Forrest Bird, The Birdman of Idaho

Morley Safer Meets an Extraordinary American Inventor

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This story was first published on Oct. 7, 2007. It was updated on Aug. 27, 2009.

A viewer wrote 60 Minutes a while back and said we really should take a look at the life and times of a man, an inventor named Forrest Bird. Correspondent Morley Safer did and found, in the panhandle of Idaho, a remarkable American original.

Over the last eight decades, Bird has seen enough history and rubbed elbows with enough legends to rival that other Forrest, Forrest Gump.

As we reported two years ago, chances are Bird's invention has saved the life of someone you know, maybe even your own. And though he may not be a household name, when inventors get together Bird stands literally head and shoulders above the rest.

At the annual gathering of the National Inventors Hall Of Fame, America's visionary tinkerers are honored.

There's Patsy Sherman, who invented Scotchgard to protect the rug and the furniture, Dr. Harry Coover, who invented Super Glue to hold your stuff together, and Dr. Klaus Schmeigel, who invented Prozac to hold your head together.

And standing tall among them, all 6'4" of him, is Forrest Bird. His brainchild, the modern medical respirator, has given the breath of life to countless people around the world. It all began with a gizmo he cobbled together long ago to help a friend with emphysema breathe.

"I went to the hardware store and got a doorknob. You can see this doorknob right here at the top," Bird explains. "So the patient would push down like this on the doorknob and blow their lungs up. He did remarkably well with it."

The year was 1947 and Bird says he didn't have the "foggiest" idea that he was on the trail of inventing a device that would become one of the most routine parts of emergency medicine. "I mean, this was seeing a problem and coming up with a rudimentary answer, that was all," he says.

And that answer came from one of this tinkerer's many passions: aviation. Bird is an old flyboy who still takes to the skies in a souped-up 1938 Piper Cub that belonged to his father.

"My daddy was a World War I pilot, and I just wanted to be able to fly like he did," Bird says.

Bird spent World War II delivering aircraft from the factory to the front, and got to thinking along the way about the similarities between air flowing over the wings of a plane and air moving through the human lung.

"In that lung is rudimentary air foils. It's like a million airplane wings all down through the lungs. In and out, all the way through, that facilitate your normal, spontaneous breathing. So it was just applying all this," Bird explains. "Taking it from aviation."

It sounds simple enough, a concept even school kids can grasp. But in reality, the human lung works with mind-numbing complexity. For his own education, the military sent Bird to medical school. And though his studies took him to the outer limits of science, his next respirator was still definitely low tech.

For example, he used strawberry shortcake tins to construct one of his early machines. "And what I did was, I put a diaphragm in here so that when you did that, it would drop the pressure and this magnet would grab it and hold it off," he explains.

Back then, there weren't many options for people with respiratory problems. The worst cases required iron lungs, which were big, primitive, expensive and confining.

So Bird kept on trying to develop a small, affordable device that could automatically help people breathe. His breakthrough came in the late 1950s with the "Bird Mark 7" respirator, a device so effective the Air Force made a training film about it, with Hollywood music and all.

"We were able to assist your respiration. We could control it," Bird explains.

The respirator, Bird says, became standard use "throughout the entire world."

"And still today, there's tens of thousands of these still functioning around," he says.