Emerson Iron Lung


This early respirator for producing artificial respiration over long periods of time was designed and constructed by the donor, John Haven Emerson. Completed in July 1931, it was first used in the summer of that year at the Providence City Hospital, Providence, R.I. The original features claimed for this machine when it was introduced are: the leather diaphragm, which replaced the noisy vacuum-cleaner blower on earlier machines; a hand pump to be used in case of electrical failure; improved gears to simplify adjustment of respiration rate to suit the patient; and simplification of fastenings to permit rapid entry of the patient. The machine is 2.25 m L x 1.8 m H x 95 cm W.

Poliovirus belongs to a family of very small, single-stranded RNA viruses that also includes the pathogens of common cold and infectious hepatitis (Hepatitis A). Many strains of the virus that do not produce serious disease exist, and are capable of inducing immunity. Ironically, improvements in sanitation reduced this natural resistance and opened the way for more and worse epidemics after World War I.

The most serious polio patients suffered respiratory failure, and as early as the 1860s, inventors had experimented with apparatuses for artificial breathing. In 1928, Philip Drinker and Dr. Louis Agassiz Shaw, in Boston, first used the term "iron lung" for their machine that varied pressure to aid polio victims' respiration. John Haven Emerson, who ran a machine shop at Harvard Square making medical and scientific instruments, saw Drinker's and Shaw's device and imagined improvements, which he completed three years later. His respirator not only worked better, it sold for less than half the price of the original "iron lung." Legal battles followed, but Emerson's designs prevailed commercially as the virus created a growing demand.

Date Made: ca 1931

Early Developer: Drinker, PhilipShaw, Louis AgassizBusiness Owner: Emerson, John HavenMaker: Emerson, John HavenJohn Haven Emerson Company

Location: Currently not on view

Place Made: United States: Massachusetts, Cambridge

See more items in: Medicine and Science: Medicine, Health & Medicine, The Antibody Initiative, Antibody Initiative: Polio


Exhibition Location:

Credit Line: Gift of John Haven Emerson

Data Source: National Museum of American History

Id Number: MG.M-04998Catalog Number: M-04998Accession Number: 160980

Object Name: iron lungrespiratorOther Terms: Medicine

Measurements: overall: 67 in x 34 in x 90 in; 170.18 cm x 86.36 cm x 228.6 cm

Guid: http://n2t.net/ark:/65665/ng49ca746ab-61dc-704b-e053-15f76fa0b4fa

Record Id: nmah_728031

Our collection database is a work in progress. We may update this record based on further research and review. Learn more about our approach to sharing our collection online.

If you would like to know how you can use content on this page, see the Smithsonian's Terms of Use. If you need to request an image for publication or other use, please visit Rights and Reproductions.