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Who Invented Hyperbaric Treatment



Hyperbaric oxygen therapy has a fascinating history. Numerous doctors and scientists have contributed to this form of treatment for centuries. What follows is a brief history of hyperbaric treatment strategies.

Early Experiments With Hyperbaric Treatment

The history of hyperbaric oxygen therapy begins with Nathaniel Henshaw. Henshaw was a British physician who believed fresh air could benefit people’s health. His research into the healing properties of fresh air led him to experiment with pressurized air chambers. He is credited with creating the first hyperbaric environment in 1662.

For the next two hundred years, hyperbaric treatment became increasingly popular for many conditions. The hyperbaric chambers of this time used compressed air rather than just oxygen. How hyperbaric treatments worked was not well understood, but many doctors and patients reported gaining health benefits from pressurized environments.

Hyperbaric Therapy for Decompression Illness

In 1861, neurologist James Leonard Corning became interested in hyperbaric therapy. Workers on the Hudson Tunnel reported severe muscle cramps and paralysis after working all day under sea level. Corning recognized these symptoms as signs of decompression illness. He built the first hyperbaric chamber in the US to treat these patients but failed to see much success with pressurized air.

In 1917, German inventors Bernhard and Heinrich Dräger also attempted to treat decompression illness in a hyperbaric chamber. The Drägers replaced the compressed air in their chambers with pure oxygen, which made hyperbaric therapy much more effective as a treatment for diving accidents.

Twenty years later, Albert Behnke and Louis Shaw expounded on the Drägers’ work with treatments for decompression illness. Behnke and Shaw pioneered using nitrogen–oxygen mixtures for treating decompression illness and tailoring the treatment to the severity of the patient’s injury.

Hyperbaric Therapy and the 1918 Flu Pandemic

While the Dreagers’ results showed that hyperbaric treatment was effective for decompression illness, the use of hyperbaric therapy for other ailments fell out of favor until the Spanish Influenza pandemic.

At that time, Kansas-based physician Orval J. Cunningham observed that the morbidity and mortality rates of flu patients were lower in coastal areas than at higher altitudes and attributed this difference to barometric pressure. Cunningham built his first hyperbaric chamber in 1921 to treat flu patients. These treatments saw some success.

Cunningham’s success was not unmitigated. One night, the air compressor for Cunningham’s chamber failed. The pressure in the chamber fell quickly enough to kill all the occupants. Cunningham mistakenly interpreted these deaths as proof that they couldn’t have survived the flu without the high-pressure environment of his chamber.

The Cunningham Sanitarium

In 1928, Orval Cunningham opened another hyperbaric chamber in Cleveland, Ohio. Called the Cunningham Sanitarium, this chamber was the largest in the world. This 900-ton sphere was more than five stories tall and cost about $1,000,000. Each floor had 12 bedrooms for housing Cunningham’s patients.

Cunningham believed that anaerobic microorganisms caused many illnesses like diabetes and cancer. He thought killing these microorganisms through exposure to oxygen would cure the patient. Cunningham built his sanitarium to treat these illnesses. Unfortunately, he failed to document the successes he claimed. The American Medical Association criticized this practice and requested he keep better records. Eventually, the AMA’s criticisms took their toll, and the sphere was dismantled for scrap metal in 1937.

Renewed Interest in Hyperbaric Treatment

After the Cunningham Sanitarium debacle, interest in hyperbaric therapy was limited to decompression illness until 1956. That year, Dr. Ite Boerema, a Dutch cardiac surgeon, reported success using hyperbaric treatment to aid patients recovering from cardiopulmonary surgery. More promising reports followed as interest in hyperbaric therapy grew.

In 1961, Boerema’s colleague, Willem Brummelkamp, observed that anaerobic infections were inhibited by hyperbaric oxygen therapy.

Since the 1960s, the use of hyperbaric oxygen therapy has increased. Doctors and patients have reported that hyperbaric treatments help wound healing, carbon monoxide poisoning, and other ailments as well as trauma and infections.

How Hyperbaric Therapy Is Used Today

While the mechanisms by which hyperbaric oxygen therapy works are not fully understood, the evidence of its benefits continues to grow. Modern hyperbaric treatment techniques are FDA-approved for ailments as diverse as carbon monoxide poisoning, physical trauma and burns, and diabetes-related ailments. It shows promise in treating Alzheimer’s, autism, and depression and also sees use as part of anti-aging regimens.

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