• History of CPR: Saving Lives Through the Ages

    Red Cross CPR Training Class

    Date Published: June 10, 2024

    Uncover the story of CPR, tracing its roots back through history as we highlight key milestones that have shaped this vital technique into what it is today.

    The first attempts at cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) date back to the second century, when Greek physician Galen recorded his failed attempts to inflate a dead animal’s lungs with a bellows—a device that delivers a strong blast of air.

    There was little or no progress in resuscitation until the eighteenth century, when death by drowning became a primary public concern. At that time, interest in resuscitation was renewed, and significant advances were made.

    Regardless of the various methods—from using bellows to applying pressure to the abdomen, warming the victim’s body, stimulating the body internally via rectal fumigation with tobacco smoke, and bloodletting to administering the breaths and chest compressions we recognize today—the purpose has remained the same: maintain blood circulation to deliver oxygen and sustain life.

    CPR Through the Centuries

    The eighteenth century brought many advancements in CPR. Mouth-to-mouth resuscitation for drowning victims was first recommended by the Paris Academy of Sciences in 1740. In 1767, a group of concerned citizens in Amsterdam formed the Society for Recovery of Drowned Persons and issued the first set of recommendations for reversing death.

    1809: By the early nineteenth century, the role of electricity in restarting a heart was recognized. In 1809, the Scottish surgeon Allan Burns first suggested the combination of electrical shock and ventilation to reverse death.

    1903: The twentieth century brought even more innovation. In 1903, the surgeon George Washington Crile introduced the use of epinephrine (adrenaline) during cardiac arrest.

    1959: This century also welcomed chest compressions and expanded available training. Chest compressions as a concept was not new, but it wasn’t until 1959 when researchers at Johns Hopkins applied the chest compression technique to humans.

    1962: Shortly after in 1962, CPR was formally endorsed by the American Red Cross, the American Heart Association, and the Industrial Medical Association. At first, CPR training availability was limited, but by 1966, CPR was being taught to laypeople as well as professionals.

    And by the early 1970s, CPR, defibrillation, and a rapid means to provide prehospital care were all in place.

    Modern CPR

    The development of modern CPR is a fascinating journey, with a key milestone in 1960. This was when William Bennet Kouwenhoven, also known as the 'Father of Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation,' published his groundbreaking paper, introducing the breaths and chest compression CPR we recognize today.

    Kouwenhoven's chance discovery of external cardiac compression was made while investigating the heart defibrillation technique. Heavy paddles had been placed on the chest of a dog in cardiac arrest, and the weight of these heavy paddles increased the animal's blood pressure. It was then discovered that rhythmic pressure on the animal's sternum could maintain adequate circulation to the brain. Relaxation of this pressure allowed the heart to fill again.

    This effect of heart compression between the sternum and the spine was confirmed in over a hundred dogs. It also emerged an irregular heartbeat for up to thirty minutes could be restored if external cardiac compression had been maintained during this time. From his discovery, Kouwenhoven famously said, “Anyone can initiate cardiac resuscitation procedures anywhere. All that is needed are two hands.”

    How Does CPR Work?

    CPR combines rescue breathing (mouth-to-mouth) and chest compressions to maintain blood circulation and deliver oxygen to the body until advanced medical treatment is available.

    Administering CPR is a powerful act that can save lives. Without it, it only takes a few minutes for brain injury to occur due to a lack of oxygen. By learning CPR, you gain the ability to be a lifesaver in critical situations.

    CPR Education: How to Get Started

    CPR education is constantly evolving, and so are the training, techniques, and tools (e.g., SMART Manikin). The opportunity to become CPR certified is now more accessible than ever before. You can embark on this life-saving journey with options to learn in-person or online, making it convenient for everyone.

    Knowing basic emergency first aid and CPR is necessary to help save lives. Although there is no guarantee that someone will survive after receiving CPR, it does provide them with a chance when otherwise there would have been none.

    From the eighteenth century to today, CPR has transformed ordinary people and medical personnel into critical contributors in cardiac emergencies. The ongoing development of innovative CPR techniques and technology ensures that the future of CPR is bright, promising even more effective life-saving methods.

    If you want to become CPR certified, the Red Cross has several options available!

    What to Read Next

    Understand what is CPR, types of CPR and why it is so important.
    Read our guide on CPR and first aid training for parents to learn the lifesaving skills to ensure your child's safety.
    Learn how CPR training enhances readiness in diverse fields like healthcare, caregiving, construction, flight attendants, office workers, and more.

    Take a Course and Refresh Your First Aid Skills

    About Red Cross Training Services

    Training Services is a division of the American Red Cross with the mission to spread knowledge and educate as many members of the national community in lifesaving procedures. Our services include training courses for CPR and AED, First Aid, BLS (Basic Life Support), babysitting, Caregiving, Lifeguarding Water Safety, and more.