Pātea's iron lung

Iron lungs were once the only treatment available to children whose lungs were paralysed by the polio virus. Visit Whanganui Regional Museum to find out more about polio in this region.

Pātea's iron lung
Whanganui Regional Museum's polio display includes an iron lung once used to treat local children who contracted polio. Photograph courtesy of Whanganui Regional Museum; iron lung from the collection of Aotea Utanganui – The Museum of South Taranaki.

In the summer of 1947,  schools across New Zealand closed as a polio outbreak swept around the country. No one yet understood what caused polio or how people caught it.

Summer epidemics | Doctors suspected too much sun was involved and encouraged children to stay indoors and away from school. The world was yet to fully understand that polio was a virus that could contaminate food and water. In New Zealand, it was not the warm summer weather that was to blame for the infection, but the water they cooled down in at local beaches and pools. Ironically, water therapy became a popular treatment to help rehabilitate polio patients.

An English car manufacturer called Lord Nuffield turned his hand to building iron lungs. He is also known for making the Morris Minor car.
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Only the sickest polio patients ended up in an iron lung. They were likely to be left with some form of disability even once they recovered enough to breathe on their own. Photograph courtesy of Dr Margaret Horsburgh.

Patea's iron lung | This iron lung was used to treat children affected by polio, or 'infantile paralysis', during the 1940s and ‘50s.

It is now part of the collection of Aotea Utanganui – the Museum of South Taranaki, and came from Patea Hospital, one of the region's two polio hospitals. It is currently on display at Whanganui Regional Museum.

Only the very sickest people ended up in an iron lung, where the average length of stay was two weeks. Most people who spent time in one recovered, but many had some form of permanent disability afterwards.

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Nurses and polio patients at a water therapy pool in Whanganui. Photo: Whanganui Hospital Board.

A proxy pair of lungs | Patea's iron lung is an example of the mechanical respirators developed to combat the worst symptom of polio – muscle paralysis affecting the lungs. Without the air pressure created by the machine, children were unable to breathe. Iron lungs like this one sucked air from the chamber, then pushed it back in, taking over the action of the patient's paralysed muscles. Without this breathing support for seriously ill patients, death often followed, but with it, most regained some muscle control and recovered.

Polio outbreaks occurred in New Zealand every decade from 1915 until the introduction of a vaccine in the 1950s. Nearly 10,000 people were infected by polio during this time, with nearly 800 deaths.

The last specialist polio hospital in New Zealand closed during the 1970s. By then, the disease had largely been eradicated by vaccination, although globally, cases are now reappearing because of lower vaccination rates in some countries.

Want to know more about Whanganui Regional Museum? Explore their collections here, or visit them in person.