What would a hotel want with an iron lung?

Iron lung — what a name. The recent reissue of “Breath: Life in the Rhythm of an Iron Lung” by Martha Mason made me wonder about other surviving iron lungs. This one sure has a curious provenance.

Even at the height of the polio epidemic, why would a “Charlotte Lifesaving Crew” need an iron lung? And why would it have wound up at the Mecklenburg Hotel?

Here’s what Anne Anderson, curator of East Carolina University’s Country Doctor Museum in Bailey, has to offer:

“It is unclear how the Mecklenburg Hotel came to possess the iron lung. It was gifted to the Museum in 1998. [The hotel closed in 1975.] I believe the “Charlotte Life Saving Crew” refers not to Charlotte, N.C., but to the Charlotte Life Saving Station on Lake Ontario near Rochester, N.Y. This station was eventually taken over by the U.S. Coast Guard, and a history of the station indicates they had mobile life saving equipment at the facility. Perhaps this included the iron lung, as these respirators were known to help regulate the breathing of divers and rescue victims….

“Hand-written notes made on adhesive bandages on the exterior of the iron lung lead me to think it might have been used in a hospital setting at some point. [One message reads], ‘Please leave the light off at all times unless needed for treatment or observation.’

“Many of our older guests recognize the iron lung right away and will share stories with us about their personal, or a loved one’s, experience with polio. Alternatively, many of our youngest guests (school children) have never heard of polio and guess the iron lung is a washing machine or a tanning bed.”

4 thoughts on “What would a hotel want with an iron lung?”

  1. From Shelia Bumgarner, archivist in the Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library: “My best guess is either a guest of the hotel skipped, could not pay his bill and left this behind or died at the hotel and the machine became a conversation piece or a relative of the person who once managed the hotel needed an iron lung. But facts, I regret I have none to offer.”

  2. So is the iron lung still in Eastern NC? Are there any others in NC? I would love to have one on display at an upcoming Rotary conference since Rotary International founded Polio Plus in 1985 to help eradicate this disease.

  3. I am a history buff, concerning the American Fire Service, Emergency Medical Services, and volunteer rescue squads.
    Mr. Julian Stanley Wise was the founder of the first volunteer rescue squad in the world. This occured in Roanoke Virginia in 1928. In the 40’s and fifties, a polio epidemic swept through parts of Virginia and North Carolina. In one paticular situation known to Wise, a small child died before a Iron Lung could be secured for the child’s use in Roanoke. Wise started soliciting funds for some Iron Lungs to be used wherever they were needed. The Roanoke Life Saving Crew purchased several and they would be driven/placed on trains to wherever they were needed (all over the United States). Julian Wise was consulted on the founding of the Charlotte Life Saving Crew and was a honnary member there. They were a volunteer rescue squad in Charlotte. I am willing to bet that the Hotel in question provided the funds for the Iron Lung, and the Charlotte Life Saving Crew owned and operated the device. There are a few Iron Lungs still out there. There are an adult and infant iron lung in Danville Virginia. There is at least one that was with the Hunton Life Saving Crew in existenace in Roanoke, Virginia that was found at their old grew hall. I have heard that there are still some patients in these devices, and that there are 30-50 of them still in use because they were better suited for some forms of the damage caused by polio.

  4. I stopped by the country doctor museum 15 to 20 years ago and saw their displays, and they only had pictures of an iron lung. I knew where we had one at, Dallas Rescue Squad, Dallas NC came and got it from Mecklenburg County EMS when we were cleaning out old station two. Dallas Rescue used it for several years in a haunted house in Gaston County N C.
    I contacted a Female Doctor in Raleigh and she sent a truck from Raleigh NC to pick it up when Chief Hoyle Withers agreed to give up the relic for a museum.
    The unit still would pump and had 2 round stickers on it that said Charlotte Life Saving Crew.
    Now how we got ahold of these two relics from Charlotte Life Saving Crew I will never know. Everyone from that era is dead and gone and Charlotte Life Saving Has been closed for 15 years.
    If you have more questions email me and I will try and get you some answers.

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