Dr. Poe and His Curious Breathing Machine

Resurrected Rabbit

Using his invention, Dr. George Poe and his team resuscitate a rabbit. Technical World Magazine. hide caption

itoggle caption Technical World Magazine.

When George Poe came to town in the late 1800s, the newspaper headlines often read, "It Brings the Dead to Life." The "it" referred to the respirator Poe had invented.

Like his cousin Edgar Allan, George Poe was drawn to the drama of life and death. But instead of picking up the pen, George Poe picked up a beaker.

Working as a chemist, Poe first focused on mass-producing laughing gas. He built a chemical works in Trenton, N.J., and quickly became the largest producer of nitrous oxide in the country — sending his product to some 5,000 dentists across America.

Run, Rabbits, Run

Then he turned his attention to artificial respiration.

The concept wasn't exactly new, even in Poe's time.

"It's one of those medical procedures that's kind of been operating in fits and starts for centuries," says Paul Collins, who recently published an article on Poe in the New Scientist magazine. "One thing that really surprised me when I started delving into this was how long the procedure had been available but just never adopted."

Enter George Poe, with his knowledge of gases.

"[He] took a great interest in the local rabbits all of a sudden," says Collins. "There were suddenly not many rabbits hopping around the Poe Chemical Works in Trenton."

By asphyxiating rabbits, Poe was able to test his device — a pair of brass piston cylinders that could be operated with a handle. Before long, he was reviving rabbits. He moved on to larger and larger animals. In 1907 and '08, he traveled from city to city, demonstrating his invention for audiences of impressed physicians.

"I came across an article in The New York Times that ran in 1908 about one of these demonstrations over in Brooklyn," says Collins. "He basically smothered a dog and used this device to revive him."

Reportedly, the dog staggered a bit but recovered.

A Forgotten Invention

When Poe's own ill health prevented him from promoting the device, attention waned. He often had to take time off to recuperate between tours. In the meantime, other inventors created similar machines. And when World War I erupted, other medical advances left Poe's invention in the dust.

"I think if he had been in good enough health and lived long enough to continue working on his device, he may well be reasonably well-known now," says Collins.

Instead, to quoth the raven, he was heard from "Nevermore."

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