If you’re one of those mumble rap listening fidget-spinning eggheads with a house full of participation trophies, you never had to worry about polio, and likely have barely any understanding of it at all. While walking in 8 feet of snow to school both ways and learning how to swim by being tossed in the ocean are often fabricated exaggerations of baby boomer adolescence, the polio threat for them and the generation before them was very real.
Polio, or poliomyelitis, is an incredibly dangerous and sometimes deadly disease that can be transmitted from person to person via infected stool or saliva. Once a person is infected, the poliovirus can invade the infected persons brain and spinal cord, destroying nerve cells and causing muscle wasting and paralysis.
In the early stages of Polio, people would often lose their ability to breathe properly due to the paralysis of muscle groups in the chest. This of course led to a very high mortality rate, although those who were able to survive this stage would often make a full recovery.
The biggest breakthrough (next to the later vaccine) occured in 1927, when an industrial hygenist at Harvard named Philip Drinker developed a device called a tank respirator , or iron lung. The tank respirator could maintain artificial respiration until patients could breathe on their own, which was usually after one or two weeks. The tank respirator was powered by an electric motor with two vacuums. The pump changed the pressure inside a rectangular, airtight metal box, pulling air in and out of the lungs.
An inventor named John Emerson eventually made changes to Drinker’s original prototype that cut the production cost of an iron lung by nearly 50%. This improvement in producability certainly helped launch the iron lung to prominence, but Emerson was eventually taken to court by Drinker, who claimed Emerson infringed on patent rights by altering Drinker’s iron lung design. Emerson’s defense was that such important and lifesaving devices like the iron lung should be freely available to all.
Since the Polio vaccine became prominent in 1955, the use of iron lungs has expectedly decreased exponentially. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t people in the world still dealing with the after effects. the Post-Polio Health International (PHI) organizations estimates that there are between 350,000 to 500,000 polio survivors living in the united states, with somewhere from 6-8 people still using iron lungs. Several other health care organizations claim the number of people still in iron lungs is closer to 3.
To see what life is like for the select few still using iron lungs, checkout the video below: