1937 – Forrest Bird meets Orville Wright at the Cleveland Air Show.
1941 – Forrest Bird entered active duty as a technical air training officer.
1955 – The year the “Bird Universal Medical Respirator” was released. 1965 – First factory assembly line rolls out a medical respirator for home health, the Mark III.
1967 – Bird developed the Bird Innovator, a conversion of the Consolidated PBY Catalina amphibian aircraft.
1971 – Bird introduces first infant ventilator, the “Baby Bird.”
1995 – Dr. Forrest Bird is inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
2007 – Drs. Forrest and Pamela Bird open the Bird Aviation Museum and Invention Center in Sagle, ID.
2008 – Dr. Forrest Bird receives the Presidential Citizens Medal in 2008 from President George W. Bush.
2009 – Dr. Forrest Bird receives the National Medal of Technology and Innovation from President Barack Obama.
2012 - Dr. Bird was awarded the Charles Lindbergh Award, and the Idaho Technology Council’s Hall of Fame.
2013 – The local charter school in Sandpoint, ID is renamed the Forrest M. Bird Charter School. Dr. Forrest Bird held four doctorate degrees – medicine, aviation, physics and biotechnology.
To the world, he was a man known as one of the most important innovators in the history of mankind. To the people who knew him best, he was a humble man whose knowledge and passion for everything he did changed medicine forever. Dr. Forrest M. Bird of Sagle, Idaho passed away August 2, 2015 at the age of 94, but his legacy will live on for generations to come.
Described as a true Renaissance man, Dr. Bird was known for many things in life. He was an inventor, a veteran who served his country proudly, an aviator, an educator and a generous community-oriented man. To recount all of his greatest accomplishments would take up much more than a few pages, but here is a glimpse into the life of the man whose legend will live on for decades to come, through the eyes of the person who knew him best, his wife Dr. Pamela Riddle Bird.
“Forrest saved more lives than anyone else in history,” said Pam of what she believes her late husband would consider to be his greatest accomplishment. Because of his invention, the little green Bird Universal Medical Respirator in the 1950s, the medical community can perform procedures such as organ transplants and open-heart surgery, operations that one could not fathom prior to the invention of the respirator. “Being on a ventilator is critical to these surgeries, and they were never even an option before the invention of the respirator,” Pam explained.
His initial invention was followed by a medical respirator for home health in the mid-1960s followed by a respirator for infants, which was nicknamed the Baby Bird, in the early 1970s. It was this invention that drastically impacted the infant mortality rates. “Prior to the invention of the Baby Bird, premature babies had a 70 percent mortality rate,” Pamela explained. “Now the infant mortality rate is down to 10 percent worldwide. He was the father of the respiratory industry.”
Initially met with opposition from the medical community who told him that a machine would never be able to breathe for another person, Forrest proved them all wrong and went on to change the world.
Not only did Forrest create life-changing inventions, he took his inventions through the development and marketing stages and trained doctors and respiratory therapists worldwide about the use of them.
Pam explains that Forrest traveled the world to teach the medical residents, and for those medical professionals who were already practicing, he had the Bird Institute and Clinic in California where doctors from all over the world would fly in to learn about the devices. “The top doctors from each country were chosen to attend the clinic,” said Pam, who added that it did not matter politically what nation the doctors called home. “Blood bleeds red, and it was about saving lives.”
And for those residents who were in remote areas of the world, there was nothing that would stop Dr. Forrest Bird from reaching them. His mode of transportation was the Bird Innovator, a conversion of the Consolidated PBY Catalina amphibian aircraft, the only four-engine PBY aircraft in the world that enabled him to land on both water and land.
Dr. Forrest Bird later sold the Bird Corporation to the 3M Company but continued his life’s work. “He was able to take his laboratory with him and went on to create newer innovations,” Pam said.
Among Dr. Forrest Bird’s mentors was none other than Henry Ford, a family friend whom Forrest met at the young age of 8. According to Pam, he also counted Bill Lear and Howard Hughes among those who also served as mentors to him. But perhaps one of the greatest influences on the career path he chose was Colonel Halsey, a World War II veteran who encouraged Forrest to go into medicine.
As a pilot in World War II, Forrest experienced firsthand the difficulty that pilots had breathing at high altitudes during the war. To combat this issue, Forrest invented the antigravity pressure suit regulator allowing pilots to go from 28,000 to 40,000 feet, giving the U.S. pilots an advantage over their enemy.
“Colonel Halsey told Forrest, ‘either you must have something or you must be crazy,’” recalled Pam. It turned out he was definitely onto something. Forrest had initially planned to go on and become a commercial pilot, but Colonel Halsey encouraged him to go into the medical field.
When speaking about Forrest as not only her husband, but also a man who was one of the greatest inventors of the world, Pam said Forrest’s main competition was himself. He spent his life inventing, improving and making a difference in people’s lives.
