John Haven Emerson is not only credited with saving many lives of polio victims during the 1930s, 40s and 50s by improving the iron lung breathing device; he also received 35 patents on various designs of bio-medical devices during his long career.
Extraordinarily, Emerson was not a physician. He never graduated from high school. The self-taught inventor was born in New York City in 1906, and was the son of Dr. Haven Emerson, who served as the city’s commissioner of public health during World War I.
Emerson’s inventive career began at the early age of 22, when he purchased a basic machine shop and began developing and improving various medical devices. While breathing machines similar to the iron lung had been in existence since the 1800s, Emerson devised a lighter, quieter, simpler, more reliable and considerably less expensive machine. Encouraged by his father, Emerson built his first prototype in 1931, and gradually improved the device over the years.
Emerson’s version of the iron lung proved to be a lifesaver for those who fell victim to polio epidemics over three decades, from the 1930s through the 1950s.
A descendant of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s brother, William, John Emerson was responsible for inventing a number of other breathing devices, including resuscitators used on victims of smoke inhalation and drowning, hyperbaric oxygen chambers, and breathing devices for underwater diving. In the 1950s he designed an underwater breathing device that was used by the U.S. Navy, while in the following decade Emerson designed a simple, reliable ventilator to inflate the lungs. The ventilator was used both in U.S. hospitals and in Vietnam during the war.
Indeed, as founder and president of the J.H. Emerson Company in Cambridge, Mass., Emerson became an important figure in the development of respiratory technology that included not only the iron lung, but early versions of life-saving resuscitators used in breathing emergencies.
One of the pumps he designed – to facilitate the drainage of fluid from around the lungs following surgery – is still used in hospitals today.
His company was also responsible for designing a device that helps those on ventilators clear their throats of secretions, a device that was used by the late movie star Christopher Reeve, who was paralyzed in a horse riding accident.
Throughout the years, with the encouragement of his physician father and two brothers, who had graduated from Harvard in the field of medicine, Emerson designed and manufactured mechanical devices for the medical profession.
The high school dropout garnered many honors over his long career.
In 1979 he became the first non-physician to be awarded the Chadwick Medal by the American Thoracic Society in recognition of his outstanding contributions to respiratory medicine.
In 1982, Emerson was awarded honorary membership in the American Association for Respiratory Therapy, and in 1994 he was awarded honorary membership in the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses.
John Haven Emerson died of cancer at the age of 90 on February 4, 1997.
by Frank Kourt, Staff Writer, KY Doc Magazine