Is necessity the mother of invention? Poliomyelitis has existed for thousands of years. There are representations of the disease in ancient art. No device is more associated with poliomyelitis than the tank respirator, better known as the iron lung. Poliomyelitis is more commonly known as polio. Polio can cause muscle weakness in many areas of the body, including the neck and diaphragm. Physicians who treated people in the acute, early stage of polio saw that many patients were unable to breathe when the virus’s action paralyzed muscle groups in the chest. Death was frequent at this stage because of the patient’s inability to breathe.
Nothing worked well in keeping patients breathing until Philip Drinker and Louis Agassiz Shaw at Harvard University devised a version of a tank respirator in 1927 that could maintain breathing artificially until a patient could breathe independently. This would typically be a period of one or two weeks. The machine used an electric motor with two vacuum pumps. The pump changed the pressure inside a rectangular, airtight metal box, allowing air to be pulled in and out of the patient’s lungs.
The idea can be traced back to at least 1670 when John Mayow came up with the idea of external negative pressure ventilation. In 1832 John Dalziel described the first negative pressure ventilator. Early prototypes were hand-powered. The first practical demonstration of the technique was provided by Dr Woillez, a French physician, who was awarded the silver medal of the 1876 Le Havre Exhibition of Life Saving Equipment for his hand-operated bellows, the Spirophore.
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