Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Zombie George Washington?

Here's a bizarre story from the early days of modern science. George Washington is best remembered as the hero of the American Revolutionary War who became the first President of the United States. But according to a new book by Holly Tucker called Blood Work: A Tale of Medicine and Murder in the Scientific Revolution he nearly became our nation's first zombie following his death in 1799 at the age of 67.

But Washington's body was not buried immediately after his death. The president may not have feared death, but he did fear being buried alive. Before he died, he commanded his secretary, Tobias Lear, to make sure that he would not be entombed less than three days after he died. In accordance with Washington's wishes, his body was put on ice until it could be moved to the family vault.

That's where the story gets a little strange. The morning after Washington died, his step-granddaughter Elizabeth Law arrived with a family friend, William Thornton. History best remembers Thornton as the architect who created the original design for the Capitol building, but he was also a trained physician, having studied at the University of Edinburgh. Although he did not practice medicine for much of his life, Thornton always had a keen interest in the workings of the human body, and he suggested a novel method for resurrecting the fallen warrior. Thornton told Washington's wife Martha that he wanted to thaw Washington's body by the fire and have it rubbed vigorously with blankets. Then he planned to perform a tracheotomy so he could insert a bellows into Washington's throat and pump his lungs full of air, and finally to give Washington an infusion of lamb's blood. Friends and family declined Thornton's mad scientist offer, not because they thought his solution impossible, but because they felt the nation's first president should rest in peace.

"A little strange" seems a mild description under the circumstances. If these were really the sorts of ideas floating around the medical community at the time, it would seem that the novel Frankenstein, published in 1818, was more firmly rooted in the scientific ideas of the day than is often recognized. It certainly is true that Luigi Galvani's discoveries in the 1780's and 1790's regarding the effects of electricity on dissected animals suggested to the popular imagination that resurrection of the dead might not be a far-off scientific achievement.

But the real question horror fans want answered is a simple one - if Washington had been successfully reanimated, would he have developed a taste for human brains?

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