Longest iron lung patient
Paul Alexander
71 year(s)
United States (Dallas)

The longest period for a person to make daily use of a negative-pressure ventilator (or "iron lung") is 71 years, set by Paul Alexander of Texas, USA, who was placed in an iron lung in July 1952 after being paralyzed by polio.

Iron lungs consist of a sealed chamber fitted with a pump that can raise and lower the air pressure inside. The patient is placed in the chamber with their head and neck sticking out through an air-tight gasket. The raising and lowering of the pressure inside the chamber expands and contracts the patient's lungs, allowing them to continue breathing even when the muscles of their chest have failed.

Paul contracted polio (poliomyelitis) in July 1952, when he was just six years old. That year a polio epidemic had swept through his hometown of Dallas, Texas. Despite efforts by public health authorities – which included the closure of bars, cinemas and any other public venue where the virus might spread – thousands of cases were recorded in the city, resulting in dozens of deaths.

After surviving the initial acute phase of the illness, Paul, who became known as “Polio Paul”, awoke in an iron lung, paralyzed and unable to speak due to an emergency tracheotomy. He was surrounded by other children – and a few adults – in the same situation, with only their heads showing from the whirring machinery. Over the following months, many of his neighbours died, but he survived and was eventually deemed healthy enough to return home.

With the help of a physical therapist, Paul taught himself to "frog breathe" – using his throat muscles to force air into his lungs, gulping down air one mouthful at a time. This allowed him to leave the iron lung for prolonged periods, eventually leaving the iron lung only to sleep.

He was the first student to graduate from a Texas high school without physically attending classes, and later attended the University of Texas where he earned a law degree. He went on to practice law, representing his clients in courtrooms and running his own legal practice.

Paul tragically died in March 2024 at the age of 78, after more than 71 years inside his iron lung.

Read more about his incredible story here.

Header image: Stock image by CDC/GHO/Mary Hilpertshauser