Iron lung used to treat polio patients displayed at Pitt school of public health
An iron lung machine — widely used in the 1950s to treat people with the polio virus — will be on display in the lobby of the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, officials announced Tuesday.
School officials requested the iron lung to honor polio pioneer Dr. Jonas Salk, who developed the polio vaccine in 1955. The vaccine, tested in Pittsburgh schoolchildren, is considered one of medicine’s most significant medical breakthroughs. Salk died in 1995 at age 80.
The machine came from the Salk Institute in La Jolla, Calif., where Salk concluded his career after leaving Pittsburgh.
“It’s a reminder of the advances we have made in public health,” said Dr. Donald Burke, dean of Pitt’s graduate school of public health.
Burke sought the device, used mostly in the 1940s and 1950s when the polio virus terrified much of the nation, as a reminder of the work Pitt is doing to improve people’s lives, officials said.
Almost 58,000 Americans contracted polio during the last major epidemic in the United States in 1952. The virus caused paralysis, breathing problems and, in many cases, death.
“It’s an important symbol of public health,” Burke said.
And a big one, too. Ten men were needed to unload the machine from the truck that made the cross-country trek to Pittsburgh.
The iron lung, painted a dull yellow, weighs 614 pounds and is 7 feet, 8 inches long and 5 feet wide. It arrived in a large wooden crate. Burke said the iron lung is about 65 years old. A sign on its side identifies it as an Emerson Respirator made by the J.H. Emerson Co. of Cambridge, Mass.
The iron lung served as a negative pressure ventilator. Patients were placed in a sealed chamber with an opening for the head. Pumps inside the chamber increased and decreased the air pressure, helping the patient to breathe. During the 1940s and 1950s, it was not uncommon to see rows of the machines in children’s hospital wards, when polio was prevalent. Most patients spent a week in the device, some longer.
With Salk’s invention of a successful polio vaccine in 1955, the iron lungs became obsolete and were replaced by more modern respirators.
According to the World Health Organization, polio remains endemic in three countries: Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria. There were 22 cases of polio reported in 2017, compared with more than 350,000 in 1988.
The iron lung will be on permanent display in the lobby of Pitt Public Health that faces Fifth Avenue at the corner of Desoto Street in Oakland.