So, in a flattering moment a few weeks ago, a radio reporter acquaintance, Julia Scott, asked me to edit a story she was working on, a piece tentatively titled “The Last of the Iron Lungs.” It was about one of the handful of people in the United States, a woman stricken by polio as a child in the 1950s, who was still reliant on one of the old tank respirators. (I say “flattering” because Julia’s an accomplished reporter and I think she could have had any editor she wanted.)
Like most people who grew up during the second half of the Baby Boom—after Salk’s vaccine and later Sabin’s had halted the polio epidemic—I had heard about iron lungs but had only a vague idea of what they were, how they worked, and what role they played in treating the disease or helping patients survive.
My friend Christian Warren, a science historian, helped me with my research. He sent me a couple of articles and pointed me to David Oshinsky’s “Polio: An American Story.” Here’s one thing I picked up in that reading: the story of Fred Snite Jr., infected with the polio virus in his mid-20s while traveling with his very wealthy parents in China in the 1930s. He wound up spending the rest of his life in an iron lung and may have been the first medical technology celebrity–his every move, including his return to the United States, a trip to Lourdes, his marriage and family life (he and his wife had three daughters), visits to Arlington Park racetrack outside Chicago, and his regular attendance at Notre Dame football games was recorded in newsreels and the press.
Anyway, to cut to the chase: Julia’s piece relates the story of Martha Lillard, who lives outside Oklahoma City. We edited the piece on the phone, so I never really only got a sense of how immediate and compelling Martha’s voice and Julia’s storytelling was. Until today, when I heard the finished piece, mixed by KALW’s Chris Hoff, online. Give it a listen: