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Barton County museum inspired possible ventilator solution
Kansas company designed modern iron lung to address COVID-19 crisis
Iron lung at Museum
An iron lung exhibit that has been on display at the Barton County Historical Society for decades served as inspiration for the design of a modern day version that may help in the fight to save lives of those affected by COVID-19. - photo by photo courtesy of the Barton County Historical Society Museum

A 20th-century tool used in the fight against a mysterious and deadly disease is now the inspiration for a 21st-century tool in the fight against COVID-19.  Engineers from the Hays-based manufacturer Hess Services Inc. visited the Barton County Historical Society Museum in late March to take a look at the iron lung that has been on display there for more than three decades. The opportunity to see one up close helped to answer design questions that inspired the company to move forward with plans to begin manufacturing a modern version of the units.  

On March 22, Leslie Helsell, museum co-director, was contacted by a group of visitors with a purpose.

Hess engineers were interested in coming up with a solution to the country’s ventilator shortage, and they wanted to take a look at the museum’s iron lung exhibit. 

They learned from Congressman Roger Marshall, M.D., that a unit existed a short distance from them at the museum in Great Bend.  Marshall is responsible for pointing Hess Services to the museum as a resource, co-director Karen Neuforth said.  

Marshall is a member of the Great Bend Rotary Club and served as District Governor in 2014 when the district borrowed the iron lung for display at the Kansas State Fair to use in its ongoing awareness campaign for the eradication of polio.  

Helsell greeted the Hays researchers at the museum, which was then closed to the public in observance of Kansas Governor Laura Kelly’s stay-at-home order closing all but essential services in the state.  

 “They visited the Iron Lung for 45 minutes or so and took lots of pictures,” she said. “We are very proud here that we could help in only a small way.”

What they took away from the visit was immediately poured into the design of a modern iron lung which the company, Hess Services Inc., a Hays-based manufacturer of oil field equipment, is ready to begin production as soon as the Federal Drug Administration gives the go-ahead, according to the April 9 report by Margaret Allen of the Hays Daily News (

According to a Sept. 9 report by Great Bend Tribune  News Editor Susan Thacker about the display, the unit was donated to St. Rose Hospital by Aerie No. 646 of the Fraternal Order of Eagles. 

“By 1986, thanks to widespread use of Dr. Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine, its use was no longer vital and it was retired,” Thacker wrote. 

It was still a working unit at the time it was donated, but the museum has not operated it since then. 

During the first half of the 20th century, outbreaks of Polio were common around the country.  Nurses at St. Rose Hospital in Great Bend in the early 1940s received training in the use of the mechanical respirator.  St. Rose was a teaching hospital, so many nurses were in turn trained in the use of the device, and Great Bend became known in the region as a treatment center for the disease, Neuforth said.  

There are still some people living on iron lung machines to this day, she added. They are dependent on friends and family who understand how to keep the outdated technology running. 

“They were made so that if the power went out, they could be kept running mechanically by someone pumping on a foot pedal,” Neuforth said.   

Museum staff and volunteers extracted the unit from its display so the Hess visitors could get a 360-degree view.  Helsell said they opened the unit and slid the bed out to see how it worked. They were particularly interested in its potential for COVID-19 patients for whom intubation is risky.  The non-invasive nature of the iron lung allowed patients to live for weeks, months, even years, without sedation after contracting polio. 

The museum will open again to the public when the executive order is lifted.  The iron lung will be on display in the main exhibit space along with other St. Rose Hospital artifacts.  

Iron lung at the fair
The Barton County Historical Museum’s iron lung is pictured in a past display at the Kansas State Fair in Hutchinson.