Polio Place

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John "Jack" Haven Emerson

Born: February 5, 1906
Died: February 4, 1997

Major Contribution:

A self-taught American inventor of biomedical devices, Emerson specialized in respiratory equipment (see "Polio Equipment Price List, March 31, 1956") and made improvements to the design of the iron lung. The Emerson lung was lighter, quieter, simpler, more reliable and was widely used in the ‘30s and ‘40s and the 1950s polio epidemics.

Other Information:

Brief Biography: John Haven Emerson was born in 1906 in New York City, the son of Dr. Haven Emerson (Haven, a highly-respected New York City Commissioner of Health for many years, was the force behind the quarantine of families during the 1916 polio epidemics). John “Jack” Emerson never graduated from high school, but his inventiveness resulted in 35 patent designs, including diving equipment.

Emerson Iron Lung:  In 1969, LIFECARE Services, Inc, now Respironics Colorado (Philips), entered into a contract with the March of Dimes (MOD) to maintain respiratory equipment provided by the MOD to polio survivors. This included the iconic J. H. Emerson iron lung. (LIFECARE was founded in 1968 in Boulder, Colorado, by James C. Campbell and sold to Respironics in 1996.)

In 1984, LIFECARE purchased MOD’s inventory assuming all responsibility for the equipment. The MOD continued to pay LIFECARE a mutually-agreed upon fee for equipment for survivors who didn’t have private insurance or governmental support.

In a 2004 letter, George Emerson, President of J. H. Emerson and son of Jack, reported that the company didn’t manufacture iron lungs after 1970, and “the production numbers in the 1960s was limited. Having not manufactured the device for over 30 years, we are no longer able to provide replacement parts for them.”

That same year, when it was obvious that parts were no longer available and the stock was low, Respironics Colorado alerted users of the older equipment * and their physicians of the problem. The company worked with them to switch to newer more efficient respiratory equipment and/or to assist them to assure the equipment was maintained. The number of individuals using the iron lung rented from Respironics Colorado in 2004 was 35. In 2011, the number is 9. To date, no iron lung user who has contacted the company has been denied service. An unknown number of individuals own their iron lung.

In the early 1990s, the JH Emerson Company, Cambridge, Massachusetts, developed a machine called the In-Exsufflator (later to be called the CoughAssist) to assist with coughing. The device was reminiscent of the Cof-flator made in the late 1950s and early 1960s by the O.E.M. Corporation.

Emerson died in 1997 at 90 years of age.

The Emerson Company was purchased by Respironics in 2007. See related article from the Pittsburgh Business Times.

* Examples of other older equipment include the rocking bed (J.H. Emerson), Bantam and Bantam GS (Thompson), the cuirass/shells and Pulmo-wraps powered by the 170C (Monaghan), Huxley and the Maxivent (Thompson). The Bantams, Monaghan 170Cs and the Huxleys were also used for mouth positive pressure breathing, as was Puritan-Bennett’s AP5 IPPB (intermittent positive pressure breathing).


Location of papers:  The papers and other documents of the Emerson Company are privately held by the family. 

The JH Emerson Company produced a booklet entitled “The Evolution of  Iron Lungs.”

Additional information can be found at The Center For Disability And Public History's Disability History Museum and in a Time magazine article published in 1933 about the Drinker/Emerson dispute. The Boston Globe published an obituary February 7, 1997. A tribute was published in Respiratory Care, July 1998, Vol. 43, No. 7. An example of the Emerson iron lung is housed at the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. Information on the Emerson infant respirator is available from the Dittrick Center at Case Western Reserve University.

Major Articles: John "Jack" Haven Emerson

From PubMed (a service of the U.S. National Library of Medicine and the National Institute of Health).

Significance Of The Iron Lung In The Therapy Of Acute Anterior Poliomyelitis. Misgeld Fj. Med Welt. 1951 Jul 14;20(27-28):908. Undetermined Language. No abstract available.

Permanent Artificial Respiration With The Iron Lung; Report On 105 Respiratorily Paralyzed Poliomyelitis Patients From 1947 To 1952. Aschenbrenner R, Donhardt A, Foth K. Munch Med Wochenschr. 1953 Jul 10;95(28):777-81; Concl. Undetermined Language. No Abstract Available.

Therapy Of Poliomyelitic Respiratory Paralysis With Special Reference To Iron Lung. Bottner H. Med Klin (Munich). 1953 Jul 10;48(28):999-1002. Undetermined Language. No Abstract Available.

Clinical Considerations On Iron Lung In Poliomyelitis. Damonte R, Seoane Mm. Prensa Med Argent. 1953 Feb 6;40(6):330-6. Undetermined Language. No Abstract Available.

