Saturday, January 13, 2007


The Tell-Tale Lung

I've a piece in the latest New Scientist (and a segment on NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday) about a curious member of the Poe family:

GEORGE POE had little if any memory of cousin Edgar: he had been just three years old in 1849, when his famous relative was found delirious and dying on the streets of Baltimore. He had however inherited the Poe fascination with science and intoxicants; after fighting in the Civil War, George built the Poe Chemical Works in Trenton, New Jersey, where he designed America's first plant for mass producing liquefied nitrous oxide. By 1883 Poe was supplying some 5000 dentists across the country with cylinders of laughing gas, including one suspiciously enthusiastic client in Cleveland who ordered 4000 gallons. But deep inside his chemical works, Poe was pondering a question worthy of old cousin Edgar: could the dead be restored to life?
Namely, he was harnessing oxygen tanks to a piston-pump breathing apparatus -- he had, in short, invented an artificial respirator. He demonstrated it around the country in the 1880s by smothering and then reviving animals in front of crowds of physicians, and it landed him headlines like BRINGS DEAD TO LIFE.

Poe (center) and his assistants at work.

It all sounds gruesome, though Poe's concern was the eminently civic-minded one of restoring drowning and gas-inhalation victims. What the NPR piece doesn't quite get into (though it's hinted at) was that Poe's device had at least one human volunteer -- a Mrs. Harriet Martin of Chicago, who Poe turned away -- and one patient (Moses Goodman) actually saved through the Poe Respirator's use.

One big surprise was just how long various forms of mouth to mouth and bellows artificial respiration have been around -- since at least the 1400s in Italy. Yet it was not widely adopted until the 1700s:

By 1767 a society for reviving drowning victims had formed in Amsterdam. In 1774 London followed suit with the Society for the Recovery of Persons Apparently Drowned, later known as the Royal Humane Society. In the early days, the RHS concentrated on establishing riverside emergency stations equipped with respiration kits. A typical kit in 1782 included a half-litre bellows and elastic tubing, as well as a thin leather blowpipe for funnelling or blowing restorative medicines directly into the stomach. In its first 20 years, the Society records that its efforts saved 1835 lives.

Despite this, various artificial respiration techniques were not universally adopted until the 1950s; it's a medical procedure that lay in plain sight for centuries, adopted in fits and starts. And as for Poe? Due to his own ill health, he never managed to make a real go of his invention: I haven't found a word written about him since his death in 1914.

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