This Day in Jewish History |

1974: The Heimlich Maneuver Is Invented, Eaters Applaud

Henry Heimlich was right to suspect that cutting-edge tech isn't the answer to choking on steak at a diner, but his 'malariotherapy' failed to catch on.

David Green
David B. Green
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Dr. Henry Heimlich (L), 96, the surgeon credited with inventing the Heimlich Maneuver, poses with Patty Ris, 87, who he saved this week from choking on a hamburger, at the Deupree House seniors' home in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Dr. Henry Heimlich (L), 96, the surgeon credited with inventing the Heimlich Maneuver, poses with Patty Ris, 87, who he saved this week from choking on a hamburger.Credit: Reuters
David Green
David B. Green

On June 1, 1974, the thoracic surgeon Henry Heimlich published an article in the magazine Emergency Medicine in which he unveiled the lifesaving technique that would soon bear his name: the Heimlich maneuver.

According to Dr. Heimlich, he had begun developing the maneuver after reading about a near-epidemic of deaths in the United States from people choking on food.

Other medical professionals devised sophisticated equipment to contend with such emergencies. Heimlich thought what the world needed was a low-tech solution that anyone, anywhere, could implement.

Working in a lab with anesthetized dogs, he discovered that the application of pressure just below the rib cage, pushing up the diaphragm, could release enough air from the lungs to dislodge, say, the chunk of steak that was causing a diner to suffocate.

Saved by T-shirt campaign?

Emergency Medicine was not a peer-reviewed medical journal, but Heimlich’s article was picked up by the general press, and word of his lifesaving hug spread quickly, especially after someone used it successfully on a choking customer at a restaurant in Washington state. Nonetheless, Heimlich was frustrated when neither the American Red Cross nor the National Academy of Sciences was ready to give immediate recognition to the Heimlich maneuver as the preferred method for saving the life of a choking victim.

So he took his case directly to the public. According to a 2007 article by Jason Zengerle in The New Republic, Heimlich printed up T-shirts and posters depicting the maneuver, made a promotional film, and appeared on "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson, in which he guided the host in performing the Heimlich maneuver on actress Angie Dickinson.

The imaginative Dr. Heimlich’s other inventions have included a novel method for replacing a damaged esophagus, and a drainage valve used both on battlefields and in operating rooms to prevent lung collapse after injury.

Credit: YouTube

However, reading about him, it’s hard not to get the sense that his desire for celebrity is so great that he is willing to dispense with scientific method, if not the truth itself, to get the recognition he feels he deserves. One of his sons, Peter Heimlich, has spent the past decade publicly debunking his father’s claims - sometimes, ironically, using questionable methods, like his father, to get his message out.

Malariotherapy – yes, that's treatment by malaria

Henry Heimlich was born on February 3, 1920, in Wilmington, Delaware, and grew up in New Rochelle, New York. He attended college at Cornell University, followed by Weill Cornell Medical College, and service with the U.S. Navy in China, toward the end of World War II.

In 1951, Heimlich married Jane Murray, daughter of Arthur Murray, founder of the eponymous dance school chain. In 1969, he moved with his family to Cincinnati, where he became director of surgery at the Jewish Hospital.

In 1985, the U.S. surgeon general declared the Heimlich maneuver “the only method” that should be used to help choking victims, and the American Red Cross soon came around too. But when Heimlich began a campaign to have it adopted as the preferred method for helping drowning victims, he again encountered a skeptical establishment, and he took his case to the public.

Appearing before the U.S. Lifesaving Association in 1995, he argued on behalf of using the maneuver for drowning by recalling that, "the Nuremberg trials told the story that no one can be excused for saying, 'I was ordered to do so or was taught to do so, to kill people.'"

Over the past 30 years, Heimlich has been pushing for the use of malaria to combat cancer, Lyme disease and even HIV, by infecting patients with the parasite. When the FDA prohibited American testing with malariotherapy, his Heimlich Institute sponsored research studies in Mexico, China and Ethiopia, none apparently with standard oversight, and all to the condemnation of the U.S. medical authorities.

According to Heimlich’s 2014 memoir, he still believes in the idea, though he is no longer actively pursuing it.

Not that Henry Heimlich, now 96, has given up helping people. Just last week, on May 23, media around the world noted that he performed the Heimlich maneuver on a fellow resident when she began choking on a hamburger at his seniors’ residence in Cincinnati.

Credit: YouTube



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