Throwback Thursday: When the First Iron Lung Was Used in Boston

It was invented by a Harvard doctor named Philip Drinker.

iron lung

An iron lung at the Sainte-Justine Hospital in Montreal. / Photo via Wikimedia Commons

When a devastating new epidemic began to take hold in the United States in the early 1900s, it wasn’t long before the smart folks at Harvard began to come up with solutions to help end it.

Those affected were stricken suddenly—they’d fall ill with a fever and then endure severe paralysis. Called poliomyelitis, or polio, the disease came in waves in different areas of the country. The sudden paralysis that came to define polio would most often affect the lower body, leaving survivors with crippled limbs for the rest of their lives. In the worst cases, paralysis would reach the lungs, killing patients by suffocation.

Enter Harvard’s Dr. Philip Drinker. According to the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities, in 1928, Drinker introduced a machine called the iron lung. First used in Boston, it was essentially a bed inside a long metal tube connected to two vacuums and a motor. The large respirator breathed for polio patients while their lungs were paralyzed. Users would lie down inside the 700-pound hulking contraption with only their head remaining exposed. Air filled the patient’s nose and mouth as the vacuum sucked air out of the tube, inflating the lungs. Then, the vacuums would blow out, and the patient would exhale as the lungs depressed.

The best use cases of the iron lung resulted in patients who regained control of their lungs, often after about two weeks. There were some patients who never did, spending the rest of their lives—once as long as 60 years—inside the metal cylinder.

Drinker first used the iron lung on a young girl at Boston Children’s Hospital on October 12, 1928. His invention saved the lives of countless polio patients for the next 30 years. In 1955, three years after the worst polio outbreak on record, Dr. Jonas Salk developed the first safe and effective polio vaccine. Within a decade, he dropped the average number of polio cases in the country by more than 40,000. According to the CDC, no cases of polio have originated in the United States since 1979.