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Trapped Inside a Tube: The Iron Lung Story

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
October 13, 2022 3:00 am

Trapped Inside a Tube: The Iron Lung Story

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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October 13, 2022 3:00 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, Daryn Glassbrook of the Mobile Medical Museum tells the story of the iron lung, a device used to keep people with advanced polio alive in the first half of the 20th century.

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Slack, where the future works. This is Lee Habib and this is Our American Stories, and we tell stories about everything here on the show, including your stories. Send them to They're some of our favorites. And up next, well, a great history story.

And all of our history stories are brought to us by the great folks at Hillsdale College. In 1927, the iron lung was invented. This machine helped keep people alive who were stricken with polio, a disease which today is mostly eradicated, but in the late 1940s disabled an average of more than 35,000 people a year.

Here's our own Monty Montgomery with the story of this life-saving device. In the first half of the 20th century, there was nothing quite like polio. Here's Darren Glassbrook of the Mobile Medical Museum with more on that. You know, polio was a really serious virus that affected mainly young children, children between the ages of five and nine through the mid 1950s.

The peak year was 1952 when there were 58,000 reported cases. Fortunately, the vaccine was developed in 1955. But before Jonas Salk discovered that vaccine, the only way to mitigate the effects of advanced polio was through a device known as the iron lung. It's used for when people develop paralytic polio, about five out of a thousand cases, and it paralyzes your diaphragm and you're unable to breathe independently. What it is, is it is a respirator that you are supposed to stay inside. You're strapped down. You're lying on your back. You're immobile.

Your head is resting on this pillow. And when this is closed, they lock it up. So no air is circulating on the inside of this machine. And this electric motor is going to turn this bellows back and forth.

It has a handle in case the motor breaks down, you can manually operate it. But what that's going to do is create negative pressure on the inside of the machine. And this is actually how your lungs and your respiratory system are supposed to work. But since there's lower pressure on the inside of the machine than the outside, that is going to actually force air through your trachea and into your lungs. And then when you're inside, you stay inside basically 24-7 until you recover. And meanwhile, nurses are providing care for you through these portholes, washing you off, massaging your limbs, changing your bedpan.

There's a wider hole on the other side. They were very costly. Like in the 1930s, one of these cost about $1500, which was as much as a single-family home. And this was before health insurance, so not everybody could afford one, but hospitals invested heavily in them. And they were very common during this era.

It's not meant as a permanent treatment, but some people ended up using it for the rest of their lives because they never recovered. Like Fredric Snipe, who was subject to much media attention at the time due to the Iron Lung's quote-unquote new factor. Fred Snipe Jr., the man in the Iron Lung, sees his daughter for the first time. The little girl was born on September the 22nd, weighing 8 pounds. Snipe has lived in an Iron Lung for four years, being stricken with infantile paralysis in Peiping.

He married his childhood sweetheart last year, and now he's the proud father of a bonny little girl. Zahn magazine covers, they called him the man in the Iron Lung. And Fredric Snipe was one of those people who never recovered. And he spent the rest of his life in the Iron Lung until he died of heart and lung failure.

It's very hard on your body to be, as you can imagine, motionless, stuck inside all that time. By 1959, there were still 1,200 people using the Iron Lung. By 2004, there were 39. And by 2014, only 10 people were still using the Iron Lung on a daily basis. Today, there's about three. Often we get people that come in here, older people, who remember growing up and seeing somebody who had one of these in their home, somebody being treated in their home in an Iron Lung.

These are not made or manufactured anymore or serviced anymore. And so if you do get an advanced case of polio, you are more likely to be given a portable respirator that allows you freedom of movement, better access to your caregiver. But these individuals felt that they were getting better results with the Iron Lung. And so they were fortunate to have people in their family who could jerry-rig it and keep it running for them.

And that's what they used on a daily basis. Though close to becoming only a museum piece, Iron Lungs are a reminder of a dark time in our past. But they're also proof of how far we've come in less than a century. For Our American Stories, I'm Monty Montgomery. And great job as always to Monty, who himself is a Hillsdale grad, and a special thanks to Darren Glassbrook of the Mobile Medical Museum.

What a piece of history this is, medical history. And all of our history stories are brought to us by the great folks at Hillsdale College, where you can go to learn all the things that are good in life and all the things that are beautiful in life. You can't get to Hillsdale, Hillsdale. We'll come to you with their free and terrific online courses. Go to

That's Since 1988, polio cases worldwide have gone down 99%. And the number of cases in 2017 was a mere 22.

Again, compare that to 35,000 a year being paralyzed or disabled just in this country. The story of the iron lung here on Our American Stories. Folks, if you love the great American stories we tell and love America like we do, we're asking you to become a part of the Our American Stories family. If you agree that America is a good and great country, please make a donation. A monthly gift of $17.76 is fast becoming a favorite option for supporters. Go to now and go to the donate button and help us keep the great American stories coming. That's Want to get away but still listen to your favorite radio stations and podcasts?

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Whisper: medium.en / 2022-12-06 21:52:05 / 2022-12-06 21:56:13 / 4

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