This aviator and world-renowned medical researcher truly flies high
Reprinted from Sandpoint Magazine.
By Billie Jean Plaster
Given his last name, perhaps Dr. Forrest M. Bird, M.D., Ph.D., Sc.D., was destined to fly. The 74-year-old biomedical technologist soloed an airplane as a teenager, and later flew in World War II's Air Transport Command.
Aviation also led him into his career as a medical researcher, where he has indeed flown high. A successor to Jack Emerson, inventor of the iron lung, Dr. Bird has invented four generations of respirators that are used in almost every hospital in the world. Today he holds well over 200 patents and has virtually no competition in his field.
And he does it all here, from his expansive lakefront home and Bird Space Technology research facilities at Glengary Bay on Lake Pend Oreille. His estate blends his work in the medical field with his avocation in aviation. Respirators are assembled at a manufacturing facility next to his home, an operation which employs about 25 and attracts visiting researchers from around the world. A mile away at "the ranch," an industrial complex includes a second manufacturing facility for molding plastics plus an airstrip and hangar housing most of his 17 airplanes and helicopters. The buildings and large vegetable gardens &ndash the Birds are almost self-sufficient &ndash are set on 12 acres surrounded by chain-link fence, with the remaining hundreds of acres preserved for wildlife.
A New Englander, Dr. Bird was drawn to this area through his wife of 40 years, the former Mary Moran, a Sandpoint native. Ironically, Mary was a victim of pulmonary emphysema. But her illness helped pave the way for a fourth generation of Bird respirators. Using Mary in his research, Dr. Bird perfected the Intrapulmonary Percussive Ventilator (IPV), extending her life 10 years before she died in 1986.
In 1988 Dr. Bird married Dominique Deckers, the daughter of a European business associate. Dominique, 39, is Belgian and speaks five languages; schooled as an attorney, she is now president of Percussionaire Corp., the manufacturing and distributing arm of Bird Space Technology. Dominique has also become an accomplished aviator; Dr. Bird says she keeps him young.
Standing a trim 6 feet, 4 inches tall, the distinguished doctor enjoys riding Harley-Davidson motorcycles, of which he owns four. When he was tapped as grand marshal of the Sandpoint Fourth of July parade a few years ago, the Birds led the parade in a Harley with a sidecar.
Despite his achievements as a world renowned medical researcher, his friendliness is disarming and he proved very gentlemanly during our interview.
Q. All this technology here in the wilds of North Idaho seems an odd juxtaposition. How did you wind up here, and are there disadvantages to being in North Idaho?
A. Well, during World War II I met a fellow from Spokane, and he introduced me to Mary. That's what brought me up here. I wanted a place on the lake that had nice, calm water because I had a PBYN Amphibian, which was a big flying boat. This place came up for sale and the lady who had it found me, and I think I was up here in maybe four or five hours and bought the place from her. That was in the mid 1960s. The place was developed in 10 years from start to finish; I re-created what we had in New England. We raise just about everything that we eat here, and we have many wonderful seminars. We have complete seminar facilities here. You may say we're remote, but we're not. We have a 10-passenger helicopter, and we carry them back and forth from Spokane; it's a 30-minute trip. Or we have vans with four-wheel drive that we can drive year-round. We have United Parcel here every day. Really, we have a lot of advantages. We have security systems and so on, but we've never had any theft. Nobody works for us; they work with us. There's no time clocks or anything else. So, these are all advantages that I've found; as far as disadvantages, really, I've not found any.
Q. You've said you got into this career because you had gotten to the pinnacle of your aviation career, and you wanted to research better ways for breathing at high altitudes. Is that right?
A. Yes. This was an outcropping of World War II. We started to get turbo-charged aircraft &ndash super charged and turbo charged, mostly turbo charged in those days &ndash and we could go above 28,000 feet. That's kind of a "no man's land" up there because you have to have a lot of oxygen and pressurization. Well, we didn't have much pressurization until the end of World War II. We started developing equipment while I was still in the army, and one road led to another and another. Then after the war, I became interested in some of the medical equipment in terms of taking a lot of my aviation-created breathing devices and retreading them over into clinical medicine. And that was very rewarding.
