The British Carmakers Who Fought a Polio Epidemic With Iron Lungs

By Bulent Yusuf on at

Last month was the 100th anniversary of the first cars made by William Morris (1877-1963). The Morris-Oxford Light was a small car with a 1018cc four-cylinder side-valve engine, made in 1913. But William Morris wasn't just a titan of the British car industry; he was also a philanthropist who manufactured and donated over 5,000 iron lungs to hospitals across the UK.

Morris started out by making and repairing bicycles, and then hiring and repairing cars before deciding to build his own. Although his business was disrupted by the First World War, Morris grew to dominate the British car industry with a succession of well-made, affordable cars made from bought-in components. He was made a baron in 1934, and then Viscount in 1938 for his services to car manufacturing, taking the name Viscount Nuffield.

By the late 1940s and 1950s, a polio epidemic was cutting a swathe across the UK and around the world. As an infectious disease that affected the central nervous system, people would experience temporary or permanent paralysis of the the limbs, and sometimes even the chest muscles. However, because the first Polio vaccines developed by Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin were still some years away, the only treatment option was an iron lung. These machines cost something like £1,000 each at the time, and few hospitals could afford to buy them.

Morris/Nuffield first heard a plea for an iron lung on the radio in 1938, and thereafter embarked on a plan to distribute iron lungs around the UK and the British Commonwealth. He began by offering dedicated space in his factories to manufacture them; specifically, a model called the Both iron lung. However, the Both wasn't regarded as the best model on the market, and Nuffield was lambasted by a medical officer of the London County Council for his “wasteful benevolence.”

Nuffield continued regardless, citing the "wonders" he had seen them work for children afflicted with Polio, and manufactured 700 of the Both-type iron lungs machines in his workshops. His continued support led to further innovations in iron lung design, and the involvement of other prominent figures in the British car industry. One of them, Captain George Smith-Clarke, was chief engineer at British car manufacturer Alvis from 1922 to 1950, and had designed cars which won races at Brooklands and Le Mans.

In 1952, Smith-Clarke had taken on the chairmanship of the Coventry and Warwickshire Hospital board of management, and had been asked to look at the engineering of iron lungs like the Both-model. To make them more comfortable for patients, he devised a new way of opening and closing them. Hinged at one end, the machines became known as ‘alligators’, for the way the open cabinet resembled the gaping maw of the scaly predator. The Smith-Clarke models remained in use throughout the 1960s.

In total, Nuffield had built and donated over 5,000 iron lungs; one of which is on display at his former home, Nuffield Place. Close scrutiny of some models shows striking parallels to car parts, with the likelihood that, if not built from the same components as those found in a car factory, they were at least modelled on them.

Today, the Nuffield name lives on in the many other medical institutions and posts that William Morris endowed, including the Nuffield Department of Surgical Sciences and the Nuffield College at the University of Oxford, and the Nuffield Foundation. The contribution that he and his peers made to both fields of medicine and motoring are unique in 20th century history.

Thanks to Selina Hurley, Assistant Curator of Medicine at the Science Museum, for help with this article.

Image Credit: National Education Network