Thursday, January 05, 2012

1957: The invention of the rescue inhaler x

When Americans unite and put their minds and imaginations together in a quest to obtain a united goal, anything can be accomplished.  This was what occurred during WWII.  While war is bad, it can bring about many good things.  In this way, the metered dose inhaler -- the rescue inhaler you have in your pocket right now -- is a byproduct of war.

A 1957 ad for the Riker inhaler (a)
Allied troops fighting in the fields of Europe were often infested with bugs that caused Malaria.  This was impeding the war effort.

To remedy this problem the U.S. Government hired researchers to come up with a bug repellent that would help allied soldiers attack bugs.

Lyle Goodhue and William Sullivans must have first looked to the past to find a solution.  They would have learned that in 1790 pressurized aerosols were introduced in France to create carbonated beverages.

They would have learned that in 1837 the first spray can was made of heavy steal in Perpigna.  The can had a valve in it that allowed it to create the spray.  Several prototypes were tested in 1862, although nothing ever came of it. (1)

They would have learned that in 1927 a Norwegian man named Erik Rotheim patented the first spray can that was capable of holding pressurized contents and spraying them.  It's now considered the forerunner of modern spray cans.

Goodhue and Sullivans then took these old ideas and combined them with ideas of their own and came up with a design capable of carrying a pressurized propellant called flurocarbon.  The bug spray was added to the propellent and the spray can allowed for the bugs to be sprayed and killed.

So while the first spray cans were used to hold bug sprays during the war, the concept soon evolved to other products, such as paint and perfume.  It was the perfume market that Riker Laboratories (a subsidiary of what is now 3M Pharmaceuticals) was thinking of when it started tinkering with this product.  They wanted to create a spray perfume. (2)

Yet Riker researchers soon realized there was a demand by asthmatics for a convenient to use and portable spray can for asthma medicine.  This was how the first inhaler came to fruition.  In 1956 Riker inventors created the asthma inhaler market with a Medihaler-Epi that contained epinepherine and medihaler Iso that contained Isophrenaline.

The Riker inhaler was a major breakthrough.  This product was incorporated with the first ever actuator with a one-way valve that allowed for the medicine and propellant to be sprayed in a uniform dose (a metered dose), and soon became known as the metered dose inhaler (MDI).  The Medi-Iso delivered a metered dose of 0.15 mg and the Medi-Epi delivered a dose of 0.06 mg.  The inhalers were  easy to use, provided fast relief, and were easy to lug around. (2)

The design of this original inhaler was very similar to many of the inhalers we lug around today, such as the Ventolin inhaler.  It could easily fit into a boy's front pocket or a mom's purse, and using it was as as easy as squeezing the actuator.

Electric nebulizers in the 1950s were large, bulky and made of glass.  They were also expensive, so many asthmatics had less expensive nebulizers that required them to squeeze a bulb to aerosolize the medicine.  Many asthmatics continued to smoke asthma cigarettes, insents, or other palliative asthma remedies.

So getting asthma relief was inconvenient when the medihaler was introduuced, and the relief given wasn't very good. So this was the market advertisers for Riker Laboratories aimed for when they started their first advertising campaign.

1956 ad for the Medihaler (b)
An old advertisement for the Medihaler (see image) used the inconvenience of these other devices as a marketing ploy:
Medihaler with your favorite bronchodilator:
  • No rubber bulbs to deteriorate
  • No breakage of costly glass nebulizers
  • No spilling of solution in pocket or purse
The Medihaler became an instant hit.  It, coupled with the discovery of theophylline, caused the market for asthma medicines to boom.

Gregg Mitman, in his book "Breathing Space: How allergies shape our lives and landscapes," explained that between 1972 and 1985 prescription drugs in the United States showed a modest 7 percent increase in the number of prescriptions filled.

During the same period, prescriptions for asthma drugs increased 200 percent."  The market for asthma inhalers was so bullish that other pharmaceutical companies raced to make their asthma remedies available as an inhaler.  (3)

Mitman further explained that the sale of asthma inhalers alone (both beta adrenergics and others), accounted for "25 percent of all prescriptions dispensed for the treatment of asthma in 1985."

