Heimlich was born in Wilmington, Delaware, the son of Mary (Epstein) and Philip Heimlich. His paternal grandparents were Hungarian Jewish immigrants, and his maternal grandparents were Russian Jews. He graduated from New Rochelle High School (NY) in 1937 and from Cornell University (where he also served as drum major of the Cornell Big Red Marching Band) with a B.A. in 1941. At the age of 23, he received his M.D. from the Weill Cornell Medical College in 1943. At the time, the Flexner recommendations hadn't been implemented; thus, it was possible to graduate from an American medical school in two years.
In 1962, Heimlich invented the chest drainage flutter valve (also called the Heimlich valve) and in 1969 was granted a patent for the device. He says his inspiration came from seeing a Chinese soldier die from a bullet wound to the chest during World War II, a claim which was disputed by Frederick Webster, Heimlich's medical assistant in China. The design of the valve allows air and blood to drain from the chest cavity in order to allow a collapsed lung to re-expand. The invention was credited with saving the lives of hundreds of American soldiers in the Vietnam War.
Heimlich first published his views about the maneuver in a June 1974 informal article in Emergency Medicine entitled, "Pop Goes the Cafe Coronary". On June 19, 1974, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported that retired restaurant-owner Isaac Piha used the procedure to rescue a choking victim, Irene Bogachus, in Bellevue, Washington.
From 1976 to 1985, the choking-rescue guidelines of the American Heart Association and of the American Red Cross taught rescuers to first perform a series of backblows to remove the FBAO (foreign body airway obstruction); if backblows failed, then rescuers learned to proceed with the Heimlich maneuver (aka "abdominal thrusts"). After a July 1985 American Heart Association conference, backblows were removed from choking-rescue guidelines. From 1986 to 2005, the published guidelines of the American Heart Association and the American Red Cross recommended only the Heimlich maneuver as the treatment for choking; the National Institutes of Health still does apply it for conscious persons over one year of age, as does the National Safety Council.
The 2005 choking-rescue guidelines published by the American Heart Association called the procedure "abdominal thrusts". The new guidelines stated that chest thrusts and back blows may also deal with choking effectively.
In spring 2006, the American Red Cross "downgraded" the use of the Heimlich maneuver, essentially returning to the pre-1986 guidelines. For conscious victims, the new guidelines (nicknamed "the five and five"), recommend first applying five backblows; if this method fails to remove the airway obstruction, rescuers will then apply five abdominal thrusts. For unconscious victims, the new guidelines recommend chest thrusts, a method first recommended in a 1976 study by Charles Guildner, with results duplicated in a year 2000 study by Audun Langhelle. The 2006 guidelines also eliminated the phrase "Heimlich maneuver" and replaced it with "abdominal thrust".
Allegations of case fraud have dogged Heimlich's promotion of abdominal thrusts as a treatment for drowning. The 2005 drowning rescue guidelines of the American Heart Association did not include citations of Heimlich's work and warn against the use of the Heimlich maneuver for drowning rescue as unproven and dangerous, due to its risk of vomiting leading to aspiration.
In 2003, Heimlich's colleague Edward Patrick issued a press release portraying himself as the uncredited co-developer of the maneuver. "I would like to get proper credit for what I've done...but I'm not hyper about it."
Heimlich claimed to have used his namesake maneuver to rescue a choking for the first time on May 23, 2016, when he was aged 96, reportedly saving the life of a fellow resident of his senior living community, Patty Ris. However, in 2003 he told the BBC that he had used it for the first time on a man choking in a restaurant.
Heimlich claimed his namesake treatment may have saved the lives of more than 50,000 people. However, according to Sayre, "Despite widespread education on the use of the Heimlich maneuver and other techniques for treatment of acute airway obstruction, the death rate remains stable."
From the early 1980s, Heimlich advocated malariotherapy, the deliberate infection of a person with benign malaria in order to treat ailments such as cancer, Lyme disease and (more recently) HIV. As of 2009 the treatments were unsuccessful, and attracted criticism as both scientifically unsound and dangerous. The United States Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have rejected malariotherapy and, along with health professionals and advocates for human rights, consider the practice "atrocious". The Heimlich Institute, a subsidiary of Deaconess Associations of Cincinnati, conducted malariotherapy trials in Ethiopia, though the Ethiopian Ministry of Health was unaware of the activity. Heimlich stated that his initial trials with seven subjects produced positive results, but refused to provide details. The experiments had no institutional review board oversight.
Studies in Africa, where both HIV and malaria occur commonly, indicate that malaria/HIV co-infection increases viral load and that malaria could increase the rate of spread of HIV as well as accelerate disease progression. Based on such studies, Paul Farmer described the idea of treating HIV with malaria by stating “it seems improbable. The places where malaria takes its biggest toll are precisely those in which HIV reaps its grim harvest”.
On June 4, 1951, Heimlich married Jane Murray, daughter of ballroom-dancing entrepreneur Arthur Murray. Heimlich's wife coauthored a book on homeopathy with Maesimund B. Panos called Homeopathic Medicine at Home.
Heimlich and his wife had four children: Phil Heimlich, a former Cincinnati elected official turned conservative Christian radio talk-show host; investigative blogger Peter Heimlich, whose website describes what he alleges to be his father's "wide-ranging, unseen 50-year history of fraud" and has called his father, “a spectacular con man and serial liar” and has claimed “The only thing my father ever invented was his own mythology.”; Janet Heimlich, a freelance reporter; and Elisabeth Heimlich.
Heimlich was the uncle of Anson Williams, who is known for his portrayal of Warren "Potsie" Weber on the 1970s hit TV show Happy Days.
Heimlich's memoir, Heimlich's Maneuvers: My Seventy Years Of Lifesaving Innovation, was published in 2014 by Prometheus Books.
A statement from his family said Heimlich died at The Christ Hospital on December 17, 2016, after complications from a heart attack in his home in Hyde Park, Cincinnati, on December 12. He was 96 years old.