What America Looked Like: Polio Children Paralyzed in Iron Lungs


It's 1955, and let's say the young boy pictured below made the mistake of drinking out of an unclean glass, or shook the hand of another boy who did not wash after using the toilet. Unknowingly, he exposed himself to poliomyelitis, the virus that causes polio. 

The infection set in slowly. At first, it probably felt like a cold with fever, congestion, and achy joints. But maybe a week later, the boy's legs started to give out from under him, and his fever spiked above 100. The virus that first settled in the intestines had multiplied thousands-fold and moved on to attack its prized target -- his nervous system. The infection overtook crucial nerves of his respiratory system and the boy lost his ability to breathe on his own.

polio-national museum of health and med.jpg

National Museum of Health and Medicine

At its peak in 1952, more than 21,000 Americans contracted a paralyzing form of polio, and 3,000 died from it. Once infected, there was no treatment besides time and tending to the symptoms.  

Unable to breathe, patients entered iron lungs, which made use of negative pressure ventilation -- a continual displacing and replacing the air inside of the machine -- to compress and depress the chest, simulating respiration. Although the patient could breathe in the machine, he could do little else besides look up at a mirror reflecting the room behind him (upside-down and backwards, of course). Typically, the children would spend two weeks inside while recovering. A 1930 Popular Mechanics article explains how the patient enters the iron lung in terms that sound more medieval than medical.
A metal chamber, with a sliding base upon which the patient is place, an electrically operated pump, a gauge and a valve are the chief parts of the outfit. The patient is placed on the sliding bed, shoved into the cabinet and the shield tightly locked. A rubber collar, which fits so snugly that almost no air can pass, is adjusted about the patient's neck. A switch is turned, and the cabinet begins its work.
Despite this highly restrictive environment -- and only being able to speak when the machine exhales for him -- the boy maintains his cheer, smiling for the camera man via the machine's mirror. And he's hardly alone. Herman Kiefer Hospital in Detroit holds dozens of children, all convalescencing in the iron lung. NCP 4149-3_lg.jpg

National Museum of Health and Medicine

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Brian Resnick is a staff correspondent at National Journal and a former producer of The Atlantic's National channel.

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