The Grand Vision of Dr. Heimlich, After the Maneuver Limelight

The man who's saved countless people from choking has had less luck curing cancer and AIDS.

The man who's saved countless people from choking has had less luck curing cancer and AIDS.

Heimlich demonstrates his maneuver on a volunteer in 1985. [AP Image]


How will the world remember Dr. Henry Heimlich?

It may not remember him at all, as "abdominal thrust" is now the term of choice of the Red Cross and the American Heart Association for the life-saving response to choking victims.

And if we do continue to remember his name, we may not do so fondly, if the folks over at Radiolab have their way. In a recent podcast, producer Pat Walters  tracked his idol -- the man who invented the maneuver that saved his life was he was eleven -- to his home in Cincinnati. And, as sometimes happens when we meet our heroes, he became disillusioned.

"When I think about my kids ... when they learn this thing, it won't be called the Heimlich maneuver," Walters concluded. "And based on what I know now, I really don't think that I would tell them to call it that."

Why so harsh? On the surface, the 93-year-old former thoracic surgeon's story appears pretty straightforward: Man believes his purpose is to save lives, in 1974 man invents simple way to save many lives, man is heretofore celebrated for life-saving contribution. But somewhere around his appearances on Letterman and Johnny Carson, at the peak of his fame, it takes a turn for the very, very strange.

Heimlich, as Walters tell it, wasn't content just to be a household name. So thrilled was he by the attention garnered by the Heimlich maneuver, he became determined to promote even more uses for it. Grabbing someone from behind and thrusting upwards, he declared, could revive drowning victims and even treat asthma attacks.

No medical evidence existed to substantiate these claims, said Walters, and there was substantial proof that by delaying CPR, the maneuver was a life-threatening waste of time for lifeguards. And yet Heimlich and his namesake institute continued to promote its use in drowning situations up until last summer.

Heimlich then turned his sights on bigger goals. Actually, for a life-saver, the biggest of goals: finding a cure for cancer and AIDS. This time, the so-crazy-it-just-might-work solution was "malariotherapy." For years, he ran unregulated clinical trials in the developing world, inducing malaria in patients in hopes that the high fever it produced would cure them.

"Malariotherapy is a proven treatment and was used to eliminate neurosyphilis before the advent of antibiotics," wrote Heimlich in an email to The Atlantic -- maintaining that his trials in China were supported by the World Health Organization and aided by UCLA, and that positive preliminary results were reported in 1996. (According to a representative from WHO director-general's office, "WHO has no record of Dr. Heimlich ever having been associated with or supported by the Organization."*)


There have been other claims, too, that go beyond what Radiolab had time to cover. Heimlich maintains that he performed the world's first full-organ transplant in 1955.* A Romanian surgeon who said he did it first -- and who also claims that Heimlich falsely listed him as a co-author on a paper --  called him a "liar and a thief." While Heimlich's biography at the Heimlich Institute's website continues to state that he performed "the first total organ replacement in history," he acknowledged in an email that the other surgeon, Dan Gavriliu had first performed the procedure in 1951. In a paper published in journal Surgery in 1957, Dr. Heimlich gave Dr. Gavriliu credit for having invented the operation. The journal in which Dr. Gavriliu published his article about the surgery had not been available in the U.S. prior to 1955. While in the article cited above Dr. Gavriliu denies that he and Dr. Heimlich coauthored a paper, both men's names appear on an article published in the Mexican journal Congres de la Societe Internationale de Chirugie in 1957.

The origins of the Heimlich maneuver itself have been called into question. Most of this questioning was instigated by Heimlich's son, Peter, who is now estranged from the rest of his family. The obsession runs deep: Peter runs a full-blown whistle-blower site called "Outmaneuvered," which is filled with speculation about his father associating with shady characters, allegations of "dodgy reporters," and a video of "heavy metal hottie Lita Ford lip-synching one of Peter's tunes on the 80's TV show, Dance Fever." On his blog, he urges journalists to investigate potentially fraudulent stories about the maneuver being successfully used -- was country star Luke Bryan telling People Country magazine the truth about an errant piece of flatbread pizza?

A recent article in USA Today portrays Heimlich in a more sympathetic light, perhaps because its author relies mostly on the doctor's own recollections. Heimlich claims that it was he who asked the Red Cross to remove his name, because they had changed their recommendations for helping choking victims to five back slaps, only then to be followed by five abdominal thrusts. "'I wouldn't let them use the Heimlich name,'" he said. "'Why? Because patients were going to die.'"

* This post originally included the sentence, "Whether or not [Heimlich] actually invented his first claim to fame, the flutter valve (also, of course, known as the Heimlich valve) has been called into question." We subsequently learned that we made this claim in error and removed the sentence accordingly. The post also originally stated that Heimlich maintains he performed the world's first full-organ transplant in 1950; the year he performed the procedure was in fact 1955. Meanwhile, the post has been updated to include perspective from Heimlich himself and to include a response from the WHO to Heimlich's claim that his malariotherapy was supported by the organization. We regret the errors and omission.