Death, it seems is an immutable fact of life. We are tethered to it, destined for it, and indeed fearful of it. Throughout history mankind has sought to cheat this inevitable end. It seems we have a very strong urge to stave of death’s grip or at least in some cases to return from it. There have been many who have gone through great efforts to staunch the tide of decay and entropy; to drag the dead from the dark clutches of eternal oblivion and pull them back into the light. These attempts have run the gamut from freakish, ghoulish experiments like something out of a horror novel to more sober, scientific discussion on the matter. Here we will delve into the real life history of mankind’s desire to reanimate the dead.
Serious efforts to clinically confront and defy death date back to at least the 18th century. In the 1700s, a Catholic priest and professor of natural history at Pavia University by the name of Lazzaro Spallanzani became obsessed with the idea of reanimating dead tissue after noticing that some seemingly dead microscopic life seemed to spring back to life after adding water to them. Spallazani became convinced that it was possible to resurrect dead organisms and he turned to the famous French skeptic and atheist Voltaire for guidance on this discovery. Voltaire believed Spallazani’s claims and when asked what his opinion was on where souls went after death he is said to have replied that it was up to Spallazani to find that out for himself. Taking this as encouragement to proceed, Spallazani moved on with his experiments. He graduated to more complex lifeforms, notably cutting the heads off of snails to see if they’d grow back. Although he never did find the secret to resurrecting the dead that he had so hoped to find, his research led him to being the first to discover chemicals in the body that aided in digestion, as well as to observe white blood cells.
In 1794, the Royal Humane Society of London carried out a series of experiments in an effort to restore life to those deemed “apparently dead,” arguing that in some cases corpses were not really dead, but rather in some sort of state of suspended animation from which they could be revived and brought back to the land of the living. These efforts were in response to the widespread fear of premature burial at the time, which was rampant and seen as proof that the soul could hang some place between life and death and be revived. The Royal Humane Society sought to not only establish methods for reanimating such corpses, but also spread awareness and share their knowledge of such procedures all over the world. To be sure, their methods were crude. Most often the main techniques were to use electricity, massage, and the rather odd use of liquor forced down the throat, as well as tobacco smoke siphoned up the rectum of all places.
As dubious as these methods may seem to us now, news of such experiments reached far and wide, with the city of Charleston, South Carolina, particularly embracing the theory. The Medical Society of South Carolina purchased equipment from the Royal Humane Society in 1793 and went about trying to raise public awareness of the possibility of resurrecting such “apparently dead” cadavers. Their efforts were so convincing that eventually a law was passed on 19 August 1793, that required all owners of places where alcohol was sold, as spirits were a key ingredient to the process, to take in persons deemed “apparently dead” and attempt to use the Society’s techniques to bring them back to life. The law also mandated that all such establishments were to post a complete list of printed directions on how to do so.
As time went on and the 19th century dawned, a great deal of stock was put into electricity as a means to reawaken the dead. This was an age when electricity and its effects were still little understood, and it seemed like the influence of electrical currents was almost magical in nature. Many experiments were done to measure the effects of electric currents run through all manner of things such as plants, animals, and even human beings, just to see what would happen. It was even supposed that electricity had the power to create life from nothing, a theory that would gain traction in 1837 when physicist Andrew Crosse claimed he could form small organisms shaped like mites by simply running a current through an empty petri dish. It seems only natural then that the mysterious forces of electricity began to seen as a possible route to the reanimation of the dead.
In the 1800s, a physicist by the name of Giovanni Aldini carried out a series of twisted experiments involving the use of electricity for the purpose of reanimating dead animals. The son of famous scientist and electricity pioneer Luigi Galvani, Aldini was an ardent believer in his father’s theories on the application of electricity to bringing the dead back to life. Aldini started out small, demonstrating how current could send dead frogs and other small animals into twitching spasms, but his experiments quickly began to devolve into more sadistic, morbid affairs. In one gruesome display, Aldini applied a Leyden jar which had been charged with a potent current to the decapitated head of an ox, which much to the horror of onlookers began to convulse and spasm, its tongue lolling about in its mouth as if alive. Although this may seem like a natural outcome to us, at the time it was seen as something magical on par with witchcraft, and it was thought that such movements were tantamount to the presence of life. It certainly seemed to be powerful evidence at the time that yes, indeed electricity could reanimate dead tissue.
