The man who built Aotearoa's first iron lung

Ingenuity and a devastating disease led two Auckland engineers to adapt farm equipment in the fight against polio.

The man who built Aotearoa's first iron lung
Boy in an Emerson Respirator, or iron lung. National Museum of Health and Medicine, CC BY 2.0.

It was the 1930s and New Zealand was in the grip of a polio (poliomyelitis) outbreak. Medical engineers in Auckland had heard of a revolutionary new machine overseas that might help – so they decided to build one themselves.

Engineers and innovators | In 1935, Fred Jacobs was the chief engineer for the Auckland Hospital Board. Alongside his son Bill, Fred designed and built Aotearoa’s first ever iron lung, an early respirator that helped patients with severe polio breathe and hopefully recover.

The very first iron lung was developed in America in the late 1920s. It used vacuum cleaners to create a pressurised, human-sized box that helped lungs inflate and deflate when paralysed muscles couldn't. Patients with struggling lung function were placed inside, in the hope that their bodies could overcome the polio virus, and their muscle paralysis subside.

At the time, this rudimentary machine was the only treatment available for people who had lost the ability to breathe as a result of infection with polio, a highly infectious water-borne virus.

Medical engineers in Auckland applied technology developed for the dairy industry to the treatment of people with polio.
Image Description
Parts of this iron lung, fabricated by Lord Nuffield's Morris Motors, are clearly adapted from car parts. Image Science Museum, London.

From Morris Minor cars to medical equipment
In the United Kingdom, the car manufacturer and philanthropist William Morris (later knighted and known as Lord Nuffield) devoted a whole section of his English car company to the construction of iron lungs.

During the 1940s and ‘50s Lord Nuffield and Morris Motors Limited, built and supplied over 5,000 machines to any hospital around the Commonwealth that needed one, using parts designed for the manufacture of cars. "All I want to do," said Lord Nuffield, "is to save a life. It seems a dreadful state of affairs that children are dying because hospital authorities can not get hold of an iron lung in time."

In Aotearoa, obtaining iron lungs was almost impossible, leading Fred and Bill Jacobs to try and build their own.

Image Description
The iron lung built by medical engineers Fred and Bill Jacobs, c1935. Respirator [Iron Lung], 1964.163. The Museum of Transport and Technology (MOTAT).

Where Lord Nuffield repurposed car parts for the construction of his heart lung machines, Fred and Bill Jacobs applied technology developed for local dairy farming, harnessing the suction power of vacuum-pumps designed for the milking of cows.

Despite the hope offered by the invention of iron lungs, only 50 per cent of polio patients who ended up in one survived. Unable to clear mucus from their lungs, many succumbed to pneumonia.

The Jacobs' iron lung helped polio patients in Auckland for 15 years before it was retired in 1950. It was eventually donated to the Museum of Transport and Technology (MOTAT), in Auckland. You can find our more about this life-saving piece of engineering, by visiting MOTAT.

The detail | How exactly did an iron lung work?

Our intercostal muscles aided by the diaphragm, create additional volume in the chest cavity when we breathe in. Air flows into the lungs but in reality is sucked into the chest by a relative negative pressure because of the increase in volume. As the muscles relax the volume decreases and air flows out in exhalation. The muscles are paralysed in poliomyelitis. The iron lung creates a vacuum outside the chest wall and the chest expands drawing in air. When the vacuum is released the reverse happens and air flows out.