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A Significant Medical History

Polio and pioneering intensive care

Epidemics of poliomyelitis occurred across Europe in the years following the Second World War. Many young and active people died or were disabled. Nancy Riach - Scotland's swimming champion who died at the age of 20 - was amongst the victims.

Polio could cause temporary paralysis. When the chest muscles and diaphragm were paralysed, patients' breathing became feeble and they could die from lack of oxygen. So, artificial respirators were developed – the so-called ‘iron lungs’.

In Copenhagen, where there was a very serious epidemic, Professor Lassen realised that some patients put on respirators were drowning in their own saliva because their throat muscles were paralysed and they could not swallow. During 1953, Lassen organised teams of medical students to hand pump oxygen for polio patients suffering from paralysis of both the chest and throat. The students imitated normal breathing…they pumped oxygen in to the patient's lungs with pauses. In this way the lives of paralysed patients could be saved.

Dr Peter McKenzie of Glasgow learnt of the Danes' success. After a visit to Copenhagen, Dr McKenzie arranged for mechanical equipment to be ordered which would do the work done by hand in Denmark. The first intermittent positive pressure ventilator in Britain was built by Aga (the manufacturers of cooking ranges) and installed at Belvidere Hospital in 1955. This equipment incorporated a ‘cuff’ which prevented saliva draining into the lungs. The method of treatment and nursing attention required by these patients provided one of the practical experiences from which present-day intensive care units trace their origins.

The introduction of the Salk and Sabin vaccines from 1956 onwards largely eliminated polio as an epidemic disease.

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Belvidere Hospital