Who Invented the CPAP Machine?

Who Invented the CPAP Machine?

Millions of people across the world benefit from better, safer sleep by using a CPAP machine. It improves the quality of life for people who suffer from sleep apnea and other breathing disorders. While the machine is in common use, the person who invented it is rarely discussed. We are pleased to introduce you to Dr. Colin Sullivan, the pioneering physician who created this incredible device.

Evolution of a Sleep Scientist

What do SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome), bulldogs, and vacuum cleaners have in common? They all contributed to Dr. Sullivan’s revolutionary treatment for sleep apnea. After he graduated from medical school at the University of Sydney, he completed his residency and embarked on continuing studies at the Royal Alfred Hospital, also located in Sydney, Australia.

His interest in breathing and sleep began during his time as a Fellow of the Asthma Foundation of New South Wales when he worked with his mentor, David Read, a specialist in sudden infant death syndrome. Together, the two speculated that SIDS was very likely the result of a breathing defect during sleep. To confirm their suspicions and further the study of sleep and breathing, Dr. Sullivan decided to work on some post-doctoral research at the University of Toronto in Canada. Just a year after being awarded his Ph.D., his research on the influence of sleep and airways garnered an award from the American College of Chest Physicians.

It was also during his time in Toronto that Dr. Sullivan worked with breeds of dogs with restricted airways to study breathing difficulty. Anyone who owns a bulldog, a pug, or a boxer is well-acquainted with their deafening snores. Dr. Sullivan theorized that by continuously pumping air through the respiratory tract, breathing during sleep could be improved. He successfully tested an early version of the contraption that would become the CPAP on dogs with very promising results.


The First CPAP

It was in June of 1980 that Dr. Sullivan got the opportunity to test his theory on a human patient. Before this time, sleep apnea had not been extensively studied, and doctors had very little understanding of the condition. The only treatment for severe sleep apnea was a tracheotomy — a procedure where a small incision is made in the airway and a tube is inserted from the outside to provide an air passage. This treatment was very invasive and required a significant change in the patient’s daily routine.

When Dr. Sullivan returned to Australia, he saw a patient with severe sleep apnea who refused a tracheotomy. This gave Dr. Sullivan an opening to propose an experimental treatment with his new device that circulated air through the respiratory system. His patient agreed to try the experiment. Dr. Sullivan cobbled together the machine as best he could, using a motor from a vacuum cleaner attached to hoses and a mask.

The first CPAP machine was unwieldy and noisy, but the patient woke from the trial feeling more refreshed than he had in years. After this initial success, many more patients came to Dr. Sullivan for this experimental treatment. He spent a year closely studying the device, the treatment and the effects on all his patients. He published his astonishing results in an English medical journal called Lancet in an article titled, Reversal of Obstructive Sleep Apnea by Continuous Positive Airway Pressure Applied Through the Nares.


Pioneering Sleep Medicine

Though Dr. Sullivan’s invention was initially viewed with skepticism, its undeniable efficacy soon swayed the medical world. Medical companies across the world began to develop their own CPAP hoses, machines, and masks. The CPAP machine is now prescribed by doctors to treat even mild cases of sleep apnea. As usage increased, the machine evolved, becoming quieter, smaller, and more comfortable.

Colin Sullivan continued to innovate the discipline of sleep science. Sleep studies used to be difficult and produced unreliable results, but after his success with the CPAP, Dr. Sullivan continued to innovate this field. No longer does a doctor have to remain awake to record the vital signs and condition of a sleeping patient! He also never forgot one of his first research projects: SIDS. Dr. Sullivan has been integral in helping to develop some influential fetal monitoring equipment and has continued research into infant respiratory obstructions.

Final Thoughts

Dr. Colin Sullivan is a true innovator in a field that needed attention. Most people spend about one-third of their life asleep, but doctors had little knowledge on this huge part of life. Some terms for sleep-related conditions came from such unscientific sources as Charles Dickens! Sleep apnea was often referred to as “Pickwickian Syndrome,” referring to Joe Pickwick of Dickens’s “Pickwick Papers,” as late as the 1970s. Anyone with a sleep condition that has been diagnosed and treated can thank Dr. Sullivan for bringing light into the darkness of sleep.

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  • Becky McDowell
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