Henry Heimlich’s biggest innovation is famous: the Heimlich maneuver for saving people from choking. The Deaconess Institute estimates it has saved 50,000 lives in the US and since the US is less than 5% of world population, it is likely that the technique has saved many times that number around the world. The Heimlich maneuver is so simple and well known, it would seem like a timeless idea, but he only published the technique in 1974 and the first life saved was in June of that year. There is a lot of potential because choking is the fourth leading cause of death by accidental injury in the United States. Heimlich also invented the flutter valve which may have also saved hundreds of thousands of lives and some other successful medical innovations.
Unfortunately, Dr. Heimlich’s brand was tarnished in the 1980s and 90s when he turned towards quackery later in life, most notably in claiming a dangerous ‘cure’ for some of the diseases that had captured the public attention during the era: AIDS, Lyme disease, and cancer. He proposed that he could cure these diseases by simply infecting sick patients with malaria without seeming to realize that the combination of malaria and AIDS is known to be particularly deadly in African nations where both have long been endemic. Fortunately, America’s regulatory infrastructure prevented him from killing people with his quackery in the US, and unlike his successful innovations, his quackery has not found a significant following. If his quackery did cause a few deaths, they are insignificant compared to the hundreds of thousands of lives that he has helped save.
Heimlich’s work might not have saved a million lives yet, but he is certainly well on his way. Radiolab did a wonderful episode about Heimlich’s life and his innovation. I got choked up hearing a school nurse read a letter she wrote to a student whose life she saved using the Heimlich maneuver.
Leave a Comment