No device is more associated with polio than the iron lung.
Its image is still horrifying — appearing more medieval than medical — yet, it was all physicians could provide to keep patients breathing once the poliomyelitis virus attacked the nerves of the respiratory system.
The (usually) young patient, who, regrettably, drank from an unclean glass or employed the same doorknob as somebody who failed to “lave sus manos,” could find himself occupying an airtight, steel and drumlike cylinder nearly the length of a subcompact car.
He could only view the world upside down and backward from the mirror mounted above his head. He could only speak when the negative pressure ventilation device — designed to mimic breathing by using air pressure — was in exhale mode (if, at all).
Harvard’s Philip Drinker, Louis Agassiz Shaw and James Wilson came up with the first iron lung for the treatment of polio victims in 1927. Yet, the cost was prohibitive for most hospitals. The price tag equaled the average charge for a new house.
But that, fortunately, is not the end of the story. Along came biomedical contraption genius John Haven Emerson, who greatly improved the early design.
His lighter, quieter and more efficient machine also halved the cost.
This being America, however, Drinker and Harvard sued Emerson, claiming he had infringed on patent rights.
Emerson’s defense was quite simple. He argued first that lifesaving machines should be freely available to all, and second that every aspect of Drinker’s patents had been published or utilized by others in previous years — in other words, the Drinker iron lung was not unique. Not only did Drinker lose his suit but he also lost all of his patents.
Although numerous celebrities including Alan Alda, Donald Sutherland, Francis Ford Coppola, Arthur C. Clarke, Judy Collins, Joanie Mitchell, Neil Young and Itzhak Perlman were stricken by polio — Franklin D. Roosevelt may not have been one of them.
While the 1921 diagnosis by FDR’s doctors for his below-the-waist paralysis was poliomyelitis, a 2003 University of Texas at Galveston study contends the 32nd president was actually afflicted with Guillain-Barré syndrome.
Polio usually claimed its victims during the warm summer months, with epidemics sweeping through towns every few years. The first recognized U.S. polio epidemic occurred in 1894, and by 1950, the year I contracted the virus, America was in a state of panic.
Cities closed public pools and parks. Parents ordered their children not to drink from “bubblers” (water fountains). Schools canceled graduation ceremonies. And the March of Dimes, founded in 1938 by FDR, was frantically trying to raise money for a cure.
Even though most of those exposed to the virus, like myself, recovered without any lasting infirmity, during 1952, when this sneaky disease (which still has no cure nor identifying causes) was at its peak (3,000 died and 21,000 became permanently paralyzed), parents were understandably terrified.
The next year, however, brought good news. On March 26, 1953, exactly 61 years ago, Dr. Jonas Salk announced the creation of a vaccine that would eradicate poliomyelitis. When asked if he planned to patent the vaccine and make a fortune, Salk, essentially reiterating Emerson’s argument, responded that his vaccine belonged to everyone.
Despite specious anti-vaccination arguments attempting to link Salk’s vaccine with HIV and/or cancer, by 1994, polio was essentially eliminated from the Western Hemisphere via widespread vaccination.
The last case of polio in India was reported in January 2011. Since then, the country has remained wild polio virus-free. This is an unparalleled achievement for a nation, which until 2009, reported more than half the world’s polio cases.
In fact, the entire Southeast Asia Region of the World Health Organization should be announcing a historic polio-free certification by the end of this month.
The poliomyelitis virus only continues to circulate in a handful of countries. As of 2013, those nations included Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan.
Yet, every cloud ultimately yields a silver lining if you bother to look for it. As they matured, polio survivors grew into one of the largest disabled groups in the world. According to the World Health Organization, they remain 10 million to 20 million strong.
When these folks placed themselves at the forefront of the disability rights movement, they provided enough clout to pressure Congress into passing such sorely-needed anti-discrimination legislation as the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
While the only place you can now find an iron lung is in a museum, you can probably locate a copy of Candy Land in any residence with young children.
What you may not know is that in 1945, a schoolteacher named Eleanor Abbott designed the wildly popular board game (“A Sweet Little Game ... for Sweet Little Folks”) while she was recuperating in a San Diego hospital — from polio.