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Posted by on Mar 12, 2017 in Tell Me Why |

When Was the Iron Lung Invented?

When Was the Iron Lung Invented?

In 1670, English scientist John Mayow came up with the idea of external negative pressure ventilation. Mayow built a model consisting of bellows and a bladder to pull in and expel air. The first negative pressure ventilator was described by Scottish physician John Dalziel in 1832. Successful use of similar devices was described a few years later.

Early prototypes included a hand-operated bellows-driven “Spirophore” designed by Dr. Woillez of Paris (1876), and an airtight wooden box designed specifically for the treatment of polio by Dr. Stueart of South Africa (1918). Stueart’s box was sealed at the waist and shoulders with clay and powered by a motor-driven bellows.

The first of these devices to be widely used however was developed by Drinker and Shaw in 1928. The iron lung, often referred to in the early days as the “Drinker respirator”, was invented by Philip Drinker (1894–1972) and Louis Agassiz Shaw, Jr., professors of industrial hygiene at the Harvard School of Public Health. The machine was powered by an electric motor with air pumps from two vacuum cleaners. The air pumps changed the pressure inside a rectangular, airtight metal box, pulling air in and out of the lungs.

This machine enables people whose lungs are paralyzed by disease or accident to breathe. It does so by alternately reducing and increasing the air pressure round the patient’s body. When the pressure is reduced, the chest expands and air streams into the lungs through the normal air passages in the head which is outside the machine.

When the pressure is increased, the chest contracts and air is automatically expelled from the lungs. This life-preserving apparatus is a tube on wheel’s in which the patient lies on a foam rubber bed with adjustable head and foot rests. It is operated by electricity, but has a safety device which gives a warning signal in the event of a power cut. The machine can then he operated by hand.

The cover on top of the iron lung can he opened to give access to the patient. When this is done, the patient’s head is usually enclosed in a plastic dome in which the air pressure is alternately raised and lowered to enable breathing to continue.

The first clinical use of the Drinker respirator on a human was on October 12, 1928, at the Boston Children’s Hospital. The subject was an eight-year-old girl who was nearly dead as a result of respiratory failure due to polio. Her dramatic recovery, within less than a minute of being placed in the chamber, helped popularize the new device.

Boston manufacturer Warren E. Collins began production of the iron lung that year. Although it was initially developed for the treatment of victims of coal gas poisoning, it was most famously used in the mid-20th century for the treatment of respiratory failure caused by poliomyelitis.

Danish physiologist August Krogh, upon returning to Copenhagen in 1931 from a visit to New York where he saw the Drinker machine in use, constructed the first Danish respirator designed for clinical purposes. Krogh’s device differed from Drinker’s in that its motor was powered by water from the city pipelines. Krogh also made an infant respirator version.

In 1931, John Haven Emerson (February 5, 1906 – February 4, 1997) introduced and improved upon a less expensive iron lung. The Emerson iron lung had a bed that could slide in and out of the cylinder as needed, and the tank had portal windows which allowed attendants to reach in and adjust limbs, sheets, or hot packs. Drinker and Harvard University sued Emerson, claiming he had infringed on patent rights.

Emerson defended himself by making the case that such lifesaving devices should be freely available to all. Emerson also demonstrated that every aspect of Drinker’s patents had been published or used by others at earlier times. Since an invention must be novel to be patentable, prior publication/use of the invention meant it was not novel and therefore unpatentable. Emerson won the case, and Drinker’s patents were declared invalid.

The United Kingdom’s first iron lung was designed in 1933 by Robert Henderson, an Aberdeen doctor. Henderson had seen a demonstration of the Drinker respirator in the early 1930s, and built a device of his own upon his return to Scotland. Four weeks after its construction, the Henderson respirator was used to save the life of a 10-year-old boy from New Deer, Aberdeenshire, who was suffering from poliomyelitis. Despite this success, Henderson was reprimanded for secretly using hospital facilities to build the machine.

Content for this question contributed by Tom Lacey, resident of McKees Rocks, Allegheny County, western Pennsylvania, USA