As a child, Bird was fascinated by airplanes — even before his father introduced him to Orville Wright, the first pilot of a powered airplane. While still in his teens, Bird gained multiple pilot certifications, and in 1941 joined the U.S. Army Air Corps to help train pilots for World War II. Due to his extreme qualifications, Bird was able to fly virtually every aircraft the Army had, eventually including jets and helicopters. With that experience, he realized that pilots, as they flew higher, would need better systems to keep them safe from low oxygen levels. He invented and made them: the first Positive Pressure Inhalation Device came out in 1946. The idea came to him while flying, as he pictured air flowing over his plane’s wing, and air flowing into the lung. “In that lung is rudimentary air foils,” he said years later. “It’s like a million airplane wings all down through the lungs. In and out, all the way through, that facilitate your normal, spontaneous breathing. So it was just applying all this — taking it from aviation.”
To truly learn how the body worked, the military sent Bird to medical school to become a doctor. Thus Bird learned that doctors needed positive-pressure ventilation devices too, and by 1950 he had produced a medical respirator. The medical “Mark 7” Bird Respirator — a small transparent green box introduced in 1955 — is still used today. A smaller unit (the “Baby Bird”) followed in 1970, and dramatically lowered mortality in premature infants, whose lungs are often not fully developed. Well into his 80s, Bird still worked 12-hour days — and still flew his airplane. Well, airplanes: he had 21, including three helicopters, which he lent out to fight forest fires. The news show 60 Minutes profiled him in 2007; in 2008, President George W. Bush awarded Bird the Presidential Citizens Medal; in 2009, President Barack Obama awarded him the National Medal of Technology and Innovation. Dr. Bird died August 2. He was 94.