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Iron Lung

Iron lung

The iron lung was once a symbol of a dreaded disease known as polio. Every summer until the mid-1950s, health personnel feared an outbreak which would wreck havoc on defenseless infants and children.

Poliomyelitis, commonly known as polio, is an infectious disease which can cause paralysis. The first major U.S. epidemic was recorded in 1894, and many other outbreaks followed well into the 20th century. Summer's warmth provided ideal conditions for the spread of this infectious disease. Polio's crippling effects were most devastating on children, but occasionally it affected adults. One famous case in point was Franklin Delano Roosevelt (later a U.S. president) who was stricken at age 39.

Polio takes different forms, one of which affects the muscles we use to breathe. Iron lungs are full-body respirators that provide a mechanical means of breathing. In these machines an excess pressure alternates with a reduced pressure. When the pressure surrounding the patient's body is reduced, the chest expands so that air streams into the lungs. Then when the pressure is increased, the air is automatically expelled. Iron lungs were only intended to provide temporary relief until the patient recovered.

The iron lung pictured here is in the collections of the Kansas Museum of History. It was manufactured in 1957 by the J.H. Emerson Co. of Cambridge, Mass., and used at Topeka's Veterans Hospital through the 1960s.

The iron lung, opened

The machine is a large cylindrical metal drum into which a patient is admitted by opening the left end and rolling out a flat metal bed. The patient's head extends through the plastic collar and reclines on the headrest at left. After the patient has been installed, the bed is rolled back into the drum and clamped into place. A motor and pump mechanism underneath the body of the iron lung raises and lowers the air pressure within. Four windows on the top, and six rubber lined openings on the sides, provide access to the patient. Whenever the patient needed bathing or other medical care, a plastic dome was installed over his or her head which took over breathing automatically.

According to a pamphlet issued by the Emerson company in April 1956, "In the slow progress against poliomyelitis the 'iron lung' has become a symbol of victory. Respirators have brought the breath of life to thousands, and of those who owe their lives to this temporary mechanical aid, the great majority are now completely free again from reliance on it."

This pamphlet was issued just one year after Dr. Jonas Salk developed the first effective polio vaccine. The rate of polio infection had dropped dramatically by 1957, the first year the vaccine was widely available (and the year this iron lung was manufactured).

Also in 1957, the town of Protection, Kansas, made national news in the fight against polio. Every citizen under the age of 40 was inoculated with the new Salk vaccine, making it the first city in the country to be "100% protected against polio."

The museum's collections include other items related to the history of polio, such as a leg brace and shoe worn by Betty Funk Thomas of Oneida, Kansas. Thomas' legs were affected by polio when she was a toddler.

Learn more about polio and the iron lung by visiting the Smithsonian Institution's online exhibit, Whatever Happened to Polio?

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