Featured Science and Innovations
Inside the Iron Lung
Designed by engineer Philip Drinker at the Harvard School of Public Health, the so-called iron lung was the first effective treatment for patients so severely paralyzed they couldn't breathe. It was first used in 1928 in an 8-year-old girl with polio at Children's. Consisting of a tank made by a local tinsmith and a pair of vacuum cleaner blowers, it completely enclosed the girl's body except for her head. As the machine breathed for her, the girl revived - proving that the respirator worked.
As demand for the iron lung grew, hospitals moved to room-sized units. Children's had one in the basement of the former Infant's Hospital. "I had space for four patients all sticking their heads out from this room with their bodies inside," wrote physician James Wilson, "and we could get inside with them and care for them." Wilson later added portholes, first purchased from a Boston shipyard, through which clinicians could give care.
Former patients describe living in the noisy respirators for months on end, never leaving to be bathed or changed. They took their meals flat on their backs, fed by a nurse, and if their faces itched, they couldn't scratch them. Mirrors gave them a better view of their surroundings, and they could read with a device that suspended a book over their head (a nurse had to turn the pages). If someone opened the portholes at the wrong moment in the respirator's pressure cycle, the patient's breath would be knocked out of him. During power outages, hospital staff - doctors included - took turns pumping the respirators manually with a bellows.
Interestingly, although iron lungs have been replaced with modern, compact respirators, a few polio survivors in the U.S. still use iron lungs because they prefer them.