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Iron Man, Polio and a Story of Disruptions

Updated: Aug 31

This is the 'splash page' from Tales of Suspense #38. The first appearance of Iron Man from Marvel Comics.

Disruptive tech reaches deep, and sometimes it is a story that must be told.

By Rob McCammon

Follow me on Twitter @RobMcCammon1

We say things are disruptive but what does that mean? In 1963 there was an epidemic that now-a-days it is all but forgotten. Polio. My Grandmother was crippled by the disease, but she wasn't alone. It haunted the psyche of the United States and the world.

The polio virus attacked muscle groups and one of the worst things that were associated with the condition was people finding they could not breathe. To this the most iconic device of polio was born the Iron Lung.

Philip Drinker and Louis Agassiz Shaw at Harvard University invented the Iron Lung in 1927. This was a major life saver. In early stages of polio, the chest muscles were hit and this meant people could not breath. Many died in these early stages. This is our first disruptive tech that we have in our story. Until this moment, there was a feeling that the patient was dead just by the fact that it was settling into their chest.

The iron lung both helped and terrified the world around us. I often wonder if our thoughts of suspended animation don't come from it, but it's use to save people and even keep them alive indefinitely, were haunting.

“There was a tremendous psychological element at work in all of us in our relationship to the lung. The metal respirator assumed an almost animate personality and became a symbol of protection and security…. We were incomplete embryos in a metal womb.” —Larry Alexander, 1954

By the late 1950's these images were stuck as part of us. Even as the talk and the vaccine was sent out in the world, these life saving tombs were an odd mix. Science fiction stories of the 1950's worked these things in. This is why I think that maybe there was a connection between the suspended animation and the iron lung.

This tech wasn't a cure. That's okay. Sometimes the disruption is simply that a disruption. The virus did not kill now with the iron lung.

The Second Disruption

Polio was devastating and terrifying. Something had to be done. FDR had been unable to walk on his own from polio for many years. This was a time before television so most Americans simply did not know the extent of his disability. Basil O'Conner was a radio personality and friend of the President. National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (NFIP) was born and through shrewd use of media, the March of Dimes was born.

This is the second disruption. The campaign that formed mobilized people for a noble purpose. By sending in their dimes, they could help develop a cure.

These dimes, the cost of a comic book, were sent to the President. It was brilliant. The money went to fund research.

We recognize this effort with FDR replacing Mercury on the dime just following his death in 1946.

The research done through the NFIP lead to understanding of Polio along with development of a vaccine.

This story leads to Jonas Salk. His polio vaccine was the thing that finally beat back polio. It was approved on April 12, 1955. There were the normal vaccine battles, but by 1960, Polio was under control.

So, what does Iron Man have to do with all this? Well, he was a creation in 1963. He had a condition that required iron machinery to encapsulate around him. Meanwhile, he was a story of the overcoming of the condition. The suit of armor let him live, but he could not live without it. Tony Stark was also wealthy, but used his wealth for the betterment of those around him. This also seems similar to FDR. Stan Lee was absolutely a New Yorker, and a product of his generation. The iron lung, the confinement all seem to come together in Iron Man.

Real disruptions change people's lives. The Iron Lung kept people from dying of the polio condition. The March of Dimes was a change in the way we use media and other facilities to create vaccines. This campaign had kids send in a dime, the cost of a comic book. Finally art and stories in the form of Marvel Comic's Iron Man used the elements that readers were familiar with.

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