Polio survivor Paul Alexander, who spent over 70 years in an iron lung, has died of COVID-19

Science journalist and host of the Pandemia PodcastKai Kupferschmidt, posted today on his X/Twitter that Paul Alexander, who called himself "Polio Paul" on his TikTok account, passed away on March 11, 2024, at the age of 78. 

It's a tragic story—a man who survived one pandemic, polio, and lived over 70 years in an iron lung—didn't survive our current, ongoing pandemic. He died after contracting COVID-19.

Kupferschmidt wrote on X/Twitter:

So sad to hear that Paul Alexander passed yesterday at age 78 from Covid-19. Paul contracted polio in 1952, when he was just six years old. He ended up in an iron lung and while he could live outside it for extended periods of time he never really left it.

Two years ago my colleagues and I talked to Paul for a few polio episodes of our @pandemiapodcast. Paul told us about the full life he lived, about the horror of the disease, about studying law and practicing as a lawyer, writing a book and much more.

At the time we put out a special episode just with the interview. (There is a German intro til about 8:00. then you can hear the full interview in English though he can be hard to understand over the sound of the iron lung) https://files.podcaster.de/podcasthosting-user-anlbfe/1485/pan42.mp3

Paul was an extraordinary person and he lived an extraordinary life by any measure. I remember being shocked when I first heard about him, that there were people who still needed an iron lung. It was a reminder of the terror of polio and the power of vaccines.

But what most stuck with me after our episodes (and what my colleagues and I talked about the most) was actually the force of his spirit, his wit, his will to live life to the fullest, far beyond what people thought was possible for him.

Just last month, IFL Science published an article about Paul Alexander, describing his life after contracting polio in Dallas, Texas in 1952, at the age of six:

Alexander has remained inside the iron lung for over 70 years. He can temporarily leave the machine's confines for two or three minutes thanks to a self-learned technique he calls "frog breathing", which involves gulping down mouthfuls of air using his throat muscles to force air into his lungs. However, this is not a long-term solution and he spends the overwhelming majority of his day inside the mechanical chamber.

The article also highlights the outstanding accomplishments he's achieved despite spending every day of his life in an iron lung:

The iron lung hasn't stopped Alexander from achieving some amazing things. He studied law at the University of Texas and, in 1984, he passed the bar to become a lawyer. He also spent five years writing an autobiography – Three Minutes for a Dog: My Life in an Iron Lung – by typing into a computer using a pencil placed in his mouth.

He most recently had joined TikTok, where his social media director, Lincoln, helped him create and upload videos documenting his life and answering questions from his fans.

I'm truly heartbroken by this news. As the sticker on my refrigerator reads, "FUCK COVID." Please, friends, let's mask up and keep each other safe.


Episode 1 of Convos with Paul! We will be responding to comments and questions about Paul's life, his polio, and life in an iron lung! Please be positive 😊 #PaulAlexander #poliopaul #ironlung #conversationswithpaul

♬ Chopin Nocturne No. 2 Piano Mono – moshimo sound design