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Iron lung inhales interest at Schaeffer House

MIRACLE BOX: Schaeffer House volunteer Suzanne Gibson in the museum's medical section with the iron lung. The tall structure behind it is an X-ray machine.
MIRACLE BOX: Schaeffer House volunteer Suzanne Gibson in the museum's medical section with the iron lung. The tall structure behind it is an X-ray machine. Belinda Scott

THE Henderson Respirator, the breathing machine that became known as the iron lung, was invented by a young Scottish doctor in the early 1930s.

Robert Henderson, the son of a village blacksmith, was working at City Hospital, Aberdeen when he became interested in the intensive care of patients with respiratory problems.

During a visit to America, he saw a demonstration of a tank respirator called the Drinker Respirator and once back in Aberdeen, he and the hospital engineer worked in the evenings and at weekends top make their own version.

Using portholes and other items from ships' chandleries, they built a negative pressure ventilator made up of an airtight cabinet to enclose the body from the neck down, mounted on a children's cot, with a vacuum pump attached and portholes for viewing.

Four weeks after it was completed, the Henderson Respirator was used to save the life of a 10-year-old boy suffering from polio, the first case in Britain to be treated in this way.

Despite its success, the local authority's medical officer was annoyed by the publicity and Henderson was reprimanded for having secretly made the machine using the hospital's facilities.

As a result, he never sent his draft paper on the case for publication.

It finally appeared in the Scottish Medical Journal in 1997, when Dr Henderson was 95.

However, his invention was widely used and in December 1938 leading British industrialist and philanthropist Lord Nuffield offered to manufacturer the respirators and supply them free of charge to any hospital in Britain and the British Empire that requested one.

Grafton received one of the 1700 his factory made and distributed around the world. It now rests in the city's Schaeffer House Museum.

The bulky and cumbersome iron lung did not become obsolete until the arrival of the first positive pressure ventilators, which force air directly into the lungs, in the 1950s.

After polio epidemics, the 1960s became an era of respiratory intensive care and new types of ventilators evolved.

Topics:  belinda scott grafton iron lung seniorsnewspapers


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