Philip Drinker

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Philip Drinker


American Chemical Engineer

Philip Drinker was a pioneer in the fields of bioengineering and industrial safety. His famous invention, the "iron lung," saved many lives, especially those afflicted with polio who could not breathe.

Born in Haverford, Pennsylvania, on December 12, 1894, Drinker received a B.S. degree from Princeton in 1915 and a degree in chemical engineering from Lehigh University in 1917. During World War I, he was sent to France to inspect the coating fabrics of airplane wings and to investigate toxic conditions in munitions plants. Returning to civilian life, he became a chemical engineer for the Buffalo Foundry and Machine Company. In 1921 he went to Harvard Medical School as an instructor in applied physiology and helped create the first industrial hygiene program at any institution.

During this time, polio affected thousands of people and caused many deaths when the lungs of those with the disease were paralyzed by the virus. In 1926 Drinker was appointed to a Rockefeller Institute commission to investigate methods of resuscitation. Respiratory problems of all kinds were the result of a society modernizing too quickly without regard to the safety conditions for workers.

Philip observed an experiment in which his brother Cecil and physiologist Louis Shaw studied respiration in cats. They sealed a cat inside a small chamber with its head sticking out of a rubber collar and used a pressure gauge to measure respiration. Philip Drinker pondered the question of whether such a device could breathe for the animal. He temporarily paralyzed the cat and simulated breathing for hours by using a hand-held syringe.

Then Drinker had an idea. Using two vacuum cleaner blowers, valves salvaged from the laboratory, and a mechanics creeper (the device which rolls repairman under cars), he enclosed it all in a large iron chamber. Drinker himself climbed into the machine with only his head sticking out. Cecil Drinker and Shaw monitored as the machine sucked additional air in and out of his lungs for 15 minutes. At the end of the test Philip was so hyperventilated that it took four minutes for him to resume normal breathing. The machine was a success; it had breathed for him.

On October 14, 1928, an unconscious eight-year-old girl was rushed to Drinker in the wee hours of the morning. The machine pumped life-giving oxygen into her lungs and within a minute or two she was awake and asking for ice cream. She was kept breathing for five days but later died of pneumonia, a complication not related to the machine.

Another chance soon came when Barret Hoyt, a Harvard senior, was dying from polio because his lungs were paralyzed. The student's physician begged Drinker to bring the machine to the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital. The big machine would not fit in a taxi, and they had no time to get a truck. They finally tied the iron lung to the top of the cab and made it to the hospital just before the patient arrived. Hoyt was barely breathing, but the machine forced air in and out of his lungs for four weeks. The "iron lung" never faltered and immediately became standard equipment to help people not only with polio, but with all types of respiratory failure, including gas poisoning and acute alcoholism. The iron lung became known as the "Drinker Respirator."

Today, it is difficult to fully understand the fear inspired by the dreaded disease polio and how the iron lung became the hope for many who were paralyzed. When the Salk vaccine was developed in 1955, the need for the iron lung was greatly reduced, but it was hailed as one of the great medical feats of its time.

In 1925 Drinker proposed the first air-conditioned ward for the treatment of premature infants. He found the use of a helium-air mixture could assist divers and made possible the dramatic escape of the crew of a disabled submarine, the Squalus, in 1939.

Drinker was interested in many problems of occupational medicine and used himself as a guinea pig, breathing poisonous fumes and dust. He campaigned for the use of protective devices, such as dust and fume masks, for workers.

During World War II, Drinker was appointed Director of Industrial Health for the United States Maritime Commission and Navy shipyards. He organized seminars on industrial hygiene and founded the American Industrial Hygiene Association. The new United States Atomic Energy Commission called upon him to study safety related to the nuclear industry. This led him to develop an early leadership position in researching air pollution.

After World War II Drinker went to Belfast, Ireland, as a Fulbright Visiting Professor and maintained close ties with British colleagues. While investigating the toxic effects of sulfuric acid mist and sulfur dioxide, he was called upon for advice when the disastrous London smog hit in 1952. He determined that the smelting and release of these chemicals in the air had caused the many fatalities associated with the smog. He also began to formulate United States air quality standards.

Drinker was an excellent writer and produced many articles from his research. His textbooks, Industrial Medicine and Industrial Dust, are classics on their subjects. He retired from Harvard in 1961 after 40 years. Drinker received many honors, including honorary doctorates from Norwich University and Hahnemann Medical School.

A pioneer in the field of bioengineering, Drinker was dubbed "Mr. Industrial Hygiene." His son Philip A. Drinker (1932- ) followed his father in the bioengineering field and designed a neonatal breathing unit. The elder Drinker died in Fitzwilliam, New Hampshire, on October 19, 1972, after a brief illness at the age of 78.


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Philip Drinker

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