Q. You've also said your dad was a big influence in your life.
A. My daddy started to fly in World War I, and he actually flew in combat in France. He remained in the National Guard when he came back. I remember riding on his knee. I don't know how the hell I did with some of the things he flew. But then he soloed me when I was 14 years old, and then first of all I just wanted to fly, and then later on I wanted to know how to build them.
Q. You're a very successful man, yet you're humble and friendly and down to earth. Was it hard to stay that way or is that just you?
A. No, that's me, I think, all the way through. You know, I have the same friends now that I've always had. You really don't have that many friends. I still have classmates that will call me. My God, they have a drink or something in the evening, and they say, "Hey, what the hell is Bird doing out there?" And people from World War II that I flew with, pilots from all over the world, and people who were friends in Palm Springs. And they'll come up. I don't live any bit different now than I ever have. I guess my ego is probably in flying. I enjoy that, but I don't have any brand-new jets or anything like that. Most of my airplanes I've bought and restored. That old GMC truck, I drive that everyday. And I have people that kid me &ndash "Jesus Christ, can't you afford a new truck?" Well, I don't want one. I'm comfortable. And you know, I have my daddy's Piper Cub. If you take everything else away from me, leave that. I enjoy that. How many things do you have that you fly for 60 years, or use for 60 years and enjoy using?
Q. What's your strategy for success?
A. Everything is a gradual process of evolution. You try to go from A to B, and sometimes you can't because there's obstacles in the way that you'll have to circumvent, to go around. But always watch for B and get back on track. I think once you run a feasibility and know where you want to go, don't procrastinate. Keep on track. You may have people knock you off course very, very hard. But get back on track. And stay with what you know.
Q. Obviously you're a really efficient person. You have everything under control and you get to play a lot, too, it seems. How do you balance that?
A. Well, first of all, let's define play and work. I've never worked a day in my life because I enjoy what I do. If you don't enjoy what you're doing, and you're in a rut and it becomes what you call work, it's time to find something else. It's not that you can't get fatigued. In other words, run feasibility first and decide if you want to do it. Once you commit yourself, stay with it and see it through. Don't procrastinate, and don't leave it hanging.
Q. Other than your work, which you say is fun, what do you do for fun?
A. Basically, of course, flying is still my mental escape, and it is Dominique's. That's why it's so good for both of us. Now you can be at odds with the world but fly for half an hour and look down and you realize that everything's so insignificant. But also right here we have fishing. We have our own little fish pond down at the ranch. Dominique is a good skier. We have a nice home in Palm Springs, but we never went there once last year. Of course, we were busy, but everything was right here where we have all our interests.
Q. You must get some self-satisfaction from knowing that your inventions have saved many lives. What do you think is your greatest invention?
A. I think probably whether I ever sold another respirator, obviously that wouldn't make much difference at my age. But still, I think the greatest thing is getting a letter from someone that says "I've got my little daughter home now. She probably wouldn't be here if it hadn't been for your respirator." And so on. We've got all kinds of letters in the file, unsolicited. Up to a few years ago, 80 percent of the burn patients with inhalation injury died. Today the incident is exactly the same whether or not they have a burn injury of the lungs, and our respirator has done that.
Q. Some people &ndash well, probably a lot of people &ndash would call you eccentric. Do you believe you're eccentric?
A. (Laughs.) Eccentricity. Well, I guess the definition of course is "out of the usual" or something by Webster. But no, I don't think I'm really that. I have my own way of doing things, and I like my privacy. I like to remain alone. And I like certain friends. Certain people annoy me, others don't. Same way with music, all the way through. I'm not anti-social, but I'm not a nightclubber either on that basis. And I think I've had the same friends just about all my life. As far as eccentricity goes, I think anybody that doesn't probably conform to everything, every day might be called a little bit eccentric.
Billie Jean Plaster is Sandpoint Magazine associate editor, and a windsurfer currently on sabbatical from that sport.
Go to Sandpoint Magazine contents
Go to Sandpoint Online
COPYRIGHT by Keokee Co. Publishing, Inc., of Sandpoint, Idaho. Reprinted from the Winter 1996 edition of Sandpoint Magazine. Sandpoint Magazine is published twice a year, in Winter and Summer editions, by Keokee Co. Publishing, Inc. Call 1-800-880-3573 to subscribe.