An iron lung was a prison—but a lifesaving one
Bettmann Archive
April 2, 2020 4:51 PM EDT

The odd hush that has fallen over New York City has lately been broken once every day, at precisely 7:00 PM. That’s when New Yorkers are stepping onto balconies or flinging open windows to applaud the people—pharmacy clerks, supermarket cashiers, food delivery workers and more—who continue to keep to keep the silent city running.

But even the most heroic of health-care workers are faced with a difficult reality in the city that has become the center of COVID-19 in the U.S., as officials have predicted that New York City will need at least 400 more ventilators by Sunday and thousands more in the days to follow. As the specter of such shortages looms nationwide, one source of help is a company that has been here before: the Ford Motor Company.

On March 30, Ford announced that, in collaboration with General Electric Healthcare and medical device manufacturer Airon Corp., it would be retooling its Rawsonville Components Plant in Ypsilanti, Mich., to manufacture ventilators. The company is aiming to produce 50,000 machines within 100 days and 30,000 a month thereafter as needed. Ford and GE are also working to help ramp up production in Airon’s Melbourne, Fla., plant, where the machines are already produced. The United Auto Workers union is providing the 500-person labor force that will do the job in Michigan—a job made all the harder by the need to conduct the work in a way that maintains social distancing and other safety precautions to keep the Ypsilanti factory from turning into one more vector in the spread of the coronavirus.

To Ford’s historic credit, this is not the first time it has stepped in to fill a public health need. At least twice in the 20th century, the automaker has used its car-manufacturing know-how to make medical devices instead.

Three-quarters of a century ago, premature births were a common cause of death on the first day of life in the U.S., especially in rural America where there was little easy access to hospitals with incubators. The incubators of the time were too large and too expensive—averaging $300 each—for small country hospitals to manage. Then, in early 1941, Henry Ford had lunch with a group of doctors at his eponymous Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, during which the doctors discussed the need for a small, affordable, portable incubator and showed Ford some preliminary plans they had developed.

Ford was impressed and charged the designers at the company’s River Rouge plant in Dearborn, Mich., with turning the rough drafts into a working machine. The designers responded, and by June of that year had produced a portable incubator—humidified and oxygenated, with warmth provided by a simple electrical bulb—that could be sold for just $75.

“Hardly bigger than a clothes basket,” read the story about the machine in the June 1941 edition of the company magazine, Ford News, “the incubator may be transported on the rear seat of a passenger car, set on a table and operated wherever direct or alternating current is available.”

The article also included a quote from a Dr. B.H. Growt, builder of a rural hospital in Addison, Mich.: “To me, having an incubator will be as important an addition to our equipment as anything I might mention. I’m afraid to count all the premature babies we might have saved for our people here. You know, the nearest incubator is 25 miles away and you can’t take a premature infant by automobile that distance.”

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Seven years later, Ford stepped up again, this time not to save newborns, but children in the 7-to-12 age group. The 1940s was a nasty decade for polio epidemics, with five-figure outbreaks of paralysis and often death every summer from 1943 to 1949—from a comparative low of 10,734 and 13,619 cases in 1947 and 1945 respectively, to 27,380 in 1948 and a staggering 42,174 in 1949.

There was no cure and as yet no vaccine, and for children whose disease was so severe that the diaphragm was paralyzed too, death would quickly come by suffocation. The answer—a frightening but lifesaving one—was a so-called iron lung. The machine was essentially a cylindrical metal chamber in which the child’s body would rest on a mattress with only the head emerging from one end. A collar-like rubber gasket around the neck would keep that end of the machine airtight. A bellows at the other end would pump back and forth, lowering and raising the pressure within the chamber and forcing the child’s chest to expand and contract, allowing ordinary room air to be breathed. For most children, this was necessary only in the most acute phase of the disease, but an unlucky few would spend their lives dependent on the device.

Iron lungs were in short supply then, just as ventilators are now—especially with any given summer’s caseload impossible to predict. So once again the River Rouge plant ramped up, and this time turned out iron lungs in the size for which the need was most acute. Despite its name, the iron lung was made more of plastic and rubber, which Ford had in abundant supply for use in its cars. The plant’s separate tool and die shop was needed only for the metal cylinder.

Mercifully—in a development a for-profit company typically doesn’t look forward to—the market for iron lungs collapsed in the U.S. in 1955.

That year, the Salk polio vaccine was approved. Seven years later, the Sabin vaccine, administered by mouth, was approved as well. Together, they drove polio to extinction in the U.S. and much of the rest of the world. Today, the disease hangs on only in Afghanistan and Pakistan and is close to being only the second human disease—after smallpox—to be eradicated entirely.

“From a historical perspective I would just say that it is in the Ford DNA to help in a time of need,” says company spokesman Ted Ryan in an email to TIME. “We have a strong heritage of help when called to do so.”

While the market for Ventilators will never collapse the way the iron lung market did—they are used for far more than just COVID-19 cases—it will eventually weaken and contract, as a pandemic inevitably does. When Ford can go back to building just vehicles, it will be one more sign of the passing of a crisis.

Please send any tips, leads, and stories to virus@time.com

Write to Jeffrey Kluger at jeffrey.kluger@time.com.

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