Thomas L. Petty, M.D.

Professor of Medicine, 
University of Colorado

Chairman, National Lung Health Education Program (NLHEP)

“Why Can’t You Find History?”
(Reference to Spirometry)

September 2001
Second Wind
Lomita, Californa

            Dear Friends:

            The instrument which measures breathing capacity is called the spirometer.  It literally means air (spiro from Greek), measurement (meter from Latin).  The spirometer was invented in 1946 by John Hutchinson, a surgeon in London.  This simple device proceeded the invention of the x-ray, the electrocardiogram, and the blood pressure device (sphygmomanometer), by more than 50 years.

But, spirometry is still not in the mainstream of medicine like the chest x-ray, the EKG, and the blood pressure cuff.  Why?  This remains an unanswered question.  Recently, I visited medical museums in Lund, Sweden and Copenhagen, Denmark.  Here the rich history of the development of medical technologies was proudly displayed on the Continent where most of the major medical technologies were introduced.  Could it be that the most valuable of medical instruments, the spirometer, which is predictive of premature illness and death from all causes, got caught in the backwaters of more impressive inventions which became established as the standard of care by better salesmen than pulmonologists?  Alas, I fear the verdict is true, “We have found the enemy, and he is us.” (borrowed from the comic strip, “Pogo”). 

We must abandon our parochial attitudes about spirometry in modern day medical practice.  We need to blow away (sic.), the barriers that have limited the use of spirometry to gauge health predictors and responses to therapy.

I will be in touch next month.

Your friend,

  Thomas Petty, MD

Published: Feb 22  2002