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Robin Cavendish


Imagine being stricken with a disease that left you unable to move or breathe on your own. What would you do? How would you feel? When this happened to Robin Cavendish, he probably felt like dying. Instead, he developed equipment that improved life for thousands of people in similar circumstances.


Fun Facts

  • Robin Cavendish was born in 1930 in Derbyshire, England.
  • As a young adult, he attended a military academy and spent seven years in the British army. He began a tea company with a friend, traveling to Africa and Asia to buy tea.
  • In 1957, Robin married Diana Blacker. They had one son, Jonathan.
  • While buying tea in Kenya, Robin was diagnosed with polio in 1958, just a few months before his son was born. He was paralyzed – he could not move his body from the neck down. He could not breathe on his own. Doctors put him on a ventilator (or respirator), a machine that would breathe for him.
  • Robin flew back to England, where he spent a year in a hospital there. He was unhappy. He wanted to go home to his family. Against his doctor’s advice, his wife took him and his ventilator home. She became his nurse, caring for him around the clock.
  • The Cavendishes wanted to live a full life. They asked their friend, Teddy Hall, a professor at Oxford University and an inventor, to build him a wheelchair with a battery-operated ventilator. Once the wheelchair was complete, the family could leave the house for outings and travel.
  • Robin and Diana were very adventurous and optimistic. During a visit to Spain, their van and Robin’s ventilator shorted out. The family was stranded on a Spanish roadside for over a day, waiting for Teddy to fly from England to repair the ventilator. During this time, they used a hand-pumped ventilator to keep Robin alive. This sounds like a dreary experience, but it was actually fun. People stopped to see if they could help and ended up staying. Soon, a large group gathered, bringing food and music. A priest arrived to bless the family.
  • Robin traveled extensively, talking to hospitals and doctors about better ways to care for people with disabilities. He worked to get funding so more people could have wheelchairs with ventilators. He asked Teddy to help him create a device that would allow people who were paralyzed to use the phone or television with just a slight move of the head.


Questions and Answers

Question: Was Robin’s life unusual?

Answer: During the 1950s, thousands of people were diagnosed with polio. Many of these people spent their entire lives in hospitals connected to respirators. Robin refused to accept that fate. He helped change people’s perceptions about disability. He believed everyone deserved a good, productive life.


Learn More

Visit NPR to learn more about polio.



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