Paul Alexander, forced into an iron lung by polio in 1952, dies at 78 (2024)

Paul Alexander, who held a Guinness World Record for living the longest with the help of an iron lung, has died. Here, medical staff stand among iron lung machines in an emergency polio ward at Haynes Memorial Hospital in Boston, Mass., on Aug. 16, 1955, when the city's polio epidemic hit a high of 480 cases. AP hide caption

toggle caption

AP

Paul Alexander, who held a Guinness World Record for living the longest with the help of an iron lung, has died. Here, medical staff stand among iron lung machines in an emergency polio ward at Haynes Memorial Hospital in Boston, Mass., on Aug. 16, 1955, when the city's polio epidemic hit a high of 480 cases.

AP

Polio struck Paul Alexander in 1952, when he was just 6 years old. Within days, the disease robbed him of the use of his body. But he fought through the illness, using an iron lung for more than 70 years — and inspiring people with his determination to live a full life. He painted, wrote a book and worked for years as an attorney.

"Paul took a lot of pride in being a positive role model for others," his friend Christopher Ulmer, who organized a GoFundMe page for Alexander in 2022, said in a message to NPR. "More than anything I believe he would want others to know they are capable of great things."

Shots - Health News

Wiping Out Polio: How The U.S. Snuffed Out A Killer

Alexander died on Monday at age 78, according to a notice by the Grove Hill Funeral Home & Memorial Park in his hometown of Dallas, Texas.

Ulmer says he first met Alexander when he filmed an interview with him; the two stayed in touch afterward. Ulmer launched a donation campaign for Alexander after people betrayed his trust and left him in need of better living accommodations, he said. In response, people donated more than $140,000.

YouTube

"It allowed him to live his last few years stress-free," Alexander's brother, Philip, said in a statement shared by Ulmer. "It will also pay for his funeral during this difficult time. It is absolutely incredible to read all the comments and know that so many people were inspired by Paul. I am just so grateful."

The man in the iron lung, living a large life

Alexander contracted polio during the worst years of the U.S. outbreak, a time when hospital wards held row after row of children lying in iron lungs — seven-foot-long cylinders that use negative pressure and bellows to draw air into their lungs.

The disease progressed quickly in Alexander, shutting his young body down in a matter of days. He survived thanks to a last-minute tracheotomy; from there, he set out to push beyond the limits of his condition. Holding a rod in his mouth, he was able to turn pages in books and create art. He went to high school, college and law school — and, later in life, he used a rod to type out words on a keyboard to write his autobiography.

"My parents taught me to use my intelligence and my energy to be productive," Alexander said in a 2017 video by Gizmodo. "I've never thought of myself as a cripple. That's the word I choose to use because I think it covers the ground in most people's perceptions."

"I'm crippled in most people's minds, except mine," he said, adding later, "I'm Paul Alexander, human being."

He was eventually recognized by Guinness World Records as the longest-surviving iron lung patient.

Radio Diaries

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. Both of them were able to learn to breathe outside of the massive respirator for hours at a time, using a technique that required them to intentionally swallow air. But each night, they would return to the iron lung.

"I've tried all the forms of ventilation, and the iron lung is the most efficient and the best and the most comfortable way," Lillard told the Radio Diaries project.

The polio vaccine emerged in the 1950s

In 1955, the polio vaccine developed by Jonas Salk and his colleagues became an essential tool to fight the feared disease — and one for which Salk never sought a patent. It ended years of panic and fear.

"The first known polio outbreak in the United States was in Vermont in 1894," according to the Smithsonian Museum of American History. By the time Lillard and Alexander got sick in the early 1950s, polio epidemics had been growing worse and worse, with tens of thousands of new cases reported each year, often in the summer. Different people experienced differing symptoms, from a flu-like condition to a spreading paralysis.

Goats and Soda

The dream of wiping out polio might need a rethink

"Communities reacted with dread because no one understood how or why people got it, and because children were the most frequently affected," the museum said, posting images showing closed playgrounds and signs barring children under age 16 from entering cities.