An Improved Iron Lung. Murray Aj. Br Med J. 1956 Jun 9;1(4979):1361. No Abstract Available. Free Full Text In Pubmed Central.

Respiration Of Poliomyelitis Patients In The Iron Lung. Bruner H, Hornicke H, Stoffregen J. Dtsch Med Wochenschr. 1954 Oct 8;79(41):1538. German. No abstract available.

Use Of The Iron Lung In Polio. Gros J. Munch Med Wochenschr. 1954 Jul 16;96(29):837-9. German. No Abstract Available.

Upper airway obstruction induced by negative-pressure ventilation in awake healthy subjects. Sanna A, Veriter C, Stănescu D. J Appl Physiol. 1993 Aug;75(2):546-52.

Ventilatory and diaphragmatic EMG changes during negative-pressure ventilation in healthy subjects. Rodenstein DO, Cuttitta G, Stănescu DC. J Appl Physiol. 1988 Jun;64(6):2272-8.

Adult respiratory distress syndrome: successful support with continuous negative extrathoracic pressure. Morris AH, Elliott CG. Crit Care Med. 1985 Nov;13(11):989-90.

From the poliomyelitis epidemic to the founding of artificial respiration centres, intensive care units and centres for home mechanical ventilation. Meinesz AF, Wijkstra PJ, Zijlstra JG, Albers MJ, Köter GH. Ned Tijdschr Geneeskd. 2006 Feb 25;150(8):444-9. Dutch.

Mouth intermittent positive pressure ventilation in the management of postpolio respiratory insufficiency. Bach JR, Alba AS, Bohatiuk G, Saporito L, Lee M. Chest 1987 Jun;91(6):859-64.

Effects of intermittent negative pressure ventilation on effective ventilation in normal awake subjects. Glérant JC, Jounieaux V, Parreira VF, Dury M, Aubert G, Rodenstein DO. Chest. 2002 Jul;122(1):99-107.

Treatment of acute exacerbations of chronic respiratory failure: integrated use of negative pressure ventilation and noninvasive positive pressure ventilation. Todisco T, Baglioni S, Eslami A, Scoscia E, Todisco C, Bruni L, Dottorini M. Chest. 2004 Jun;125(6):2217-23.

Iron lung versus conventional mechanical ventilation in acute exacerbation of COPD. Corrado A, Ginanni R, Villella G, Gorini M, Augustynen A, Tozzi D, Peris A, Grifoni S, Messori A, Nozzoli C, Berni G. Eur Respir J. 2004 Mar; 23(3):419-24.

Effect of assist negative pressure ventilation by microprocessor based iron lung on breathing effort. Gorini M, Villella G, Ginanni R, Augustynen A, Tozzi D, Corrado A. Thorax. 2002 Mar;57(3):258-62.

"The steel cocoon". Tales of the nurses and patients of the iron lung, 1929-1955. Dunphy LM. Nurs Hist Rev. 2001;9:3-33. No abstract available. Scotland's first iron lung. Porter IA, Williams MJ. Scott Med J. 1997 Aug;42(4):122-4.

Scotland's first iron lung. Porter IA, Williams MJ. Scott Med J. 1997 Aug;42(4):122-4.

Effectiveness of home ventilation of young children and infants. Wollinsky KH, Mindé A, Schreiber H, Kluger P, Mehrkens HH. Med Klin (Munich). 1995 Apr;90(1 Suppl 1):57-9. German.

Noninvasive mechanical ventilation with the iron lung. Frederick C. Crit Care Nurs Clin North Am. 1994 Dec;6(4):831-40.

Iron lung treatment of acute on chronic respiratory failure: 16 yrs of experience. Corrado A, Gorini M, De Paola E, Bruscoli G, Tozzi D, Augustynen A, Nutini S, Ginanni R. Monaldi Arch Chest Dis. 1994 Dec;49(6):552-5.

The genesis of the iron lung. Early attempts at administering artificial respiration to patients with poliomyelitis. Markel H. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 1994 Nov;148(11):1174-80. No abstract available.

Home mechanical ventilation in Switzerland in 1990. Future developments. Chevrolet JC, Fitting JW, Knoblauch A, Domenighetti G. Schweiz Med Wochenschr. 1991 Mar 16;121(11):368-77. French.

Can ventilation based on the principle of the iron lung act today as a substitute for or an alternative method to conventional forms of ventilation? Pichlmayr I, Pohl S, Knitsch W, Schultz A. Anaesthesist. 1991 Jan;40(1):39-46. German.

Home ventilatory support--retrospective view and perspectives. Knoblauch A, Walther P. Ther Umsch. 1990 Nov;47(11):885-9. German.

