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Dr. Henry Heimlich, inventor of lifesaving maneuver, dies at 96

Dr. Henry Heimlich conducting band
Jason Koski/University Photography
Dr. Henry Heimlich '41, M.D. '43, conducts the Big Red Alumni Band while celebrating his 75th Cornell reunion in 2016. Heimlich was the Big Red Band drum major in 1939.

Dr. Henry Heimlich ’41, M.D. ’43, creator of the life-saving Heimlich maneuver, died Dec. 17 in Cincinnati at the age of 96.

Heimlich was director of surgery at Jewish Hospital in Cincinnati in the early 1970s when he devised the method to aid choking victims that made him, and the maneuver, a household name. Prompted by data showing that thousands of people choked to death each year, Heimlich first published findings on his method in 1974. The procedure involves wrapping one’s arms around a victim from behind, and then abruptly squeezing the victim’s abdomen to quickly push in above the navel and under the rib cage to create a burst of air from the lungs to clear objects from the windpipe. A choking victim was saved by his method just a week after his findings were published.

The maneuver was endorsed by the American Medical Association in 1975 and was widely publicized by food service industry associations and public health authorities, often via ubiquitous illustrated posters in restaurants and workplaces. Since its introduction, the Heimlich maneuver has saved thousands of people from choking in the United States alone.

Heimlich himself used the method – reportedly for the first time in an emergency situation – early this year to save the life of a woman who was choking at the dinner table at his Cincinnati assisted-living community.

“It was very gratifying,” Heimlich told the Guardian in May. “That moment was very important to me. I knew about all the lives my maneuver has saved over the years and I have demonstrated it so many times but here, for the first time, was someone sitting right next to me who was about to die. ... I did it, and a piece of food with some bone in it flew out of her mouth.”

Heimlich’s career was notable for more than the maneuver that bears his name. While serving with the U.S. Navy in China during World War II, he developed an innovative treatment for victims of trachoma, an incurable bacterial infection of the eyelids that was causing blindness throughout Asia and the Middle East. His approach – a mixture of an antibiotic ground into a base of shaving cream – proved effective, and it was used successfully on hundreds of patients.

He also developed a valve, barely 5 inches long, to drain blood and air out of the chest cavity. Introduced in 1964, the Heimlich Chest Drain Valve saved the lives of thousands of American and Vietnamese soldiers shot in the chest. It is still used worldwide each to treat patients with chest wounds or following surgery.

Dr. Henry Heimlich presents banner
Chris Kitchen/University Photography
Heimlich presents the Reunion banner to the Class of 2011 at the Spirit of '31: Passing it Forward Ceremony during Reunion 2016.

In 1980 he developed the Heimlich MicroTrach, a tiny tube inserted into the trachea at the base of the neck under local anesthesia for oxygen delivery. He also developed a method for teaching stroke victims and other patients who were fed through a tube to swallow again.

Among Heimlich’s many awards and honors were his induction into the Engineering and Science Hall of Fame in 1984 and into the Safety and Health Hall of Fame International in 1993.

Heimlich, a native of Wilmington, Delaware, received his A.B. from the College of Arts and Sciences in 1939 and his M.D. from what was then Cornell Medical College in New York City in 1943. After World War II, he held staff surgeon positions at New York’s Metropolitan Hospital and Montefiore Hospital and Medical Center, and later was an attending surgeon on the staffs at Jewish and Deaconess hospitals in Cincinnati. He became a professor of advanced clinical sciences at Xavier University in 1977.

He also founded and was president of and a researcher at the Heimlich Institute in Cincinnati, a nonprofit that celebrates creativity in medical innovation.

Heimlich returned to campus most recently just this past June for his 75th reunion, and conducted the Big Red Alumni Band in Bailey Hall, baton in hand and smiling. Heimlich had been the Big Red Band drum major in 1939.

Also at Reunion 2016, Heimlich presented the Reunion banner to members of the youngest Reunion class, the Class of 2011, as part of the Spirit of ’31: Passing It Forward ceremony.

Heimlich’s wife, Jane, died in 2012. He is survived by two sons and two daughters.

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Melissa Osgood