Forrest and Pam met 20 years ago at Disney World where Pam, who has her doctorate in business and who has worked extensively with some of the great inventors of the world, was hosting a conference. Someone suggested that she invite Forrest to speak. “I asked if anyone had heard him speak before and was told, ‘Well, he’s a doctor.’”
Pam’s response was that you cannot even read many doctors’ handwriting so it does not necessarily make them good speakers. But with the other speakers whom she knew were top rate presenters, including the inventor of Gatorade, the creator of Atari and the founder of Chuck E. Cheese, she decided to invite Forrest. “I figured if he messed up, it wouldn’t really matter,” she said because the others would make up for it. But she quickly discovered that he was not only an incredible presenter, but also one of the most intelligent people she had ever met. “And he was just such a really nice guy,” she said of the man who eventually became her husband. To the world, he was a man known as one of the most important innovators in the history of mankind. To the people who knew him best, he was a humble man whose knowledge and passion for everything he did changed medicine forever. Dr. Forrest M. Bird of Sagle, Idaho passed away August 2, 2015 at the age of 94, but his legacy will live on for generations to come.
Talking about her life with Forrest, Pam likens it to being married to the Internet. “He could talk about any topic from politics, medical issues, finance, drama, literature and the arts,” Pam said. He also was a prolific reader and writer who would read the Journal of Medicine cover to cover. “His memory was just incredible.”
Although there was an age difference between the two, Pam never saw it. They had so much in common and experienced many adventures together. “Together we traveled over 60 countries, and Forrest would remember everyone we met and the conversations we had,” said Pam. “The power of memory and the ingenuity and the power of the brain are amazing.”
Until the age of 91, Forrest continued to fly. “We flew three mornings a week at daybreak,” said Pam. “He could even still fly his ten-seater helicopter and was able to do spins and flips in his plane up until just a few years ago.” And traveling and sharing his knowledge and passion — that was something he did until January of this year.
While words such as “brilliant”, “passionate” and “intelligent” are terms used to describe Dr. Forrest Bird, the world “humble” is also a predominant theme.
“He had such humility,” Pam said. “The morning of his Celebration of Life, I sat there crying wondering what it was I was going to say about him.” And it was his humility that she found was a message she needed to convey. “He never said he saved a life. It was always we saved a life. He was always giving credit to others. Everything was a team effort.”
That team effort included everyone in the industry, including the medical community, respiratory therapists and all those who helped people with respiratory issues. “Forrest’s job was to teach others in the industry,” Pam said about the role Forrest played as an educator.
While there have been huge advances in medicine over time, Dr. Forrest Bird felt we were only hitting the tip of the iceberg. “He said we (still) know so little about the human body, yet we think we know so much, and yet there is much yet to discover,” Pam said of her husband’s view.
While many in our younger generation can share the names of the greatest actors, musicians and athletes of their time, there are many who may know very little about some of the greatest innovators of our world’s history. In an effort to continue to educate the youth, the U.S. Patent Office has created trading cards, similar to sports trading cards, to teach kids about inventors. “They ranked Albert Einstein as the greatest inventor of all time, Thomas Edison as number two, and Forrest as number three,” Pam shared. Those trading cards are given to children throughout the world to keep the world of science alive in young creative minds.
Forrest and Pam both have had a heart for the community. They gave a special gift to those of not only North Idaho but also visitors from around the world when they opened up the Bird Museum in Sagle, Idaho. A place to learn and explore, the museum is 16,000 square feet and includes everything from Bird’s airplanes, flight simulators, automobiles, items donated from NASA and the original patent models for inventions including the floor mat, the doorknob, and Superman original items.
“Both of us wanted to give back to society and humanity,” Pam said of their decision to open the museum, which has close to 60 volunteers. The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum offered their expertise in all aspects of developing the museum. “The top people from there worked with us and gave of themselves,” Pam said.
When Pam thinks of the role that inventors like her husband play in the world, she uses the “Footprints in the Sand” poem as a metaphor. “There, God carries us through the difficult times in life, leaving just one set of footprints. Inventors likewise leave a footprint on mankind forever — just a different kind of footprint.”
Gathering at his Celebration of Life were more than 800 well-wishers, eager to honor the man who was a proud veteran, humanitarian, aviator, inventor and a kind person. His dear friend Dr. Richard Sugden allowed some to see a personal side of his friend.
“When asked how he manages to own and fly so many aircraft, Forrest answered ‘I fly them all, one at a time!’” Sugden shared. And although he lived to age 94, it was still not long enough for what Forrest still wanted to accomplish. Sugden shares that Forrest had said, “It is too bad our greatest level of knowledge occurs as we genetically run out of time.”
Sugden also echoed the sentiment that many in attendance felt in their hearts. “Today, I know he’s smiling down with a bunch of angels and old pilot friends, trying on his new wings.”
And looking back fondly at the years she shared with Forrest, Pam said, “I look at his life and I see humility, honor and integrity. He is my angel in heaven, and we’ll continue our work together.”