An iron lung is a negative pressure ventilator that functions as a mechanical respirator. John Mayow came up with the concept of external negative pressure ventilation but the first prototype was described in 1832 by John Dalziel.
Paul Richard Alexander is a paralytic polio survivor, a lawyer, and a writer. He is widely regarded as one of the last people to have lived in an iron lung after contracting polio at the age of six in 1952.
What Does the Iron Lung Look Like and How Does it Work?
An iron lung resembles a large tin can. When in the room, you can hear the machinery expanding and compressing in the background as his head pokes out of the yellow tube. It’s sometimes difficult to understand what he’s saying because of the noise and the hazy screen. You would keep having to ask him to repeat himself. Alexander is often patient with who he meets and doesn’t mind having to repeat himself. While it’s not the most efficient way to conduct an interview, given the circumstances it’s what works.
Despite the development of more modern ventilators over the years, Alexander stuck with his iron lung. As a child, he learned how to breathe without it for extended periods, which opened doors for him. A physical therapist taught him how to frog breathe, or use muscles in his mouth and throat to gulp air into his lungs when he was eight years old.
Alexander was often wary of medical personnel, he was haunted by the times he was in the hospital and when they forced him to try to breathe outside the lung which caused him to pass out. But the therapist persuaded him to keep trying by offering him a boxer puppy in exchange for learning to breathe outside the lung for three minutes. (Source: Alcalde)
When was the Iron Lung Invented?
The iron lung was invented in 1927 by Harvard University’s Philip Drinker and Louis Agassiz Shaw. They devised a machine that could maintain respiration by pulling air into and out of the lungs by changing the pressure in an airtight metal box. It was propelled by an electric motor and was equipped with two vacuum cleaners. (Source: Pfizer)
How Long Can a Person Survive in an Iron Lung?
The iron lung was only supposed to be used for two weeks, to give the body time to recover. The claustrophobic iron lung came to represent the devastating effects of polio over time. Only the sickest patients ended up in one. If these patients survived, they were likely to be disabled for the rest of their lives. (Source: The Guardian)