‘wouldn’t work in an iron lung’: meaning and origin

The Australian-English phrase wouldn’t, or couldn’t, work in an iron lung is used of an extremely lazy person.

According to the Australian National Dictionary Centre (Australian National University, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory), this phrase refers to the artificial respirator that kept polio patients alive by ‘breathing’ for them in the days when up to ten thousand people annually were affected by poliomyelitis (‘infantile paralysis’) in Australia.

This is illustrated by the following from The Age (Melbourne, Victoria) of Wednesday 4th April 1979:

Iron will in an iron lung

Max Rawson doesn’t believe in the Australian insult, “you wouldn’t work in an iron lung”.
He works in one. He runs a trading post for patients, visitors and staff from ward 12 at Fairfield Hospital.
The business is partly therapeutic, partly profit seeking and partly public service.
“I was a businessman before I came in,” the 52-year-old former real estate agent and insurance man said. “The store gives me something to think about . . . keeps the brain alert.”
Mr. Rawson, married with two daughters, is one of ward 12’s oldest residents. He was admitted on May 22, 1954, with poliomyelitis.

Mr. Max Rawson: confined to an iron lung but determined to work for the benefit of others.

These are the earliest occurrences of the phrase wouldn’t, or couldn’t, work in an iron lung that I have found, in chronological order:

1-: From The Sun (Sydney, New South Wales) of Thursday 19th November 1953:

No bribe so he got pennies

A man was showered with pennies at the City Markets today when he said that he had never taken a bribe.
He was Arthur Bergman, a candidate for the Lord Mayoralty, who promised his listeners to end corruption.
He caused so much laughter that he temporarily held up the sale of fish.
Intermittent bursts of cheering and booing drowned most of his remarks, but he repeatedly pointed to a placard he carried stating his aim was to end corruption.
When he said he was the hardest working man ever to enter politics a voice called out, “You couldn’t work in an iron lung”.
Several rotten carrots aimed in his direction missed their mark.
At the fish market, buyers left the auctions and lifted him shoulder high on to a slab used for sorting fish.
Mr. Bergman was asked if he was in favor of unmarried crabs having nippers.
Before he could anwer [sic], the market manager ordered him out because everybody was listening to him and not buying fish.
Mr. Bergman said he couldn’t get down off the slab because he was too fat.
“You’ll have to lift me down,” he said.
About 20 burly buyers grabbed him and lowered him to the floor.

2-: From Column 8, published in The Sydney Morning Herald (Sydney, New South Wales) of Saturday 15th June 1957:

End of the Road. In racing parlance a Sydney punter has “gone bad”—and has had to sell home, car and yacht.
Yesterday two acquaintances were discussing him.
“He’s taking over a sandwich shop,” said one.
“What!” exclaimed the other. “A sandwich shop! Why he’s so lazy he couldn’t work in an iron lung.”

3-: From extracts from The Outcasts of Foolgarah, by the Australian novelist Frank Hardy (1917-1994), published in Tharunka (Kensington, New South Wales) of Tuesday 21st April 1970—Tharunka is the students’ journal of the University of New South Wales:

The list of people who work would fill a ten volume Encyclopedia called WHO’S NOT. Then why aren’t they in revolt against those listed in WHO’S WHO, who wouldn’t work in an iron lung and live off the labour of WHO’S NOTS? The answer is a sour lemon: because they are indoctrinated and brainwashed from the cradle to the grave to believe that their interests are identical with the WHO’S WHOS, that’s why.

4-: From The Outcasts of Foolgarah (Melbourne: Allara Publishing, 1971), by Frank Hardy, as quoted by the Australian National Dictionary Centre:

Even the most primitive societies protect, succor and shelter the aged, but not so the affluent society with the principle of he that cannot work neither shall he eat (except Silver Tails who wouldn’t work in an iron lung).

5-: From The Canberra Times (Canberra, Australian Capital Territory) of Thursday 14th September 1972:

Minister offensive, MP says

A Labor Senator alleged yesterday that the Minister for the Army, Mr Katter, had said that “half the 130,000 unemployed would not work in an iron lung”.
Senator Keeffe (Lab, Qld) made the allegation in a question to the acting Government Leader in the Senate, Senator Drake-Brockman.
He asked Senator Drake-Brockman to ask Mr Katter to use less offensive language when referring to the unemployed.
Senator Drake-Brockman said he did not think he had any obligation to mention the matter to Mr Katter.

6-: From the column Dogs on Parade, by Rod Humphries, published in The Sun-Herald (Sydney, New South Wales) of Sunday 26th November 1972:

A popular belief is that dog shows tend to ruin the characteristics for which a certain breed was originally evolved.
It is thought that in striving for looks sometimes mental qualities and the ability to work are forgotten.
But noted Australian dog judge and working dog authority, Roy Burnell, believes it is somewhat of a fallacy that you can’t get good working dogs from pure show dogs.
Burnell, a gundog man since his early years, says that “some may look askance at show-bred puppies and say, ‘they wouldn’t work in an iron lung’.”

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