The Last of the Iron Lungs


Martha Lillard inside her “iron lung.” Lillard contracted polio when she was six and needs the “lung” to breathe. (Photo by Julia Scott)

Julia Scott had no interest in climbing into an “iron lung.” She told me the device looks like something only Dracula would lay in. Of course, Martha Lillard, who uses the iron lung pictured above, is no Dracula. She’s a victim of the polio epidemic of the 1950s and needs the lung to stay alive.

Julia produced a story on Martha and her iron lung — one of only about a dozen still in use in the United States — for PRX’s Stem Story Project, a series of features focused on science, technology, engineering, and math. After interviewing and collecting the sound of the machine, Martha asked Julia if she’d like to get in and try it out. Despite her trepidation, Julia timidly said “yes” and she’s glad she did.

Laying inside the lung gave Julia a new perspective. She says she viscerally became aware of what it meant to have a machine take over breathing, an understanding she couldn’t have gained from an interview alone. To be sure, Julia didn’t use the lung for nearly sixty years like Martha has, but that sort of “participant observation”, even if brief, was incredibly valuable when writing the story, she says.

Have a listen to Julia’s feature “The Last of the Iron Lungs” on this edition of HowSound.

Ciao, Rob


3 comments to The Last of the Iron Lungs

  • Clint

    I generally enjoy the format of this podcast: Rob’s introduction and explanation of what makes the featured piece so special. While I found the featured piece in this edition interesting, I must say I really dislike the introduction. Here’s why:

    Prior to the featured piece, I only had a vague understanding of what an iron lung is. So as Rob’s rather lengthy intro went on, several nagging questions arose. What do people do for polio now? Does the lady currently need her vintage iron lung today? If the iron lung is so critical for survival, how can she get out to let the narrator try it out? Finally, where exactly are you going with this really long, nebulous intro? If memory serves, the intro answered exactly none of those questions. I had to pick them out from the piece itself.

    The intro doesn’t need to be comprehensive, but it should answer basic questions– especially when it comes to scientific topics. This is one of the only intros that I’ve had a problem with, and the stated annoyances aside, I wasn’t sure why I had such a problem with this one.

    One of the overtones of the piece was the uneasiness the narrator felt not having control over her breathing, which made me wonder if the introduction was orchestrated to cause a sort of unease in the listener and thus add to the experience of the piece.

    • Clint – Thanks for writing. I think you’re right. I just re-read my intro and it is long. I should have cut to the chase. That said, we may disagree slightly about what I should have included about polio and iron lungs. I was merely giving enough information to set up the issue the reporter faced. Perhaps that triggered too many other questions. If so, my bad. But, the podcast wasn’t a feature about polio, it was about the reporter’s experience. Thanks again for your note and thanks for listening!! — r

  • Rebecca Lowe

    Thank you for this report! I am a MA student in Public History, and I am writing an “exhibit” about the polio epidemic that started in 1947. I was searching for sound bites of an iron lung, and it was great to find a reporters testimony, as well as listen to the story of an actual survivor of polio.

    If you know of any website that has sound recordings of polio hospitals and iron lungs, I would love the information!

    Thank you,

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