Aldini soon graduated from animals to humans as his experiments escalated in morbidity. Through no doubt nefarious means, he was somehow able to procure a steady flow of freshly executed criminals for use in his experiments. One of the earliest such efforts was when Aldini performed a demented procedure on a freshly killed 30-year-old man. An incision was made in the nape of the deceased man’s neck and a jolt was provided with a battery powered prod. Aldidni wrote of the experiment:
The posterior half of the Atlas vertebra was then removed by forceps, when the spinal marrow was brought into view. A profuse flow of liquid blood gushed from the wound, inundating the floor. A considerable incision at the same time was made in the left hip through the great gutteal muscle so as to bring the sciatic nerve into sight, and a small cut was made in the heel; the pointed rod with one end connected to the battery was now placed in contact with the spinal marrow, while the other rod was placed in contact with the sciatic nerve. Every muscle of the body was immediately agitated with convulsive movements resembling violent shuddering from the cold…On moving the second rod from the hip to the heel, the knee being previously bent, the leg was thrown out with such force the assistants, who in vain attempted to prevent its extension.
Creepy to be sure, but at the time seen as a very promising result. Yet, Aldini was not satisfied yet and would go on to take his experiments to even loftier heights of depravity. So convinced was he that electricity was the key to restoring life after death that Aldini sought to prove that even a body was not necessary for his theory to work. He took the horror factor up a notch and started applying current to just the freshly decapitated heads of criminals by wetting their ears with brine solution and then stuffing electrified wires into their ears. This had the predictable effect of causing the disembodied heads to grimace, convulse and twitch wildly. Aldinin was particularly fascinated by the movements of the eyelids during the procedures, once writing “The action of the eye-lids was exceedingly striking, though less sensible in the human head than in that of an ox.”
Such gruesome experiments gained widespread notoriety as Aldini brought his experiments on the road in order for all to see the wonders he was able to produce. In 1803 he infamously put on a public display in which he created lifelike movements upon applying current to a newly deceased man named George Forster, fresh from the gallows for killing his wife and child. The demonstration was done on a stage in front of an audience of shocked, gasping onlookers and Aldini finally got the recognition he was after when the Royal College of Surgeons took notice and ended up awarding him their prestigious Copley Medal for his work. In addition to trying to bring back the dead, Aldini also claimed that he could use electricity to resuscitate nearly dead people such as those who have nearly drowned, and his work was some of the earliest evidence to pave the way for the use of electricity for resuscitation.
Such recognition by the medical community seemed to cement the legacy of electricity as a means of cheating death, and it was still being pursued well into the 1900s. A professor by the name of Albert Hoche was strongly convinced that electricity could jolt the dead back to life, and conducted similar experiments to those of Aldini. Hoche was similarly able to procure the corpse of a freshly executed criminal for the purpose of his demented experiment. The criminal had been decapitated and wasting no time Hoche proceeded to run a strong electrical current through the exposed spinal cord. Although again what happened next is perhaps no surprise to us, at the time it was mind boggling, and observers were bewildered by how the body convulsed spastically for a good 10 minutes before going still. This was still seen as miraculous proof of life after death, but Hoche was stumped as to how he could extend the effects and why the body had ultimately ceased is jerky dance. In the end, he wrongly theorized that the cooling of the body and loss of blood was to blame for the loss of movement, but he was never able to overcome this obstacle.
Starting from the 1930s, creepy reanimation experiments began to pop up mostly using dogs as subjects. One rather infamous figure in the field of trying to resurrect dogs was the American biologist Dr. Robert E. Cornish of the University of California at Berkeley, where he had received his doctorate and carried out his research in the 1930s. Before his field of interest took a turn for the macabre, Cornish had already accrued a reputation for being a bit of an odd one, designing weird inventions such as underwater reading glasses, but it was when he started his reanimation experiments that he really earned the title of mad scientist.
