Bird Man of Idaho dies at 94

The 60 Minutes interview with Forrest Bird, a WWII pilot whose passion for aviation led him to invent the respirator

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When Forrest Bird invented the medical respirator in 1947, he told 60 Minutes he had no idea he'd created a device that would go on to become a staple of emergency medicine.

Forrest Bird CBS News

"I mean, this was seeing a problem and coming up with a rudimentary answer, that was all," he told 60 Minutes' Morley Safer in 2007.

Bird died Sunday at the age of 94, but his invention continues to give the breath of life to countless people around the world.

When Safer first met Bird, the inventor was 86 years old and living in a 300-acre compound in the Idaho Panhandle. He owned 21 planes and still took to the skies in a souped-up 1938 Piper Cub that belonged to his father.

"My daddy was a World War I pilot, and I just wanted to be able to fly like he did," Bird told Safer.

Bird spent World War II delivering aircraft from the factory to the front, and got to thinking about the similarities between the way air flows over the wings of a plane and how it moves through the human lung.

"In that lung is rudimentary air foils. It's like a million airplane wings all down through the lungs -- in and out, all the way through, that facilitate your normal, spontaneous breathing. So it was just applying all of this," Bird said. "Taking it from aviation."

Bird went on to create the first low-cost medical respirator. Other models quickly followed, including the "Baby Bird," his respirator for infants, which massively reduced the death rate for preemies and saved the lives of his neighbors' two sons.

Watch the full 60 Minutes profile in the player above.