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Dr. Heimlich details his controversial life


One of the few doctors in America who is a household name, Dr. Henry Heimlich, is not without his share of controversy. In his new autobiography, “Heimlich’s Maneuvers,’’ which goes on sale this week, he details his first experiments with his famous choking maneuver on dogs and his experience as a surgical intern at Boston City Hospital (now Boston Medical Center) before being shipped off to China near the end of World War II.

He’s been called a fraud by his son Peter and criticized by many in the medical community for conducting studies on HIV patients in China — which were banned in the United States — that involved infecting them with malaria in an attempt to cure the disease. The technique, called malariotherapy, fell out of use decades ago for syphillis patients because too many were dying of malaria infections.


I spoke with Heimlich, who just turned 94, by phone last week from his home in Cincinnati; here are edited excerpts from our interview.

Q. Why did you decide to write this book now?

A. I wanted to get my thoughts out there to talk about how fond I became of China, of the Chinese people, after I spent the war there in a medical clinic in the Gobi Desert. My feeling is that if the US and China could come together and help all the other smaller countries, we would have a happy world. I also wanted to discuss my role in surgical advances like inventing the chest drain valve and an operation to fix the digestive tract when the esophagus is damaged beyond repair.

Q. What should the headline on your obituary read?

A. I would love to quote Norman Vincent Peale, a famous minister who had a weekly radio program. He once said “Henry Heimlich saved the lives of more human beings than any other person living today.” That would be a nice headline.


Q. Why did you spread the word about using the Heimlich maneuver for choking through the media instead of publishing your research on it?

A. I thought about writing a medical article, but if I waited for that to be published and for doctors to recommend it to patients to prevent choking to death, I knew it would take months or years for the word to spread. I did something fun, and I had a well-known medical journalist describe my dog study in a 1974 syndicated column picked up by hundreds of newspapers all around the country. A week later, an article appeared in the Seattle Times describing a man who tried the maneuver after reading about it, and he saved the life of his neighbor who was choking on a large piece of chicken.

Q. How would you like to respond to people, including your son Peter, who have called you a quack for some of the treatments you have proposed such as using malaria to treat chronic Lyme disease and HIV?

A. I don’t want to bring my son into it. I guess it’s as much jealousy as anything that drives the others. I try not to waste time on these personal attacks. There was research in the 1920s conducted by Dr. Julius Wagner-Jauregg showing that fevers induced by treatable malaria infections could cure the psychosis caused by syphilis. He won the Nobel Prize for this work. We did some research in China on HIV patients, and published it in a Chinese medical journal in 1999, but the work stalled. I think it’s still worth researching to see if it works for other diseases.


Q. The American Red Cross instructs its lifeguards not to use the Heimlich maneuver on drowning victims, but you still insist it works. Why?

A. I did not devise it for drowning, but I have a list of cases from lifeguards who told me they’ve saved people’s lives using it. It also makes sense to me as a thoracic surgeon. You need to get water out of the lung if someone isn’t breathing before you do chest compressions or mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Otherwise, they’re going to die. [Editor’s note: a scientific review conducted by the Red Cross concluded that water does not enter the lungs when a person is drowning because the larynx closes and blocks water from entering the windpipe.]

Q. If you were going into medicine today, would you still choose thoracic surgery?

A. I don’t know what I would go into, but I chose thoracic surgery at the time because it was so new. I’d probably want to go into a field where I could develop innovations, but I’m not sure which specialty today holds the most potential for that. Deborah Kotz

Deborah Kotz can be reached at dkotz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @debkotz2.

Correction: In an earlier version of this story, the title of the book “Heimlich’s Maneuvers” was misspelled.