If you have a cardiac arrest today, and are revived by the wonders of modern medicine, you should thank your lucky stars that you’re alive. You should also give thanks that your resuscitation took place today, rather than 200 years ago. Because back then, techniques of bringing back the dead were far less effective. And much more bizarre.
Many of those odd approaches to bringing back the dead come from the efforts of a London physician named William Hawes (1736–1808) to revive drowning victims. Hawes wanted corpses to experiment on, so he hit on the somewhat ghoulish expedient of paying anyone who would bring him a body rescued from the water “within a reasonable time of immersion.” Think of it as the human version of a deposit on bottles.
Shocked: Adventures in Bringing Back the Recently Dead is about the strange new science of resuscitation and CPR, but I’ve discovered that much of today’s exciting science is distantly related to Hawes’ early experiments. His forays into the science of resuscitation led to the formation of the British Royal Humane Society—which is still around today—which devoted itself to trying (and reporting on) all sorts of methods of bringing back the dead. A few of those methods worked, but many were uncomfortable, a few were dangerous, and a couple were just plain crazy. Yet somewhere in that mix of goodhearted efforts, the strange new science of bringing back the dead was born.
1. Rubs and marinades
One of the earliest resuscitation techniques recommended by the Society was the application of friction with “rough cloth or flannel.” A variant involved using a combination of vinegar, wine, and liquor. Descriptions of this technique read less like a resuscitation manual and more like a grilling cookbook.
2. Sticks and whips
A less attractive version required "rescuers" to beat the victim with whips or sticks. I suppose it’s hard to see a downside to this approach. If the victim wakes up, presumably he’ll thank you. If he doesn’t, well, no harm done.
3. Blowing smoke
Early rescuers were advised to light up a pipe and blow smoke directly into the victim’s mouth or nostrils. A variant (fortunately, rejected by the Royal Humane Society) involves blowing smoke first into an animal bladder, and then releasing the smoke into the victim’s rectum. If we set aside that last option—and please let’s do—there’s a certain appeal to arriving at a scene of crisis, only to pause, remove a briarwood pipe from one’s waistcoat pocket, and embark on the little rituals of filling, tamping, lighting, and puffing. That sort of routine would surely have a calming effect on panicked bystanders and family members—reason enough to use it, even if it didn’t work.
Another technique used by early rescuers involved rolling a victim back and forth over a wine barrel. Why you’d want to do this is anyone’s guess. Maybe it helped the victim to breathe. Maybe it helped to extract water from the lungs of a drowning victim. Who knows? On the bright side, though, if the resuscitation is effective, you could always tap into the barrel for the ingredients of a celebration. And if resuscitation fails, well, solace is near at hand, too.
5. Ivory nostril pipes
For a while, ivory nostril pipes were all the rage. The Royal Society describes this device as “a short ivory pipe inserted into one of the nostrils, pressing back the lower part of the larynx upon the commencement of the oesophagus, to prevent the air from passing down into the stomach.” The tube would be inserted through the nose and down into the trachea, and attached to bellows. To be fair, there’s some solid reasoning to support this. Even now, when passing a breathing tube is difficult—as it is when a patient is overweight—a nasal tube is often much easier. It’s also a more reliable technique when the person trying to inflate a victim’s lungs is inexperienced, as most doctors in the 18th century no doubt were.
Alas, other maneuvers the Society recommended have much less science to justify them. A case in point: “Grasp the patient's arms just above the elbows, and draw the arms gently and steadily upwards, until they meet above the head.” Next, “turn down the patient's arms, and press them gently and firmly for two seconds against the sides of the chest.” No doubt this energetic flapping put on quite a show for bystanders, but it probably did nothing to bring anyone back from the dead.
Another questionable technique was tickling the back of a victim’s throat with a feather. Like beating a victim with whips, this one is a little difficult to justify. In fact, it’s likely to do more harm than good. For instance, activating the gag reflex when someone is unconscious, or semi-conscious, can lead to vomiting and subsequent inhalation of stomach contents (aspiration pneumonitis). That is known in medical circles as A Very Bad Thing.
8. Strange bedfellows
The Royal Humane Society offered strident recommendations that the apparently dead should be warmed in the quickest way possible. Immersion in warm water was a common suggestion, as were blankets, warm sand, or placing the victim next to a fire. The Society—forgetting for a moment its Victorian moral code—even advocated the use of volunteers who would climb into bed with the apparently dead. It’s not clear whether these volunteers were supposed to be fully clothed, but that’s probably best left to the imagination.
There is something to be said for warming, because cold temperatures make the heart’s normal rhythm unstable and unreliable. Indeed, there’s a saying in emergency medicine that cardiac arrest victims shouldn’t be declared dead until they’re warm and dead.
9. The Russian Method
On the other hand, what was known somewhat ominously as The Russian Method focused on cold. Rather than putting the victim in bed with his or her fellows, the Russians apparently believed that cold was better. So they would pack victims in ice or cold water ... or they would simply toss them outside. Although cold does make it more difficult to restart a heart, cold can also slow metabolism, which can help cardiac arrest victims be less susceptible to brain damage caused by low levels of oxygen.
10. Horseback riding lessons
By far my favorite resuscitation option involves … a horse. The steps are simple: 1) Throw the victim over the back of a spirited but cooperative horse; 2) Slap the horse’s rump; 3) Repeat as necessary. The logic of this maneuver is not entirely clear. But apparently the up-and-down motion of the horse’s back was supposed to produce an effect not unlike what is accomplished today with CPR, albeit with considerably more panache. (Full disclosure: I’ve actually tried this technique, playing the role of a victim. I can assure you that it is entirely as unpleasant as it sounds. Do not try this at home).
All images courtesy of iStock.