The Iron Lung

By: MelnickMedicalMuseum

Hi! I'm Cassie Nespor from the Rose Melnick Medical Museum at Youngstown State University. Today we're taking an in depth look at the Iron Lung. Let me get outta here so I can show you around. The term "iron lung" usually refers to a respirator that encases your entire body.

They can be used as a treatment for any illness that impairs breathing, such as paralysis of the diaphragm or severe cases of polio. They work by varying the air pressure inside the chamber. When the pressure is below that within the lungs, the lungs expand and air from outside the chamber comes in through the patient's nose and mouth. When the pressure goes above that within the lungs, the reverse occurs, and air is expelled. Devices similar to the iron lung have been around since the 1830s. Philip Drinker and Dr. Louis Shaw at the Harvard School of Public Health were the first to use the term "iron lung" to describe their machine in 1928. Their machine was used widely in a polio epidemic that year.

John Emerson, who ran a medical machine shop nearby, also saw Drinker and Shaw's iron lung and made some improvements such as ports for nurses to access the patient for care, and a bed that slides in and out. Emerson's first machine is now part of the Smithsonian Museum of American History. During the height of polio epidemics in the 1940s and 50s, hospitals had wards full of polio patients in iron lungs. So let's turn this thing on. The switch for the motor is on the front. This is the switch for the light inside the chamber. The black knob here at the bottom adjusts the respiration rate, anywhere from 12 to 20 breathes per minute.

Along the top is a pressure gauge that measures the air pressure inside. An alarm could be placed beside it, which would flash a light if the pressure inside the chamber drops below a certain level. In case of electrical failure, this model has a handle at the back that can operate the machine manually.

The Iron Lung

Along the side are ports for the nurses to access the patient, and windows. At the head of machine is the collar that fits snuggly against the patients neck. This would have been made out of a sponge material or plastic.

There are also knobs to adjust the bed position inside. There's a mirror, so the patient can see what's going on in the world around them. The mirror can also be replaced with a bookstand- although someone else would have to turn the pages! If a patient were in the iron lung for polio, they would usually be in there 2-3 weeks until they were well enough to breathe on their own. So there you have it: an iron lung! Join us next time for a look at our wooden x-ray machine!.

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