What is an Iron Lung?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 03 October 2019
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An iron lung, more properly known as a negative pressure ventilator, is a medical device which is designed to help patients breathe when they have difficulty doing so on their own. It has been largely replaced with positive pressure ventilators, due to the fact that it is extremely unwieldy and difficult to use, although a handful of individuals continue to use iron lungs, and they are employed in some forms of non-invasive therapy to treat people with paralysis and breathing conditions.

The iron lung is probably most closely associated in the mind of the public with poliomyelitis, also known simply as polio, a debilitating disease which causes paralysis in some patients. At one time, polio was a scourge throughout much of the world, until vaccines were developed in the 1950s, and the iron lung was a crucial treatment tool for people paralyzed by polio. For patients with temporary paralysis, the negative pressure ventilator would help them breathe while they recovered, and patients with permanent paralysis might be confined to the device for the rest of their lives.


The iron lung consists of a long chamber, classically built from steel, although other materials may be used as well. The body of the patient is placed inside the chamber, while his or her head projects through a flap to the outside. When the chamber is sealed, the pressure inside can be regulated with pumps. When the pressure in the device falls below a certain point, the lungs automatically inflate in response, sucking in air from the outside, and as the pressure rises, the lungs deflate.

Versions of the iron lung were developed as early as the 1800s, but the first functional and easily produced one was developed in 1927 by Philip Drinker. These quickly filled hospital wards all over the world, and inspired a number of refinements to make them easier to build and handle. While iron lungs are no longer produced today, some museums with collections of antique medical equipment have one on display, sometimes with accompanying material written by people who lived or spent time in them.

For the patient, life inside an iron lung is highly confined, ensuring that the patient requires a lifetime of care. The development of functional positive pressure ventilators made a huge difference in the lives of many polio patients, allowing them to be much more mobile and functional, as these ventilators rely on a tube inserted into the lungs to inflate and deflate the lungs.


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Post 3

I cannot even imagine having to lie that still for that long -- I think I'd go insane! I mean, sure at first it looks like there are some iron lung perks -- you get to lie around, read books, do whatever you want all day, etc., but when you think about not being able to move, they definitely pale in comparison.

I have read accounts by several iron lung survivors who say that the enforced stillness was actually the hardest part. There's just not that much you can do when you're so confined like that!

And think, back in the day they didn't have nearly the same amount of technological entertainment advances that we have. You were pretty much stuck with books and talking to people; no iPhone or laptop to keep you entertained.

I just can't imagine having to go through that -- what about you?

Post 2

One thing I've always found interesting about polio (I first got interested in it when I did my iron lung research project in 4th grade) is that Franklin D. Roosevelt probably didn't have it.

I know, he's everybody's favorite polio survivor, but in fact, doctors now think that he actually had something called Guillain–Barré syndrome, which acts kind of like polio, but is actually something else entirely.

Both are treatable, by the way, which makes it still extremely tragic, but just for the historical sticklers out there; Roosevelt is much more likely to have had Guillain–Barré syndrome than polio...tell your friends.

Post 1

I recently took a class on the history of modern medicine, and I was just shocked to hear about how devastating polio used to be. I mean, I had heard of it and I knew that it was a serious thing, but I never realized just how very devastating polio was.

For instance, did you know that polio killed more children in the 1950s than any other communicable disease? That means that they beat out smallpox (which was still going at the time), influenza, tuberculosis, chicken pox and even measels (another biggie).

Also, it's amazing to see just how many famous people still alive today suffered from polio and had to be put into the walls of an iron lung -- Alan Alda, Mia Farrow, and Donald Sutherland, for starters, not to mention Itzhack Perlman, Neil Young and even Frida Kahlo.

Isn't it just crazy how our daily life can change so drastically in less than half a century?

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