The Iron Lung History Project

Staff at BCITS are constantly reviewing emerging technology, small portable ventilators with versatile docking stations, mobile phone app controls and wifi technology. Meanwhile at the front of our office stands the large, heavy, chrome clad tank, a relic of history known as the ‘iron lung’; a human sized cylinder with a small, thin mattress inside, a head support outside, a mirror for the occupant to view the world, various clunky openings for helping hands to tend to the occupant and at the end a large leather bellows to draw in the breath.

Nancy Lear, Peer Network Support Facilitator at BCITS, took a look back in time and facilitated a project documenting what it was like for people living in the iron lung. To start off the project, Nancy reached out to Jodie Perkins, an instructor with the UBC iSchool. Jodie connected Nancy with two students, Claire Forsyth & David Gill, from the UBC School of Library, Archival and Information Studies. Their role was to document the history of this awe inspiring and historical piece of equipment.

Nancy introduced the students to three people: Joy Kjellbotn who at the age of 11 spent 6 months in an iron lung; Walt Lawrence who tried the iron lung after he was first injured; and Carol Chao, a nurse, who worked at Pearson’s during the 1980s, taking care of 2 people sleeping in the iron lung.

The project highlights three very different angles of living with the iron lung. Joy described the experience of being inside the iron lung as“very comfortable and not strange or scary” and feeling “very anxious and vulnerable” when she was being taken out of it. Walt’s experience was very different. He found it “Pretty confining. You know, you’re in a big metal tube, with a seal around your neck and just your head out. Feels pretty restrictive. Feels not very normal.” And finally, Carol Chao, as a nurse, telling her story from the point of view of a caregiver and companion. The main message of the project, was as true then as it is today: even when the equipment was cumbersome and heavy to transport, independence is the goal everyone strives for.

The project is available here on our website, please feel free to add any comments or thoughts you have. Nancy Lear continues to document the historic equipment and stories they bring; she has created a video which will be available in the fall showing the history of our Technology for Independent Living (TIL) program. Here at BCITS we have a large number of historical devices and equipment, which we hope to continue to document. If you are interested in joining Nancy by telling your story or being involved in documenting the stories of peers please contact her at

Thanks to the staff and students of UBC School of Library, Archival and Information Studies for helping document this history.

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