Iron lung

So where do you keep your Iron Lung?

img0122.jpgA common question among archivists and museum curators in the health sciences, the answer usually involves an off site location that can handle the nearly half-ton piece of equipment. This model belongs to the University of Minnesota and sits idle in warehouse off campus.

I haven’t been able to determine its date of manufacture. The Emerson Co. ceased production in 1970. Its model no. is R, serial no. W. A repair tag indicates the last service date was in 1978.

img0121.jpgThis model is likely from the 1950s. The early Emerson Iron Lungs from the 1930s were a baby blue color. The Smithsonian has the first Emerson model. The Minnesota Historical Society reportedly has a baby-blue Emerson in storage. J. H. Emerson became synonymous with the respirator after his less expensive model usurped the market from the Drinker Respirator developed at Harvard in 1929.

For most of us, looking at an Iron Lung stirs up a sense of claustrophobic restlessness. For those whose lives were saved by the device, a much more complicated set of feelings must be invoked. As of 2004, an estimated 40 people still relied on the respirators to survive.

The people who benefited from the Iron Lung did so with the help of others. They were not just placed inside and parked. The respirator was designed to be as portable as possible despite its weight and reliance on electricity.

A 1953 article in the Minnesotan, a publication for faculty & staff, details the behind the scenes work with the respirators at the University Hospitals. The article describes the care and upkeep of the machines, the planning and process to always have enough on hand at the height of polio outbreaks, and the ways in which patients and their respirators were moved and transported including the use of 50 foot extension cords to go from electrical outlet to outlet and police escorts. Learn more in the article below.