Heavy metal: Sacramento exhibition showcases iron lung

A new museum exhibition showcases the iron lung as a dinosaur of the medical industry

A new museum exhibition showcases the iron lung as a dinosaur of the medical industry

Photo by Kayleigh McCollum

The Sierra Sacramento Valley Medical History Museum is located at 5380 Elvas Ave. For more information on the exhibit, call (916) 456-3152 or visit http://www.ssvms.org/museum/index.asp.

For the past seven years, one of Sacramento’s least conspicuous museums has showcased one of the most ominous and emotion-wrenching contraptions in medicine—an iron lung.

Large steel cylinders, these iron lungs were prevalent in hospitals around the country in the 1940s and 1950s. They were often the required sole living quarters for thousands of patients stricken by polio. But now, with rare exception, iron lungs are medical dinosaurs.

One of those dinosaurs is currently on display at the Sierra Sacramento Valley Medical History Museum. Because the machine isn’t easily transportable due to its considerable size, a video of it will be shown April 16-20, in the Capitol rotunda in conjunction with the California Medical Association Legislative Leadership Conference at the Sacramento Convention Center.

While there’s no proof, the museum display may be the only regional place where people can view an iron lung. There, the contraption resides as part of a collection of medical artifacts that belie today’s medical norms but were once considered state-of-the-art medicine.

For example, there’s a bottle from the early 1900s, that once held a heroin syrup used to cure colds. There’s also an archaic-looking apparatus once used for electric-shock therapy. And then there are the hundreds of medical wonders—including wooden wheelchairs, 100-year-old stethoscopes and Civil War amputation kits.

Located along the Elvas Avenue corridor that divides East Sacramento and River Park, the museum’s entrance is hidden from vehicular traffic and casual passersby. But visitors need to walk no farther than to the glass front door entrance of the office building to get an abrupt indoctrination to the museum’s monolith. The iron lung rests in the entry hallway flanked by glass cases full of those devices that help define the history of medicine.

Technically called a negative-pressure ventilator, an iron lung replaces a patient’s diaphragm and creates a vacuum that causes the chest to expand and suck air into the lungs.

Museum curator Dr. Bob LaPerriere says the device now stands as a grim reminder of bygone medical ailments.

“One of the biggest benefits of it is that it gives the kids who visit and hopefully their parents the reason that they need to immunize their kids,” says LaPerriere. “There are parents now who are not getting their kids immunized because of concerns that are not valid. This really shows what happens to these kids before we had immunizations. It’s a real good selling point for immunizations.”

When Dr. Jonas Salk introduced the polio vaccine in 1955, iron-lung usage quickly and drastically subsided. According to the World Health Organization, polio remains endemic in only Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan. On average, about 1,000 cases per year are reported, compared with the 350,000 cases reported in 1988.

About 1,200 people in the United States lived in iron lungs in 1959. By 2004, the advancement of portable ventilators had reduced the number of iron lung inhabitants to less than 50. The iron lung at the museum is likely among less than a dozen on public view in the United States.

LaPerriere, 71, a retired Sacramento dermatologist, keeps busy as an historian, antique collector, educator and promoter of the wonders of medical paraphernalia.

After his collecting interests began with coins, stamps and bottles, LaPerriere’s hobby transitioned into a collector’s appreciation for the tools and history of his profession. In 1990, he showcased some of his early collection in an exhibition called Out of the Doctor’s Bag at the Sacramento History Museum.

The museum includes a medical library as well as donations from many collections. A physician at UC Davis Medical Center donated a new display of heart valves. And much of LaPerriere’s personal collection is also featured in the museum.

LaPerriere wanted an iron lung as part of the museum when it opened in 2001, but it took three years to find one. The iron lung on display, which includes the words “March of Dimes” (the charity founded by polio victim and then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1938 to combat the disease), was discovered in storage at UC Davis Medical Center and donated to the museum in 2004.

Students on field trips to the museum often know little, if anything, about iron lungs. If the accompanying teachers are under the age of 50 they may not know much, either.

“‘What is that?’ some kids will ask,” LaPerriere explains. “They sometimes think it’s a CAT scan or a whole variety of things like that. Unless they’ve talked about it at school, they generally don’t know what it is.”

Visitors’ reactions to the iron lung can be extreme, he adds.

Museum visitors have cried or become anxious when viewing the iron lung, LaPerriere says, particularly when it’s started and the heavy diaphragm at the foot of the iron begins to “breathe.” One visitor, a member of a mariachi band visiting the museum, was visibly upset when he viewed the iron lung. It reminded him of the iron lung he inhabited as a boy.

Former Sacramento Mayor Anne Rudin has intimate knowledge of iron lungs. Five years ago, Rudin wrote a short article for the museum’s magazine about her experience working with iron-lung patients while she was a student nurse at Temple University in Philadelphia.

Contacted via email, Rudin’s recollection of the iron lung is vivid, frightening and expansive.

“Only the heads of patients were exposed. A small mirror mounted above them enabled them to see what was going on around them,” she wrote. “On the side of the machine were portholes for the caregivers to reach in to provide essential nursing care such as bed baths, medication and massages.”

Despite polio’s eradication in the United States, some celebrated modern-day iron-lung cases remain astonishing.

Martha Mason of Lattimore, N.C., died in her sleep in 2009, after spending 60 years of her 71-year life in an iron lung. With the advancement of voice activation systems, Mason wrote a 2003 memoir Breath: Life in the Rhythm of an Iron Lung that documented her experiences. Mason was also the subject of a 2005 documentary film Martha in Lattimore and appeared in the 2009 Oscar-nominated documentary about polio The Final Inch.

Likewise, June Middleton of Melbourne, Australia, died six months after Mason at age 83 also after spending more than 60 years of her life in an iron lung—the longest iron-lung tenure known.

The iron lung also gained considerable attention in 1994 when Radiohead released an EP and a single called My Iron Lung, reportedly a metaphorical reaction to how the band’s biggest hit, 1993’s “Creep” had both given them life and constrained them.

When the iron lung arrived at the museum, LaPerriere placed a mannequin in the steel cylinder to simulate the machine’s restrictive capacity. But the full-sized dummy proved too traumatic for some museum visitors.

LaPerriere says staff members overruled him and a smaller-sized female doll has since replaced the mannequin. Its head protrudes from the opening of the iron lung where a patient once lived as best as he or she could.

Still, one day a few years ago, a young girl visiting the museum was particularly concerned at the sight of the lung.

“She was really anxious about diseases,” LaPerriere says. “But we always tell them, ‘Kids don’t get polio anymore—at least in the United States because of immunizations. So you don’t have to worry about this.’”