Henry Heimlich, Namesake Of The Life-Saving Heimlich Maneuver, Has Died

Dec 17, 2016
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Henry Heimlich the man who developed the lifesaving Heimlich maneuver for choking victims died earlier today at the age of 96. He suffered a heart attack earlier this week. Heimlich was a thoracic surgeon, and his namesake move is credited with saving thousands of lives. But as NPR's Nathan Rott reports, some of his ideas raised controversy.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Heimlich developed his bear hug method of saving choking victims in 1974 after he had learned that thousands of Americans were dying every year from choking on food or small objects. This is him in an interview with NPR in 1999.

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HENRY HEIMLICH: And what was being done for it was hitting people on the back.

ROTT: Even though scientific studies showed that doing that could drive the food or object deeper into a choking person's throat. So he decided to try something different, strongly pushing on a person's diaphragm, idea being that leftover air in their lungs would rush up the windpipe and send the food or object flying. To test, he tried it on anesthetized beagles.

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HEIMLICH: We did not hurt them and, in addition, it has saved many dogs since it came out from choking, so I guess that was fair.

ROTT: The move would go on to save more than dogs. It saved celebrities like Elizabeth Taylor and Cher, tens of thousands of other people. And just earlier this year, it was used by Heimlich himself to save a woman in his assisted living facility in Cincinnati. He described it in a video interview after.

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HEIMLICH: (Unintelligible) compressions, this piece of meat came out and she just started breathing.

ROTT: Born in Wilmington, Del., Heimlich would go on to make a number of other inventions and innovations in the field of medicine. Many of his ideas, though, drew sharp criticism from other medical professionals and even one of his sons. Heimlich long advocated for his namesake maneuver to be used for drowning victims, even though the Red Cross and American Heart Association both recommend CPR. Heimlich also stirred controversy by promoting so-called malariotherapy or the treatment of illnesses like HIV, cancer and Lyme disease by injecting people with malaria.

Heimlich did not shy away from the criticism. He said in an interview once said he'd be the first to admit that some of his ideas were unorthodox, but he also said that he had the guts to know when he was right. He was 96 years old. Nathan Rott, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.