Emerson Iron Lung

Emerson Iron Lung

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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.
Currently not on view
Object Name
iron lung
Other Terms
date made
ca 1931
early developer
Drinker, Philip
Shaw, Louis Agassiz
business owner
Emerson, John Haven
Emerson, John Haven
John Haven Emerson Company
Place Made
United States: Massachusetts, Cambridge
overall: 67 in x 34 in x 90 in; 170.18 cm x 86.36 cm x 228.6 cm
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
Credit Line
Gift of John Haven Emerson
See more items in
Medicine and Science: Medicine
Health & Medicine
The Antibody Initiative
Antibody Initiative: Polio
Data Source
National Museum of American History
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"In the summers of 1952 and 1953 I worked in the factory at the final assembly point. Working with me in another section of the factory was my school friend Haven Emerson, John's son. I made $l.00 an hour, Haven made $1.10. I was 16, Haven was 17."
"After a book I read, I've always wanted to see a real one, used around the 1940's."

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