Vintage Photo Led to Discovery of One of Chicago’s Very Own – the Man in the Iron Lung

Copyright Betsy van Die, 1976

After I graduated from high school and prior to leaving for art school, my mom and I would go on little excursions to different neighborhoods in Chicago. I recall taking photos of several quaint shoe repair and barber shops on Lincoln Avenue, but recently unearthed this photo and decided to do some research. I had no idea a random photo I shot in 1976 would lead to this blog!

Fred B. Snite Sr.

Fred B. Snite Sr. founded Local Loan in 1908 with $5,000 in personal savings and an $11,000 loan. Snite also owned his namesake Chicago furniture store at 4822 N. Lincoln Avenue, which was going out of business when I shot the photo in 1976.

In 1976, Fred Sr. sold his loan firm to Mellon – he was 92 and died the following year. A few months after the sale of Local Loan, he presented then-University of Notre Dame President Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, CSC, with a $2 million check from the Fred B. Snite Foundation. This generous gift provided funding for a new art museum on campus, the Snite Museum of Art, named in memory of his son, Fred B. Snite Jr., who died in 1954 after living 18 years and seven months of his life in an iron lung after contracting polio.

 

Broadcasting a “Fight Infantile Paralysis Appeal” from his father’s home in Miami Beach, Fred Sr. pictured on right, January 24, 1938

The Smiling Boiler Kid

Known as the man in the iron lung and the “smiling boiler kid,” Fred Jr was a cheerful man, despite the need to live in an iron lung. The image of “The Boiler Kid” and accompanying articles were frequently published in newspapers (including The New York Times), magazines, and newsreels. Fred Jr. published a newsletter entitled Back Talk, and his optimism encouraged countless other polio victims. Fred greatly benefited from coming from a well-heeled family and his father’s ability to give him the best life possible. Nevertheless, his perseverance and upbeat attitude were quite amazing. 

 

July 1, 1937 article from The Herald, a neighborhood newspaper serving Maywood, Illinois and surrounding towns

Radio Guide Article, August 11, 1938

The Long Journey Back From Peiping, China

In April 1936, just three years after graduating from Notre Dame, Fred contracted polio in Peiping, China during an around-the-world trip with his family, suffering paralysis from the neck down. His father secured one of the first-ever perfected iron lungs for his son, who was 25 at the time. Fred was placed in a 900-pound iron lung and following a 14-month recuperation, made the 12,000-mile trip back to his family home in River Forest. He was accompanied by a team of physicians, nurses, and electricians who ensured the iron lung functioned. His father mentioned in one of the articles that he was planning on marrying his sweetheart back home, but of course, polio changed the course of his life.

Learning to Enjoy Life in the Iron Lung

After he received a nine-pound portable aluminum and rubber artificial lung that fit somewhat like a jacket, Fred could sit up for a few hours. He traveled by use of a special van and railroad car between his home in River Forest and the family estate on Indian Creek in Miami Beach. Mirrors attached to the iron lung allowed him to read, watch movies and horse races, play bridge, and attend Notre Dame Football games and other outdoor events. It’s estimated that Fred Sr. spent $1 million to give his son as normal a life as possible, which translates to $9.6 million today using a 1954 to 2020 calculation.

 

Press Photo, 1937

Press Photo, 1939

Playing bridge, 1946

In 1939, Fred and his parents traveled to the Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes in France and Pope Pius XII sent him a special blessing. When Fred flew back to New York after this pilgrimage, he remarked that he “never felt happier.” He told reporters he visited the Shrine with “no thought of any miracle,” but had obtained “immeasurable” religious consolation during his visit. And in October 1940, Fred registered for the draft.

 

 

Despite his confinement, Fred Jr. led a remarkably normal life. He married Teresa Larkin of Dayton, Ohio on August 10, 1939 and fathered three daughters. Their married names: Teresa Marie Snite Bratton, Katherine Bernadette Snite Williams, and Mary Snite Boardman. Fred died in Palm Beach, Florida while resting after a bridge game in the annual Florida state championships tournament. He is buried in All Saints Catholic Cemetery and Mausoleum in Des Plaines, Illinois. At his funeral in 1954, 1,500 mourners came out to bid goodbye to this remarkable, dauntless young man. His widow died in 1994 at age 80 and Mary died in April 2013.

 

 

Written by Leonard C. Hawkins and Milton Lomask, The Man in the Iron Lung: The True Story of Frederick B. Snite was published posthumously in 1956. In 1958, a subsequent edition was published by the Catholic Book Club.

 

 

I have always been fascinated by the iron lung. If you share this interest, I recommend reading this interesting first-person account of a man who developed polio in 1949 at age 7, published in 2010. 

Photo sources: Abe Books, eBay, Modern Mechanix, Radio Guide, The Herald, The New York Times

2 Comments:

  1. Patricia Labbe

    Remember this story from my childhood. The book title brought it all back. Thank you Betsy – for sharing all this info.

  2. Fred Snite Jr was my grandfather. Thanks for this summary. I’ve never found one all in one place before.

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