Trials and Tribulation: Life in an Iron Lung

Martha Mason visiting with Mary Dalton, a friend who directed a documentary film about her. Image from Wake Forest University.

On September 13, 1948, 11-year-old Martha Mason of Lattimore in Cleveland County came down with polio on the very day her parents buried her older brother Gaston who had succumbed to the disease. They were both victims of a major polio outbreak that year. Martha survived, but became a quadriplegic dependent on the iron lung for the next 60 years.

Mason’s condition did not inhibit her spirit or intellectual curiosity. With the help of parents, teachers and friends she graduated first in her high school class and then summa cum laude from Wake Forest in 1960. She wrote newspaper articles with her mother taking dictation, until incapacitating illnesses struck both her parents.

Mason chose to remain at home in the iron lung despite the development of other, less restrictive ventilators, and she was known in Lattimore for her spark and outgoing personality.

In the 1990s, the advent of the personal computer and assistive technology broadened her reach and allowed her to realize her dream of writing. She wrote a memoir of her life in the small town — Breath: A Lifetime in the Rhythm of an Iron Lung, published in 2003.

Mason was also the subject of a documentary film, and she appeared in another about the effort to eradicate polio. At her death in 2009, she was believed to be the longest survivor of a life lived in the 800-pound device.

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