Texas Man Who Lived 70 Years in an Iron Lung Dies at 78: ‘I Never Gave Up’

Paralyzed by polio in 1952, Paul Alexander led a full life despite being confined to a large steel ventilator

Paul Alexander
Paul Alexander died on March 11 at age 78. Courtesy of Paul Alexander via GoFundMe

On a hot summer day in 1952, Paul Alexander of Texas was not feeling well. His neck and head hurt, and he was running a high fever. Within days, the 6-year-old boy could not move, speak or even swallow: He had contracted polio.

Almost completely paralyzed from the neck down, Alexander, who died on March 11 at age 78, spent much of the next seven decades in a large steel ventilator known as an iron lung. He was one of the last people to use the device, which was a common sight in polio wards during the 1940s and 1950s.

“I never gave up, and I’m not going to,” Alexander told YouTuber Mitch Summers in 2021.

Alexander’s older brother, Philip, announced his death in a statement. According to a video posted on Alexander’s TikTok page, where he’d amassed more than 330,000 followers, he was hospitalized to undergo treatment for Covid-19 last month but later released.

The Man in the Iron Lung

Instead of feeling imprisoned by the medical device that kept him alive, the man in the iron lung used it as a springboard to thrive. He graduated with honors from high school, then received a scholarship to Southern Methodist University after initially being rejected by the school on account of his disability.

Alexander graduated from the University of Texas at Austin Law School in 1984. He later worked as a lawyer, “living on his own and able to spend most of his day outside the machine that still kept him alive,” wrote the Guardians Linda Rodriguez McRobbie in 2020.

“I was a damn good [lawyer], too,” Alexander said in the 2021 video.

In 2020, Alexander wrote a book about his experience, Three Minutes for a Dog: My Life in an Iron Lung. It took him five years to complete the project; he wrote every word himself, using a pen attached to a stick held in his mouth.

“I wanted to accomplish the things I was told I couldn’t accomplish and to achieve the dreams I dreamed,” he said in the video.

@ironlungman Episode 1 of Convos with Paul! We will be responding to comments and questions about Paul’s life, his polio, and life in an iron lung! Please be positive #PaulAlexander #poliopaul #ironlung #conversationswithpaul Chopin Nocturne No. 2 Piano Mono - moshimo sound design

The book’s title was inspired by Alexander’s childhood therapist, who promised to give him a dog if he breathed on his own for three minutes. To do so, he learned to breathe like a frog, using his throat muscles to push air into his lungs. It took Alexander a year to master the technique, but he was rewarded with a puppy named Ginger.

In the mid-20th century, polio—short for poliomyelitis—was a scourge that killed or paralyzed more than half a million people every year, according to the World Health Organization. The infectious disease caused by the poliovirus attacks the central nervous system, resulting in some form of paralysis in about 0.5 percent of cases. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 32nd president of the United States, lost the use of his legs after contracting polio in 1921.

At the peak of the polio scare, iron lungs were a necessity for those who suffered paralysis of the diaphragm. The medical device allowed them to breathe by creating negative pressure through a vacuum, which forced the lungs to expand.

An Air Force airman entertains a child in an iron lung in the 1960s.
An Air Force airman entertains a child in an iron lung in the 1960s. City of Boston via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY 2.0

Virologist Jonas Salk invented an effective polio vaccine in 1953. Though Americans were slow to embrace inoculation, public health campaigns—including one that featured Elvis Presley receiving the vaccine before a 1956 appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show”—helped eliminate the disease in the U.S. by 1979.

According to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, 1,200 people in the U.S. relied on iron lungs (also known as tank respirators) in 1959. By 2004, only 39 individuals used them.

Before his death, Alexander was thought to be one of only two Americans who still needed an iron lung. The other iron lung user, Martha Lillard, was diagnosed with polio in 1953. As she told the “Radio Diaries” podcast, “I don’t like having to be in the iron lung. I would rather I didn’t have to use it. That was my big goal, was to be free of that. But I never did really become independent of it.”

Adjusting to life in the iron lung was extremely difficult for Alexander. He felt rejected by others but “didn’t want to die, so [he] continued to fight,” he said in the 2021 video.

“My story is an example of why your past or even your disability does not have to define your future,” Alexander added. “No matter where you’re from or what your past is, or the challenges you could be facing. You can truly do anything. You just have to set your mind to it and work hard.”

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