So it didn't take long at all for pharmaceuticals, doctors and asthmatics to catch on to the convenience of the rescue inhaler.  Life for asthmatics changed forever, and for the better.

Click here for more asthma history.

  1., "History of spray cans," (provides a good history of the spray can)
  2. Brenner, Barry E, ed., "Emergency Medicine," 1998, from chapter one "Where have we been?  A history of acute asthma," page 23
  3.  Mitmann, Gregg, "Breathing Space:  How allergies shape our lives and landscape, 2007,  page 237 (a great read if you want to learn more about the history of asthma/ allergies)
  1. (a)  Deco Dog,, you can purchase or check out old asthma inhaler ads here 
  2. (b)  Deco Dog, ibid


  1. Hello :) I am doing some research for a novel I'm writing, and yours has been the most informative site I've come across regarding Asthsma. Could you tell me whether a middle class London family would have commonly owned an inhaler for a 15 year old daughter, and if she would have remembered using the glass nebulizer with the rubber bulb before getting her inhaler?

    1. Even a low-income family in 1967 in Texas would have commonly owned an inhaler for a 15-year old (son), and (he) would have remembered (still does remember) using the glass nebulizer (DeVilbiss brand) with the rubber bulb before getting (his) inhaler.

    2. It would be neat to have a picture of that nebulizer. Too bad we always end up throwing that kind of stuff away. I had an old nebulizer fro the 1980s that I kept until I moved in 2004, and I accidentally threw it away.

  2. What year was she 15? Assuming it was 1957, I would guess the answer to both your questions would be yes. London was among the leading nation as far as asthma innovations, so a child in London most certainly would have had an opportunity to have both the devices you mention. As far as remembering the nebulizer, I can tell you from my own experiences as a child that when you can't breathe you remember it. Yet when something instantly gives you your breath back like epinephrine, you would definitely remember that. If you need any further information I'd be more than happy to help. I'm also curious what your book is about

  3. Thanks Rick :) She is actually 15 y/o in 1962. The book is young adult, and the genre is probably what would be considered a "paranormal romance." It is a ghost story about a spirit who is bound to one sould as she is reincarnated through four different lifetimes, the latest one being the main character. Each of the past life characters have one chapter to tell their story, and this particular asthmatic character's chapter only spans 2 days, so I am just looking for any info that would help to round out the narrative of those two days.

  4. Well,I've probably covered just about every angle of asthma on this or my other blog somewhere. So if you have further questions feel free to ask. And you'll have to send me a link to your book when your done. Sounds cool.

  5. I am actually shocked to find out that the inhaler was invented in the 50's. I was diagnosed with asthma at age 3 in 1967. I suffered with moderate to severe asthma for years, with many trips to the ER for epi-shots. I don't remember having my first inhaler until I was in my late teens. I know it was the 1970's! Were my parents just uninformed or what?

  6. Your story seems similar to my own. I was diagnosed in 1970 and never had my own until 1980. I even remember the first time a doctor squirted one into my mouth. That was the only time I tasted the medicine. I also had to go in for many epi shots. They also had nebulizers and I never had one for home until 1985.

  7. Actually, your parents were not misinformed, and neither were mine. In fact, it was very common back then for the latest asthma wisdom to elude even physicians. Asthma research hospitals like National Jewish in Denver had access to the latest wisdom. IF asthmatics got bad, they were sent to these hospitals. It wasn't until 1989 that asthma guidelines were created. Also at this time physicians at these hospitals started holding educational fairs for regional doctors to teach them about the latest asthma wisdom. Both of these resulted in regional doctors gaining the same wisdom that once eluded them about asthma. Now, thanks to guidelines, all asthmatics have access to the latest wisdom, and the most up to date medicine.

  8. There was a third reason that should be noted. There were significant fears regarding the safety of both inhaled steroids and rescue inhalers. So, doctors may have been hesitant to prescribe these for their young asthmatics.