The Cat and the Iron Lung

When polio descended in the early twentieth century, scientists in Boston turned to existing technology to tackle a new set of problems.

Polio epidemics beganstriking each summer in the 1910s. Young children suffered most dramatically. The virus, when it progressed far enough, destroyed motor nerve cells in the spinal cord, leading to lasting partial or full paralysis. For centuries, people had known that the lungs could be manually inflated with air but now doctors needed something that could keep patients breathing indefinitely.

In 1928, two doctors from Boston’s Children’s Hospital, Drs. Kenneth Blackfan and James Gamble approached Philip Drinker, teaching at the nearby, recently founded Harvard School of Public Health for help. The two brought Drinker back with them to the hospital, where he saw young patients die of respiratory failures. Deeply moved, Drinker returned to the laboratory to devote his attention to sustaining young patients.

The Cat and the Iron Lung

Drinker and Shaw apply pressure to a knocked out cat in a box.

Drinker knew two men whose work immediately applied to his problem, and they may have worked with mice, but they certainly worked with cats. One of the men was his brother, Cecil Drinker, who had used induced pressure to keep cats alive while he operated upon them. He also turned to Dr. Louis Shaw, who had been busy recording data on the respiration of normally breathing cats by containing their bodies in airtight boxes.

Together, Drinker and Shaw designed a device that produced a steady rhythm of positive and negative pressure maintaining ventilation in cats, whom they kept anaesthetized under a South American arrow poison.

After that, building a box big enough to fit a human being was hardly rocket science. A five hundred dollar grant from New York Consolidated Gas Company and the Harvard Medical School’s machine shop whipped up a machine big enough to hold a person—about the size of a small car. A pair of vacuum cleaners created the rhythmic pressure first put to trial on an eight-year old polio sufferer at Children’s Hospital. The technology was simple enought that Popular Mechanix would published instructions on how to build your own emergency respirator out of wood in January, 1952.

By then, the iron lung had become one of the most ubiquitous images of polio treatment, most famously the huge wards lined with patients in respirators. Not long after, existing science would be put to the task of eradicating the need for the machines–with the invention of the polio vaccine.

David Biello originally tapped into the Children’s Hospital cartoons on Ethan Persoff’s site of archived Americana at Scientific American.

Emma Jacobs recently graduated from Columbia with a degree in history. She lives and works in New York City. Her website is more


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