Who is Heimlich, the Guy who invented the Maneuver?

So I was listening to the excellent RadioLab podcast recently and they did a special on Henry Heimlich, inventor of the Heimlich Maneuver, who it turns out, is alive. Ya, how about that? I assumed he was dead too.

Henry Heimlich - Heimlich Maneuver

Henry Heimlich – Still alive and resembling a balder, angrier De Niro.

You can listen to the frankly fascinating feature at the link below, or you can read my simply subpar summary below that.

Click here-ish for the full episode

Heimlich lead quite an interesting early life, but I won’t get into it all here. He was a chest surgeon in the navy, who in the early 70s noticed that choking was one of the highest causes of accidental death in the US at the time. There were yet no effective means at the time for preventing this (despite some people’s attempts, including a vacuum-type machine that would suck the food out.) Heimlich realised that there was enough air in the lungs that, if you compressed it, would force the object out of the mouth.

Two figures performing the Heimlich Maneuver

Shouldn’t have eaten that second red arrow.

He tried it out using a dog (get your pitchforks) and a meatball. The first two tries didn’t work, but the third did. The dog went on to have a happy and successful life, but never ate a meatball again. Heimlich’s maneuver gathered some fame when a regional newspaper ran a feature on the procedure and a man who read the article went on to be the first person on record to use it, saving the life of his neighbour’s wife.

Heimlich then began to receive hundreds of letters from people whose lives his maneuver had saved. Some celebrities even wrote in to give their thanks for not choking to death: Cher, Walter Matthau, Carrie Fisher, Goldie Hawn, Liz Taylor and even Ronald Reagan.

heimlich maneuver

So Heimlich prevented the Cold War from ending. Or helped it come to an end. However you want to look at it.

So Heimlich was a national and international hero and was directly responsible for saving thousands of lives. Not bad going. But his story doesn’t end there and it starts to get a bit murky after that. Following the success of the maneuver, he then went on to claim that it could also prevent asthma attacks if applied once a week and even save drowning victims. Both of these uses of the maneuver were very controversial and weren’t widely adopted.

Then, in the early 1980s, Heimlich claimed he’d found a cure for lymes disease, cancer and aids. The cure… malaria. His research was based on that of an Austrian in the early 20th century who ran trials to treat syphillis using malaria.

Heimlich ran some unregulated trials in which he infected Lymes disease patients with malaria in an attempt to cure them. He ran similar trials throughout the 80s and 90s, even travelling to Africa.

Aids researchers were quick to debunk the theory, stating that not only was no scientific evidence of it, but that the treatment could possibly kill you.

His theories lead to a family dispute between him and his two sons, which the podcast delves into, and Heimlich still sticks to his opinions to this day, at the ripe old age of 93. Who knows, maybe he was onto something? Or maybe that’s batshit crazy.

Anyway, interesting stuff.


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