The Man in the Iron Lung

or rather the people in the iron lungs…

Spending my afternoon off doing the usual things; as I was folding laundry watching one of my favorite quirky comedies, Bubba Ho-tep, it brought to mind an interesting bit of medical history.. the era of the Iron Lung, or negative pressure ventilator.

There is a brief scene at the beginning of the film, which is set in “Shady Rest Home” in rural Texas..  In this scene at the beginning of the film, one of the nursing home residents, who is a bit of a thief, steals the glasses from another resident, an elderly woman who is imprisoned in an iron lung.

iron lung display at the Sacramento Medical Museum

iron lung display at the Sacramento Medical Museum

This is an interesting footnote to the Iron Lung – the one we don’t often hear about – the fact that several Americans are still encased in this iron maiden of artificial respiration.  According to the most recent statistics available (2004) there were more than thirty people still living in iron lungs in the USA.  (Some sources cite 19 people in Houston alone – in 2009.)

Not everyone needed to use iron lungs for years – in fact, many of the children and young adults stricken with polio recovered after several months, and went on to live normal (ventilator-free) lives.  But for others – the iron lung became a life-long condition.  Here are some of their stories..

“28 years in an iron lung” – interview with Joan Herman – Mark Finley, April 1976, Ministry Magazine

Soon, as these  few elderly patients pass away – the iron lung, the relic of early life support technology will be forgotten into the pages of history; remembered only by history buffs such as myself, in a few scattered photos and the backrooms and storage sheds of obscure museum archives.

The negative pressure ventilator aka ‘tank respirator’ worked exactly as it sounded – patients were placed into the small cylinder, with their chests and lower bodies enclosed as the machine applied negative pressure (think of vacuüm suction) to make the patient’s chest physically rise for inspiration. While iron lungs were invented in the late 1920’s, they became popularly known in the decades following their invention due to Poliomyelitis.

The iron lungs became critical life-saving devices for large numbers of people, especially children (who were more affected) during the polio outbreaks of the forties and fifties, and were one of the most visible images of medical technology / modern medicine of the era.

Martha Mason, one of the most well-known of the modern-day iron-lung reisdents published a memoir entitled, “Breath” of her sixty-year experience in 2003.  It’s a great glimpse into a full and amazingly rich life lived despite these handicaps.

Another Iron Lung resident, Diane Odell made headlines after she died during a power outage, which caused her iron lung to stop working. (This is an on-going problem for people living on life-support apparatus in their homes according to a 2009 article.)

Related stories:

Bangor man living with effects of Polio still  in Iron Lung.

Polio: The Iron Lung

University of Virginia on-line Iron Lung Exhibit

We are all welcome here” – fictionalized biography of Pat Raming.

The Sessions: Life in an iron lung – movie about man in Iron Lung.  Click here to read an interview with the actor.

Mark O’Brien – the real life behind the man in the sessions.

Interview with British man from 2004, BBC living in an iron lung.

Life in an iron lung – Paul Berry

Not even an iron lung” – Laurel Nisbet, who became a preacher in Jehovah’s Witness religion

Iron lung in Dallas – Star-News article, 1976

The Emerson Respirator – article brief from Anesthesiology, April 2009

A practical mechanical respirator, 1929: the ‘iron’ lung.   Meyer, J. (1990).  Annals of thoracic surgery.

Reading periscope for iron lung patients

An improvised iron lung – 1956 letter to the British Medical Journal

Negative pressure ventilation in the treatment of acute respiratory failure: an old noninvasive technique reconsidered. – 1996 article on potential modern applications for the iron lung.

Iron lung versus conventional mechanical ventilation in acute exacerbation of COPD. – a 2004 article comparing use of iron lung (negative pressure ventilation) with more invasive positive pressure mechanical ventilation.

More about Martha Mason:

Documentary on YouTube

Book review of Breath – at the Washington Post

“Martha in Lattimore”


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