Also known as a negative pressure ventilator, the iron lung was a medical breakthrough. If a patient lost the ability to breathe independently due to injury or illness, such as polio, they were placed in the iron lung. Their bodies are put inside a steel drum-like contraption with only their heads and necks out of the chamber. The air-tight container uses air pressure to manipulate the patent’s lungs to mimic the pattern of breathing.
Philip Drinker and Louis Agassiz Shaw created the first iron lung in 1927. This early model consisted of one electric motor and two vacuum cleaners. It was successful in keeping the patient breathing until they could do it independently.
The Bellevue hospital in New York was the first hospital to install the iron lung.
From 1939, iron lung machines were widely distributed to hospitals around the country. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a polio survivor himself, helped promote the iron lung and polio research through his National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (now known as the March of Dimes). Roosevelt’s foundation helped to fund the distribution of iron lungs.
The average cost of an iron lung in the 1930s was $1,500, the same amount as the average home.
Martha Mason spent over 60 years in an iron lung after contracting polio at 11 years old. In September 1939, after the death of her older brother to polio, she too was diagnosis with the disease. According to her obituary in the New York Times, “Ms. Mason was one of the last handful of Americans, perhaps 30 people, who live full time in iron lungs.” Her iron lung was 7 feet long and weighed over 800 pounds. Confined to the machine, Mason was not deterred in life and graduated top of her class in high school and college. In 2003, she wrote about her life inside an iron lung in her memoir, Breathe. She passed away in her sleep on May 4, 2009.
Fox, Margalit. “Martha Mason, Who Wrote Book About Her Decade in an Iron Lung, Dies at 71.” New York Times, May 9, 2009.
Craft, Dr. Naomi. The Little Book of Medical Breathroughs. New York: Metro Books, 2010. 110-111.
“The Iron Lung and Other Equipment,” Smithsonian Institute.