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By Selina Hurley on

The Man Behind The Motor – William Morris And The Iron Lung

March marks the 100th anniversary of the first cars made by William Morris (1877-1963). The first was a Morris-Oxford Light Car. William Morris began making and repairing bicycles in his work and gradually went onto to hiring and repairing cars before making his own.

Although his business was disrupted by the First World War, Morris went on to dominate the British car industry and was made a baron in 1934 and 4 years later Viscount for his services to car manufacturing. He would become known as Viscount Nuffield.

Morris Minor MM, 1950 ( Science Museum, London )

You may be wondering why a medical curator is writing about car manufacturing? Well to us medical folk, Lord Nuffield is more well known for providing hospitals across the UK and what was then the British Empire with iron lungs.

Over 5,000 iron lungs were donated and we’re lucky enough to have one in the collection. It was donated to the Memorial Hospital in Darlington.

Both-type iron lung donated to the Memorial Hospital Darlington, c.1950s (Science Museum Group Collection)
Both-type iron lung c. 1950 presented by Viscount Nuffield to the Memorial Hospital Darlington.

During the late 1940s and 1950s, polio was cutting its way across the UK and the rest of the world. The vaccines developed by Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin were still years away. Polio can and did affect people, especially children, in different ways. As an infectious disease affecting the central nervous system, some people would experience temporary or permanent paralysis of the the limbs, or of the chest muscles. For the latter, the only treatment option was an iron lung. Few hospitals were able to afford the £1000 each machine cost.

Nuffield began his mission to spread iron lungs across the world in 1938 after hearing a plea for a iron lung on the radio and offered a part of his factory to manufacture them. At the time, the Both iron lung that Nuffield began to make was not seen as the best model on the market and he was criticised for his “wasteful benevolence.”

Nuffield went on to manufacture 700 of the Both-type iron lungs machines in his workshops. In total, he donated over 5000 iron lungs. One is on display at his former home, Nuffield Place. If you look closely at our iron lung, many of the parts look like they were modelled on car parts.

Handle of the Both-type iron lung
Handle of the Both-type iron lung.

Today, the Nuffield name lives on in the many other medical institutions and posts that William Morris endowed including Nuffield Department of Surigcal Sciences and the Nuffield College at the University of Oxford and the Nuffield Foundation. So the next time you see a Morris car, think about the man behind the motor.

One comment on “The Man Behind The Motor – William Morris And The Iron Lung

  1. My grandfather, who I was named after, was the carpenter for the Montreal’s Childern Hospital. Dr. Howard Mitchell came to him one day with a sketch of what would become the iron lung and asked my grandfather if he could construct it. He did, out of wood, and from what I gather, the design was used by William Morris to send out across the UK and to the world!
    Although my grandfather passed away almost a year to the day before I was born I was always proud of what he did in part with the iron lung. I just wanted to pass along this tidbit of fact surrounding this wonderful story.
    Thank you.

    Tom Wright

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