SCCM Remembers Pioneer in Mechanical Ventilation

2016 - 2 April - SCCM’s Quality Improvement Initiatives
This article celebrates the life of Forrest Morton Bird, MD, PhD, ScD.

Forrest Morton Bird, MD, PhD, ScD, who pioneered some of the first portable and reliable mechanical ventilators, pass away Sunday, August 2, 2015, at his home in Sagle, Idaho.

Dr. Bird is credited with creating the first prototyped ventilators from strawberry shortcake tins and a doorknob. Further revision resulted in the 1955 release of the Bird Universal Medical Respirator, a small green box that became familiar to hospital patients soon after its introduction. The Baby Bird respirator followed in 1970, reducing infant mortality due to respiratory problems from 70% to less than 10%. Both of these inventions changed history and saved millions of lives, and Dr. Bird went on to contribute a range of airway percussive devices to aid in eliminating airway secretions.

A longtime member of the Society of Critical Care Medicine (SCCM), Dr. Bird presented on great contributions to mechanical ventilation during the 38th Critical Care Congress. He was featured in countless newspapers, magazines, journals, television and radio interviews, including 60 Minutes, and mentored generations in the field of advanced pulmonary care.

“Perhaps it was his imposing physical stature, flip-up aviator glasses, or engaging smile, but whatever the explanation, Forrest Bird projected confidence, optimism and excitement about medical science and life’s possibilities,” remembered SCCM member John J. Marini, MD. “He was deeply interested in—and became a strong advocate for—respiratory care. His contributions to the field are legendary. Those of my generation remember the gas-powered, gently clacking, pressure-cycled ventilators made of green plastic that were used to deliver intermittent positive-pressure breathing treatments on the general wards and to provide lightweight, low-cost, portable ventilation for patients with modest demands.”

Dr. Bird was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1995 for developing the Baby Bird. He won the Lifetime Scientific Achievement Award in 1985 and again in September 2005. He continued to contribute to the field of pulmonary science by participating in the development of the VDR, a ventilator that permits management of the most challenging patients, including those with ARDS, trauma and inhalation injury.

“Forrest was a bold adventurer and entrepreneurial risk taker, driven by a desire to use his inventive genius for the advancement of respiratory and critical care medicine. Although neither an intensivist nor trained as a physician, he projected the confidence of one who knew that hard study, intuition, good intentions and mastery of physics help solve many problems that afflict the lungs,” said Dr. Marini. “Forrest Bird was a role model for other inventive biomedical engineers, physicians and entrepreneurs. For those who had the privilege of meeting him, the memory of his imposing stature and charismatic personality are indelible. These as well as his inspiring contributions have left a lasting legacy for our discipline.”

Dr. Bird was also an avid aviator. He performed his first solo flight at age 14. By age 16, he was working to obtain multiple major pilot certifications. He enlisted with the United States Army Air Corps and entered active duty in 1941 as a technical air training officer due to his advanced qualifications.

Dr. Bird served honorably in the military, serving in World War II and assisting in the Korean and Vietnam wars. During World War II, he invented the anti-g pressure suit regulator, which helped pilots fly to an altitude of 40,000 feet (as opposed to 28,000 feet), giving the United States and allies a downwind advantage in dogfights. He retired as a colonel.

Dr. Bird was preceded in death by his parents, Morton and Jane Bird; his sisters, Shirley Bird and Ramona “Bobbie” Belonga; and his wife, Mary Bird. He is survived by his second wife, Dr. Pamela Bird; his daughter, Catherine Bird Natoni; his stepdaughter, Rachel Schwam (husband Nathan); granddaughters Julianna (“Little Blue Eyes”) and Autumn Grace Schwam; stepson, Brandon Riddle (wife Chanity); and grandchildren, Darren Natoni (wife Danielle) and Devon Natoni. In addition to his family, he leaves behind numerous extended family members and friends.