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Obituaries

Henry Heimlich, doctor who invented lifesaving anti-choking procedure, dies at 96

Dr. Henry Heimlich
In this Feb. 5, 2014, file photo, Dr. Henry Heimlich holds his memoir prior to being interviewed at his home in Cincinnati.
(Associated Press)

When he was a 21-year-old camp counselor, Henry Heimlich saved a life and had his first brush with fame.

On the way back to New York City from Massachusetts at summer’s end, his quick thinking in a train wreck helped save a critically wounded crew member. It also landed the handsome medical student on the front page of the New York Times. A month later, the Greater New York Safety Council gave him a gold watch.

Never one to shy away from the limelight, Heimlich would go on to a level of fame — and controversy — that astonished even him.

Heimlich, a thoracic surgeon who developed the lifesaving Heimlich maneuver after experimenting on anesthetized beagles, died Saturday in Cincinnati, his family said. He was 96.

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His son Phil said he suffered a heart attack earlier in the week.

When Heimlich came up with his anti-choking technique in 1974, it was quickly celebrated. Accidental choking was a leading cause of death, and Heimlich’s sharp abdominal jabs from behind could expel chunks of food or foreign objects from the throats of choking victims.

So simple it could be performed by children, the eponymous maneuver made Heimlich a household name. Less than a decade after he started to publicize it, the Heimlich maneuver was listed in dictionaries and its inventor’s last name was sometimes used as a verb — as in, “to Heimlich.”

Catapulted to national fame, Heimlich traded jokes with Johnny Carson as “The Tonight Show” host demonstrated the up-close-and-personal technique on a laughing Angie Dickinson. Norman Vincent Peale, the minister famous for “The Power of Positive Thinking,” declared that Heimlich had likely saved more people than anyone else alive.

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In 1980, his TV series for children, “H.E.L.P!: Dr. Henry’s Emergency Lessons for People,” won a daytime Emmy Award.

“I know that my celebrity status has helped others … giving them a power they might not have known they possessed,” the doctor wrote in his 2014 memoir, “Heimlich’s Maneuvers.” He estimated that the procedure had saved more than 100,000 lives.

But he also championed other measures that his critics called reckless and unethical.

In 2007, the New Republic magazine described him as “the P.T. Barnum of American medicine — his career serving as testament to the fact that even the supposedly fact-based medical realm is susceptible to the phantom powers of personality and salesmanship.”

For years, Heimlich promoted the treatment of cancer, Lyme disease and HIV/AIDS with injections of malaria to jump-start patients’ strained immune systems.

When Heimlich sponsored research in China on AIDS patients, UCLA determined that a faculty member violated federal rules by taking part. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the concept was risky, and AIDS expert Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, called it “scientifically unsound and ethically questionable.”

Heimlich drew what he called “malariotherapy” from the work of an Austrian scientist who received a 1927 Nobel Prize for using it to treat the kind of dementia associated with late-stage syphilis.

But Fauci said it was a bad call even in 1927: “There are some Nobels they would like to take back, and I believe that’s one of them,” Fauci told ABC News in 2007.

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One of Heimlich’s most vocal critics was his son Peter.

In the early 2000s, objections to Heimlich’s work surfaced in anonymous letters to medical journals and newspapers, sometimes signed with the names of film noir characters. Peter Heimlich later revealed himself as their author and went public with denunciations of his father, detailing them on a website he started with his wife, Karen Shulman.

In interviews, Peter Heimlich said he broke with his father in 2001 after the doctor ignored medical problems within the Heimlich family. The son did not disclose the problems.

In his autobiography, the doctor thanked his children Elisabeth, Philip and Janet “for their love and dedication.” Peter Heimlich, who had referred to his father as “a spectacular con man and serial liar,” was not mentioned.

But Heimlich did acknowledge making enemies with his unorthodox medical theories. In his book, he likened his critics to the neighborhood kids who sank a raft he built from boards and oil cans when he was 10.

