The Surprisingly Long History of the Ventilator, the Machine You Never Want to Need
With millions of people across the U.S. and the world battling COVID-19 infections, many of them struggling to breathe, ventilators have become a top priority for the health-care workers trying desperately to keep patients alive. And those machines, which help patients breathe or breathe for them, are in startlingly short supply. For doctors, resorting to a ventilator is an extreme measure, used when a patient’s lungs cannot supply enough oxygen on their own. Ventilators can also give a patient’s body time to rest when breathing is difficult, and allow doctors to more easily remove lung secretions or deliver medications directly to the respiratory system. Such treatments have rarely been more important to global public health—something that’s all the more striking given the surprisingly long history of the ventilator. While modern computer-controlled ventilators are relatively new, the basic principles on which they operate are more than a century old. The story of these machines, a history of incremental advances from dozens of doctors and technicians around the world, parallels broader historical developments in medicine and precision engineering. While references to artificial ventilation can be found in passages from the Bible, some of the earliest attempts to use mechanical means to ventilate a patient—to breath for that person—can be traced back to the late 18th century, when the Royal Humane Society of England began supporting the ...
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