The image of the Greenlane ‘rocker’ bed will be familiar to generations of physiotherapists.  Those who worked at Greenlane Hospital during the 1950s, 60s and 70s would have almost certainly had experience using it.  Originally much smaller, the rocker, or tipping bed, was designed by the parents of a girl with bronchiectasis who was being treated at Greenlane Hospital in the early 1950s.  The bed design was later adapted by Sheila Glendining for larger sputum producers.  Two rockers were designed and built - one for the department and one for the TB ward - and one of these still survives.

Patients lay on the bed with their head through a restraining holster that stopped them from sliding off the bed when their feet were elevated.  One person sat at the head of the bed and rocked the bed up and down in time with the patient’s breathing.  Their head was raised up as they breathed in, and they were plunged down as they exhaled.  On the way down a second physiotherapist vibrated and clapped the patient’s chest to help them expectorate. 

Manipulating the bed was hard work, and for many years the physiotherapists in the department were assisted by Steve Hill, a burly orderly from northern England, who often took charge of the rocking manoeuvre.  Every Wednesday the bronchiectatic patients would be admitted for bronchoscopies and it was the physiotherapist's job to clear their chests.  Patients lay on the bed for twenty minutes or so and spat their sputum into tin pots with lids that were lifted by a small thumb lever.  At the end of the session, the pot insert was removed and measured with a ruler.  The sputum production was duly recorded and reported to the patient’s physician.  A regular succession of patients came down to the department, and on some days the only treatment that the physiotherapists performed was  with patients on the rocker.

A similar device akin to a large ‘Y’-frame was also used at Wakari Hospital in Dunedin, and maybe some physiotherapists will remember this being rolled down the corridor; no small feat given that it was nearly six feet long!

Postural drainage and manual techniques have become much less common since the advent of the forced expiratory manoeuvre, flutter and PEP, and apart from Sheila Glendining’s half-page article about the rocker bed, published in the New Zealand Journal of Physiotherapy in 1968, there have been no other accounts of apparatus of this sort.

I wonder whether, like so many other things in physiotherapy, the tide will turn back in favour of devices like the rocker bed, and we will be forced to re-examine the wisdom of our forbears.  Then, who knows, Sheila Glendining’s rocker bed may come back into fashion and students will once again spend long hours draining the chests of patients with bronchiectasis and TB.  For now, the bed is safely on display at the AUT School of Physiotherapy, and the students who study there are given a potent visual reminder of how respiratory physiotherapy used to be. 


View more photos of the Greenlane Rockerbed


Glendining, S. (1968).  ‘Rocker for dynamic postural drainage’.  New Zealand Journal of Physiotherapy, 3(14), p.28.


Vivienne Pearce, Barbara Miller, Annette Jackman, AUT student physiotherapists.

By David Nicholls


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