Dr. Forrest Bird, Inventor of Medical Respirators and Ventilators, Dies at 94




Dr. Forrest M. Bird, an eccentric aviator and inventor who studied high-altitude breathing problems of World War II pilots and later created medical devices that saved lives and aided thousands of people with respiratory ailments, died on Sunday at his home in Sagle, Idaho. He was 94.

His stepdaughter, Rachel Schwam, confirmed his death.

When the fraternity of inventors celebrate the geniuses who came up with super glue, kitty litter and the cellphone, they sometimes talk about Dr. Bird, an American original who began tinkering with gizmos concocted out of strawberry-shortcake tins and doorknobs and eventually developed four generations of cardiopulmonary devices that came to be widely used in homes and hospitals.

In the 1950s and ’60s, he pioneered some of the first portable and reliable mechanical ventilators for people with acute and chronic heart and lung afflictions. These relatively small devices, used in all but the worst cases, made primitive and expensive mechanisms like the iron lung virtually obsolete only a decade after hospital wards had been lined with them at the height of paralytic polio epidemics.


Dr. Bird was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1995 for developing the first low-cost, mass-produced pediatric respirator, known as the Baby Bird, which has been credited by medical experts with significantly reducing the mortality rates of infants with respiratory problems.

The device, he said, saved two Idaho neighbor boys born with breathing distress. Among those aided by his inventions was his first wife, Mary, who learned she had pulmonary emphysema in 1964; his respirators, including one that used percussion to loosen secretions in her lungs, helped prolong her life until 1986.

Dr. Bird, who received the Presidential Citizens Medal from George W. Bush in 2008 and the National Medal of Technology and Innovation from President Obama in 2009, lived a self-contained but busy life on a remote, 300-acre compound on Lake Pend Oreille, surrounded by majestic mountains and forests 50 miles from the Canadian border.

On the estate was his home; the headquarters of his Percussionaire Corporation, with dozens of employees who develop and market his inventions; a working farm that sustained all the residents; an airfield and hangars for his scores of restored vintage airplanes, seaplanes, helicopters, cars and motorcycles; and the Bird Aviation Museum and Invention Center, which he opened in 2007.

Forrest Morton Bird was born on June 9, 1921, in Stoughton, Mass., the son of Jane and Morton Forrest Bird. His father had been a combat aviator in France in World War I, owned an open-cockpit biplane and taught his young son to fly. Inspired by the lessons and a boyhood meeting with Orville Wright, one of the brothers credited with the first powered flight, in 1903, Forrest fell in love with aviation.

In 1935, he graduated at age 14 from Stoughton High School in an accelerated academic program. He also soloed in his father’s biplane. By 16, he was a certified pilot. He recalled that on an otherwise routine flight over Massachusetts on May 6, 1937, he glimpsed a massive airship heading southwest.

“I flew up alongside of it,” he told Morley Safer for a “60 Minutes” profile of him on CBS in 2007. “And I first saw the swastika on the end.” It was the great German zeppelin Hindenburg, bound for Lakehurst, N.J., where hours later it burst into flames in the most spectacular air disaster of the age.

Mr. Bird was an experienced pilot by the time he joined the Army Air Corps a week after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941. For much of World War II, he was assigned to training and transport commands, studying aeronautics and ferrying bombers, fighters and transport planes from aircraft factories to airfields across the United States, and to operational squadrons in Europe, the Pacific and Asia.

During the war he studied high-altitude respiration problems, he said in an interview with The New York Times for this obituary in 2010. American pilots were using breathing regulators that restricted altitudes to 28,000 feet, but modifications he made to a captured German regulator were adopted by the Army and enabled test flights to climb to 37,000 feet by the war’s end. He said his research proved invaluable years later when he began to design medical respirators.

He married the former Mary Moran in 1945. The couple had one daughter, Catherine. After his first wife’s death, he married Dominique Deckers in 1988. They were divorced in 1998. In 1999, he married Dr. Pamela Riddle. Besides his stepdaughter, he is survived by his wife; his daughter, Catherine Natoni, from his first marriage; a stepson, Brandon Riddle, and four grandchildren and stepgrandchildren.

After the war, Dr. Bird settled in Palm Springs, Calif. He studied medicine at several schools without taking a degree, intending only to study aviators’ high-altitude breathing problems, the pursuit that led him to develop medical respirators and ventilators.

His first prototype, cobbled together from shortcake tins and a doorknob in 1953, was revised often and tested on volunteer patients with limited success. But in 1958, he introduced the Bird Universal Medical Respirator, a green box that reliably assisted breathing and sold widely to patients and hospitals. He later developed improved versions, as well as his Baby Bird ventilator.

Much of Dr. Bird’s formal higher education came after his successful inventions. His curriculum vitae includes a doctorate in aeronautics in 1977 from Northrop University in Inglewood, and a medical degree in 1979 from the Pontifical Catholic University of Campinas in Brazil.

He moved to Idaho in 1979, but continued to travel and lecture widely. He was still flying in his late 80s.

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