"Iron Lung" and a woman who had to spend most of her life in it

“Iron Lung” and a Woman Who Had to Spend Most of Her Life in It

  • Machine designed to simulate the breathing process
  • Dianne Odell spent majority of her life in an iron lung, after contracting polio at the age of 3
  • Thanks to polio vaccine, the iron lung has practically disappeared from modern medicine

This scary looking machine is called Iron Lung. What it does, is it helps people to breathe when normal muscle control has been lost or the work going into breathing exceeds the person’s capacity to do so. The person inside is sealed in an air-tight chamber and pumps control airflow periodically by decreasing and increasing the air pressure, simulating the breathing process.

Iron lungs filled hospital wards at the height of the polio outbreaks of the 1940s and 1950s, giving (mainly) children much-needed breathing assistance. With the invention of modern mechanical ventilators and, more importantly, polio vaccination programs, the iron lung has mostly disappeared from modern medicine. By 2014, there were only 10 people left with an iron lung in the United States.

Polio paralyzed between 13,000 and 20,000 children annually in the United States alone in the last pre-vaccine years. Jonas Salk, the hero who invented the vaccine, decided not to patent it. When asked who owns the patent, he answered: “Well, the people, I would say, There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”

Jonas Salk gives the polio vaccine
Jonas Salk gives the polio vaccine to a child as part of a field trial

Dianne Odell

Polio victim Dianne Odell was a Tennessee woman who spent most of her life in an iron lung. She contracted polio at age 3 in 1950, just a few years before a polio vaccine was discovered, and was restrained to an iron lung for the rest of her life. Before her 20’s, she was able to spend a short period of times outside the machine, from then on she needed to be in it 24/7.

Young Dianne Odell without iron lung
Dianne Odell as a young child, before she needed iron lung 24 hours in day

Dianne had many victories in her life despite her condition. She was able to graduate from high school by using a dictaphone. She took long-distance classes from Freed-Hardeman University. She was able to operate a television set with a small blow tube, wrote a children’s book using a voice-activated computer, learned to write with her toes. Friends say she accepted her life with grace.

Dianne Odell in iron lung
In 1987, Dianne Odell received an honorary doctorate at Freed-Hardeman University

After living inside an iron lung for 60 years, Diane died because of a power cut caused by a tree falling on a power line. Her loving family attempted to use the emergency hand pump to keep her breathing, but their efforts were unsuccessful. Odell died on May 28, 2008, at age 61.

Dianne Odell in iron lung
Dianne Odell in iron lung
Iron lungs
This is why you vaccinate your children
Morbid Reality
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