“Sadly, people with new ideas are often attacked, sometimes for no reason other than the critics do not like someone else getting credit,” he wrote. “Just as the boys tried to destroy my invention by throwing stones, my future naysayers would also try to sink my ideas.”

Born Feb. 3, 1920, in Wilmington, Del., Henry Judah Heimlich grew up in suburban New Rochelle, N.Y. His father, Philip Heimlich, was a social worker.

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After graduating from Cornell University and Cornell Medical College, Heimlich joined the Navy, and in 1945, he was sent to China. When a mortally wounded Chinese soldier lay on his operating table, blood was surging into the man’s torn chest and Heimlich had no effective way to drain it.

“It tore me up,” Heimlich recalled, vowing to one day make amends.

About 20 years later, he came up with the Heimlich Chest Drain Valve – a simple device that sprang, Heimlich wrote, from “a Japanese noisemaker that made a sound we used to call a ‘raspberry’ or a ‘Bronx cheer.’ ”

Battlefield medics used the valve to help wounded soldiers in Vietnam, and it was adopted for use in hospitals as well.

Returning from China, Heimlich settled in New York City. In 1951, he married Jane Murray, daughter of dance studio owners Arthur and Kathryn Murray. Jane Murray Heimlich, who became a writer advocating homeopathic remedies, died in 2012.

In the 1950s, Heimlich spoke widely about his procedure to bypass patients’ damaged esophagi by rebuilding a portion of their stomachs. The operation allowed people who had been unable to swallow to “eat steak and French fried potatoes ten days after the surgery,” the New York Times reported.

Heimlich later was taken to task for failing to reveal that a Romanian surgeon had performed the groundbreaking procedure several years before he did. He said he had not known of Dr. Dan Gavriliu’s work at the time.

Dr. Heimlich is a legend, someone who’s responsible for saving thousands of lives.
B. Chris Brewster, the head of San Diego’s lifeguard service

When Heimlich was head of surgery at Jewish Hospital in Cincinnati, he developed the maneuver that made him famous. Convinced that lives would be lost if he conducted “time-consuming studies,” he wrote an article for the journal Emergency Medicine and had it sent to syndicated medical columnist Arthur J. Snider of the Chicago Daily News.

Soon, word of the technique spread. Stories appeared about diners, both ordinary people and celebrities, saving others or being saved.

On a campaign plane in 1976, Ronald Reagan was choking on a peanut when his aide Michael Deaver wrapped his arms around the future president, thrusting his fists inward and upward to dislodge the potentially lethal nut. At NBC’s New York headquarters, newsman Tom Brokaw did the same in 1979, when his colleague John Chancellor was choking on a piece of Gouda cheese.

Heimlich was hailed for his maneuver but ran into resistance from the American Red Cross. He contended that people were “dying needlessly” because the organization taught rescuers to treat choking by sharply slapping victims between the shoulder blades.

Heimlich was among the physicians who believed that back slaps — which he called “death blows” — could drive objects even deeper into the throat. As of 2014, the Red Cross recommended using cycles of five back blows followed by five “abdominal thrusts” for choking victims.

Heimlich also took criticism for insisting that his maneuver be the first choice for first-aid providers in near-drowning cases. The American Heart Assn. called the idea “potentially dangerous.” Ellis & Associates, a company that trains lifeguards across the U.S., tried it for five years and in 2000 withdrew its endorsement of the technique. Lifeguard organizations condemned the maneuver.

“Dr. Heimlich is a legend, someone who’s responsible for saving thousands of lives,” B. Chris Brewster, the head of San Diego’s lifeguard service and president of the Americas region of the International Lifesaving Federation, told the Los Angeles Times in 2000. “I just wish that were enough for him.”

But for Heimlich, heroism wasn’t the issue.

“If I have something that I think is good,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1994, “how can I let people die?”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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