Designed for use by infants, Smith-Clarke designed the ‘Baby’ breathing machine at the request of a paediatrician in 1956. Image credit: Science Museum

Polio: On the edge of eradication

Billionaire computer entrepreneur and philanthropist, Bill Gates, is to discuss the impact of polio on humanity at this evening’s annual BBC Richard Dimbleby Lecture. His speech, which will be broadcast from the historic Royal Institution, will be supported with the visual aid of an iron lung from the Science Museum’s collection (1.03 mins in).

[yframe url='http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R-JRogtrwRk#t=1m03s']

The global effort to eradicate polio, which has reduced the number of recorded polio cases by 99 percent within the last two decades – from 350,000 cases a year in the late 1980s to 205 last year – has been funded, in part, by billions of dollars from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the largest private foundation on the planet.

The effects of polio can be seen in the range and development of technology designed to relieve suffering. At its worst, polio survivors are unable to breath without assistance, and this lead to the development of the iron lung, or cabinet respirator, in the 1920s by Philip Drinker of Harvard University.

Designed for use by infants, Smith-Clarke designed the ‘Baby’ breathing machine at the request of a paediatrician in 1956. Image credit: Science Museum

Designed for use by infants, Smith-Clarke designed the ‘Baby’ breathing machine at the request of a paediatrician in 1956. Image credit: Science Museum

Although life-saving, early models were alarming and uncomfortable for patients, and it wasn’t until 1956 that Captain G T Smith-Clarke, a British engineer, devised a vastly superior device. Patients encased in the cabinet had pressurised air pumped into the chamber causing the lungs to inflate and deflate, enabling the patient to breathe.

The Smith-Clarke ‘Baby’ iron lung in our collection was acquired in 1990 from The Royal Free Hospital in London, where it had been standard equipment in the 1960s, but by 1990 they had become rare indeed.

With polio now prevalent in just three countries – Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria – and with a continued global effort, total eradication is, for the first time, within our grasp.

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