Cornish became obsessed with the idea of life after death and, after several false starts trying a variety of bizarre techniques, he truly believed that he had figured out a way to do it. The theory was that a dead subject could be restored back to life if the body was swung up and down rapidly on a seesaw-like contraption to simulate blood circulation while at the same time being fed oxygen through a tube and injected with a cocktail of adrenaline, liver extract, gum arabic, blood, and anticoagulants. Cornish was so convinced that the technique would work that he immediately began testing the theory on animals, namely dogs. Cornish acquired fox terriers for the purpose of his ghoulish experiments, all of which he named Lazarus, after the biblical figure who had risen from the dead. Cornish would asphyxiate the animals with nitrogen gas, after which he would wait 10 full minutes after death before starting the revival process. Lazarus I, II, and III proved to be failures, staying as dead as they had been before the process, but Cornish had more luck with Lazarus IV and V.
Lazarus IV was claimed to have woken up with a “whine and a feeble bark” 5 minutes after its heart had stopped. Although the dog had gone blind and sustained severe brain damage, Cornish reported that after several days Lazarus IV was able to hobble around, sit up on its own, bark, and even eat. Encouraged by such promising results, Cornish moved onto Lazarus V, whom he considered an even bigger success than Lazarus IV. It was reported that Lazarus V was brought back to life a full 30 minutes after it had stopped breathing, and even so exhibited more of a range of movement and cognizance than Lazarus IV had. Both of these shambling zombie dogs went on to live for months, and it was said that other dogs displayed a marked fear of them.
Cornish was extremely excited and emboldened by his successful results and went to the scientific community with his findings, but they were less enthused. His experiments became very controversial and derided as nothing more than twisted, Frankenstein-esque grotesqueries. The public found the idea of killing and zombifying cute little dogs to be repellant, and the outcry over Cornish’s experiments prompted the University of California to evict him from the campus, after which he continued his work on his own from a garden shed, apparently upsetting the neighborhood with the odious fumes he produced. The mad scientist continued to perfect his techniques, going through who knows how many dogs until finally in 1947 he had an opportunity to finally experiment on a human being.
Cornish was contacted by the convicted child murderer Thomas McMonigle, who had heard much of the experiments and was willing to offer his cadaver for experimentation upon his execution at San Quentin Penitentiary. Cornish was ecstatic to finally have the opportunity to try out his outlandish methods on an actual human corpse, and went about working out the best way to do so. He believed that a technique using a homemade heart-lung machine and 60,000 shoelace eyes would do the trick if he could have access to the corpse quickly enough. Although he made his preparations and manufactured the machine he had planned to use, alas Cornish’s grand plan would be thwarted by several obstacles. Besides the fervent opposition he met from the warden of the prison at the time, Clifton Duffy, there was also the problem that McMonigle was to be executed by gas chamber, which required around an hour after death to air out all of the poisonous gas before the body could be removed safely, which was far too long for Cornish, who needed immediate access to the body for his plan to have any chance of working. There was additionally the moral dilemma of what to do with the criminal if the whole bizarre experiment actually worked; after all if the criminal was put to death and then revived, would that mean he had already served his sentence and was to be freed as a walking dead man? In the end, Cornish never got his chance to bring a person back from the dead. He would eventually give up on his experiments and move on to the rather baffling occupation of making and selling toothpaste until his death in 1963.
The 1940s and 50s were not a good time to be a dog in the Soviet Union either. The Soviets were already engaged in a wide variety of experiments to revive severed limbs and removed organs, so it seems like a natural step that they would move on to full reanimation of the dead, and indeed some of the creepiest such efforts come from the Soviet Union. Perhaps the most infamous and indeed gag inducing such experiments were carried out by Soviet scientist Dr. S.S. Bryukhonenko at the Institute of Experimental Physiology and Therapy, Voronezh, U.S.S.R. The scientist became heavily involved in the reanimation of dead animals, mostly dogs, through the use of various arcane, scary looking machinery. In his most famous experiment, the decapitated head of a dog was hooked up to a sinister looking heart-lung machine that was called the “autojector,” after which the head apparently regained consciousness, moved its mouth, and blinked its eyes. In an effort to prove that the animal was indeed awake and cognizant, Bryukhonenko proceeded to torment the dog, rapping it on the head and even rubbing the inside of its nostril with acid, which the dog head then began to try and lick off. The dog reportedly remained awake and alive for quite some time, even eating and drinking things that were offered to it, which proceeded to move through the mouth and leak out of the severed esophagus. The machine was used to reanimate several dogs, as well as a wide variety of organs and severed limbs, although it is unclear how exactly it all worked. All we have are various archived videos of the experiments, and there have been those who suggest that the Soviets faked the videos.
