MassMoments: Life-saving Iron Lung Combats Polio Paralysis.

Mass Moments reminds us today of the first use of the so-called “iron lung” developed by Harvard’s Dr. Philip Drinker. He was responding to a terrifying new disease that was causing sudden paralysis. Doctors called it poliomyelitis — or polio. First used on this day October 12, 1928 at Children’s Hospital in Boston,  Drinker’s machine was designed to do the work of the lungs while they were paralyzed. Vacuums connected to it worked like a huge bellows. Although polio was commonly called infantile paralysis because of its tendency to strike children, youth and adults were not immune to the disease. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was struck by polio as a young adult. Iron lungs were eventually built in all sizes. In the 1950s, a vaccine was developed finally developed to combat polio. The number of cases and the need for the iron lung plummeted. By the 1960s, patients with difficulty breathing were using a modern compact respirator. Today an “iron lung” is a museum piece!

On This Day...

…in 1928, Children’s Hospital in Boston was the scene of the first use of an “iron lung.” Developed by a young Harvard doctor, it was little more than a galvanized iron box, a bed, and two household vacuum cleaners. A little girl whose lungs were paralyzed by polio was placed in the airtight metal cylinder with only her head exposed. The 700-pound, 3X 7 foot, galvanized metal machine breathed for her. Vacuum pumps connected to it drew the air in and out of the cylinder, causing the child’s lungs to rise and fall in regular breaths. For the next 30 years, this invention would mean the difference between life and death for victims of polio. It breathed for them. 


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