Iron Lung on Location in Independence Mall

Dr. Offit discussing the iron lung with children, May 17, 2012Rolling an iron lung across one of the busiest intersections in downtown Philadelphia attracts a sizeable crowd. As the moving crew pushed the machine down Independence Mall around lunchtime on May 17, clutches of students on field trips to see the Liberty Bell gathered around, shouting questions like, “What is that?” “Is that what Michael Jackson slept in?” “Is it a time machine?”

Australian filmmaker Sonya Pemberton was shooting footage for her documentary Jabbed: Love, Fear and Vaccines, to be shown later in 2012 on SBS in Australia, in the United Kingdom, and (perhaps in 2013) on PBS the United States. On her production company’s website, Pemberton describes her film: “Diseases that were largely eradicated forty years ago are returning. Across the world children are dying from preventable conditions because nervous parents are skipping their baby’s shots. And yet the stories of vaccine injury are terrifying, with rare cases of people being hurt, even killed, by vaccines. To vaccinate or not – how do we decide?” Here at The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, her crew is shooting interviews with Paul A. Offit, MD, vaccine developer and College Fellow, as well as filming artifacts from the College’s Historical Medical Library and Mütter Museum collection, many of them already discussed on this website.

The iron lung excursion was designed to elicit the reaction of old and young to this little-seen artifact from the history of polio. Children’s prior knowledge of polio ran the gamut, from kids who knew what the iron lung was and what disease it was associated with, to those who claimed never to have heard of polio. Dr. Offit answered their (many) questions: what part of the body was affected by polio, whether the disease agent was a virus or bacterium, how long patients had to stay in the iron lung (some just a few days, and others, as Dr. Offit said, first entered the machine as children and lived their entire adult lives in the machine). One of the most common questions was “Is there a chance I can get polio?”

The last time we brought the iron lung out of storage was for the Mütter Museum’s “Rarely Seen” exhibit in 2010. We’re looking forward to sharing this important piece of medical history when Pemberton’s documentary is broadcast. We’ll let you know when to expect it.