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The Enduring Legacy of the Iron Lung in Overcoming Polio Paralysis

The Life-Saving Function of the Iron Lung

Paul Alexander, who recently passed away at the age of 78, relied on the iron lung for over 70 years after polio left him completely paralyzed in childhood. Developed in the 1920s, this remarkable device enabled him to breathe by mechanically simulating the respiratory process. Lying on his back, encased from the neck down in a metal cylinder, the iron lung created a vacuum to expand and contract his lungs, essentially breathing for him when his muscles could not.

For more than 70 years, Paul Alexander ¿ who died aged 78 this week ¿ was kept alive with the help of 'iron lungs'. The spooky contraption, created in the 1920s, allowed him to breathe after he was completely paralysed as a child by polio. It saw him lay flat on his back, with his head resting on a pillow and body encased in the metal cylinder from the neck down
The lung, which Mr Alexander called his 'old iron horse', saw air sucked out of the cylinder by a set of leather bellows powered by a motor. The negative pressure created by the vacuum forced his lungs to expand. When the air was pumped back in, the change in pressure gently deflated his lungs. It was this rhythmic hiss and sigh sound that kept Mr Anderson alive. In spite of physical constraints, he became an avid painter, traveller and author

Advances and Adaptations in Polio Treatment

The iron lung was pivotal during the polio epidemics of the mid-20th century, particularly after its first successful use in 1928 at Boston Children’s Hospital. At the height of its use, thousands of these devices provided a lifeline in U.S. and UK polio wards. Though initially intended for temporary use during acute illness phases, innovations and the dire need led some, like Mr. Alexander, to depend on them long-term. Remarkably, he adapted a technique known as “frog-breathing” to manage short periods outside the iron lung.

First used at Boston Children's Hospital to save the life of an eight-year-old girl in 1928, the iron lung was made by a team at Harvard University to counteract paralysis of the chest muscles. It soon became a feature of the polio wards of the mid-1900s, with around 1,000 iron lungs in use in the US and 700 in the UK
In an interview with The Guardian in 2020, Mr Alexander revealed that, after three years in the lung, he could leave it for a few hours at a time after learning 'glossopharyngeal breathing'. The technique, which he nicknamed 'frog-breathing', involves taking bigger breaths than you would normally. The gulping action mirrors a frog gulping. He claimed the action quickly became muscle memory and allowed him to leave the lung for short periods, instead sitting in a wheelchair
The yellow iron lung, with its black rubber wheels, could be raised to different heights to suit Mr Alexander's caregiver. Pictured, Paul Alexander with his brother Philip. In a heartbreaking Facebook tribute, Philip called his sibling 'loving' and 'also a pain in the as**'
At 78, Mr Alexander lived long after the invention of the polio vaccine in the 1950s all but eradicated the disease in the Western world. Pictured, Paul Alexander and Kathy Gaines, his carer of 30 years, who he met from a newspaper advert

Polio: Understanding Its Impact and Legacy

Polio, a severe viral infection, primarily affects children and can lead to irreversible muscle weakness and paralysis by attacking motor neurons. While the virus itself does not harm the lungs directly, its impact on the spinal cord can disable the muscles needed for breathing, necessitating mechanical assistance like the iron lung. The introduction of the polio vaccine in the 1950s dramatically reduced the incidence of polio, yet the disease’s legacy continues through those who lived its challenges, like Mr. Alexander, illustrating the profound impact of medical advancements and human resilience.