What is an Iron Lung?

In the early 1900’s, countless individuals across the world were afflicted with polio, a debilitating disease known to cause partial or full paralysis of the muscles in the body. In the early stages of the disease, many polio sufferers lose the ability to breathe, as the disease begins to constrict the muscles controlling the lungs. In the early 20th century, scientists scrambled to find a way to help people with this incapacitating disease. In their search, these determined individuals created the Iron Lung, a revolutionary medical device that worked miracles.

Tank respirator ("iron lung") used a...
Tank respirator (“iron lung”) used at Union Hospital, Terre Haute, Indiana, from 1953 – c. 1973. Indiana State Museum, 650 West Washington Street, Indianapolis, Indiana, USA. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Iron Lung

In order to keep polio sufferers breathing, scientists had to make an artificial device that would act in the same way as a pair of human lungs. While we may take our lungs for granted, the mechanics behind their motion are difficult to copy artificially.

In order to do so, scientists created a ventilator intended specifically for polio sufferers. The ventilator, commonly known as the Iron Lung, required patients to lie down inside of it, in a way similar to the prone position in a modern-day MRI machine. Once the patient was lying within the machine, the Iron Lung would hold them down by the neck, and the air pressure within the tank would begin to alternate due to the presence of vacuum pumps. The changing air pressure helped the patient breathe by forcing their lungs to draw in and release oxygen along with the machine.

Naturally, upon the creation of the Iron Lung, polio patients across the nation found hope in fighting this disease. It wasn’t available for everyone though, as some estimates put the price of one unit in the 1930s as high $1,500, the same cost as a house. Because of this, by the late 1950s, only slightly more than 1,000 people were using the machine in the United States.

Current Status of the Iron Lung

Although the Iron Lung was fairly common in the United States in the early and mid-20th century, the development of a polio vaccine reduced people’s dependence on the Iron Lung. As polio is not a curable disease, those who were suffering may still have needed the help of the revolutionary new Iron Lung. But once the polio vaccine was unveiled in 1955, the number of sufferers across the nation dwindled.

While the Iron Lung can still be used to this day for a variety of different respiratory conditions, by the year 2004, only 39 people were still using the device in the country, a far cry from its prevalence only half a century ago. Additionally, while the polio virus might occasionally resurface in other parts of the world, the Iron Lung rarely makes an appearance as a medical tool for those infected.

The History of the Iron Lung

Once a miracle instrument, the Iron Lung quickly receded into obscurity. But while it may not be employed today, this incredible ventilator has an enduring legacy as a medical marvel that saved lives across the country.