Dr. Henry Heimlich ’41, who developed the famous Heimlich maneuver, died Saturday morning of a heart attack in Cincinnati. He was 96.
Heimlich received his bachelor’s degree from Cornell University in 1941 and his M.D. from Weill Cornell Medical College in 1943.
Before the invention of the Heimlich maneuver, it was widely believed that slapping a choking victim’s back would save his life, but this action actually lodges the blockage deeper in the victim’s throat. In a 1974 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Heimlich wrote that applying pressure to the diaphragm could force a blockage to dislodge.
Since its conception, the maneuver has been credited with saving over 100,000 lives. Heimlich himself said he used the maneuver for the first time this year to save the life of a woman living in his senior residence home, The New York Times reported.
Patty Ris was eating a hamburger near Heimlich’s table when Heimlich noticed she was choking and immediately performed his maneuver. He said he saw “a piece of meat with a little bone attached flew out of her mouth,” according to The Times.
“[Heimlich] was a hero to many people around the world for a simple reason: he helped save untold numbers of lives through the innovation of common-sense procedures and devices,” his family said in a statement.
However, Heimlich’s life was not without controversy.
Heimlich was a strong advocate for malariotherapy — a procedure that injects AIDS patients with malaria-infected bloods in the hopes of inducing high fevers that will kill the AIDS virus. He began conducting human experiments in China in 1996 to prove his theory.
Heimlich’s son, Peter Heimlich, was one of the innovator’s biggest critics. Peter claimed that his father did not invent the Heimlich maneuver, but stole the idea from another doctor, Edward A. Patrick.
In a statement released Saturday, however, his family insisted that Heimlich was always dedicated to improving the lives of his patients.
“Dad was firm in his convictions and passionate for his causes,” his family said. “He was single-minded in his quest to find better ways to save lives. Dad dreamed that anything was possible in the field of medicine, even when critics said otherwise.”
During World War II, Heimlich served in the U.S. Navy and treated Chinese and American soldiers behind enemy lines in the Gobi desert. As a surgeon during the war, he saw many patients die as blood and air filled their chest cavities after being shot in the chest, which prompted him to create an inexpensive valve that allowed the leakage to escape during chest surgery.
Heimlich is survived by his two sons and two daughters. His wife, Jane, died in 2012.