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Jack Reichart and the Iron Lung

For some reason, my husband and I were talking about polio a few days ago. That subject brought to mind the project that included a local inventor, a Ball Memorial Hospital administrator, and the Warner Gear Company. It’s a story of people coming together during a crisis, working quickly, and solving a problem.

James “Jack” Reichart, Sr. was an inventor with a flair for technology and a talent for solving problems. After working in various Indiana towns in factories, as an inspector for Bell Telephone, and as an appliance salesman, Reichart moved to Muncie. Here, he started Excel Manufacturing Corporation to make electric lamps and cookers. Soon he added popcorn poppers, teakettles, coffeemakers, sewing accessories, and other household products to his inventory.

Jack Reichart, Sr. with his version of the iron lung.

During the polio epidemic of the late 1940s, Nellie Brown, administrator at Ball Memorial Hospital called on Reichart when she needed additional artificial respirators, also known as iron lungs. Using two metal barrels and a vacuum cleaner from Sears, he labored just ten hours to develop a crude iron lung. In the following days, Reichart worked with an engineer from Warner Gear to refine the iron lung. Workers at Warner Gear then built a number of the respirators for the hospital. Reichart distributed the plans for these iron lungs free of charge to anyone who wanted them so, he said, “no other city would get caught without enough of these lifesaving devices.” The story about the iron lung was publicized in national magazines including the October 1949 issue of Popular Science.

Ball Memorial Hospital administrator Nellie Brown.

Jack Reichart died suddenly less than a year after he created his version of the iron lung. By then the epidemic had abated, but Reichart was still involved in the quest to eliminate polio. In the months preceding his death, this man with an inventive mind developed a unique method of raising money for the National Polio Foundation. After asking his friends to contribute in their own names, he went to them once more and asked them to contribute in their pets’ names. It worked. The campaign was successful.

Warner Gear Company employee working on an iron lung made from Jack Reichart’s pattern.