1927 – Builds and tests the first modern respirator, later dubbed "the iron lung"

Philip Drinker was the son of Henry S. Drinker, Lehigh's president from 1905 to 1920, and brother to Catherine Drinker Bowen, an award-winning historical writer. He is one of the most influential industrial hygienists in the field's history and is best known as the inventor of the "iron lung." Industrial hygiene is defined as the science of prevention and control of health hazards in the workplace.


Drinker was born in 1894 in Haverford, PA and spent part of his childhood growing up in the president's house on Lehigh's campus. He graduated from Princeton in 1915 and then spent two years pursuing a Chemical Engineering degree at Lehigh. After leaving Lehigh, Drinker was hired by Harvard's Medical School to instruct in ventilation and illumination for industrial health. The field of industrial hygiene was new and undeveloped, but Drinker quickly embraced a leading role amongst Harvard's faculty. The university's School of Public Health, the first of its kind in the country, was created soon after he was hired. In 1923 he was appointed as an instructor in Industrial Hygiene.

Medical Achievements

Drinker's work with air analysis, ventilation, and illumination brought him into contact with the Rockefeller Institute in 1926. He became involved with their newly formed commission to research improved methods of resuscitation following gas poisoning and electric shock. While conducting research on a cat's breathing patterns, Drinker and his colleague Louis Agassiz Shaw built the predecessor to the first "iron lung." The device effectively used air pumps to apply positive and negative pressure inside its iron chamber to assist the breathing of paralyzed individuals. In 1928, the device received its first clinical use by an eight-year-old girl who suffered from infantile paralysis. For years afterward, polio victims were the primary focus of the iron lung.

In 1931, a terrible polio epidemic considerably increased the country's demand for the device, and soon every major hospital in the nation owned at least one "Drinker Respirator." In the midst of his work with the iron lung, Drinker also developed a climate-controlled room in Boston's Children's Hospital in which premature babies could survive. The air in the room was regulated using fans and insulating material that Drinker convinced local gas and electric companies to donate to the hospital.

The Beginnings of Bioengineering

The iron lung and Dr. Drinker's work in the field of industrial hygiene is an early example of Biomedical Engineering, long before the field was given a name. After the iron lung became standard in hospitals across the country, Drinker continued his work with Industrial Hygiene. He traveled up and down the east coast testing dust levels in factories and mines. These experiments helped Drinker to develop a chart documenting safe levels of different types of dust in industrial settings. During World War II, Drinker directed an extensive Industrial Hygiene management, research, and teaching program for the U.S. Maritime Commission and Naval Contract shipyards and in 1946 he was appointed as a consultant to the new U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. He, his brother, Cecil, and some of their colleagues also developed oxygen masks for high altitudes as well as protective gas masks. In 1939, the Navy commissioned Drinker to improve upon their underwater breathing apparatuses.

His distinguished career included work as founder of the American Industrial Hygiene Association, nearly thirty years as editor-in-chief of the Journal of Industrial Hygiene, and writer of several books on the subject including the well-known "Industrial Dust" which he wrote with Theodore Hatch. He retired from his professorship at Harvard in 1961 and passed away in 1972. To this day, several of his original iron lungs are still in use by polio survivors across the country.


"Family Portrait" by Catherine Drinker Bowen Copyright 1970, Little, Brown and Company.

Wednesday, December 12, 1894
Haverford, PA
Date of Death: 
Sunday, October 1, 1972
M.S. Chemical Engineering
Notable Achievement: 
Inventor of "The Iron Lung"