Forrest Bird, inventor of the first reliable, low-cost, mass-produced medical respirator, was born in Stoughton, Massachusetts in 1921. His father, a World War I pilot, encouraged him to fly, and at the age of 14, young Bird took his first solo flight in an airplane. By 16, he was working toward several high-level pilot certifications.
A few years later, Bird entered the Army Air Corps and during World War II, and he became a technical air training officer. During that period, airplanes were being built that could fly higher than ever before, exceeding altitudes at which pilots could breathe unaided. This provided Bird his first opportunity to develop technology that could assist with breathing. After an Air Corps physician presented him textbooks on mammalian pathophysiology, he became a lifelong student of the subject.
Bird attended a number of medical schools and completed several residencies. This knowledge eventually led him to develop the prototype Bird Universal Medical Respirator for acute or chronic cardiopulmonary care. Bird founded Bird Products Corporation in 1954 to market and develop his device. Beginning in 1958, he tested it by traveling to medical schools, where he would ask doctors for their most ill patients, for whom known therapies had failed and death by cardiopulmonary failure was expected.
In some cases, patients involved in Bird’s test cases died, but many times they survived. His respirator model, which came to be known as “the bird,” succeeded. Further, his testing allowed him to make important improvements on his designs. His small, green, box-like apparatus quickly became a common piece of equipment in hospitals around the world. In 1970, Bird introduced the "Babybird" respirator, which reduced infant mortality due to respirator problems from 70% to less than 10%.
In 1983, Bird founded Percussionaire Corporation, which focuses on the manufacturing and distribution of Bird’s Intrapulmonary Percussive Ventilation (IPV®) and Volumetric Diffusive Respiration (VDR®). Both devices work to allow customers to assist their own or loved ones’ breathing from home.
Over 40 years later, Bird Products (changed to Bird Medical) became part of Thermo Electron's division of biomedical companies. Eventually, in 2002, Bird Medical was acquired by VIASYS Respiratory Care, which then spun off to join Cardinal Health Inc. in 2009. The company is still running and recently teamed up with CVS Caremark, which mails prescriptions.