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Heimlich's Maneuver

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In the 1970s, choking became national news: thousands were choking to death, leading to more accidental deaths than guns. Nobody knew what to do. Until a man named Henry Heimlich came along with a big idea. Since then, thousands have been rescued by the Heimlich maneuver. Yet the story of the man who invented it may not have such a happy ending.


Producer’s note:

This story was originally released as the short "The Man Behind the Maneuver." We've made some minor changes to this story that do not alter the substance.

First, we removed the audio of Peter Heimlich, Henry Heimlich’s son, from the version now on the site. When we approached Henry’s other son Phil to arrange an interview with his father, one of Phil’s conditions was that we not air audio of Peter. We thought he’d waived that provision in a subsequent conversation but he contends he did not. So we are honoring the original request.

Second, we originally reported that Henry Heimlich was involved in a train wreck when he was 19 years old and on the way to summer camp. In fact the wreck happened on the way back to New York City from summer camp, in the summer of 1941, making Heimlich 21 years old. We also stated that a woman whose husband attempted to perform an emergency tracheotomy on her bled to death, when in fact she choked to death. The audio has been adjusted to correct these facts.


Jonathan Epstein and Dr. Henry Heimlich

Produced by:

Pat Walters

Comments [15]

JEFF from Dayton, Ohio

I served as a paramedic for nearly a decade in the 90's during that time American Red Cross made changes to their curriculum not because it improved health or health care but so that they could continue to raise money by saying they had new study books. They also required (including me) their instructors to pay for their new instructional materials EVEN THOUGH WE WERE VOLUNTEERS. I have no further connection nor support ARC with regret. It has become a continuous act of ARC to change what they call procedures as it profits them. This is not to the credit of a former great organization. Live on Dr. H.

Feb. 07 2016 03:56 PM
VClevenger from Vancouver, WA

As several people have said, I was very touched by this story, and then was sadly disappointed by the reporter's comment that though he himself was saved by the Heimlich maneuver, he would not tell his children the name of it. I wonder why and what he thinks the benefit would be.

I know of few people who haven't made mistakes as well as contributions. It seems the reporter felt that the great good Dr. Heimlich had done was more than cancelled out by what I imagine were well-intended but mistaken efforts to continue help. I guess the lesson to his children would be that making mistakes is something to look down on.

Feb. 06 2016 10:58 PM

Interesting story, but tarnished significantly at the end by the petty stupidity of the ungrateful reporter, whose own life was saved by the genius of this doctor, in saying he wouldn't tell his hypothetical son that the son himself effectively owes his own existence to an anti-choking procedure called the Heimlich Maneuver. Typical too often of the press these days, alas, as they lack rigorous intellectual skills and a sufficient understanding of life to work through when to be judgmental and when not to be, and who has earned the right to be judgmental. Consequently, they get it wrong and come up with shallow, petty conclusions. That Heimlich may well have been an arrogant, aggressive personality; he was also creative and smart. I could care less about a doctor's bedside manner when he's dealing with my well-being; I care about his brains and his skill and his creativity and his commitment. If he didn't suffer fools gladly, that is a personality flaw with which others can learn to live, chiefly by not being a fool.

Feb. 06 2016 04:30 PM
Paul Apostolo, MD from Baltimore, MD

How do you teach glazed over 11 year olds, as I did today, the "abdominal thrust". It's called the "Heimlich" maneuver by those who have no idea who he is or was because the name is perfect. The name almost screams, "this is what you do: make a fist, grab from behind and squeeze...hard...Heim...lich!!!" The name sticks for the same mysterious reason that some acronyms stick and others do not.

Let's do a thought experiment. Let's change the order of Dr. Heimlich's recommendations. First is malaria treatment for AID's. Well, some immunocompromised people die, so that doesn't get much traction. Then asthma; sorry, doesn't work. Then drowning...well...turns our that there are differences between drowning in salt water versus fresh water and other physiologic factors (I forgive RadioLab for not getting this deep), but maybe he is on to something. Yet he is still obscure. Finally he publishes regarding choking: wow, not just a game changer, a life giver.

