Breathing in Blythe

In the next few blogs Miranda Bud, a work experience student, gives us an account of the objects that have sparked her imagination over the last few days… 

Before coming to the Science Museum I’d never heard of an iron lung, let alone seen one. My first day at Blythe I was intrigued by the huge coffin like contraption used predominantly during the polio outbreaks of the 1940s and 1950s. The first form of life-support, it was invented in America in 1928 to help victims of gas inhalation.

(Drinker-type iron lung respirator, London, England, 1930-1939. Named after its inventor, Philip Drinker (1894-1972). Credit: Science Museum)

Iron lungs became famous for keeping polio patients alive. In October 1928, an eight-year-old girl at the Children’s Hospital in Boston who was suffering from severe respiratory failure due to the disease, dramatically recovered within less than a minute of being placed in the chamber.

(Explanatory diagram showing a later iron lung model. Credit: Oobject)

Iron lungs help patients to breathe by sucking air out of the chamber causing the patients lungs to expand, and then pumping air back in, causing the patient to exhale. For many the iron lung was a temporary necessity, however others spent the rest of their lives in them. For these patients they developed a peculiar affinity with their iron lung, as it was both a prison and a savior. When more modern life-support machines were invented, iron lungs were no longer needed. However many patients would still return to hospital in order to sleep in their iron lungs, some even decided to modernise theirs, adding the Internet and television which they could control with their feet.

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