Forrest Bird dies at 94; inventor of medical respirator


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

Bird died Sunday morning of natural causes at his home in northern Idaho, said his wife, Pamela.

“People would say, ‘Thank you for saving my grandson. Thank you for saving my life,’” his wife said.


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

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

Bird 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 piloting his 12-passenger Bell helicopter.

“He’s one of my heroes,” said his stepdaughter, Rachel Schwam, 31, who herself was saved by the Babybird after being born prematurely and now has two daughters of her own.

In 2008, Bird received the Presidential Citizens Medal from President George W. Bush, and in 2009 the National Medal of Technology and Innovation from President Obama.

In photos with each president, Bird is wearing unique double-framed glasses with two sets of lenses, one of them 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 once 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, Mass., and graduated from high school at age 14, his family said. He 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.”

He formed a company but sold it in the late 1970s so he could escape the demands of production and focus on invention. He retained development centers, including one in northern Idaho.

“We were just fortunate to have his influence in our state,” said Jay Larsen of the Idaho Technology Council, which inducted Bird into its Hall of Fame in 2012. “He’s a giant among innovators and inventors in Idaho.”

Bird is survived by his wife, a daughter and two grandchildren.