Saturday, March 27, 2010

Suspended Animation

In Robert Montgomery Bird's 1836 novel Sheppard Lee, the title character (and narrator) discovers that he possesses an unusual ability: he is able to make his spirit leave his body and reanimate the body of another person who has recently died. In the third section of the novel, his current incarnation, a wealthy businessman, pulls a drowned young man from a river and wishes to be in the young man's place—he would rather be drowned than suffer the torments of gout and a shrewish wife.

Almost immediately, his wish is granted—although, at first, he thinks he might have ended up in hell. He smells whiskey and tobacco smoke, and perceives a group of "devils" gathered around to torture him:
One of them, and I took it for granted he was the chief devil, stood by me, pressing my ribs with a fist that felt marvellously heavy, while with the other he maintained a grasp upon my nose, to which ever and anon he gave a considerable tweak; while another, little less dreadful, stood at his side, armed with some singular weapon, shaped much like a common fire-bellows, the nozle of which he held at but a little distance from my own.
As he begins to revive in his new body, he overhears a conversation among the "devils":
"But," continued the same voice, "we'll never finish the job till we roll him over a barrel. He'll never show game till the water's out of him."
Another voice replies: "No rolling on barrels," it said, "nor hanging up by the heels"—(hanging up by the heels! thought I)—"it is against the rules of the Humane Society..."

In the early nineteenth century, the Humane Society referred not to an animal rescue organization, but to a society (in the words of the Philadelphia Humane Society, founded in 1780) "for the recovery of persons apparently drowned, and other cases of suspended animation."

The first humane society was founded in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, in 1767, and local societies soon sprang up in London and in various communities in America. The societies published manuals for distribution that described the proper methods of resuscitating drowning victims, including the use of a hand bellows to force air into the lungs—and, strangely enough, to force tobacco smoke into the rectum. The stimulant qualities of tobacco were thought to promote resuscitation.

The state of the body of a drowning victim, apparently dead but capable of being resuscitated by the proper methods, was called "suspended animation." As one writer put it in 1807: "The body, during this temporary suspension of animation, resembles a clock: upon its pendulum being accidentally stopped, its works are not mutilated or shaken out of their proper places, but are competent to renew their functions the moment the former is touched by some friendly hand."

The medical literature in both Britain and America from the late eighteenth and throughout the nineteenth centuries is full of treatises on the causes of "suspended animation" and proper methods of resuscitation. In America, one of the earliest such treatises was David Hosack's An Enquiry into the Cause of Suspended Animation from Drowning; with the Means of Restoring Life, published in New York in 1792. Dr. Hosack is especially concerned to combat "that most pernicious practice, rolling the body upon a barrel, and holding it up by the heels..."

Robert Montgomery Bird was himself a physician, and was undoubtedly familiar with the medical literature on suspended animation, such as Hosack's treatise. (Hosack died in 1835, the year before Sheppard Lee was published.)

The image above is of a smoke enema kit assembled by one of the early nineteenth-century humane societies. It has been suggested that the phrase "blowing smoke up one's ass" is derived from skepticism about the efficacy of smoke enemas.

No comments:

New Poem: "Phrasebook"

My poem " Phrasebook " has been published online in Ergon: Greek/American Arts and Letters .