Iron lung record holder Paul Alexander was a friend to me and an inspiration to millions – Joe Goldblatt

Paul Alexander, who has died at the age of 78 after a Covid infection, lived most of his life in an iron lung but still brought hope and happiness to a troubled world

I could hear the terrifying, heaving, loud and steady sound of the bellows even before entering the door of my neighbourhood friend. My father clasped my hand and led my four-year-old self through the door whilst whispering to me “this is an iron lung”.

As a young child living in a middle-class suburb of Dallas, Texas, I was both amazed and frightened at the size of this enormous metal contraption that filled every inch of the tiny living room. A woman drying her hands on a dish towel quickly came from the kitchen to the front door to welcome us and ushered us to meet the young boy who was four years older than myself and who would one day set the Guinness Book of World Records for spending the most time in an iron lung.

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During the 1950s, polio ravaged the United States and the very mention of this disease closed swimming pools overnight as parents were terrified that their children would be infected, severely paralysed and even potentially die. A vaccine was developed and, accompanied by our parents, we lined up with thousands of others in front of our schools to receive the magic sugar cube that would help bring an end to this terrible scourge of civil society.

Paul Alexander lived most of his life in an iron lung after contracting polio, but trained as a lawyer and painted pictures (Picture: GoFundMe)Paul Alexander lived most of his life in an iron lung after contracting polio, but trained as a lawyer and painted pictures (Picture: GoFundMe)
Paul Alexander lived most of his life in an iron lung after contracting polio, but trained as a lawyer and painted pictures (Picture: GoFundMe)

A house of love and affection

My childhood friend, Paul Alexander, due to being slightly older than myself, was not one of the lucky children who received the life-changing, -saving, and -affirming vaccine. Therefore, when Papa introduced us to one another, although we were close in age, our life expectancy and quality of life could not have been more different.

What I found so extraordinary about the contraption where Paul was to spend most of the next 70 years was how natural and normal it all seemed in this small home. I suppose it was because it was a house that was filled with love and affection for the small boy inside and whose parents worked day and night to make certain that Paul had every opportunity to seize every moment of life he possibly could. Paul responded by using a paintbrush gripped in his teeth to create the most beautiful paintings.

When my mother and father celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, Paul attended as a special guest. By then we were both in our mid-30s and Paul, grinning from ear to ear, rolled in using his electric wheelchair. I had no idea how much courage it took for him to leave his iron lung for a few hours to help Mama and Papa celebrate. By that time, Paul had earned a law degree from the SMU law school and had become a well-respected lawyer.

Later he wrote about his lifetime inside an iron lung. The book was featured in an article in The Guardian and, after reading about my old friend, I asked the author of the article to please ask Paul if I could contact him and we soon happily reunited with my sister Leah over Facetime.

An inspiration to millions

Recently, D Magazine featured an article written over four decades ago about my father’s colourful political career and, when asked by the reporter how he wished to be remembered, Papa is quoted as saying “no one will remember me”. The article was selected as one of the 50 most popular articles in the history of the magazine. I guess Papa was indeed remembered.

And my friend Paul shall also be remembered, not only for his achievement of longevity in an iron lung, not only for surviving one pandemic to eventually die of another, but most importantly for the millions of lives he informed and inspired through his intellect, creativity, and, of course, personal courage.

Our family was indeed lucky the Alexander family lived a few doors away from us and, as tears roll down my cheeks as I write, from thousands of miles away from that home, I still hear those bellows, refusing to give up and helping ensure one of the most remarkable friends I have ever known will not be forgotten.

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Rather, his life is one that will be treasured and cherished by me, my family, and millions of others because, despite being confined within a metal capsule, his iron-clad determination defeated his ever-present iron lung and brought hope and happiness to a troubled world that now, perhaps more than ever before, needs more individuals like my forever friend, Paul Alexander.

Professor Joe Goldblatt grew up in Dallas, Texas and has lived in Edinburgh for 16 years where he is emeritus professor of planned events at Queen Margaret University. His opinions are his own. To learn more about his views visit



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