A machine that creates artificial respiration -- that is, it breathes for you. Early iron lungs were huge cylinders that enclosed the entire body, except the head. (The patient lay horizontal, and the patient's head was supported just outside the apparatus.)

To create inhalation, a vacuum pump lowers the air pressure inside the cylinder. This causes the chest to expand, drawing air in. Normal air pressure is then restored inside the chamber, letting air out of the chest.

Although modern respirators and ventilators are now portable and less bulky, some iron lungs are still in use.

In the fifties, the spectre of an iron lung was every parent's fear--it was the physical manifestion of polio.

I actually remember this image, though dimly, from a time when public swimming pools used to be closed when there were outbreaks of polio; when children were condemned to lives inside these cumbersome, but lifesaving devices.

Even with all the problems associated with early polio vaccines, of which I am a recipient, the benefits I believe outweigh the risks.

Those who challenge the benefits of vaccination should do well to attempt to remember the days of the iron lung, and the days when the clear and present danger of disease could not be warded off with just saying no.

The machine invented by Phillip Drinker of Harvard School of Public Health in 1926 was officially known as a Drinker respirator, or the Emerson tank after its main manufacturer, but the term "iron lung" quickly became the standard term for it. Drinker's first machine was a tin box with used vacuum cleaner blowers attached through valves, and an end plate with a rubber collar for the user's neck. It took a long time to get it to provide adequate respiration for a paralyzed polio patient, but in 1928, its first trial on an actual patient kept an eight-year-old girl alive for a week when she had been blue with oxygen deprivation before the device was turned on. This was a revolution in care for people who couldn't breathe on their own.

However, at first there were neither enough machines nor medical personnel who knew how to use them during the polio epidemics of the 1930s. The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, formed in 1938, took as one of its goals supplying both people and tanks to all the hospitals with a need. Army planes flew them to epidemic locations. Hospitals often had to hire engineers to keep them running, since an iron lung might have to function for six months without stopping. Any kind of failure set off a built-in alarm and they could be hand-pumped in the event of power outages.

However, patients were essentially stuck in a box. Some were completely paralyzed; others could move their arms and legs, though the muscles for breathing were paralyzed, and some models did have armholes. The lucky patients had radios, or occasionally even a TV to keep them occupied; others had books in overhead racks but were forced to wait for someone else to turn the pages. It could also get a little unpleasant inside the box, since patients were not able to get out to a bathroom. For patients who couldn't breathe unassisted long enough to have the sheets inside changed, it was possible to exchange the bed linens through side vents, but the wrinkled results could dig into a paralyzed person's body. Many of the paralyzed patients had a tracheotomy, so they couldn't speak normally and had to click their teeth together, make popping sounds with their lips, or compress and release air between cheek and tongue (like urging a horse forward) to summon help. They also couldn't cough, sneeze, blow nose, rendering secondary infections a problem.

And the machines were noisy, with the sound of a rhythmic bellows pumping, wheezing and squeaking; one person described it as sounding like windshield wipers. Sleep might be difficult for the patient in an iron lung ward.

Patients could be transferred from one hospital to another still inside the iron lung (attached to a generator) in trucks, trains, or even planes. There were smaller portable iron lungs made, but they were too confining for long-term use, so most transferred people stayed in a full-sized one (requiring the use of transportation with wide enough doors for the machine to fit).

Black, Kathryn. In The Shadow of Polio: A Personal and Social History. Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley, 1996.

I feel as if I am living inside some oppressive, windowless contraption designed to stifle the world as I would want it to be - a device that separates me, hygenically, from some spectre of badness which I am encouraged to believe in. But its isolation is flawed - it has windows, TV screens, internet terminals. And through them I can see what is happening uotside my iron lung.

Things that are deemed to be bad for my health are progressively made illegal. The drug industries created by successive world powers (opium in China by the British Empire, cocaine in South America by the Ameircan Empire) are being denied their potential markets by making it a crime to consume their products. In the USA, huge pharmaceutical corporation use governemnt grants to develop drugs for acne, for erection problems, for wrinkles - while the immuno blockers desperately needed by the poor in Africa to rescue them from the curse of AIDS are not being subsidised because of fears of what it might do to the "free market". Smoking is being gradually relelgated to the margins of human experience by the same countries that produce the largest amounts of lung-ravishing industrial and automotive pollutants.

Things which are deemed to be bad for my moral fibre are progressively being made illegal. Bull fighting, hunting with dogs, coursing and shooting are all on their way out in Europe - and if they're not yet, there are large and powerful lobbies dedicated to making sure they will be. At the same time chickens for our gluttunous consumption are being raised in tiny cells in which they can neither stand or turn, without ever seeing the light of day, being fed reconstituted bits of other chickens. Domesticated animals have been relelgated from their natural role as equal partners in man's struggle for survival to either mindless cossetted pets or faceless masses of insentient produce. Creatures which once had a useful and active role to play in the human economy are now being confined in cramped suburban homes, given their freedom to roam twice a day, on a leash - while their owners proudly sport "save the whales" t-shirts and the cute little panda bear logo of the WWF.

Things which are deemed to be dangerous for my survival are being stamped out of existance on the merest pretext of a threat. Behind the noise of whining about the 10% unemployment in Germany and the state of the health service in the UK, Fortress Europe is quietly closing ranks against the flow of the dispossessed and desperate from the parts of the world on the economic exploitation of which its prosperity depends. They are only economic migrants, after all - only people who want to be able to send their children to school and feed their families at least one square meal a day. They don't really have a claim on our sympathy, the avaricious wretches. The American Constitution (a document which was first violated a bare two weeks after it was ratified) is being ground into dust in the name of protecting the citizenry from some faceless undefined threat which we are meant to believe still powers the hand that flew a plane into a tower on 11/09/2001. But that's OK, 'cause it's only being done in Cuba, and we all know they don't count (being brutish and hatefilled communists). In the run up (count down?) to a new war with Iraq, the Gulf Syndrome is being explored - did the soldiers suffer long term health problems from being exposed to minute doses of nerve gas carried by the wind from factories bombed by the Allied Forces? Not a single voice is raised in question as to what those gasses did to people who lived right there near them. Or what will happen to those people if we start bombing their country again. We're fighting off the maniac who's opressing them, donchaknow. Bound to be worth a few hundreds of thousands of their lives. Just as long as Allied casualties are kept down, because public opinion at home wouldn't like those. Defenseless people have been separated into the same two groups as animals - the familiarly cute (children and old people) and the facelessly unimportant (everybody who's not from the West).

That's it. I don't know how to live in this psychopathically two faced world of double standards any more. This so-called protective sanitised can is not working for me and I have no way out. I look at history and I see that every political pradigm - from tribalism, through feudalism and to imperialism - goes through its most brutal, oppressive, hypocritical stage right before it eventual collapse. So is this the end for constitutional capitalist democracy? Or am I being naive, and what with it not being a proper "ism", things are going to stay the same, only more so?

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