Dakota Datebook

Portable Lungs

Friday, September 8, 2017


The polio virus attacks nerves in the spinal cord, causing paralysis. Of crucial importance was the diaphragm, a muscle above the stomach that controls the lungs, which don’t have their own muscles. As the diaphragm moves up, it pushes air out, and when it moves down, air is sucked inward. If the polio virus attacks the diaphragm nerves, the patient can die of suffocation.

To combat this problem, Philip Drinker and Louis Shaw of the Harvard Medical School introduced the iron lung in 1928. This sealed, tank-like contrivance served as the first form of artificial respiration. Polio patients lay inside a chamber with just their head showing at one end. Inside, the machine worked much like the bellows of an accordion. A vacuum within the chamber allowed patients’ lungs to fill with air, and a subsequent cycle of pressure forced them to exhale.

By 1952, the reported cases of polio reached an all-time high, and the public was panicking. As with previous epidemics, people grasped at straws, trying to understand what caused the disease. Water was tested, and all possible remedies were tried. Parents were known to climb ladders to visit their quarantined children through hospital windows.

Victims with paralyzed lungs were completely dependent on mechanical breathing machines; if the electricity went out, their lives were in danger. Also, patients in iron lungs couldn’t be moved until a portable iron lung was invented in 1937. It could be switched to battery power in emergencies.

It was on this date in 1953 that Cass County got its first portable lung. It was given to St. Luke’s Hospital by the Fargo Kiwanis Club, which raised the money through a network of gumball machines. Before the machine could be officially presented, it was put into use by Dale Carlson, a 14-year-old patient who had been hospitalized in Devils Lake for weeks.

The Fargo Forum reported, “The portable lung consists of a large plastic case, covering the chest of the patient, connected to a respirator apparatus.” Indeed, the portable lung looked like a space-age device compared to its submarine-like predecessor.

Interestingly, the hospital’s iron lungs were maintained by the fire department … probably because they could also be used to revive victims of smoke inhalation.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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