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The Sessions: Life In An Iron Lung

Can you imagine spending your life encased in 750 pounds of iron? The new film The Sessions is based on the true story of Mark O’Brien, a poet who was largely confined to an iron lung—a massive “tin can” that pulled air in and out of his lungs with mechanical pumps—after childhood polio left him mostly paralyzed. The film takes place in the 1960s, when O’Brien’s quest to lose his virginity took him fleetingly out of the iron lung and into the arms of a sex therapist.

Pop Omnivore discovered some interesting facts about iron lungs, thanks to Muhlenberg College history professor Daniel Wilson.

  • The first version of the iron lung was designed in 1927 by Philip Drinker and Louis Agassiz Shaw at Harvard University. Before The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis began mass distribution of tank respirators in 1939, they cost about  $1,500—as much as a house at that time.
  • The bed that the patient lay on inside the device was sometimes called a “cookie tray.”
  • Most patients eventually grew strong enough to leave the iron lung behind. Recovery began by trying to breathe outside of the respirator for 30 seconds at a time.
  • In 1936, only one iron lung was available in all of China. It was given to Fred Snite, the son of a wealthy Chicago financier, who caught polio while vacationing in China with his family. After a few months encased in the iron lung in China, he was nearly fluent in Chinese. Making headlines as “the Boiler Kid,” he spent 21 hours a day in the iron lung for the remaining 18 years of his life, but still got married and fathered three kids.
  • Six people in the United States currently rely on iron lungs, compared to 1,200 in 1958.
  • The March of Dimes, the original manufacturer, stopped producing spare parts in the 1970s. Patients tend to have a backup iron lung to account for this.
  • Power outages caused great panic during the polio epidemic, since iron lungs depended on electricity. In 2009, a Tennessee woman died in her iron lung of this very cause.
  • The iron lung could run manually, but was so difficult to operate that several people were needed to take turns pumping it.
  • Iron lungs came equipped with a mirror so that the person inside could see more than just the ceiling or the machine—life reflected backwards.

–Sasha Ingber