With this sequence of events, we see the genius process unfold. Why? Because genius favors the prepared mind. Only a chest surgeon with access to a dog lab and a restless mind could discover this and I believe the show superbly revealed his genius. But it turns out that genius is not perfect. Jefferson owned slaves. Wagner was an antisemite, Heimlich's fame allowed him a wide audience for some bad ideas, etc...

But if the above events took place in a different sequence, would Peter have concluded the same? I don't think so. I believe that Peter will take a step back, perhaps when Heimlich's passing is announced, and reconsider. At least I hope so.

Feb. 06 2016 02:56 PM

What a navel-gazing start to the story...making it about you and the apple!

Feb. 04 2016 02:13 PM

That was a great piece on Heimlich. We all know the maneuver, but don't know the man. What's really cool is seeing a comment from David Steinberg, a former technician under Heimlich, and Heimlich's son, Peter. Both who give me even more background on the man.

Those who blame Radiolab for not giving enough information on Heimlich, get over it. To be honest most people don't want to hear about this story for over 30 minutes because we are listening to be educationally entertained. Those who do want to know more will look up the information themselves later.

Thanks for another great piece Jad and Robert!

Dec. 10 2015 08:55 PM

How Dr. Heimlich Maneuvered Hollywood Into Backing His Dangerous AIDS "Cure" by Seth Abramovitch, The Hollywood Reporter, August 14, 2014:

When 'Chicago Hope' Dealt in Heimlich, Malariotherapy and AIDS by Seth Abramovitch, The Hollywood Reporter, August 14, 2014:

Aug. 19 2014 09:37 PM

From "St. Louis University Under Fire for Work with Doctor Who Infected AIDS Patients with Malaria" by Sam Levin, Riverfront Times, September 9, 2013:

The "malariotherapy" experiments in China, conducted for over a decade by Dr. (Xiaoping) Chen in conjunction with Cincinnati's Heimlich Institute, have been called "atrocities" by the World Health Organization. Medical experts have condemned the work as "charlatanism of the highest order." Research subjects included prisoners who were controlled by hired guards. In one case, a woman with full-blown AIDS, suffering from pneumonia and hooked up to oxygen, was infected with malaria.

Dec. 24 2013 08:39 AM
Mariana from México

For the first half of the story I was fascinated... the second part surprised me; and the contrast gave me a weird and unpleasant feeling. I even filled with a powerful anger against the voice telling the story. I think what made me mad was how it concludes, (even poorly with the declaration of not teaching the name of the maneuver to his children); he did "bad things". Immediately I thought about previous shows like "the good" or "the bad" show... about real dilemmas.
… I think the fact of treating diseases in experimental ways with volunteers (who die now because of the insufficiencies of accepted treatments) willing to give their last shot to an unproved method (similar to be treated by alternative medicine) is primarily their choice; and secondarily it could be a matter of discussions, but a totalitarian and deaf conclusion is as mistaken as premature.

Nov. 27 2013 12:17 AM
Susan Hill from Ohio

Wouldn't it be fascinating if the Malaria created high enough fevers to destroy the AIDS and the Lyme disease!

Nov. 16 2013 05:51 PM

10/21/13,"Radiolab's junk reporting: my investigations request to the National Science Foundation -- and some surprising statistics about choking deaths" by Peter M. Heimlich, The Sidebar (my blog):

Nov. 14 2013 11:24 AM
David Steinberg from Washington, DC

In 1975 when I was an Anesthesia Technician at The Jewish Hospital of Cincinnati - Heimlich was our chief of surgery. He had recently stuffed steak down the gullets of a dozen beagles at Xavier University (University of Cincinnati wouldn’t approve his research application) and fisted them in the stomachs to prove his maneuver. Heimlich was a feared chief of surgery. He was a striking and tall man who exuded strength and had the bearing of a Charlton Heston receiving the ten commandments. He was arrogant, ill tempered, had a short attention span, and known to ruthlessly humiliate any underling he thought was performing badly. He was famous for the time he broke sterile field and punched an Argentinan surgical resident in the face because he was not working fast enough to keep up with Heimlich. Both surgeons had to go back and re-scrub for seven minutes while the patient waited with his chest open!