The U.S. officially eliminated "wild" transmission of polio in 1979, but sporadic cases have popped up over the years, including a 2022 case involving an unvaccinated traveler in Rockland County, N.Y.

Paul Alexander, forced into an iron lung by polio in 1952, dies at 78 (2024)

FAQs

Paul Alexander, forced into an iron lung by polio in 1952, dies at 78? ›

Paul Alexander thrived while using an iron lung for decades after contracting polio as a child. A Texas man who spent decades using an iron lung after contracting polio as a child has died at the age of 78. Paul Alexander's longtime friend Daniel Spinks says he died Monday at a Dallas hospital.

Why is Paul Alexander still 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.

Is the iron lung Guy still alive? ›

Paul Richard Alexander (January 30, 1946 – March 11, 2024) was an American paralytic polio survivor, lawyer and writer. The last man to live in an iron lung, he contracted polio in 1952 at the age of six.

Who was the man in the iron lung that died at 78? ›

Paul Alexander, 78-year-old Dallas man who lived in an iron lung for most of his life, dies. DALLAS – Paul Alexander, a North Texas man who lived in an iron lung for most of his life, has died. According to his obituary, he died on March 11. He was 78.

How long does someone stay in an iron lung? ›

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.

How do you bathe in an iron lung? ›

The iron lung was old school and in fact that you had the placement where his head was—right here—and underneath that, you had to screw down just to get his head to move down to where they would put in a tub with a slit opening where his head would go into, and that's where they could wash it.

Does anyone live in an iron lung anymore? ›

On March 11, 2024, Paul Alexander of Dallas, Texas, United States, died at the age of 78. He had been confined to an iron lung for 72 years from the age of six, longer than anyone, and was the last man living in an iron lung. With his death, Martha Lillard is the only person in the U.S. known to use an iron lung.

Who is the longest living polio survivor? ›

Alexander was declared the longest surviving iron lung patient last March by the Guinness World Records. He contracted polio during an epidemic of the debilitating disease in the 1950s as a child living in Texas. Despite his condition, Alexander graduated from college with a law degree and ran his own legal practice.

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.

Can people get out of an iron lung? ›

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. Both of them were able to learn to breathe outside of the massive respirator for hours at a time, using a technique that required them to intentionally swallow air.

Did Paul Alexander get married? ›

The man with the iron lung, Paul Alexander, was forbidden from marrying. the love of his life by her mother, who ripped their romance apart. Polio Paul met Claire when he was at university. studying to be a lawyer.

Why do people with polio need an iron lung? ›

The iron lung is a 6-foot-long cylindrical unit that functions as a ventilator, or breathing machine, for people who were paralyzed in the upper body by polio.

What is the difference between an iron lung and a 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.

Were iron lungs painful? ›

Going into an iron lung was a bewildering process for patients, many of whom were delirious and in extreme pain. Life in an iron lung was difficult for both patient and carers. The numerous tasks involved in treating the patient included: blood transfusions.

Is Polio Paul still alive? ›

Do people still get put in 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.

Why did people have to stay in an iron lung? ›

A medical miracle made of metal helped polio sufferers to breathe in the 1900s. The tank respirator, or iron lung, reads like a medical curiosity in modern times thanks to vaccines for the polio virus created by Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin in the 1950s and 1960s.

What replaced the 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.

Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Foster Heidenreich CPA

Last Updated:

Views: 6426

Rating: 4.6 / 5 (76 voted)

Reviews: 91% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Foster Heidenreich CPA

Birthday: 1995-01-14

Address: 55021 Usha Garden, North Larisa, DE 19209

Phone: +6812240846623

Job: Corporate Healthcare Strategist

Hobby: Singing, Listening to music, Rafting, LARPing, Gardening, Quilting, Rappelling

Introduction: My name is Foster Heidenreich CPA, I am a delightful, quaint, glorious, quaint, faithful, enchanting, fine person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.