The Last of the Iron Lungs

This post is part of a series of posts featuring the stories from our STEM Story Project, which was made possible by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

As storms raged through Oklahoma earlier this year, Martha Lillard waited them out from inside her iron lung. She is one of just dozens of polio survivors who still rely on iron lungs to breathe.

The Last of the Iron Lungs, produced by Julia Scott for our STEM Story Project, is a portrait of Martha, who contracted polio in 1953. To Martha, the 1940s machine is comfort and survival, and she is not interested in modern machines. As a researcher explains in the story, new machines operate differently, forcing air into the lungs in a way that doesn’t feel right for iron lung patients. Take a listen all the way through to hear about Martha’s dreams of driving inside her iron lung:

Julia Scott sent us some thoughts about her experience producing this story:

“Martha’s story is fascinating enough on its own. It’s a radio producer’s dream to be able to capture the kinds of sounds no one will ever hear again – the mechanical bellows, pushing air through a machine older than Martha herself.

“Reporting this story made me realize how distant and abstracted polio has become in our national memory. Martha’s bedroom is dominated by her iron lung, a relic of history that most people my age may never even have heard of (I’m 32). To her, it’s a trusted companion and a lifelong friend. But the iron lung symbolized one of the most terrifying, unpredictable health epidemics of the 20th century. Archival photos like this one brought home the sheer scale of the outbreak – and the prospect of lifelong paralysis that thousands of people endured.

“One of the highlights of this project was being able to try out Martha’s iron lung – something I was a little scared to do. I laid down on the sliding cot, pushed my head through her foam neck collar and she sealed me in. It wasn’t claustrophobic, but I wasn’t counting on how hard it would be stop drawing breath and let the respirator take over pushing my diaphragm in and out, forcing air to whoosh into my throat. “Stop trying to breathe!” Martha instructed. For her, lying in the iron lung is the most comfortable sensation in the world.

“Since the story has aired I’ve received emails from people whose families were touched by polio, grandfathers and great-aunts who spent time in an iron lung but graduated to breathing on their own. They see Martha’s story as part of the same continuum.”



Want more? Check out our other STEM Story Project pieces.


One thought on “The Last of the Iron Lungs

  1. I live in Lafayette, La. and have had the privilege of meeting a precious woman who is 73 and contracted polio when she was 14 years old. She is still living but her health is failing and her days are numbered. I visited her on Oct 1, 2013 and expect this might be the last time I see her this side of heaven. She is cared for in her home by dedicated caregivers. Other than a handful of people no one knows she exists.
    I just needed to share this with whoever will read this.

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