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Is it possible to bring a drowning victim back to life?
Given the numerous cases of drowning that occurred in 18th century London and the lack of any proper system of saving drowing victims at that time, the need for a new organization to teach resuscitation techniques seemed desperately needed. Inspired by a rescue organization in the Netherlands that had been founded years earlier, Dr. William Hawes and another physician, Thomas Cogan, founded the Royal Humane Society in 1774 to promote training in first aid and artificial respiration for drowning victims. To advertise the potential benefits of artificial respiration, Hawes and Cogan hit on a rather novel scheme. They offered a cash reward to anyone who would bring them a drowning victim that had been taken from the water anywhere within thirty miles of London (Hawes paid the reward out of his own pocket). The Royal Humane Society would later serve as a model for similar organizations around the world.
As part of their effort to improve existing medical techniques, Hawes and Cogan approached the famous surgeon, John Hunter, for guidance. A highly distinguished medical researcher and surgeon, Hunter was an obvious choice. Being blunt and argumentative by nature, Hunter had no problem challenging existing views on when death occurred and was forthright in presenting the fledgling Humane Society (and later the Royal Society) with his own views on resuscitation.
Doctor John Hunter was certainly the right man for the job. A brilliant anatomist and researcher, his medical expertise was in constant demand. Among Hunter's patients were Benjamin Franklin (who had consulted him for bladder problems) and Adam Smith (hemorrhoids). Hunter's unorthodox methods made him the envy of all his fellow surgeons and his own outspoken manner earned him any number of enemies as well. Among other things, he also became an authority on venereal disease and even went so far as to inoculate himself with tissue taken from a patient to test his theories. Hunter contracted syphilis and gonorrhea as a result and, unfortunately, used his infection to argue that syphilis and gonorrhea were essentially the same disease (they aren't).
Though the medical science surrounding resuscitation was still in its infancy, Hunter's insights were certainly inspired. He stressed that drowning victims should not automatically be assumed dead and that "only the suspension of the actions of life has taken place". In treating the drowning victim, Hunter recommended aggressive measures including using a double bellows to force air into the drowning victim's lungs, applying stimulating vapours to the nose, keeping the body warm and a vigorous massage in essential oils. When all else failed, Hunter advised the use of electrical stimulation to the heart. He also argued that rescuscitation should be viewed scientifically with a notebook on hand so that the physician could carefully record what worked and what didn't in reviving the patient.
To test his own resuscitation methods, John Hunter turned to a different source. Through his years of dissecting executed criminals, Hunter knew that hangmen were often fairly sloppy with their workmanship on the gallows. This was long before the invention of the "Marwood drop" which ensured that convicts died quickly and cleanly of a broken neck. During Hunter's day, convicts being executed were usually only given enough rope to slowly strangle to death as their oxygen was cut off. Even then, death was not assured and there were cases of executed convicts waking up after being believed dead. The notion that an executed criminal could be successfully revived appealed to Hunter and a famous case then working its way through the English courts provided him with the perfect opportunity.
The Reverend William Dodd was never your typical clergyman. Ordained an Anglican priest in 1753, his flamboyant lifestyle and manner made him a popular figure in British society and earned him the nickname of the "Macaroni Parson" (macaroni was a popular slang term for fashionable). While being forced to leave England after disgracing himself by attempting to use bribery to gain a lucrative position for himself, Dodd returned to England after a short time abroad. Unfortunately, Dodd's extravagant lifestyle and financial problems continued and he was later caught out in a scheme in which he attempted to defraud a wealthy former pupil of thousands of pounds to clear his own debts. Since forgery and fraud were capital offenses in those days, Dodd was quickly arrested and went on trial for his life. He confessed to the crime and was sentenced to death despite pleas for leniency from prominent figures such as Samuel Johnson. There was a last-ditch appeal for a Royal Pardon (including a petition with 23,000 signatures) but Dodd went to the gallows on June 27, 1777.
Since William Dodd had been an early supporter of the Humane Society, John Hunter was well aware of the details of the case. As Dodd was being led up the gallows at Tyburn, Hunter and his Humane Society colleagues were waiting at an undertaker's establishment with all the tools needed for the revival. While Hunter himself never wrote about his attempt at reviving Dodd, a fellow Royal Society member, Charles Hutton, later provided an account of what happened next. Despite Hunter's attempts to get Dodd's body as soon after the execution as possible, the huge number of people in attendance made that impossible. Because of the pressing crowds, Dodd was left hanging for at least an hour before being taken down. As well, the hearse took an additional forty minutes to deliver the body to the waiting Hunter. Although Hunter and his colleagues were dismayed by the delays, they proceeded to work on Dodd's body with "all means possible for the reanimation". Unfortunately, the attempt was a total failure and Hunter eventually admitted defeat. Dodd's body was released for burial and that was the end of it.
For years after Dodd's execution, there was a lingering rumour that Hunter hadn't failed and that Dodd had been successfully revived. The press recorded various "Dodd sightings" throughout the United Kingdom and stories of the "Macaroni Parson" cheating the gallows persisted. As recently as 1794, a Scottish newspaper reported that Dodd was living in Glasgow "happily beyond the reach of his enemies".
As for John Hunter, he moved on to other things. Along with his legendary fame as a surgeon, he also amassed one of the most amazing collections of medical and natural history specimens in Europe (including the skeleton of the Irish giant, Charles Byrne) which he put on display in a custom-built teaching museum at his home in Leicester Square. Following Hunter's death in 1793 (due to an angina attack likely linked to his syphilis-weakened heart), his collection of papers and specimens were purchased by the government and presented to the Company of Surgeons (now the Royal College of Surgeons). Visitors to the Royal College of Surgeons at London's Lincoln's Inn Fields can still see Hunter's vast collection (as part of the College's even more extensive museums).
It is quite an experience for those with a taste for the macabre.
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