man in the Iron Lung is about Frederick Snite, Jr. (1910-1954) who spent 18 years in an iron lung. This wonderful book was written by his chief attendant, Leonard C. Hawkins, who became his best friend.

"There was no room for self-pity or bitterness in his life which, apart from almost complete confinement in the respirator, was surprisingly normal. He married Teresa Larkin in 1939, and they had three daughters. . . He became a symbol of the triumph of the spirit over the body. The image of 'The Boiler Kid' was frequently seen in newspapers, magazines, and newsreels nationwide. He published a newsletter entitled, appropriately, Back Talk, and his optimism encouraged countless other polio victims. . . . At his funeral in 1954, at the age of 44, he was mourned by many more than the 1500 who came to say farewell to this remarkable, dauntless young man." [Excerpts from information circular "The Fred B. Snite Family," Snite Museum of Art.] Here is an interesting article and a nice picture of Fred, Teresa, and their three girls.

The History of the British Iron Lung 1832 - 1995 by Richard Hill

In the early 1940s, Dr. W. L. Aycock of Harvard University studied the relationship between polio and pregnancy. There seemed to be less of an incidence of polio in women who were pregnant. Studying 75 cases of polio in pregnant women, he found the following. Only 17% of them had polio in the first trimester, 34% during the second trimester, and 49% during the third trimester. It was assumed that it was the hormones of pregnancy that gave a degree of protection. But, not all women were so lucky as the polio virus is indeed very unpredictable. [Polio and Its Problems, Berg, 1948, p. 108]

Viola Pahl has written several wonderful books that are available from her website. She writes: "Granny owes a debt to Alexander Bell. After contracting polio, she spent two weeks in an iron lung. Through the tragedy of losing his young son to weak lungs, Bell invented a device which eventually led to the development of the iron lung." [Granny Loves to Speak Up and Hates to Shut Up, p. 171] "When Viola was seven months pregnant, a tragic event occured: she contracted polio. Because of this she needed to spend a short time in the iron lung. Thankfully, her baby son was born at full term in perfect health." [p. 196] In the 1950s, Viola wrote the little book, Through the Iron Lung, which is now out of print. But, most of it was incorporated into her autobiographical book, Gold in Life's Hourglass.

In the Shadow of Polio: A Personal and Social History is a very moving book by Kathryn Black, whose mother had Polio and was in an iron lung. Mimi Rudulph, who got Polio while pregnant and was in an iron lung when she gave birth has written about her experience in a book called Inside the Iron Lung. They weren't sure if she could survive the birth. She did, but was devastated when her baby didn't. She hadn't even considered such a cruel twist of fate.

A newspaper headline announced that "A baby boy was delivered by Caesarean section Thursday afternoon to an iron lung polio patient in St. Joseph Hospital." Virginia Glenn called Omaha's Iron Lung Mother, gave birth to a son while in her iron lung. Previously, there was an iron lung birth in Minneapolis in 1949. And in 1981, there was a special on TV in the Twin Cities featuring a women, who had Polio, who was put into an iron lung as a life-saving measure after the birth of her daughter. [World-Herald, Oct. 17, 1952]

And other interesting autobiography is The Iron Cradle by Larry Alexander, as told to Adam Barnett (1954). Larry was 27 years old when he got Polio and unable to breathe he was put into an iron lung. Some of his time out of the lung was spent in a Rocking Bed. In his book it is describes this special devise: "The principle of the bed was simple. When my head was up, my feet were down, my internal organs were pulled by gravity, pulling my diaphragm with them and sucking air into my lings. When my position was reversed, my head down and my feet up, the organs fell against the diaphragm and forced the air out of my lungs." It took some getting used to especially falling backwards. But, Larry found that it wasn't as easy as using his respirator. [p. 120]

Maxwell K. Reynolds, a prominent Marquette citizen, and hospital engineer Lowell Reynolds, designed the first wooden lung. This saved the lives of numerous children throughout the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and elsewhere. "Plans for building the wooden lung were written up in medical journals and used throughout the country. No one patented the design, and no profit was made by anyone involved in the project. The development was truly a community effort, and one that benefited the entire country." Read the whole article here: Marquette General Hospital

I also saw this information online recently: Australian Edward Both developed an iron lung made of plywood. The "Both portable respirator" cost a fraction of what an iron lung cost and it was lightweight. These "plywood lungs" were used in hospitals in Australia and throughout the British Empire. ["Memories of polio survivors and those who were disabled with it" The Sydney Morning Herald, December 7, 2004]

Bill Haast has spent his life studying venom from some of the world's most poisonous snakes. In 1956, he was bitten by a Siamese cobra on national television during a live broadcast of "Marlin Perkins's Zoo Parade." He stopped breathing and was put into an iron lung. [Bite Me by Anne Goodwin Sides] Haast also made a mark in polio research when he discovered that cobra venom affected the same nerve endings as the polio virus. And as a result, he discovered a possible treatment for polio.

Dick Francis, whose wife had polio and was in iron lung for a bit, has a character in an iron lung in his 1969 novel, Forfeit.
"Her respirator was the modern cuirass type: a Spiroshell, not the old totally enclosing iron lung. The Spiroshell itself slightly resembled the breastplate of a suit of armor. It fitted over the entire front of her chest, was edged with a thick roll of latex, and was fastined by straps around her body. Breathing was a matter of suction. The pump, which was connected to the Spiroshell by a thick flexible hose, alternately made a partial vacuum inside the shell and then drove air back in again. The vacuum period pulled Elizabeth's chest wall outward, allowing air to flow downward into her lungs. The air-in period collapsed her chest and pushed the used breath out again." [p. 28-29]

I've read that Dick says "Forfeit" was his favorite novel. He identified most with its main character, James Tyrone. Luckily his wife, Mary, wasn't permanently in a lung. She recovered from Polio and became a successful business woman and even a pilot. It seems they were a great couple, and she is sorely missed by her family since her passing.

Herb sent me this information: "What about the people that still use the newer versions of an iron lung? Did you know that a porta-lung is made that does the same function as the old iron lung? Many people need to use these devices on a daily / nightly basis."

Martha Lillard, of Shawnee, OK: "I...just wanted to tell you that I have slept in an Emerson Iron Lung, for 51 years since having Polio in 1953 at age 5."

Martha Mason, from NC, has used an Iron Lung since she had Polio in 1948. She has written a book about her life, Breath: Life in the Rythmn of an Iron Lung.

© 2004 JKH Return to: [home][My Polio Story][Famous Polio People]