The Man behind the Life Saving Maneuver
Updated: Oct 27
Dr. Henry Heimlich demonstrates the Heimlich maneuver on host Johnny Carson while appearing on "The Tonight Show" on April 4, 1979.
The editors of the Journal of the American Medical Association contacted the doctor who had devised a novel procedure to prevent someone from choking, which was then a leading cause of mortality in the United States, in August 1974.
His revolutionary approach was saving lives all around the country, and they wanted to tell him that they were going to print an article about it and name the process after him.
According to Dr. Henry Heimlich, the editors informed him that they were considering the "Heimlich Method" or the "Heimlich Maneuver."
"I felt the word 'maneuver' seemed more suitable," he explains.
The often controversial thoracic surgeon recounts his early trials testing the Heimlich Maneuver on dogs, his life as a surgeon and researcher, and his service in the United States Navy stationed in China during World War II in the narrative about his 70 years in public health.
"Many people believe I invented the move by chance," Heimlich adds. "You know, I happened to run across someone who was choking, that sort of stuff." I originally became concerned about the choking problem after reading about the thousands of individuals who die each year. So I started looking for a better technique, thinking that maybe I could use the trapped air in my chest to drive the thing out of the trachea."
Heimlich began experimenting on sedated dogs, trying various strategies to force the air out. He discovered that when he pressed right below the dog's rib cage, the thing he had placed in its neck shot out of its mouth every time.
The Heimlich Manuever was born.
That is the majority of what the world knows about Heimlich. The doctor discusses other discoveries and medical ideas that he is glad to have contributed to.
In the early 1950s, Heimlich began researching methods to aid patients who had lost their ability to swallow owing to esophageal injury. He began replacing the patient's damaged esophagus with a portion of his stomach.
"People who hadn't swallowed for decades -- who would feed themselves through a tube in the stomach -- were able to, for the first time, sit down with their family or go to a restaurant and eat normally," Heimlich said.
During the Vietnam War, Heimlich invented a chest drain valve that allowed air and fluid to escape from the chest so that the patient's lung filled with air, helping many wounded soldiers on the battlefield waiting for care.
Then in the 1980s, Heimlich invented the micro-trach transtracheal catheter, which allows people with serious lung conditions to receive oxygen more easily.
"I would like people to appreciate that ever since I decided to be a doctor I've wanted to help people,"
"I have seen people dying needlessly when in most cases, a simple technique was the solution."
But some of Heimlich's ideas have caused controversy in medical circles.
Heimlich has argued his maneuver can be used for resuscitating drowning victims and for both acute and preventive treatment of asthma.
The American Red Cross does not support using the maneuver for drowning. (Even for someone who's choking, the agency's first-aid procedure recommends first doing five back slaps and then five Heimlich abdominal thrusts.)
Other experts have noted cases where performing the Heimlich Maneuver on a drowning victim did additional damage.
In the case of asthma, medical specialists have long questioned the maneuver's efficacy as a therapy.
Doctors observed in a 1997 paper published in Modern Medicine that asthma is a chronic inflammatory condition; while the Heimlich Maneuver may assist remove mucus plugs that accumulate in the lungs, it does not cure the inflammation that triggers an attack.
Only medicine has the ability to accomplish this.
There have been situations where someone performed the Heimlich Maneuver to save a drowning victim or halt an asthma attack, according to Henry Heimlich, and he stands by his own research that demonstrate malaria treatment offers potential in improving the lives of HIV/AIDS patients.
"All I'm suggesting is that before discarding my ideas, let's at least research them to see how effective they are."
What is undeniable is that choking may be fatal, and the Heimlich Maneuver has saved many lives. According to Heimlich, it has saved the lives of over 50,000 individuals.
"The Heimlich Maneuver has gotten a lot of attention because it's so successful, but what I think makes it genuinely unique is that it's available to everyone.
A choking person can be saved by anybody; even a kid can do the Heimlich Maneuver."