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

Helen Larson (front right), who went to nursing school in Chicago, was one of Fred’s nurses, early 1950s. (Photo courtesy her daughter Debbie)

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

Fred with unidentified woman and his friend Les Kalchik. Les was a former Chicago Bears lineman who became president of Local Loan Company in the 1970s. (Photo courtesy his son Russ)

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


  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.

    • Craig McIntyre

      My father Donald D. McIntyre worked for Local Loan Co/Fred Snite from the late 1930’s, until he retired in 1975. As an office manager, he was in San Francisco, Klamath Falls OR, Phoenix AZ and finally in the No. Hollywood office from 1959-1975.

    • Marjorie Weber

      Guy, could you be on FB with a beard? I just read your Grandfather’s story. Only one copy in Archives in Buffalo NY library and I couldn’t take it out! A friend found it online and purchased it for me. My interest peaked as my dad was one of the 150 who cared for your grandpa! My dad was an LPN that met him and his parents in Asbury Park, NJ in the mid-1940s. My dad was going to college, did time in the Air Force and got a job at a NJ hospital, then called Fitkin in Neptune. He was asked to work for Fred Jr. at their Asbury Park home, the summer of 1944 or 1945. He was asked to go to their Miami home during winter thru spring. In 1972, my dad flew my mom and I to Miami Beach, rented a car, and took us right to the house on Indian Creek. Dad was surprised that the view of the Miami Beach shoreline was completely gone due to high rises!

      I wish I’d known about this book years ago. My dad would have loved it. I did research on Fred Jr. after seeing a PBS special last summer on Jonas Salk and the polio vaccine. This was so well written by his chauffeur and another man. The details of the iron lung and chest respirator, the trip to China, and 1-year stay there, trips back and forth to Florida, and back to Europe before WWII broke out. The updated hospital in China funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, the trips to Notre Dame for football, to California, the trains, buses, trucks that transported him. And finally the best respirator.

      Marrying your grandmother having daughters (one your mom), all so uplifting. And his smile, oh my – his faith in life, in God, to either heal or give him coping power was amazing. The trip to Lourdes and two ice cold dips. He was so uplifting. I read online that your aunt Mary passed away in 2013. Are your mom, Theresa, and Aunt Katherine still living? My dad met all three. My dad was born 1921, so was about 23 and your grandpa was 34 when they met. My dad passed in 1998 in NJ visiting my mom’s family, although we lived in Buffalo and I still do. I was born in 1948, after your mom and aunts. My mom was from NJ, where they met in college and she passed away here in 2009. Hope this reaches you.

    • Was your Mom, Pinkie? If so, she was my first date when I was 11 years old. I took her to the premiere of the first 3D Movie starring Robert Stack, called “Bwana Devil.” I remember my mom bought me a new suit, neck tie and gray suede shoes. I picked her up in a limo at her house on Pine Tree Drive on the island between the 41st Street bridge and the beach. She was my very first crush.

  3. This is just so cool – my mother Helen Marie Larson was one of his nurses at some point. I have a picture of her sitting beside him – I need to go find it.

    • Hi Deb: I’m glad this remarkable story had personal meaning to you. If you can find the photo and have a way to scan it, I may be able to add it to this blog.

      • Debbie Gordon

        Hi, I finally found that picture of my mother and Fred Snite. I scanned it and saved to my computer, but when I tried to upload or copy and paste it within this message, it wouldn’t let me. I am happy to email the photo to you if you would like. Maybe you could tell me who the other people are in it too, and also the date it was taken because nothing was written on the picture. I know the story of the picture because my mother talked about it so much.

        • Hi Debbie – I responded to you directly via my email, but perhaps you didn’t receive it. If you still wish to share the photo with me, please send it directly to my email: Thanks much!

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