Mental Floss

6 Remarkable Medical Gadgets

Kara Kovalchik
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Martha Mason of Lattimore, North Carolina, recently passed away at the age of 71. What makes her obituary different than the thousands of others that appear in newspapers each day? It's the fact that she spent 60 of those 71 years in an iron lung, after a 1948 polio attack left her paralyzed from the neck down. Mason, who graduated from Wake Forest University in 1960, used a voice-recognition computer to chronicle her life story in the 1994 autobiography Breath: Life in the Rhythm of an Iron Lung. Technology gave her the option to use a portable ventilator many years ago, but Mason preferred the protection of the metal cylinder that had been home to her for so many years. She didn't like the idea of tubes in her throat, incisions into her body, or the frequent hospital visits that would accompany the "improvement." mental_floss invites you to peek into the history of the iron lung and five other medical gadgets and gizmos which have aided both doctors and patients over the last century.

1. The Iron Lung

Dr. Philip Drinker of the Harvard School of Public Health developed the first "thoracic cage" that used vacuum cleaner blowers to alternate between atmospheric and sub-atmospheric pressure to force a patient to breathe. The machine, known as a Drinker Respirator, was originally intended as a pediatric-ward device to assist premature babies born with under-developed lungs. But when the dreaded disease known as polio began to spread in the United States, doctors found a second use for the device. Polio frequently paralyzed patients' diaphragms, rendering them unable to breathe on their own. The Drinker Respirator was first used on a polio patient in 1928. Following its initial success, and with the disease affecting tens of thousands of Americans, demand quickly grew. The Warren Collins Corporation fine-tuned Drinker's design and mass-produced a similar device at a more affordable price; it was dubbed the Iron Lung. Cost and availability became pertinent factors in the early 1950s, when every American neighborhood seemed to have at least one polio patient in residence.

2. The Stethoscope

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3. The Blood Pressure Cuff

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4. The Internal Thermometer

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5. The X-Ray Machine

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6. The Pacemaker

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Naturally, there are dozens of medical devices and procedures that we didn't cover in this article. Which ones have you always wondered about? Like who invented that torturous tongue depressor? Or the name of that shiny round thing that old-time TV doctors always wore on headbands? Or even why, despite a 1 p.m. appointment, you have to wait until 2:30 to see your GP? Please drop a comment, and perhaps we'll revisit this topic again. Thanks!

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