Heimlich maneuver born: June 1, 1974

A technique designed to save choking people by forcing food back out their mouths is described in an article titled “Pop Goes the Café Coronary” in the June, 1974 issue of Emergency Medicine magazine.  The author, a Cincinnati thoracic specialist named Henry Heimlich, says that by pressing upward on a choking person’s diaphragm, food lodged in his or her throat can be forced back out.

Heimlich had been motivated to develop the maneuver after reading about numerous cases of people choking to death in restaurants, although these incidents were often mistaken for heart attacks.  He had successfully performed it on dogs in his research and was confident it could be just as effective on humans.

A few weeks after the Emergency Medicine article appeared, a syndicated medical columnist writes about the technique. A week later, the Seattle Times carries a story about the first person apparently saved by Heimlich’s maneuver—a Washington state woman who had been choking on a piece of chicken but was saved by a neighbor who had read about it just the night before.

More and more cases of people being saved by the technique are reported and in August, 1974, the Journal of the American Medical Association tells Heimlich that it will name the maneuver after him.

By 1976 both the American Heart Association and the American Red Cross are recommending that in addition to striking a choking person five times on his back, a rescuer should also use the Heimlich maneuver, also known as abdominal thrusts.  But Heimlich argues that the back blows can do more harm than good, and in 1986 both organizations change their views so that they recommend only the Heimlich maneuver.

But Heimlich didn’t stop there. He suggested that his technique can be used to treat people during asthma attacks and can even help prevent future ones.  And he recommended the Heimlich maneuver as a way to save drowning victims.  Other researchers, however disputed his asthma claims as unsound, and while the American Heart Association and American Red Cross initially didn’t  object to Heimlich’s contention that his technique could be used on drowning victims, they eventually determined that it was potentially dangerous.

Heimlich, however, kept pushing the envelope.  He advocated treating people with Lyme disease and cancer--and later AIDS/HIV—with an approach called malariotherapy.  It’s a treatment in which patients are injected with malaria parasites.  But malariatherapy has never been supported by other researchers and Heimlich’s claim that it could be used to fight AIDS was debunked as dangerous.

His reputation took another hit in 2002 when one of his sons, Peter, launched a website attacking what he referred to as his father’s "wide-ranging, unseen 50-year history of fraud."  He alleged that his father had not always been truthful about both his personal history and his research.

Today, neither the American Red Cross nor the American Heart Association refer to the “Heimlich maneuver” by that name in their recommendations—they call the technique “abdominal thrusting.” And, in 2006, the Red Cross returned to the policy it had rejected 20 years earlier—that back blows should be part of treating a choking person.

Heimlich, now 93, continues to campaign to get the organization to reconsider.

Correction: While the Journal of the American Medical Association did publish an article about the Heimlich maneuver in 1974, it did not say it would name the procedure after Heimlich.

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