Most of the surgical staff feared and hated him. I was always more neutral. I saw him for his arrogance and impatience, and acknowledged that he may have swiped a known physiological phenomena and marketed it - but I always thought that he still served the greater good. Because he invested his energy in promoting the Heimlich Maneuver, thousands - maybe even millions of lives have been saved. I even had the chance to use it once myself. In 1979 while I was a waiter at a Steak & Ale restaurant in Cincinnati, a woman at a nearby table jumped up, clearly choking.. I ran over, anxious to perform the Heimlich Maneuver. I grabbed her from behind and crunched her from the abdomen three times. But I was being too gentle. She was desperately but silently imploring me to crunch her harder - but I wimped out. Just then, another waiter - 6’4” 300 pounder - took over and with one huge thrust, shot a hunk of steak out of her mouth like a cork. It was amazing!

And so - my interaction with Dr. Heimlich ended in 1980 when I graduated from UC and moved to Washington, DC. I have thought about him from time to time but never knew anything one way or another about his life after that time. After fame and celebrity around his famous maneuver - he seems to have wigged out - thinking that he could cure almost anything. Listening to the piece, I went way back in time - totally recognizing that voice that used to be so scary - even though it is now filtered by his being 93 and sounding like a very old man. He should have stopped with the famous maneuver. He’d have been a hero forever.

In the end - it seems his extraordinary arrogance got him. It kind of reminds me of an old joke: There’s a huge long line at the pearly gates. A man in a white lab coat strolls past everyone in line and just walks right in to the gates without a glance. With a lot of grumbling going on by the people in line, one says to another - “Did you see that? Who does that guy think he is?” To which his line-mate says; “Oh, that’s God. He thinks he’s a surgeon.”

Nov. 04 2013 07:12 PM
suzan newman from Florida

I have a history of using the Heimlich Valve in the operating room after many Thoracic procedures. It may be my favorite piece of equipment due to it's ease of application and technological simplicity. I used the Heimlich Maneuver to save my mom when she was chocking. Your story was one sided when it came to Heimlich's research into alternatives. You did not include the results of his clinical trials on lyme's disease nor on malaria therapy for aids or cancer. Why not?? I know of a lot of therapies that are not recognized by the medical establishment (AMA & FDA) because Pharmaceutical money goes into medical schools and into government regulation (to protect profits??). That is another story you could look into. Nor did you address if his Heimlich Maneuver was successful in those instances when water does enter the lungs after drowning. If you listen carefully the doctor that you spoke with about drowning said that IN MOST INSTANCES THE THROAT CLOSES, so that water does not enter but not in ALL INSTANCES. To run clinical trials in this country a person needs to have millions of dollars. You can look into how this happened also if you like. It is very easy to say that alternative therapies don't work. It only takes a few words and one 'expert' who has an opinion. But on the other side it takes months and years of effort for researchers who do not get paid and who are working selflessly find a way to end human suffering. We do not know if any of the patients with lyme disease, aids or cancer benefited from Heimlich's efforts because your program designer did not 'go there' to find out. I am for using all the techniques that may work including the back slap and as for scientific evidence on the efficacy of the Heimlich Maneuver, you have the empirical evidence of millions of lives saved.

Nov. 04 2013 09:31 AM


Were you listening to the whole story? Heimlich isn't as great as your making him out to be. Just doing simple research yields his controversial malaria tests and most importantly how he financially strong-armed the Heimlich manuveaur to replace the back slap without scientific evidence. More importantly, he didn't give credit to his colleagues that helped develop that technique. That's why this story is so good because it provides insight on both ends of the stick.

Nov. 03 2013 08:45 PM

I loved this story a lot! (I too was once saved when my dad used the Heimlich Maneuver on me.) It made me get teary eyed at a couple of spots, especially when the nurse read her letter. This story was the type that leaves me feeling all warm & full of wonder, until the very end. I was really disappointed by the ending. I think you totally ruined a wonderful story and need to drop that part about not wanting your kids to call it the Heimlich Maneuver! I mean seriously! Shame on you! That man invented that technique at a time when hundreds of people were dying. It would've been years, more like decades, and hundreds of lives lost if it were not for Mr. Heimlich.

Nov. 02 2013 05:15 PM

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