We’ve blogged about historical medical practices before (here, here, here, here, and elsewhere (under the label “medical matters”).
But this device, which I encountered at the Southwest Florida Museum of History, falls well within the realm of at least some of our readers’ memories.
Not everybody these days remembers what life was like before the first polio vaccine was available: the warnings to keep away from crowded areas, the fears of going to beaches and pools, and the stark terror of depending on an iron lung for survival. In 1952, nearly 58,000 Americans contracted polio.
Anyone whose childhood touched on a part of the pre-polio vaccine era will recognize this device, and for some, it’s the stuff of nightmares. But it saved lives. We may think of polio as a crippling disease, but the virus could kill by paralyzing muscles needed for breathing.
The iron lung is the solution Philip Drinker and Louis Agassiz Shaw devised in 1927, and which John Emerson improved in 1931.
“The patient was enclosed in the iron lung up to his neck. A bellows-like apparatus created and released a vacuum causing the lung to work and induce breathing.” This means that “air was …forced in with such pressure as to actually force all air out of the lungs …think of someone sitting on your chest! When that pressure was released …or the person on your chest got off …your lungs would suck in air.” An electric motor powered the device, But it could be worked with a hand crank if electricity failed.
The Fort Myers, Florida, Fireman’s Club held a series of fish fries to raise the $2,250 needed to buy this iron lung in 1950. When it arrived in Fort Myers, it was placed on a float and displayed in the Edison Pageant of Light Parade.” It arrived in time for the last of the big polio epidemics of the 1950s.
The sight of children and adults wearing leg braces like these is less common, but it’s part of a not-so-distant past.
Quoted text is from information provided at the Southwest Florida Museum of History.
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