CINCINNATI, Dec. 17 (UPI) -- Dr. Henry Heimlich, the maverick physician who invented the Heimlich maneuver to save a person choking, died Saturday after suffering a heart attack earlier this week, his family said. He was 96.
Heimlich was a thoracic surgeon in Cincinnati in 1974 when he devised the technique, which calls for the person executing the maneuver to stand behind the person who is choking, wrap their arms around them, form a fist above the navel and sharply thrust up into the person's diaphragm.
While it is impossible to know how many choking victims were saved by the Heimlich maneuver, The New York Times estimated the number at 100,000 since it became widely publicized.
Prior to Heimlich's proposal, medical experts recommended sharp hits to a choking person's back, or sticking a finger down their throat. Heimlich believed this could result in pushing the obstruction farther down the esophagus, making matters worse.
He reasoned that the reserve of air trapped inside the lungs could be utilized to force up the obstruction and developed the eccentric technique that bore his name.
Heimlich explained his technique in an unscientific article in a medical magazine. It was initially met with skepticism after the medical community expressed concerns it was too complicated for the average person to perform and could result in further injuries, including broken bones or internal injuries, if executed incorrectly.
Heimlich went around the traditional avenues of medical research and undertook a public relations campaign to popularize his prescription. Newspapers began to pick up on the story, and shortly afterward anecdotes of people reading about it and using it to save someone began to surface. The story snowballed, earning Heimlich celebrity status in a field that typically eschews self-promotion.
Now, the maneuver is widely taught in schools, on posters in restaurants and on the internet. Heimlich himself took to television to perform the maneuver, including on comedian Johnny Carson.
While thousands of people are living testimony to the Heimlich maneuver's effectiveness, it wasn't until a few years ago that Heimlich himself had the chance to prove himself right in a real-world choking situation. Two years ago at the nursing home where he lived in Cincinnati, a fellow resident sitting at his dinner table began choking on a piece of hamburger. Heimlich performed his famous maneuver and dislodged the food from the woman's windpipe.