JF Ptak Science Books Post 1491
This is the fifth in a new series of posts on interesting, early applications of electricity, most of which are taken from the archives of the U.S. Patent Office. Unlike the general post in this blog, many of the Electro-LUXurious post images and documentation can be presented without commentary.
It has not been an easy job over the centuries in determining whether a person was alive or dead, and dead as in really truly dead, absolutely so. Consider how this would be done in case of coma and such in the days before the stethoscope, when doctors and medical people would use cones and other hearing apparatus to help the wizened old practitioner hear with their deteriorated hearing, listening for signs of life with an inferior instrument and limited auditory capacity. (The stethoscope wasn’t invented until 1816 by Rene Laennec--who produced a monaural device much like a primitive hearing horn made of solid wood—which was a vast improvement over no stethoscope at all, by again was very crude compared to early 20th century devices.) There is little wonder about the tales of horror of premature burial (as with Poe) and the spate of burial devices where--of the dead suddenly became not so, awakening in the coffins underground, that they could activate one of the many ingenious life-saving devices to alert someone to come and dig them up. (There were also patented designs that would deliver air to the coffin as well as have an accessible ladder to the surface.)
The most fool-proof way of determining death in the 19th century was to leave the body alone for three days or so to see if it began to putrefy--this was the method proposed by Christian August Struwe, among others, who advocated the construction of special hostels for the dead ("Leishenhauser"), where they, the supposed dead, would lie in state for the period of time necessary for putrefaction. This was also among the most elegant solutions given limited technological capabilities, especially when compared to nipple-pulling, scalding, tongue-yanking and of course the infamous tobacco smoke enema (seen below).
What I am getting to though in the Electro-LUX series is the coffin/life-determination box, a sort of all-in-one affair where a body could be both determined to be dead and buried in the same thing, one of the few (?) medical devices that after performing its job be used as a coffin for its patient. It is an alpha & omega bit, supposedly sparking to life the pre-dead if they were alive, or serve as the taxi to eternity for those who were truly and most sincerely dead.
I'm having a bit of fun with this, but the issue of what constitutes being "dead" is still somewhat contentious--the issue was much larger 150+ years ago, when the philosophical/physical/biological questions were still very wide open, still.
Here are some other examples of determining whether a person was dead, or not, all taken from Jan Bondeson’s delightful Buried Alive, the Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear (Norton, 2001):
--Christian Friedrich Nasse’s Thanatometer was a long thermometer that was inserted into the stomach, supposedly measuring a core body temperature that would determine if life was possible (and published in 1841);
--The (Englishman’s) Barnett scalding death cure, which recommended burning the skin of the arm to see if it blistered (no blister/no life);
--the German Middeldorph invented a heart flag, a needle device that would be thrust into the heart, which if functioning would trigger something or other that would cause a flag to be released at the top of the needle (a very Victorian and visual one, this);
--Christian August Struwe’s interesting Lebenspruefer (1805) was an electrical device that delivered a dual shock to the eye and lip, the logic here being that if the person was still alive that there would be a resulting twitch;
--the nameless tobacco enema, which blew smoke…(delivered in the beginning by breath through a tube and improved later to replacing the lips with a bellows, this secondary improvement by Antoine Louis2 and furthered by Dr. P.J.B. Previnaire’s much more powerful anal tobacco furnace. [Now there’s three words I’ve never strung together before].)1
--Leon Collongues believed that he could hear the capillary functions of a possibly-dead person’s fingers if placed in his ear;
--Jules Antoine Josat2 invented a nipple-pincher ("pince-mamelon") life-rejuvenation device, operating on the assumption that a deeply sedated person could not resist a strong pinch of the nipple and would have to wake up if alive.
Perhaps the most spectacularly extension of the nipple-pincher was the tongue-pulling idea of Dr. J.-V. Laborde3 (1830-1903), a research physician with wide credentials, who reasoned that a continued regimen of advanced and strenuous pulling of a patient’s tongue would over time bring them back to life if alive. This is what leads us to the point of this post: Laborde established a mortuary, and in this mortuary, where the dead were waiting to die, he employed a man whose job it was to pull the tongues of these bodies. In the misty picture of all of this that is painted in my mind’s eye, the fellow working his way from body to body pulling their tongues with a heavy pincer seems far worse than nipple squeezing or even being an anal smoke blower, though to choose between the three in a twisted Purgatorial mandate would be hard to so. Although the nipple pincher wasn’t replaced by anything mechanical, the smoke blower was (by a powerful bellows), and so was our friend the tongue puller, who after complaining of the boredom of his task was pushed aside by an electrical device.
The text for the patent report, below:
1. From the Bondeson book, page 156:
"Antoine Louis had also proposed another method of testing life, or at least stimulating the vital spark in the apparently dead person: with a powerful bellows, he administered an enema of tobacco smoke. One of the pipes of this remarkable apparatus was thrust into the anus of the apparently dead person; the other was connected, by way of a powerful bellows, to a large furnace full of tobacco . Such enemas of tobacco smoke were thought to be very beneficial and were used to try to revive not only people presumed dead but also drowned or unconscious individuals. In 1784, the Belgian physician P.J.B. Previnaire was given a prize by the Academy of Sciences in Brussels for a book on apparent death, which described and depicted an improved bellows for enemas of tobacco smoke, which he called Der Doppelblaser. These enemas were regularly used well into the nineteenth century, particularly in Holland; modern science has discerned no physiological rationale for their use, except the pain and indignity of having a blunt instrument violently thrust up one's rear passage must have had some restorative effect."
2. Josat. From Weird Universe.net I found the following, quoting Death and Sudden Death, by Paul Brouardel and F.L. Benham:
“Josat invented a pair of forceps with claws, with which he proposed to pinch the nipples of persons whose death has to be ascertained. Josat obtained the first prize of the Academy, but Briquet, repeating the same tests on the hysterical subjects under his care, proved that they did not react under Josat's forceps any more than the dead.”
3. M. Laborde won a 2500 franc prize for his innovation in 1894 (as reported by the Revue scientifique. He sounded like an interesting man: according to the British Medical Journal (in reporting his death 25 April1903) upon his own death in that year Laborde: “as a freethinker had a civil ceremony; as an hygienist was cremated; as a member of the Societe Mutuelle d’Autopsie willed his body to be dissected; as an anthropologist willed his brain to be preserved at the Anthropological Museum…” Some of Laborde's works include Le traitement physiologique de la Mort. And Les tractions rythmées de la langue, moyen rationnel ... de ranimer la fonction respiratoire et la vie ... Avec ... dessins, etc And: La traitement physiologique de la mort (Paris , 1894) And: La signe automatique de la mort reelle (Paris, 1900). And “Les Tractions Rhythmees de la Langue”, VIII, pp. 76 ff, ed. 2, Paris, 1897, and VIII, 2d part, pp. 406-510. And commented upon in some number, for example: Le Traitement physiologique de la mort par les tractions rythmées de la langue. Le tracteur lingual automatique Laborde, by Alix Hache.