Monday, March 17, 2014

The Iron Lung Story

Monday, March 17, 2014
Loretta reports:

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.


Hels said...

When I was in primary school in the early 1950s, there was always a one child or teacher in in callipers in each year. I didn't think anything of it.

But the iron lung was not in public view and would have been more anxiety-provoking for primary school children to see.

GSGreatEscaper said...

Some people who got polio died. Others were paralyzed for life. There are people alive now, who had 'less serious' cases back in the 30s, 40s, and 50s who were able to function for years, but now are suffering from post-polio syndrome, slowly becoming paralyzed.

Without vaccination, this can happen again.

Caroline Clemmons said...

One year in the 1950's, four of my second cousins contracted polio and one was in an iron lung. He is still in a wheel chair, but the others were able function with braces. Such a devastating disease. The boys' grandmother went to stay with them for a year to help their mom care for them.

I always love your posts.

Carolyn Lalli said...

That image brings back a flood of memories. With the discovery of the polio vaccine, the quickest way to ensure rapid distribution was to administer it to children at school. I still recall being handed a cup containing a sugar cube with a pink hue (the vaccine).

My grandmother would go door to door through the neighborhood, soliciting donations for the March of Dimes.

And, though still in its infancy, once a year, there would be a 24 hour telethon on television, seeking donations for the victims of polio. To ensure support, they would speak with children encased in an iron lung. If knocking on doors didn't move hearts, seeing those helpless children, did.

Lady Wesley said...

I'm not sure where I first saw the image of an iron lung, but this photo reminds me of the terror I felt as a very young child -- that I could end up in one of these. Fortunately for me, polio vaccine became available when I was a toddler.

Harriet said...

I had an aunt that had polio as a toddler (early 1900's) & spent her entire life crippled & twisted. The parents didn't know or just didn't do what was needed (she never went to school, etc.) My brother & I were discussing her yesterday. She was smart & had an incredible memory. Some of us cousins taught her numbers & basic math. She memorized the phone numbers of her 7 siblings, their birthdays, spouse's birthdays, AND the birthdays of all 29 grandchildren. She was a master @ puzzles, we think she memorized them.

Isobel Carr said...

I recently read that it was better sanitation of all things that led to the polio epidemics of the early 20thC! Such an inverse of what we generally think about (abut apparently also likely true today with allergies becoming more common and more severe).

nightsmusic said...

My father had polio as a wee babe circa 1907. At the time, my grandmother didn't know when propping him in a sitting position on the floor that it was absolutely the right thing to do. She just didn't want him to miss anything. He finally walked when he was around 3, and went on to ride horses doing trick riding in rodeos and as an extra in movies doing stunt work. But the stigma of having had the disease never left him. Though he enlisted over and over in WWII, and he rose on the list closer to the end of the war due to the fact that there just weren't enough A1 men to draw from, he never did serve because the war ended too soon for him.

I also had a cousin on an iron lung and remember going to visit him. He unfortunately did not recover and spent several years within until he finally passed. What they didn't understand at the time was, the less your muscles moved on their own, the weaker they became until they were completely dependent on the machine.

Catch 22...

Karen Anne said...

I see remarks advocating vaccination. Vaccination should be a personal choice.

Some types of vaccinations themselves can cause paralysis or death through Guillain-Barre. I wound up with that from a flu vaccination. Fortunately for me, most, but not all of the damage eventually reversed. I still have partial damage years later.

My neurologist's office said they always had an influx of new patients when flu vaccination campaigns were happening.

Anonymous said...

My late daughter in law had polio as a child. It affected her limbs so she never reached 5 feet in height. The worst thing was that she contracted post polio syndrome as a form of bone deterioration. It was extremely painful.She thought it very ironic that she had escaped serious consequences as a child but had a form of illness return with vengeance much later. Those who had had to sue the iron lung but who recovered had it even worse.
It makes me furious wen I hear people say they won;t ahve theur children vaccinated because there is no disease. they don't know about the polio scares or being quarentined for measles or coughing your lungs out with whooping cough.

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