22 December 2021

The Iron Lung


Elvis got his polio shot on a Sunday night in October, 1956, backstage at CBS Studio 50, right before he went on the Ed Sullivan show.  On the right is NYC Public Health Commissioner Leona Baumgartner, and the guy with the needle is Assistant Commissioner Harold Fuerst.  The enormously influential Daily Mirror columnist Walter Winchell had suggested the Salk vaccine might be as deadly as the disease itself, but in the six months after Elvis was seen getting the shot, U.S. vaccination levels shot up to 80 per cent.

In the early 1950’s, there was a spike in U.S. polio cases, and a surge of quiet hysteria.  It was a little like the fear of nuclear war, and as a kid, I remember confusing the two in my mind.  My mom warned me not to grab the brass door handles at the Woolworth’s in Harvard Square, and we didn’t get to go to Brigham’s afterwards for ice cream.  Polio was an invisible adversary, cold to the touch, and it was everywhere. 

The approval of the vaccine in ‘55 put Jonas Salk on the cover of TIME.  He was a national hero.  The oral vaccine developed by Albert Sabin came along a couple of years later, and the Americas have been polio-free for almost thirty years.  There have been outbreaks in Southwest Asia, but nowhere is it epidemic anymore. 

There was, mind, a dedicated growth industry in anxiety back when.  The aforementioned atomic holocaust, along with fringe nuttiness - fluoridation of the public water supply being a Commie plot, for example – but polio inspired an actual sub-genre.  Stories featuring the iron lung became a staple, all with roughly similar conventions.

An explanation.  One in five paralytic polio cases develop respiratory symptoms.  The virus affects the upper cervical vertebrae, and paralyzes the diaphragm.  You can’t breathe on your own; you’re kept alive on a ventilator.  In the 1950’s, they used a negative-pressure ventilator called an iron lung.  It was a coffin-sized metal tube, and your entire body went into it.  Only your head stuck out.  The vacuum created by negative pressure inside sucks your chest up, and your lungs draw in air. 

On an episode of Alfred Hitchcock, Brian Keith is in an iron lung, and his wife plans to pull the plug.  The question is how he can possibly outwit her when he’s flat on his back and immobilized, and there’s no way he can call for help.  There’s a delicious twist I didn’t see coming.

The iron lung is an obvious metaphor, but it’s also physical, the helplessness cruelly literal.  It’s interesting to me that certain tropes are so much a product of their particular time.  In this instance, representing the Cold War: we’re in the grip of overwhelming, mechanical forces, and struggle like ants.

There are clear echoes, or reflections, in the present day.

  One difference, however, is that we don’t have individual influencers as unifying as Elvis.  We’ve lost consensus.  We apparently can’t agree on a shared reality.  One thing you can say for polio.  It scared the shit out of enough of us to tip the scales.


  1. As soon as the polio vaccines became available, my mother raced me down to get them. I remember one was the sugar cube and the other was in mini-cup of liquid.
    I thought, as the epidemic got politicized, that if Covid had been like smallpox, and left everyone with scars all over their face, our vain civilization would have gone all in on vaccines. Now I'm beginning to think they'd wear the scars like medals...

  2. I remember getting the polio shot in second or third grade at my school. Ditto flouride treatments. My mom drove six or seven of us to the school where those were being given.

    Yes, we don't have a universal influencer anymore, and I wonder if even the rabid right would listen to Trump or Carlson if they switched messages now. Was it Twain who said it's easier to fool people than it is to convince them they've been fooled?

    Eve's right, too, about the scars. We are dumber than the dinosaurs ever tried to be. What's worse, we're proud of it.

  3. Trump admitted he'd gotten the booster shot at some conservative do, and got booed. So, the rabid right is apparently getting beyond even him.

  4. Purposeful, poignant, and pointed article, David. I'm not a follower of celebrities, but some have the power to sway.

    Yesterday I learned a teenage anti-vaxer I've never met has screwed up holiday plans by exposing friends to her disease.

    But some situations would be silly if they weren't so stupid and sad. A 45yo woman on Twitter has blamed the coronavirus vaccine for halting her period. But wait, she wasn't vaccinated, her boyfriend was and immediately after, her periods ceased. Ipso facto, covid vaccinations put women's reproductivity at grave risk.

  5. I remember getting that sugar cube. By the way, in an early Dick Francis novel, FORFEIT, the hero's wife is in an iron lung.

  6. Ohhhh. I just watched No Pain. That's evil, really evil.


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