Paul Alexander, polio survivor who spent over 70 years in iron lung, dead at 78


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Paul Alexander, known as “the man in the iron lung,” having spent most of his life living inside a metal chamber that helped him breathe, has died aged 78, a fundraiser for his health care confirmed Tuesday.

Alexander, of Dallas, Texas, contracted polio in the summer of 1952 when he was 6 years old, leaving him paralyzed from the neck down.

He was forced to live inside the chamber for the rest of his extraordinary life, yet was known for his positive and graceful attitude.

Paul Alexander smiles while lying in his iron lung chamber

Paul Alexander, known as “the man in the iron lung,” has died aged 78, a fundraiser for his health care confirmed Tuesday. (GoFundMe)


“In this time Paul went to college, became a lawyer, and a published author,” wrote Christopher Ulmer, who created a GoFundMe page for Alexander to help finance his health care needs.

“His story traveled wide and far, positively influencing people around the world. Paul was an incredible role model that will continue to be remembered.”

At 21, Alexander became the first person to graduate from a high school in Dallas without ever attending class in person, reports the Daily Mail.

He pursued his dreams of becoming a trial lawyer and represented clients in court in a three-piece suit and a modified wheelchair that held his paralyzed body upright.

He also staged a sit-in for disability rights and published a 155-page memoir, “Three Minutes for a Dog: My Life in an Iron Lung,” which took five years to complete. Alexander wrote each word with a pen attached to a stick in his mouth, the Daily Mail reports.

Alexander has been recognized by Guinness World Records as the person who has spent the longest amount of time living in an iron lung.

In an interview with Reuters before his death, Alexander said: “My story is an example of why your past or even your disability does not have to define your future.”

Students and a doctor examiner and iron ling

Dr. Jennifer Howse, president of March of Dimes, explains the workings of an iron lung to students of Sherman Elementary School in 2004. (Gerald Martineau/The The Washington Post via Getty Images)


The ventilator, a large yellow metal chamber, required Alexander to lie his entire body down inside with just his head exposed outside.

Air pressure is continuously cycled up and down to stimulate breathing. People who have contracted polio typically need iron lungs, as do those who have become paralyzed due to poisons.

Ulmer wrote that the GoFundMe was set up after Alexander had been “taken advantage of by people who were supposed to care for his best interests.” Although the page did not go into further detail. 

“This theft, combined with the high cost of health care, has left Paul with little money to survive,” Ulmer wrote. 

“He struggles to maintain his iron lung, afford health care, and find housing that accommodates his needs,” Ulmer wrote before Alexander’s death.

Ulmer said Paul had been living in a small one-room apartment that did not have a window.

A model inside an iron lung machine

An iron lung machine used in the U.K. in the 1950s. (Science & Society Picture Library/SSPL/Getty Images)


Alexander’s brother, Philip, said the fundraiser, which raised more than $143,000, helped him live out his final years. 

“I am so [grateful] to everybody who donated to my brother’s fundraiser. It allowed him to live his last few years stress-free,” Paul was quoted as saying on the GoFundMe page.

“It will also pay for his funeral during this difficult time. It is absolutely incredible to read all the comments and know that so many people were inspired by Paul. I am just so grateful.”


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