The Strange Story Of Henry Heimlich

By Nolan Moore on Monday, September 22, 2014
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“We allow the malaria to run for three weeks, and then we cure it.” —Henry Heimlich, explaining his “cure” for AIDS

In A Nutshell

You’ve probably don’t know Henry Heimlich, but you definitely know the life-saving maneuver that bears his name. Without a doubt, the man has saved thousands of lives around the world. However, Henry Heimlich’s story is incredibly complex, and future generations might remember him as a nut who did more harm than good.

The Whole Bushel

You’re at a dinner party, enjoying a nice steak while chatting with friends. That’s when a chunk of beef gets lodged in your larynx, and all your oxygen disappears. Fortunately, a heroic guest slips up behind you, puts his or her hands under your rib cage, and gives your gut a nice, firm squeeze. A mushy piece of meat goes flying across the table, and suddenly, you can breathe again.

Known as the Heimlich maneuver, this simple yet effective method has saved thousands of lives around the world. Even your humble author once found himself called upon to rescue a coworker in distress (although it turns out the coworker wasn’t actually choking, and it ended up being a horribly embarrassing situation). But while we all know how to perform the maneuver, not many know about the man who thought it up. So who exactly is Heimlich?

Born in 1920, Henry Heimlich was a chest surgeon who’s saved more people than you’ll ever meet. During his days as a Navy medical officer, he invented a valve that keeps blood and air from rushing into chest wounds and crushing the lungs. He created a special catheter to help people with breathing difficulties and devised a way to help people with damaged food pipes swallow their food by replacing the esophagus with a piece of the stomach. He even saved a guy who was pinned under a train and whose head was submerged underwater.

And, oh yeah, he came up with the world-famous maneuver that bears his name.

Heimlich was inspired to save choking victims after learning over 2,500 people choked to death in restaurants each year. Figuring there was enough air in the lungs to force an object out of the throat, the doctor ran a few tests on man’s best friend. After sedating a dog, Heimlich took a ball of meat and shoved it down the animal’s throat. (Don’t worry—there was a string around the ball just in case things got hairy.) Practicing on the pup, Heimlich discovered if he placed his hand under the ribs, he could send the chunk of beef soaring.

Excited, Heimlich sent a report to a medical journal, and soon it showed up in newspapers like the Seattle Times. That was good news for Irene Bogachus. This Washington woman was enjoying dinner when a piece of chicken got stuck in her throat. According to the Times, Mrs. Bogachus was turning blue, and her husband ran outside for help. Fortunately, Isaac Piha lived next door. He’d recently read about the Heimlich maneuver in the paper, and several pumps later, he became the first person to save someone with the doctor’s new method.

Thanks to his technique, Heimlich became a superstar. He appeared on TV with Johnny Carson and David Letterman, and more and more people started using his method. Even famous figures like Carrie Fisher, Cher, and Ronald Reagan were saved thanks to the doctor’s work. Today, the name “Heimlich” is synonymous with “life,” but unfortunately, there’s a darker and much more dangerous side to the doctor’s story.

Heimlich eventually started preaching that his maneuver was a magical cure-all. He claimed the Heimlich could prevent asthma by expelling mucus build-up and announced it could save a drowning victim’s life. Unfortunately, both of those claims were patently false. Asthma is caused by chronic inflammation, and no amount of pushing and shoving can fix that. And as to drowning, the Heimlich maneuver has actually been proven to do more harm than good.

Surprisingly, when someone is drowning, their lungs don’t fill up with water. The throat actually seals off to keep us from swallowing water, and performing CPR restores all the air we lost. By practicing the Heimlich first, lifeguards waste precious seconds. Sadly, many groups started teaching the Heimlich was the best way to save a drowning victim. Believe it or not, things got much, much worse.

In the 1980s, Heimlich announced he’d discovered a cure for cancer, Lyme disease, and AIDS. According to the doctor, the solution was actually . . . malaria. The idea was to infect patients with the Plasmodium parasite, bringing about an extremely high fever that Heimlich left untreated for three weeks. Supposedly, the fever would kill off any viruses or cancer cells, and to prove his point, Heimlich conducted unregulated tests on human patients in China and Ethiopia.

As you might expect, doctors were horrified by this risky procedure and condemned Heimlich’s practices. Even the doctor’s own son, Peter, claimed his father was a fraud. But Heimlich’s life took an even crazier turn when the Red Cross changed their policy on his eponymous method. Not only has the organization concluded that back slaps are more effective and should be performed first, they renamed the technique “abdominal thrusts,” removing the controversial doctor’s name completely.

What was the doctor’s response? In a Radiolab interview, Heimlich declared, “Creative ideas are often attacked because people oppose change or do not understand new concepts.” One can only wonder how history will ultimately judge Henry Heimlich. Will he be remembered as a savior? Or will he be cast as a quack who did more harm than good? Only time can tell.

Show Me The Proof

Radiolab: The Man Behind the Maneuver
CNN: New autobiography tells story of the man behind the Heimlich maneuver
ABC: Dr. Heimlich’s New ‘Maneuver’: Cure AIDS With Malaria
American Bronchoesophagological Association: The Heimlich Maneuver