For­rest Bird, in­ven­tor of ‘Model T’ of res­pi­ra­tors, dies at 94


For­rest Bird, an in­ven­tor whose med­i­cal res­pi­ra­tors breathed life back into mil­lions of pa­tients around the world, has died. He was 94.

His wife, Pamela Bird, said he died Sun­day morn­ing of nat­u­ral causes at their north­ern Idaho home in Sa­gle, a base from which he trav­eled ex­ten­sively around the world and was of­ten rec­og­nized due to his 6-foot-4 height and unique, dou­ble- framed, flip- up glasses.

“Peo­ple would say ‘Thank you for sav­ing my grand­son. Thank you for sav­ing my life,’” said Pamela Bird, also not­ing the many cards and letters that ar­rived in the mail with sim­i­lar mes­sages.

For­rest Bird is cred­ited with cre­at­ing the first low-cost, re­li­able med­i­cal res­pi­ra­tors in the 1950s. In 1970 he cre­ated the “Baby­bird” res­pi­ra­tor that sig­nif­i­cantly re­duced in­fant mor­tal­ity.

“I work as if I were go­ing to be the next per­son to need a res­pi­ra­tor,” For­rest Bird told The As­so­ci­ated Press in a 1981 in­ter­view. “I share in the ben­e­fits I be­stow on oth­ers and my work has en­riched my life.”

He never stopped in­vent­ing, and had patents pend­ing at his death, his wife said. He was also a keen avi­a­tor, and at 92 was still do­ing spins and flips in his col­lec­tion of air­craft, and also pi­lot­ing his 12-pas­sen­ger Bell he­li­copter.

“He’s one of my he­roes,” said his step-daugh­ter, Rachel Sch­wam, 31, who her­self was saved by the Baby­bird af­ter be­ing born pre­ma­turely and now has two daugh­ters of her own. “He never liked hon­ors or recog­ni­tion, but he de­serves it.”

He had ad­vanced de­grees in science and medicine, and his long list of hon­ors in­clude two that came from pres­i­dents. In 2008, he re­ceived the Pres­i­den­tial Cit­i­zens Medal from Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush, and in 2009 the Na­tional Medal of Tech­nol­ogy and In­no­va­tion from Pres­i­dent Barack Obama.

In photos with each pres­i­dent, Bird is wear­ing dou­ble-framed glasses with two sets of lenses, and he has one set flipped up. Pamela Bird said he started wear­ing the glasses in his 30s to avoid wast­ing time search­ing for glasses by hav­ing one pair for see­ing both close up and far away.

She said he also one time bought 144 of the ex­act same style of shirt to avoid wast­ing time shop­ping. At night he filled a yel­low pad with a list of items he planned to ac­com­plish the next day.

For­rest Mor­ton Bird was born June 9, 1921 in Stoughton, Mas­sachusetts, and grad­u­ated from high school at age 14, his fam­ily said, and was noted for re­pair­ing neigh­bors’ trac­tors with car parts.

With the en­cour­age­ment of his fa­ther, a World War I pi­lot, Bird stud­ied avi­a­tion. He made his first solo flight at 14, and was pur­su­ing mul­ti­ple pi­lot cer­tifi­cates by 16.

Bird en­listed in the Army Air Corps in 1941 and, with his ad­vanced qual­i­fi­ca­tions, en­tered as a tech­ni­cal train­ing of­fi­cer. He kept in­vent­ing, de­vel­op­ing breath­ing de­vices for when air­craft started ex­ceed­ing al­ti­tudes at which pilots could breathe un­aided.

Res­pi­ra­tors at the time were de­signed to al­low healthy, young male pilots to fly at high al­ti­tudes. But Bird started ex­per­i­ment­ing so they could be used by some­one younger, or older or un­healthy.

He ul­ti­mately pro­duced the Bird Mark 7, which he called the Model T Ford of res­pi­ra­tors be­cause it was easy to main­tain and re­pair.

“It’s saved count­less lives,” said Rini Paiva, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Na­tional In­ven­tors Hall of Fame, which in­ducted Bird in 1995. “He made a very big im­pres­sion on other in­ductees. They looked at him as some­one who was a leg­endary fig­ure.”

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