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Iron Lung Respirator

Date: 1952


Description: One of the most difficult and terrifying natural disasters is the outbreak of disease. In the late 1940s and early 1950s the United States was struck with an epidemic of poliomyelitis, commonly known as polio, and Sioux City was one of the worst hit cities in the nation. In Sioux City alone the average was 402 cases per 100,000, much higher than the national epidemic rate. By 1952 Sioux City hospitals were filled with over 900 people who had contracted the disease. Nurses and doctors from across the nation came to the city to treat the cases. Several different kinds of treatments were tried to combat the disease. Polio is also known as infantile paralysis, and the most susceptible victims were children and young adults. In 1952 the largest field test in medical history was conducted in three cities, including Sioux City, which inoculated children from one year to eleven years of age. The children were given gamma globulin to treat the disease, and though it was helpful the effects were ultimately short term.


Symptoms of the disease were headaches, fever, and muscle stiffness that eventually gave way to complete paralysis of muscle groups. The most feared complication was cerebral muscle paralysis, which prevented actions like swallowing and breathing. At this stage, patients had to be kept alive by means of a “Drinker Respirator,” or iron lung, such as this one shown here. In 1952 when the epidemic was at its height, Sioux City hospitals were in dire need of these respirators. This iron lung was purchased by the Sunshine League of Sioux City from a company on the East Coast. The League then donated the iron lung to St. Vincent’s hospital.


In 1954 the polio vaccine trial came to Sioux City, and it proved a vital testing ground for proof of the vaccine’s effectiveness. Soon most of the city was vaccinated and by 1961 few to no cases were reported. A total of 53 people died in the city during the epidemic.


Donor: St. Vincent Hospital


On display

Staff Pick

Mary Green-Warnstadt, Development Coordinator
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