”I Was a Dennis the Menace. I Drove People Crazy.”
Forrest Bird’s curiosity was always insatiable, and it led him to an invention that has kept thousands of babies alive
FORREST BIRD WAS A TEENAGER WHEN HE ENCOUNTERED THE mystery that would engage him for his whole life. The son of a World War I flying ace, he began getting flying lessons years before learning to drive. As he contemplated the motion of air over an airplane’s wing, he marveled at the physics that governed all those invisible molecules, keeping the aircraft aloft. It led him to get degrees in engineering and then to go on to medical school when his interest in airflow turned his attention to the physics of breathing.
Bird invented the first practical medical respirator, which freed patients from the confines of iron lungs. But he is probably best known as the man who triggered a revolution in medicine when he created a version of his respirator for infants. The BABY bird, introduced in 1969, allowed doctors to save premature babies who had had no hope before, laying the foundation for what would be called neonatology. In the 1980s he triggered another, smaller revolution when he invented a therapy he calls Intrapulmonary Percussive Ventilation. By generating rapidly pulsing currents of air, his newest generation of respirators can literally massage the inside of a patient’s lungs, producing several therapeutic benefits.
This doesn’t mean Bird ever abandoned his interest in aviation. He maintains three large hangars full of fixed-wing airplanes, helicopters, and gliders; at last count he owned 38 working aircraft. These hangars are located at his compound on the shores of Pend Oreille Lake south of Sandpoint, in northern Idaho.
The compound is a reflection of his personality. At the heart of the facility is a large, comfortable house he shares with his wife, Pamela. It’s a short walk from the lakeside lodge that holds his laboratory, workshop, guest rooms, offices, and seminar facility. Nearby are buildings that contain manufacturing and distribution facilities for his company, Percussionaire.
Bird, 82, was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1995. This conversation took place in his lodge as snow fell on the mountain peaks in the background.
You’ve been involved with both engineering and aviation since you were a child, haven’t you?
I had some unique opportunities when I was a young lad. We had a 250-acre farm my family bought in 1929, if I remember right. There were wonderful shops there. My dad had a shop with state-of-the-art tooling: lathes and metal drill presses and milling machines and so on, which I learned to use when I was young.
My daddy was involved in manufacturing lasts, the forms shoes are made on, and he used to make a lot of the tooling in the shop himself, so I had a tremendous advantage. I had great freedom and access. I was a Dennis the Menace. I drove people crazy. I’d ask somebody a question, and if he didn’t give me a good answer, I would keep after him. I was a nasty kid from that point of view, but my daddy was very patient with me.
He was a World War I pilot, and, gosh, he taught me to fly. He soloed me when I was 14. That was in 1935.1 thought my daddy was the greatest man who ever lived. He gave me direction very young in life and showed me how I could utilize each learning experience I had to work toward what I wanted to do.
Did you always want to be an inventor?
To begin with, I wanted to fly airplanes. I thought that was romantic, was fantastic, because my daddy was one hell of a good pilot. Going from there, soon I wanted to be able to build that airplane. I wanted to know why it acted the way it did and what it did, all the way through it. I went from there.
If I hadn’t become an inventor, I’d have been a flyboy. I'd probably have been pushing airplanes around, or I’d have been an aeronautical engineer, working on what somebody else had done. But I would have been involved with aviation.
And aviation led you to respiration.
Yes. Before the war I was flying for Eastern Air Lines, and the year before World War II started, I got my license to fly military transports. I’d been a second lieutenant in ROTC, and when I was called up, I was made a first lieutenant.
An interesting thing happened during the war. I got to fly a captured Junkers 88 bomber from Germany. It was a bomber converted for high-altitude flight. The English had captured it and checked it out, and then I was ordered to deliver it to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. At the time, our pilots were flying with a high-altitude regulator that we called a “horse bag” because they looked like feed bags. That’s what we were using. We had an altitude restriction of 28,000 feet.
The German equipment in the Junkers 88 was more advanced. It had a demand regulator and a nice-fitting face mask. The only problem was, you had to suck your guts out to get enough oxygen. I played around with it a lot during the long flight across the Atlantic. I thought, “This is great, but I can improve it. ” So I took it out of the airplane and took it to a machine shop. I came up with a damned good demand regulator. I turned it over to the doctors at the school of aviation medicine at Wright-Patterson, and to make a long story short, it was in production in six months, and it was good at up to 37,000 feet.
I THOUGHT I COULD TAKE A BABY’S LUNGS AND TREAT IT LIKE THE CABIN OF THE LEARJET. IT WAS MUCH MORE DELICATE.…”
The doctor who ran the school took me out to dinner and asked what I planned to do after the war. I told him I planned to go back to Eastern Air Lines. He said I ought to think about going into medicine. The military was very good to me. They sent me around to a couple of medical schools to get my medical education. Not so I could hang out a shingle and treat patients but so I could pursue aviation medicine work.
