Dr. Henry J. Heimlich, the thoracic surgeon best known for developing and popularizing his lifesaving antichoking technique, the Heimlich maneuver, died at Cincinnati’s Christ Hospital on Saturday after suffering a heart attack in his home on Monday. Heimlich was 96.
More than four decades after its creation in 1974, the Heimlich maneuver is taught in schools, endorsed by medical authorities, and adorns the walls of restaurants everywhere.
In the 1970s, according New York Times’ obituary for Heimlich, choking on food or foreign objects was the sixth-leading cause of accidental death in America, resulting in 4,000 deaths annually. In those days, the American Red Cross advised treating choking victims with “a couple of hard slaps on the back or a finger down the throat,” which Heimlich argued only lodged the obstruction deeper in the windpipe. (According to my own journey to the National Safety Council’s website, choking is now the fourth-leading cause of unintentional death, with 4,864 fatalities in 2013, make of this what you will.)
Though Heimlich will always be most associated with his eponymous salvific bearhug, he was inventing throughout his life. For instance, the Times reports:
“In a dime store, he found a Japanese-made toy noisemaker with a flutter valve. It worked in his device, and he took out a patent on what he called the Heimlich Chest Drain Valve. Widely used by medics on Vietnam battlefields, it also became common in civilian chest operations. By 1989, manufacturers reported annual sales of 250,000 worldwide.”
Heimlich was widely denounced for some of his more recent (though they sound archaic) ideas such as “treating” cancer, Lyme disease and H.I.V. patients by infecting them with malaria, and using the Heimlich maneuver to treat asthma, drowning victims, and heart attacks.
Heimlich performed his famous maneuver on an actual choking victim for the first time in his life earlier this year when a resident at his Cincinnati retirement home began choking at the dinner table.