Tuesday, February 23, 2016

1957: The invention of the rescue inhaler

A 1957 ad for the Riker inhaler (a)
When people unite and put their minds and imaginations together in a quest to obtain a united goal, anything can be accomplished.  A perfect example was the Manhatton project, where some of the world's best minds got together and invented the atomic bomb the helped win the war. Another invention that came about through the war effort was the technology the ultimately lead to the invention of the first inhaler little more than a decade after the war was over.

So, the concept of the modern inhaler was born during WWII, but it had nothing to do finding a cure for asthma. It had to do with allied troops fighting in the fields of Europe that were infested with bugs that caused Malaria. These bugs were impeding the war effort.

A quest was begun to remedy this pesky problem. This lead to the U.S. Government hiring researchers to come up with a bug repellent that would help allied soldiers get rid of these 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.
1956 ad for the Medihaler (b)

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 propellant 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 epinephrine 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.

Asthmatics at this time had few options that were convenient and inexpensive. Epinephrine was available, but it had to be administered by a doctor. Glass nebulizers were available to deliver the medicine at home, although they were fragile, bulky, and expensive. There were electric air compressors, although the least expensive nebulizers were operated by a rubber squeeze bulb, so getting the medicine was a arduous and time consuming project.

Making matters worse is that none of these nebulizers were easily portable, meaning they had to be used at the doctor's office or at home or in the office. For this reason, many asthmatics resorted to asthma cigarettes, incense, or other palliative asthma remedies. So, efforts to get asthma relief was, to say the least, rather inconvenient.

This created an ideal market for Rikker. People who tried it found that it was lightweight and easy to carry around. It also provided instant relief from asthma symptoms. So this was the focus of Rikker's first marketing campaign for their new product.

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 the subsequent discovery of a medicine called theophylline, caused the market for asthma medicines to boom.

  1.  About.com, "History of spray cans,"  http://inventors.about.com/od/astartinventions/a/aerosol.htm (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, http://www.decodog.com/inven/medical2.html, you can purchase or check out old asthma inhaler ads here 
  2. (b)  Deco Dog, ibid

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing this blog with such in depth details about inhaler. This is indeed a very informative post and really helpful for those suffering for asthma.