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In the first half of the 20th century, the disease known as poliomyelitis panicked Americans. Just like COVID today, polio stopped ordinary life in its tracks. Tens of thousands were paralyzed when the virus attacked their nervous systems. Many were left unable to walk. In the worst cases, people’s breathing muscles stopped working, and they were placed in an iron lung, a large machine that fit their entire bodies from the neck down.
Vaccines brought an end to the epidemic in the 1950s, and gradually, iron lungs became obsolete. The last ones were manufactured in the late ‘60s. Today, there are two people in America who still use an iron lung. One of them is Martha Lillard. This is her story.
This story has support from the National Endowment for the Humanities and listeners like you. Music from Blue Dot Sessions, Epidemic Sounds, and the song “Iron Lung” by Taylor Phelan and the Canes. This week’s sponsors include Uncommon Good, go to uncommongoods.com/diaries for 15% off.