Around this time something interesting happened. I had a buddy whose daddy had emphysema. I decided to try something for him. I took a demand regulator and put a cabinet knob on it. The way it worked was you put the breathing tube in your mouth and then pushed the knob. It would puff enough air under pressure to inflate your lungs. It worked great! I put an atomizer on it so you could use it to inhale your medicine. My friend’s daddy did great on it. We built thousands of those, and you can still find them out there. That was the first invention I actually sold commercially. That was what really got me thinking about being an inventor.
How did you invent the BABYbird?
I developed the very first BABY bird respirator at the urging of Bob Kirby, who was in charge of anesthesiology at Wilford Hall Medical Center, the Air Force teaching hospital at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. He had taken parts from Bird respirators and cobbled together a device that worked fairly well on babies but was very awkward. He convinced me I had to build a baby unit.
Just before that, Bill Lear and I had developed a secondary outflow valve to balance the pressure in a Learjet cabin. With that technology, I thought I could take a baby’s lungs and treat it like the cabin of the Learjet. It was much more delicate, of course, but it worked beautifully. You could use it for days. It was so gentle it wouldn’t hurt the baby’s lungs.
I made three prototypes and took them down to Wilford Hall. The man in charge of pediatrics there was a very competent physician named Bob Delamos. Fantastic fellow. But he was absolutely against ventilating children. His argument was that if he put a premature baby in a croup tent, it still had a 30 percent chance of survival; if I overinflated the lungs of one of those babies who would otherwise have survived, I would endanger its life. It would be wrong. He had a point.
He had a couple of kids who were ready to die, though, and he said I could treat them because they had no hope otherwise. He brought down one kid who was just purple. He was hypoxic. Bob began to ventilate him, and pretty soon the baby turned pink. He began to stretch. Within an hour the kid’s eyes were open, moving around. He was doing great, and we put him back in a croup tent. He made it.
He brought out the next kid. We weren’t as lucky with him. But the third kid we treated for a week, and he survived. At that point Bob Delamos was a believer.
That was in 1969. The mortality rate for low-birth-weight babies with respiratory distress syndrome was 65 to 70 percent. Within two years it was down to 10 percent. The pediatricians were excited by that, and they really embraced this therapy. They learned how to do it very, very well. I can’t tell you how rewarding it is to see young people walking around, perfectly healthy, who were kept alive by a BABY bird.
They’re inspiring, but you also found inspiration in your family.
One thing that pushed me in the direction I was going was my wife of 41 years, Mary, who died in 1986. Back in 1964 she was diagnosed with pulmonary emphysema. A lot of the devices I developed were because of Mary.
We kept her pretty well free of emphysema for years, but in about 1980 she was going downhill very rapidly. She got an acute infection, and it was really, really bad. Her doctors said she was going to die. At the time, I was developing a respirator that produced percussion in the lungs. We knew that if we could percuss the lungs without triggering the cough reflex, we could loosen secretions, administer medications more effectively—things of that nature. I had prototypes that I used on animals.
When Mary’s doctors said she was going to die, I got desperate. Out of that desperation, I took a prototype and checked it out on myself. When it seemed to work on me, I took it to her. We’d set up a room for her that was just like a hospital room. It had oxygen and compressed air and the like.
She was almost comatose when I went in. I set up the unit and asked her to start breathing with it. God, as soon as I turned it on, it started to hammer her lungs. I thought her chest was coming apart. I went to take it away from her, but she waved me away. I couldn’t understand why it was shaking her so much more than it had shaken me in the lab.
This went on for what seemed like an eternity, but it was probably just three or four minutes. All of a sudden she started to cough up secretions like I’d never seen in a patient before. Then she started to pink up. She grabbed the breathing tube and took some more. This went on for 20 minutes. By the end her heart rate went way down. Afterward she was exhausted, and she went to sleep.
I took the unit back down here to my lab and tried it on myself again, and it didn’t hammer me the way it had with Mary. I wondered why in the world it had acted that way. I went up and measured the pressure in her room. Instead of the 30 pounds of pressure I had here in the lab, we had set up 60 pounds in her room. If not for that, I probably wouldn’t have used enough pressure on her.
Within two weeks Mary was driving her car again. It was remarkable. She went on another five years after this. Quality years. This really served to stimulate me. It really sparked me to work on this.
This is an amazing facility. How did you assemble it all?
I’m a pack rat. I admit it. Every time I’ve ever thrown anything away, I’ve regretted it. I used to buy a Cadillac every three or four years, and I’ve never thrown any of them away. They come in handy on occasion.
Why so many airplanes? You’ve got your own air force here.
Well, I fly them all. Besides, an airplane is a better investment than most things. Its value goes up every year, and you get to fly it too. You can’t do that with stocks.