Dr. Bird was influenced by his father’s experiences as a World War I pilot flying in France. In his early youth Forrest’s father encouraged him to fly and tinker with airplanes, and by the age of 14 he was flying on his own. As an undergraduate at Northeastern University studying aeronautical engineering Dr. Bird was recruited into the Army Air Corp, where he served throughout World War II.
During the war, while flying a captured aircraft from England to the United States he found and started experimenting with a demand oxygen regulator created by the Germans. As Dr. Bird recounts, it took substantial effort to breathe with the device and did not do a pilot much good. Intrigued, he knew that he could improve it, so he liberated the regulator from the plane and took it home to work on.
Dr. 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 was transferred to Randolph Air Force Base in Texas. Here Forrest met his mentor Dr. Andre Cournad, who steered him into attending medical school where he earned multiple degrees . The aviation experience and medical training Dr. Bird gained over the next several years 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. These cumbersome expensive machines, while effective, were crude. They were hard to transport and severely limited a patient’s mobility.
During the late 50’s and 60’s, Dr. Bird’s first commercially available respirator, the Mark 7 was used to successfully wean patients off the Iron Lung. This marked the birth of modern respiratory pressure ventilation as we know it today. Capitalizing on his success, he sought out the most hopeless cases of acute or chronic cardiopulmonary disease on which to test his medical respirator. Countless lives were saved, but the loss of other lives drove Dr. Bird to search for new 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.
In 1967 Dr. Bird started to travel around the globe educating internists and cardio-pulmonologists about how they could treat patients with his respirator in a self-modified PBY Catalina amphibian craft. His respirators had become so popular they permeate popular culture in the television show “Dr. Kildare.” When all else failed and the patient was crashing the TV doctors called for “the Bird.”
Even Fidel Castro requested 100 Bird respirators from the U.S. Government as part of a bribe 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 was limited treatment available during transport from the field. His solution was to modify helicopters with respirators and add trauma equipment in order 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.
In reaction to the high infant mortality of pre-term babies, Dr. Bird modified his respirator to combat oxygen blindness and support pre-term lungs. Bursting on the medical market in 1971 the Baby Bird shows staggering results. Premature infant mortality is cut from a worldwide high 70% to less than 10%.
Improvement as a Way of Life
Dr. Bird turned his focus to research in the late 70’s and early 80’s. He wanted to improve his mechanical respirators. The result is the break through of pulsatile Flow Venitlation.™ Flow Ventilation™ is an elegant solution that rapidly pulses good air into the furthest airways of the lung and gently loosens and carries mucus and debris out. This allows the lung tissue to rest and heal. The Phasitron® Flow Ventilator is an open circuit which accommodates any patient lung volume regardless of compliance. The Phasitron® Flow Ventilator works equally well in all patient populations from NICU/PICU to ICU/clinical and outpatient situations. Today Bird Flow Ventilators are used around the world under every conceivable condition. The bottom line is that the technology saves lives.
Dr. Bird retired from the daily operation of his company, Percussionaire® at the age of 90. He spends his time between Palm Springs, California and Sagle, Idaho. Turning his focus to education, he and his wife, Dr. Pamela Bird opened “The Bird Aviation and Invention Center” in 2007. The museum’s collections focus on the historical contributions of aviators and innovators who have created and/or advanced technology. The Bird Charter School, in Sandpoint, Idaho is another of Dr. Bird’s legacy’s to education. Finally, the Bird Institute of Pulmonary Care is dedicated to the research and education of health care professionals.
Dr. Bird has received 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. However, he feels that his legacy is about the lives he has saved, pioneering an industry where none existed, and knowing that he has taught generations of physicians who will continue advancing his work.