Paul Alexander, polio survivor who lived in iron lung for 70 years, dies age 78 (2024)

Paul Alexander, polio survivor who lived in iron lung for 70 years, dies age 78 (1)

Paul Alexander, an American man who lived in an iron lung for more than 70 years after catching polio, has died at age 78.

Alexander caught the viral disease when he was 6 years old, in the summer of 1952 when he was living in Texas. The first effective polio vaccine wasn't licensed until 1955. Although many people who catch polio don't show any symptoms, about 1 in 200 become paralyzed for life. Among those with paralysis, between 5% and 10% die because their muscles needed for breathing stop working.

In Alexander's case, the infection left him paralyzed from the neck down and unable to breathe independently, so doctors put him in an iron lung, which at the time was a state-of-the-art life-support technology that inhales and exhales on the person's behalf.

Over the next 70 years, Alexander went to college, became a lawyer and published a book about his life, entitled "Three Minutes for a Dog (FriesenPress, 2020)." Alexander's death was announced Tuesday (March 12) on a GoFundMe page organized by Christopher Ulmer, an American disability-rights advocate who met and interviewed Alexander in 2022.

Related: Polio is spreading in the US for the 1st time in decades. Do you need a booster?

"His story traveled wide and far, positively influencing people around the world," Ulmer wrote on the GoFundMe page. "Paul was an incredible role model that will continue to be remembered."

Polio, also known as poliomyelitis, is a highly infectious, viral disease that mainly affects children under the age of 5. It is usually transmitted from one person to the next through contact with poop from an infected individual, or less commonly, via the inhalation of droplets, from a person's sneezes or coughs, for example. Once inside the body, poliovirus multiples in the throat and intestines and can sometimes invade the nervous system, leading to paralysis.

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Iron lungs were introduced as a result of epidemics of polio that were taking place in Europe and the U.S. during the first half of the 20th century. The first one was used in 1928 to save the life of an 8-year-old girl at Boston Children's Hospital.

The devices are large, horizontal cylinders that act as artificial respirators, which work by mimicking the breathing process: air is first sucked out of the box by air pumps that are operated either manually or using a motor. This creates a vacuum that causes the patient's lungs to expand and draw air in. Then, the air is let back into the boxes, increasing the pressure inside and thus deflating the patient's lungs to expel air.

The first polio vaccine, rolled out in the 1950s, was developed by an American virologist named Jonas Salk. Following this, a global initiative sought to eradicate the disease — to drive the number of cases to zero, permanently — from 1988 onward.

This effort has driven cases of wild poliovirus down by more than 99% since 1988. Wild poliovirus infections are the most common known form of polio, as opposed to vaccine-derived poliovirus, a rare scenario in which people can become infected with the weakened, live version of the virus included in some shots. (Because of this risk, many countries, including the U.S., no longer use certain polio vaccines.)

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There were 350,000 estimated cases of wild poliovirus across more than 125 countries in 1988, but just 6 cases in two countries in 2021. Of the three known types of wild poliovirus, two have been eradicated worldwide: type 2 in 2015 and type 3 in 2019. Type 1 still circulates in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

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. For example, today, a tube connected to a ventilator may be inserted into a patient's airway or they may wear a face mask connected to such a device.

Ever wonder why some people build muscle more easily than others or why freckles come out in the sun? Send us your questions about how the human body works to community@livescience.com with the subject line "Health Desk Q," and you may see your question answered on the website!

Paul Alexander, polio survivor who lived in iron lung for 70 years, dies age 78 (2)

Emily Cooke

Staff Writer

Emily is a health news writer based in London, United Kingdom. She holds a bachelor's degree in biology from Durham University and a master's degree in clinical and therapeutic neuroscience from Oxford University. She has worked in science communication, medical writing and as a local news reporter while undertaking journalism training. In 2018, she was named one of MHP Communications' 30 journalists to watch under 30. (emily.cooke@futurenet.com)

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Paul Alexander, polio survivor who lived in iron lung for 70 years, dies age 78 (2024)

FAQs

Paul Alexander, polio survivor who lived in iron lung for 70 years, dies age 78? ›

He was 78 years old. Paul Alexander, the man who lived inside an iron lung for over 70 years after contracting polio, died Monday after being hospitalized for Covid last month, his friends and family said. He was 78. Alexander's death was announced on a GoFundMe set up to help him with finances.

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.

Is anyone still living in an iron lung? ›

Alexander died in Dallas on March 11, 2024, at age 78. Although he had been hospitalized for COVID-19 in February, the actual cause of death was unclear. He was one of the last two people still using the technology, alongside Martha Lillard, who first entered an iron lung in 1953.

Who spent 70 years in an iron lung? ›

Here's how he spent his life. Paul Alexander, a polio survivor who became known as "the man in the iron lung" died on Monday, aged 78.

Can Paul Alexander leave the iron lung? ›

Independent breathing also allowed him to leave the iron lung. At first, he could stay away for just a few minutes. As he became better at his siphon-style breathing, he was able to spend hours outside the chamber, which he had dubbed his “old iron horse.”

Who was the iron lung guy in polio? ›

The polio survivor known as "the man in the iron lung" has died at the age of 78. Paul Alexander contracted polio in 1952 when he was six, leaving him paralysed from the neck down.

What is the life expectancy of someone with post-polio syndrome? ›

Outlook. In most cases, post-polio syndrome life expectancy is good. PPS is rarely life-threatening, though symptoms can vary from mild to severe. If you have PPS, talk to your doctor about how to manage your condition.

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 Paul Richard Alexander still alive? ›

Is an iron lung permanent? ›

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.

Is Martha Ann Lillard still alive? ›

Martha Ann Lillard (born June 8, 1948) is an American polio survivor who is still living in an iron lung. She became the only person after Paul Alexander's death still living in the iron lung. She contracted polio in 1953 when she was five years old. Shawnee, Oklahoma, U.S.

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.

Do people in iron lungs ever get out? ›

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.

Are iron lungs still used today? ›

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 did you have to stay in an 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.

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