Who Invented the Iron Lung Respirator?

The iron lung saved many lives during the polio epidemics of the early 20th century.
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Philip Drinker invented the original iron lung respirator in 1927 with the help of his colleague Louis Agassiz Shaw. John Emerson later modified the design making it lighter and less expensive. Drinker filed a lawsuit against Emerson but lost because the court decided the individual parts used to make the respirator were patented by other people, making Drinker's patent invalid, according to Mütter Museum Curator Anna Dhody in The History of Vaccines.

1 Devastating Polio Outbreaks

Though evidence shows that polio has existed throughout history, it reached epidemic proportions in the early 1900s in the United States. A major theory for why this occurred is that hygiene had improved drastically in this period. Babies were previously exposed to the disease in early infancy and protected by inherited immunities from their mother. Higher standards of cleanliness delayed their exposure until those immunities wore off. According to the Connecticut Department of Public Health, in the early 1950s there were as many as 20,000 paralytic cases and 1,000 deaths a year. Thanks to Jonas Salk's 1955 vaccine, by 1965, paralytic cases had dropped to 61. In the meantime, the "Drinker respirator" saved countless lives.

2 A Major Achievement

Drinker was born in Pennsylvania in 1894 and graduated from Princeton in 1915. He attended Lehigh University until he took a faculty position at Harvard Medical School in industrial hygiene. He studied methods of resuscitation and the breathing patterns of cats, which led to the invention of the iron lung. Every major hospital in the country demanded one due to the polio epidemic. Though it has been replaced by smaller, more portable apparatuses, there are still a few in operation today.

3 How It Works

The patient rests on a bed within the steel cylinder of the respirator. An airtight seal at the neck allows the head to remain outside the machine. The iron lung uses negative pressure to force the chest cavity to expand and contract in the manner it would in a healthy body. This made it an essential tool in the fight against polio since the disease could affect muscles needed to breathe.

4 Other Contributions

Drinker created a room with climate control to increase survival rates of premature babies at the same time that he worked on the iron lung. He tracked dust levels in factories and mines in order to chart safe levels. Along with his brother and some colleagues, he developed gas masks and oxygen masks for high altitudes for the Navy. He also authored and edited many books and journals. He died in 1972.

Rebecca Gaunt earned a Bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Georgia and a Masters in education from Oglethorpe University. She has been published in "The Red & Black," "The Athens Observer" and the "Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Gaunt also taught elementary school for seven years.