Weird History

What Life Was Like In An Iron Lung  

Melissa Sartore
11.3k views 13 items

Developed during the 1920s, the iron lung was invented to help individuals with polio breathe after their torso and abdominal muscles ceased to work. Improvements to the iron lung were made throughout the 20th century, but the almost-obsolete hospital device still looks a lot like a machine used in interrogations or a cruel medical tool. For many, the iron lung's lifesaving benefits were - and, for a few, still are - worth the trouble of living in a cylindrical breathing machine.

Life inside an iron lung means long hours spent keeping one's mind busy while the body gains the ability to breathe. An iron lung could be viewed as a medical marvel, a potential prison, or a minor inconvenience as the experience of using one changed over time. Being in an iron lung means survival and freedom from pain but at the expense of physical liberty. In the end, it's up to the user to decide what life he or she lives while surrounded by metal, tubes, and the constant rhythm of the iron lung.

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Photo:  US Food and Drug Administration/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
The Iron Lung Brought Much-Needed Relief And Rest To Many Patients

In 1930, Popular Mechanics magazine described the process by which a patient entered an iron lung:

The patient is placed on the sliding bed, shoved into the cabinet and the shield tightly locked. A rubber collar, which fits so snugly that almost no air can pass, is adjusted around the patient's neck. A switch is turned on, and the cabinet begins to work. 

Marshall Barr, who first used an iron lung during the 1970s, said the experience was comfortable:

The relief of not having a respirator on my mouth and just laying flat on my back with the breathing taken over was quite relaxing. It was restful because there wasn't much for you to do in the iron lung... you would usually just shut your eyes and go to sleep.

In 2016, Jim Costello described his experience using an iron lung after he contracted polio in the 1950s:

I lay there listening to the motor pumping a large bellows which changed the air pressure inside. It created a partial vacuum to lift my ribcage to draw air into my lungs and then a positive pressure to partially compress my lungs, so I could breathe out.

I wasn’t scared going into this box. I was too ill and in too much pain to care. What really frightened me was when a nurse or a doctor wanted to open the iron lung. In the beginning, I couldn’t breathe at all once it was open and this terrified the life out of me.

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Photo:  Jenni Konrad/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0
The Iron Lung Was Invented During The 1920s To Help Those Who'd Contracted Polio

Polio (short for poliomyelitis) is caused by the poliovirus, which weakens the nervous system. Many individuals exposed to it have no symptoms, while others experience fever, stomach upset, and pain. In cases where polio affects the spine and brainstem, the disease leads to numbness, stiffness, and eventual paralysis. Until Jonas Salk developed a vaccine during the 1950s, few treatments were available for those living with polio. 

Polio outbreaks during the late 19th and early 20th centuries were exacerbated by post-Industrial Revolution urban growth. Tens of thousands of cases were reported each year, with thousands of people perishing from the condition. Polio mainly affected babies, children, and the elderly, and doctors had few options to help patients who lost the ability to breathe as the virus paralyzed their chest and abdomen.

Researchers Philip Drinker and Louis Agassiz Shaw Jr. from Harvard University developed a device to keep people breathing in the late 1920s. Their invention was designed to help patients breathe long enough for their bodies to recover. Drinker and Shaw's tank respirator was made using an electric motor, vacuum cleaners, and a sealed iron box. The negative-pressure device forced the patient's lungs to take in air.

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Photo:  CDC/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
Being In An Iron Lung Doesn't Mean Isolation And Loneliness

Individuals like Martha Morgan, Paul Anderson, and Mark O'Brien were determined to live full, independent lives in spite of their dependence on an iron lung.

The late Morgan wrote a memoir about her decades in an iron lung, called Breath: A Lifetime in the Rhythm of an Iron LungAccording to Mary Dalton, who directed a 2005 documentary about Morgan, titled Martha in Lattimore, she went to college, was incredibly well-read, hosted dinner parties, and, after getting a computer in 1994, found countless ways to make friends and enjoy new experiences.

Anderson told CBC Radio:

The way I looked at it initially is that I could adapt myself to the iron lung or I could make the iron lung adapt to my desires [and] lifestyle. So I decided, how about the latter? 

He made good on his promise, attending college and graduating from law school.

O'Brien, a poet featured in the 1996 Oscar-winning documentary Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O' Brien, earned bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of California, Berkeley. As a journalist, O'Brien contributed to numerous publications and wrote several books, including The Man in the Iron Lung. He used a stick to type, operate a radio and television, and turn pages of books. O'Brien lived in his own apartment, where part-time helpers assisted him in some of his daily activities.

O'Brien told the Los Angeles Times:

I decided I'd rather be [gone] than in an institution. There's a doctors' myth that disabled people need 24-hour care. If you never, ever want anything to go wrong, I guess you could say that, but I'd rather take my chances... 

I had to accept the idea I was in charge, which was very difficult for me in the beginning. I had to be my own social worker, dealing with four or five different agencies. I had to learn not to be intimidated by the bureaucracies and to insist, insist, insist and make myself a real pain in the [butt].

The First People To Use The Iron Lung Were Children

Philip Drinker and Louis Agassiz Shaw Jr. performed their first tests of the iron lung on cats, but they soon turned their attention to children. In 1928, they placed an 8-year-old girl living with infantile paralysis into their device at Children's Hospital in Boston. She was able to breathe after a few minutes in the machine. John Emerson then invented a lighter, more efficient iron lung.

With the prevalence of polio among children, children's hospitals in cities like Philadelphia and Chicago soon began using the device. Hospitals established entire rooms of iron lungs to treat multiple patients simultaneously.