Emerson Respirator or Iron Lung (2024)

Watch our latest video about the Emerson Respirator, now on display at the Medical Heritage Center.

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Manufactured by the J. H. Emerson Company, Circa 1940s

Poliomyelitis (polio) is a disabling and life-threatening infectious disease cause by the poliovirus. The virus spreads from person to person and can cause motor paralysis and disrupt the normally involuntary act of breathing. Incidents of polio began to rise to epidemic proportions, reaching their peak in the U.S. in 1952. An iron lung, a medical device used to treat polio patients, became one of the most iconic objects of the polio epidemic.

In 1931, John Haven Emerson, designed and invented the Emerson Respirator, an improvement over the Drinker model developed in 1928. Emerson's design replaced blowers and valves with a flexible diaphragm in a dual layer; made improvements to the chamber; added a quick opening and closing function; made an improved pressure gauge; added an emergency hand operation in case of power failure; and, later added a transparent positive pressure dome. With a $1,000 price tag, it sold for less than half the price of Drinker's model. The J. H. Emerson Company ceased manufacturing iron lungs in 1970.

Iron lungs such as Emerson’s create a microenvironment that mimic the way the body’s chest muscles and diaphragm move air into and out of the lungs. The patient lies on his or her back on a removable bed. The head rests on a stand outside the machine with a rubber collar around the neck to provide the seal necessary to maintain the pressurized environment. The movement of a diaphragm at the feet end of the tank alternately increases and decreases the pressure inside the tank to above and below the atmospheric pressure outside of the tank. As the pressure increases in the tank, air is forced out of the patient’s lungs through the mouth, and as pressure decreases in the tank, air is drawn into the patient’s lungs. Using the portholes, the patient is cared for by medical personnel with minimal removal from the chamber.

One of the biggest problems for patients was boredom. A mirror was attached above the patient’s head, so they could see what was happening around them. Most patients only used the iron lung for a few weeks or months depending on the severity of the polio attack, but those left with their chest muscles permanently paralyzed by the disease faced a lifetime of confinement. In 1959, there were 1,200 people using iron lungs in the U.S., but by 2017, there were only three.

Due to the near eradication of polio in most of the world with Jonas Salk’s vaccine in 1952, the use of iron lungs is largely obsolete. However, in early 2020, to address the urgent global shortage of modern ventilators needed for patients with advanced, severe COVID-19, prototypes of new, readily producible versions of the iron lung were developed.

Emerson Respirator or Iron Lung (2024)

FAQs

What is better than iron lung? ›

Positive pressure ventilators work by blowing air into the patient's lungs via intubation through the airway; they were used for the first time in Blegdams Hospital, Copenhagen, Denmark, during a polio outbreak in 1952. It proved a success and by 1953 it had superseded the iron lung throughout Europe.

Is an iron lung the same as a respirator? ›

Air pumps, later a bellows, raised and lowered pressure within the tank to assume the entire work of breathing. Popularly named the iron lung, the Drinker respirator supported thousands of patients afflicted with respiratory paralysis during the polio era.

Why is the iron lung no longer used? ›

In 1959, there were 1,200 people using iron lungs in the U.S., but by 2017, there were only three. Due to the near eradication of polio in most of the world with Jonas Salk's vaccine in 1952, the use of iron lungs is largely obsolete.

How is the iron lung different from the ventilator? ›

Unlike most of today's ventilators, the iron lung is a negative pressure ventilator. In contrast, most modern ventilators, the ones that you see people hooked up to with a tube going down to their lungs, are positive pressure ventilators. What's the difference? A positive pressure ventilator pushes air into your lungs.

What are the disadvantages of iron lung? ›

A limitation for the iron-lung is that it cannot accommodate large obese people (due to the size of their bodies), tracheostomized patients (possible cannula obstruction) and patients with gastrointestinal bleeding or with recent abdominal surgery. These limitations are reduced in the use of cuirass or the “poncho”.

How do iron lung patients shower? ›

Then directly afterwards then we had the bathing, and the iron lung would pull out. The attendants would have a tub that they would have sometimes in their hand but then would bring a stool over put the tub there, and they would go lower body first, always the chest, the arms, washcloth, not sponge.

Is there another option for iron lung? ›

But for patients dependent on them to breathe, the old iron lungs were gradually replaced with modern ventilators. Ventilators are used today in intensive care units and emergency wards rather than for polio victims.

Does anyone still use an iron lung machine? ›

As polio case numbers have dropped, iron lungs have disappeared from use, with only a handful of people who were already in the devices, like Alexander, still using them. Nowadays, patients who need help to breathe are instead given modern ventilators, which don't require a person to be immobilized in a tube.

How long do you stay in an iron lung? ›

Then air was blown in, the pressure would cause the lungs to deflate — breathing out. "The rhythmic 'whoosh' of air from the iron lung became the reassuring sound of patients breathing," the museum says. These machines were typically only used by a patient for a few weeks or months until they could gradually recover.

Is an iron lung a hyperbaric chamber? ›

As of 2022, only two known people in the United States were still reliant iron lungs. Hyperbaric Chamber: Different from an iron lung in design and function, a hyperbaric chamber is an enclosure whereby the air inside is raised to a level that is higher than normal air pressure.

Are there any polio survivors left? ›

Over 12 million people, worldwide have been affected by polio as indicated by the CDC. There is no central system for reporting post-polio syndrome, but it is estimated that 300,000 individuals are survivors of polio in the United States and have mild to severe symptoms.

How many people are still in iron lungs? ›

Decades after polio, Martha is among the last to still rely on an iron lung to breathe. At least one other American was known to be relying on an iron lung in recent years: Martha Lillard, who contracted polio one year after Alexander.

Why did Paul Alexander stay in an iron lung? ›

Paul had survived a serious bout of polio, but had been left quadriplegic. After an emergency tracheostomy operation, he was unable to breathe without the iron lung machine that now encased his small body.

Are you awake on a ventilator? ›

While you're on a ventilator, your provider will try to keep you as awake as possible while ensuring you're calm and comfortable. They'll use medications as needed to keep you relaxed. It's not uncommon for you to be awake (conscious), but you might feel sleepy, confused or not fully aware of what's happening.

Is Polio Paul still alive? ›

What replaced iron lungs? ›

Barlow Respiratory Hospital keeps one iron lung on display as a reminder of those days. Now, modern mechanical ventilators, positive pressure ventilation systems, are the standard of care and work by blowing air into a patient's airways and lungs using a breathing tube.

Do people recover from iron lung? ›

Some patients spent just a short time in the iron lung, perhaps weeks or months until they were able to regain chest strength and breath independently again. But for patients whose chest muscles were permanently paralysed, the iron lung remained the key to survival.

What is the difference between cuirass ventilator and iron lung? ›

The two most common types are the raincoat (or “poncho”) ventilator and the cuirass (or “chest shell”) ventilator. Unlike the iron lung, which enclosed the entire body below the neck, raincoat and cuirass ventilators do not enclose or limit movement of the lower half of the body.

Do doctors still use iron lungs? ›

As polio case numbers have dropped, iron lungs have disappeared from use, with only a handful of people who were already in the devices, like Alexander, still using them. Nowadays, patients who need help to breathe are instead given modern ventilators, which don't require a person to be immobilized in a tube.

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