The Iron Lung Project

About the Project

Researching the history of the iron lung supports BCITS’ desire to provide online access to histories of assistive technologies to their members, supporters, and the general public. The BCITS Iron Lung History Project was designed and implemented by Claire Forsyth and David Gill, Master of Library and Information Studies students at UBC’s School of Library, Archival, and Information Studies.

They collaborated with Nancy Lear, Peer Network Facilitator and Ruth Marzetti, Executive Director, at BCITS. All images taken during the interviews were provided by Claire & David.

Many people who used the iron lung have passed away and it became clear that this project was time sensitive as new patients would not be fitted with an iron lung as their first respiratory technology any longer.

After considering the individual needs of one of the participants, this project was changed from an oral history to a history project with two oral interviews and one written interview.

This project is meant to document the experiences of iron lung users and medical professionals who worked with them. It is meant to provide an insight into the unique history of assistive technologies in Vancouver.

A nurse shares a smile with a child inside an iron lung circa 1960 – 1968. Credit: Mayor John F. Collins Records, Collection #0244.001. City of Boston Archives. Creative Commons License

The Iron Lung

Person in the Iron Lung, circa. 1940 – 1948. Creator: Jack Lindsay, Credit: Vancouver Archives. CVA 1184-2747

The iron lung is a negative pressure ventilator, which means that the pressure created from air moving in and out of the sealed iron lung creates pressure which causes the user’s lungs to expand and deflate, essentially breathing for the user.

The iron lung has been replaced for users by various smaller, mobile positive pressure technologies. However, some users continued to use the iron lung out of comfort and familiarity.

The iron lung was invented in 1928 by Philip Drinker and Louis Agassiz Shaw. Their design was later modified by John Emerson and it started selling in 1931.

From the 1930s – 1950s, the iron lung was widely used by survivors of the polio epidemics as well as by others who experienced damage to their respiratory muscles.

Public Health nursing students demonstrating use of an iron lung for treatment of poliomyelitis during UBC Open House, March 1955. Credit: University of British Columbia Archives, [UBC 561.1/129b]

Iron lung, unknown data and place. Credit: US Food and Administration

The iron lung ward at Rancho Los Amigos Hospital, Downey, California, circa 1953. Credit: US Food and Drug Administration

Civic Hospital evacuation. Navy men carry iron lung from flooded King George Hospital, Winnipeg, Manitoba,1950. Credit: Canada: Inland Waters Directorate, Library and Archives Canada, e002343920


Carol Chao

In 1982, Carol Chao’s first job out of nursing school was at George Pearson Centre. Two residents who lived there used the iron lung when they were sleeping. She currently works as the in-patient manager at GF Strong Rehabilitation Centre in Vancouver. David Gill and Claire Forsyth interviewed Carol at the Centre on March 13th, 2017. In this interview, Carol discusses her experience with the residents.

“I towed his iron lung in a little trailer with me down all the way to Vegas from Vancouver. But what he had was a homemade iron lung because the metal one is too heavy… So it’s this big box, wooden box… It works! It works!”

Walt Lawrence

Walt Lawrence is a Peer Advocacy Counselor for spinal cord injury in-patients at GF Strong Rehabilitation Centre. David Gill and Claire Forsyth interviewed Walt at the Centre in March, 2017. Walt spoke about his own experiences with the iron lung and using positive and negative pressure ventilation.

“It’s amazing how you understand how many muscles you use in breathing – unbelievable. … and then when you come out of that chamber, you’re like: oh, now I’ve got to get that muscle going to breathe.”

Joy Kjellbotn

Joy Kjellbotn was diagnosed with polio when she was just 11 years old in 1953. She currently lives at George Pearson Centre and she wrote to us about her life experiences before, during, and after living in the iron lung. In 2012, Joy self-published a book called “A Moment in Time (that changed everything)” about her experiences.

“The iron lung was exactly what I needed at the time. Now, there is so much new respiratory equipment to choose from, that you are sure to find something that meets your needs and fits your lifestyle, perfectly.”

Documentaries about the iron lung

A silent film from the 1930s that has a demonstration of the iron lung with a user and nurses.

Boston Children’s Hospital Archives created this video to give a demonstration of an iron lung.

Jessica Yu’s Oscar winning documentary of O’Brien, a poet, who contracted polio as a young child and lived in an iron lung for most of his life. (FULL Documentary)

Interview of Mark O’Brien after Breathing Lessons won a Oscar in 1996.

Rate us!