Early Life and the US Army Air Corp
Forrest Bird was born in Stoughton, Massachusetts on June 9th, 1921. Influenced by his father’s experiences as a World War I pilot stationed in France, and meeting Orville Wright; he became interested in airplanes at an early age. Bird performed his first solo flight at the age of fourteen, and by the age of sixteen was working to obtain multiple pilot certifications. As an undergraduate at Northeastern University studying aeronautical engineering, he was recruited into the Army Air Corp and entered active duty in 1941 as a technical air training officer due to his advanced qualifications. His expertise, combined with the onset of World War II, gave him the opportunity to pilot almost every aircraft in service, including early jet aircraft and helicopters.
Passion for Problem Solving
During the war, Bird was flying a captured aircraft from England to the United States. He discovered and started experimenting with a demand oxygen regulator created by the Germans. He observed that it required a substantial effort to breathe with the device and ultimately did not provide much value to the pilot. Intrigued, he knew that he could improve it, so he dismantled the regulator from the plane, took it home and continued experimenting with the device.
Bird redesigned the regulator and tested it on himself; then presented his design to his superiors at the Air Corp. The design was approved and put into production. As a reward and to capitalize on Dr. Bird’s ingenuity he received a transfer to Randolph Air Force Base in Texas where he met his mentor Nobel Laureate, Dr. Andre Cournand, who encouraged him to attend medical school where he earned multiple degrees. His aviation experience, combined with his medical training, lead to the creation of a pressure head for demand oxygen regulators in high altitude airplanes and ultimately pressure suits that responded to high G-loads.
Opportunity for Innovation
The opportunity to transition his aeronautical breathing technology to the civilian world presented itself in the mid-1950’s, in part due to the polio epidemic that was sweeping Europe and the United States.
Polio sickened and paralyzed thousands of people, mostly children. Iron Lungs were employed to assist patients with paralytic anterior poliomyelitis and became a viable solution for its time, but proved to be cumbersome, expensive, and hard to transport which limited the patient's mobility.
During this period, Dr. Bird invented the Mark 7 which was the first respirator used to wean patients off the Iron Lung successfully. His invention marked the birth of modern respiratory pressure ventilation as we know it today. Capitalizing on the Mark 7's success and commercial availability, he sought out the most critical cases of acute and chronic cardiopulmonary disease to test his medical respirator. Countless lives were saved, but the loss of other lives motivated Dr. Bird to search for more answers and better ways to heal the lung. By 1958 “The Bird” as it was known, was the first highly reliable, low-cost, mass-produced medical pressure respirator in the world.
A Medical Hero
Into the 1960's, Dr. Bird's inventions had become world renown and began to achieve mainstream status. His respirators were referenced in TV shows, like Dr. Kildare, and Fidel Castro requested Bird respirators from the U.S. Government as part of an arrangement to release prisoners captured during the Bay of Pigs.
One of the hallmarks of Dr. Bird’s genius was his ability to identify opportunities and act upon them. During the Vietnam War, he realized that soldiers were dying because there were limited treatment options available for transport from the field. His solution was to modify helicopters with respirators and add trauma equipment to stabilize combat patients en route to the hospital. This breakthrough ultimately led to civilian life flight and EMT ambulances as we know them today.
Improvement as a Way of Life
In reaction to rising infant mortality rates of preterm babies, Dr. Bird modified his respirator to support pre-term lungs, and developed an oxygen/air blender to manage oxygen toxicity which can cause blindness in infants. The BabyBird releases in 1971 with tremendous success cutting the early infant mortality rate from a worldwide high of 70% to less than 10%.
Dr. Bird turned his focus to research in the late 70’s and early 80’s, looking to improve his mechanical respirators. The result of his R&D was the discovery of Pulsatile Flow Ventilation®, the life-changing solution that rapidly pulses good air into the furthest airways of the lung and gently loosens and carries mucus and debris out. Flow Ventilation® allows the lung tissue to rest and heal. Following the success of his Flow Ventilators, Dr. Bird established Percussionaire, his family-run company dedicated to creating Flow Ventilation® devices that improve and save lives. Today, Bird Flow Ventilators are used around the world under every conceivable condition.
Dr. Bird’s Remarkable Legacy
While running the daily operations and product development at Percussionaire Dr. Bird and his wife, Dr. Pamela Bird, began to put additional focus into education. In 2007, they opened The Bird Aviation and Invention Center, created to showcase the historical contributions of aviators who have innovated and advanced technology. Also, they played active roles in two institutions dedicated to Dr. Bird’s legacies to education, the Bird Charter School and the Bird Institute of Pulmonary Care for healthcare professionals.
Dr. Bird retired from Percussionaire at the age of 90 but continued to receive numerous awards and accolades including the Presidential Citizens Medal from President George W. Bush and the National Medal of Technology and Innovation from President Barack Obama.
Dr. Forrest Bird’s legacy is about the lives that he saved, the industry he pioneered, and the generations of physicians he taught and continue to advance his work. We celebrate Dr. Bird’s genius every day with our commitment to making IPV® devices available to the millions of people whose lives it can save and improve. Each generation of our Flow Ventilation® devices is the culmination of that pursuit — and just like Dr. Forrest M. Bird — we are never satisfied.