Psychologic characteristics of polio survivors: a preliminary report. Conrady LJ, Wish JR, Agre JC, Rodriquez AA, Sperling KB. Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 1989 Jun;70(6):458-63.

A medical triumph: the iron lung. Gorham J. Respir Ther. 1979 Jan-Feb;9(1):71-3. No abstract available. Negative-pressure ventilatory support in the home Flasch M. Respir Ther. 1986 Sep-Oct;16(5):21-5.

Monitoring of the patient in an iron lung. Spada E, Cellini F, Cioni R, Cremonini C, Perri G, Priolo U, Staffa C, Carnevali L, Ledinek M. G Clin Med. 1978 Jan-Feb;59(1-2):43-50. Italian. No Abstract Available.

The Mechanism Of Acute Exacerbation In Chronic Pulmonary Diseases And The Treatment Of Acute Exacerbation In Chronic Pulmonary Diseases, Especially With "Iron Lung". 2. The Treatment Of Acute Exacerbation In Chronic Pulmonary Diseases, Especially With "Iron Lung." Ando H. Naika Hokan. 1972;19(2):45-58. Japanese. No Abstract Available.

Articles from WorldCat

Spirit - Stricken with polio 41 years ago, Mark O'Brien became a published writer and the subject of an Oscar-winning film--all from inside an iron lung. People weekly. (July 14, 1997): 77 Chicago: Time, c1974- ArticleFirst.

Last days of the iron lung. 2005. (sound recording) Dudley F Rochester. Charlottesville, VA: Claude Moore Health Sciences Library, University of Virginia Health System.

Landmark perspective: The iron lung. First practical means of respiratory support. PA Drinker; McKhann CF 3rd. JAMA : the Journal of the American Medical Association, 1986 Mar 21; 255(11): 1476-80 Database: From MEDLINE®/PubMed®, a database of the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

Inside the Iron Lung. Mimi Rudulph. Abbotsbrook, Bourne End, Buckinghamshire : Kensal Press, ©1984.

Political return of the iron lung. DS Greenberg. Lancet, 1993 Dec 18-25; 342(8886-8887): 1543 Database: From MEDLINE®/PubMed®, a database of the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

The iron lung as history: a curator's thoughts. Jack Lufkin.  Palimpsest. Vol. 75, no. 1 (Spring 1994).

The iron lung: halfway technology or necessary step? JH Maxwell. The Milbank quarterly, 1986; 64(1): 3-33 Database: From MEDLINE®/PubMed®, a database of the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

The Death of a Disease: A History of the Eradication of Poliomyelitis. Bernard Seytre, Mary Shaffer; NetLibrary, Inc. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, ©2005.

The Man in the iron lung: poems. Mark O'Brien Book : Poetry Berkeley, CA : Lemonade Factory, ©1997.

Breathing lessons the life and work of Mark O'Brien. 1996. (videorecording; VHS tape) Jessica Yu; Sandra Tsing Loh; Mark O'Brien; Pacific News Service.; Inscrutable Films.; Fanlight Productions. Boston, MA : Fanlight Productions.

The iron lung: first practical means of respiratory support. Philip Drinker; Charles F McKhann. JAMA, Vol. 255, no. 11.March 21 1986.

The Man in the Iron Lung: the Frederick B. Snite, Jr. Story. Leonard C Hawkins Publisher: Garden City, N.Y., Doubleday, 1956.

An improved iron lung. Aj Murray. British Medical Journal, 1956 Jun 9; 1(4979): 1361 Database: From MEDLINE®/PubMed®, a database of the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

100 Medical Milestones that Shaped World History. Ruth DeJauregui. San Mateo, CA: Bluewood Books, ©1998.

A Being Breathing Thoughtful Breath: The History of the British Iron Lung, 1832-1995. Richard Hill. Langley, Berks ©1995.

A practical mechanical respirator, 1929: the "iron lung." JA Meyer .The Annals of thoracic surgery, 1990 Sep; 50(3): 490-3. Database: From MEDLINE®/PubMed®, a database of the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

The iron lung. R. Long. Medical technicians bulletin, 1952 Sep-Oct; 3(5): 202-6. Database: From MEDLINE®/PubMed®, a database of the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

Has the "iron lung" been superseded? A Kukowka. The British journal of clinical practice, 1961 Dec; 15: 1023-8. Database: From MEDLINE®/PubMed®, a database of the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

Portraits of Mark O'Brien. 1995. (archival visual material) Jessica Yu. CA.

Breathing lessons the life and work of Mark O'Brien. 1996 (video recording; VHS tape) J. Yu.

Key word suggestions for additional publication searches: artificial respiration, mechanical ventilation, pulmonary ventilation, respiratory paralysis, poliomyelitis, iron lung, Drinker iron lung.


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