Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

The Girl in the Iron Lung

By Peter Bowditch

With Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan the last remaining refuges of polio, most people today haven’t lived through a polio endemic and can’t truly appreciate the importance of vaccination.

Peter Bowditch is a former President of Australian Skeptics Inc. (

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I recently spent a few weeks on crutches because of a broken ankle, and on one of the visits to my doctor during the treatment I took the opportunity to have a vaccination against pneumonia. These reminded me of my earliest memory of being vaccinated.

Shortly after my twelfth birthday I was rushed to hospital to have my appendix removed. Back in those days it wasn’t the keyhole job it is today, so I had to spend a few days in the hospital to recuperate. Another thing about the olden days was that there was no gender separation, and one of the other patients in the children’s ward at Hornsby Hospital was a girl about 10–11 years old.

I can still remember what she looked like, even after all these years. She had a round face with very pink cheeks. Her hair was red, and even though it was cut short you could see that it had a curl in it.

I can only remember her face and hair and not what the rest of her looked like because the rest of her was enclosed in a steel box. The steel box was an iron lung, and it was doing her breathing for her because she had been infected with polio.

She was quite cheerful, which must have been difficult. I don’t know what happened to her later, and she may very well have been one of the lucky ones who through intensive rehabilitation was eventually able to survive outside the box, but at the time the general...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.