Not to be outdone by his colleague in sheer depravity and cruelty, another Soviet scientist by the name of Vladimir Demikhov conducted a macabre experiment to create what can only really be truly described as a two headed zombie dog. Demikhov was convinced that the key to reviving the dead was to graft the dead to the organs of the living. To prove his theory, he took a puppy and chopped it in half just below the forearms, after which he attached the half-body to the neck of a living fully grown dog. Unbelievably, the dead portion of the dog came back to life looking around and lolling its tongue about in its mouth, like some ghastly moving tumor upon its host. Encouraged by this success, Demikhov would go on to create 20 such abominations, which sometimes lived for up to a month before tissue rejection caused them to die.
In the ensuing years, the United States would get in on experiments to reanimate the dead as well. One such series of experiments was carried out in 1967 at the Foreign Technology Division at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, in which dogs were brought back from death using a system of artificial circulation. These dogs were reported as being revived up to 19 min 30 sec. after death. The subjects of these experiments apparently fully recovered and led normal lives for years after, showing no physical abnormalities or differences in behavior from normal dogs, and even bearing litters of puppies. Another experiment was funded by the U.S. government in 1970, when scientist Robert White chopped off the head of a monkey and successfully brought it back to life by grafting it onto the decapitated body of another monkey. The resuscitated money lived for a full day. White maintained that the monkey could see, hear, taste, and smell due to the fact that the nerves of the brain and head were fully intact. White would go on to seek two human subjects to try the experiment on, and even found one in the form of a partially handicapped man named Craig Vetovitz, but after he was unable to find a second volunteer his work was discontinued.
Starting in the 1950s, a new form of resurrecting the dead made its appearance; the new field of cryobiology, or using extremely low temperatures to freeze subjects, after which they are brought back to life. One of the pioneers of this field was a scientist by the name of James Lovelock, who would make one of the first attempts to use cryobiology in a series of experiments carried out at Britain’s Mill Hill National Institute of Medical Research along with colleague Dr. Audrey Smith in the 1950s. In the experiments, hamsters were frozen by immersing them in a minus 5 degrees celsius bath for 60 to 90 minutes, essentially freezing them solid and making them for all intents and purposes clinically dead. After checking to see that the animals were completely frozen, often by actually cutting into them with a knife, the heart was warmed by the application of a warm spoon as the body was gradually warmed as well. Such efforts were successful, and later the use of warm spoons to coax the heart back to life, which sometimes burned the animals, would be replaced by the more humane use of radio frequency transmitters to create microwaves.
This groundbreaking procedure would go on to become almost commonplace by the 1960s, and it served the purpose of demonstrating that organisms could be brought to temperatures below freezing and be successfully revived. It would go on to become the basis of medical technology that is used to this day for the storage of organs destined to be used for transplants, low temperature surgery, and some types of experimental cardiac resuscitation techniques, and would additionally lead to the discovery of the cryopreservative properties of glycerol, which lowers the freezing point of water and is used for such purposes to this day. It would also go on to form the basis of the field of cryonics, which entails freezing larger animals such as humans in vats for future revival. Another, somewhat more ghastly experiment involving cryobiology was performed by researcher Isamu Suda at Japan’s Kobe University in the 1960s. Suda froze the brains of cats in glycerol mixtures and then reported that brainwave activity was detected after warming them up as long as two and a half years later.
Although a more rigid sense of ethics has taken hold in recent years, essentially putting the kibosh on many such animal experiments, there has been at least one notable case of such dramatic experiments as recently as 2002 at the Safar Center for Resuscitation Research in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, headed by a Dr. Patrick Kochanek. In the somewhat unsettling experiments, dogs were completely drained of blood and their veins then filled with an ice cold saline solution which put the subjects in a state of extreme hypothermia and made them clinically dead, with no signs of heartbeat, breathing, or brain activity, while preserving the tissues in a state of frigid suspended animation. The animals were then successfully brought back to life up to 3 hours after death by gradually returning blood to the bodies while providing pure oxygen and stimulating the heart with electric shocks. The experiments had mixed results, with some of the dogs being none the worse for wear from their ordeal while others displayed severe brain damage and/or “behavioral problems.” It is unclear if one of these might be shambling around attacking the living. The Safar Center has continued this research with the stated aim of eventually using their techniques to buy time for critically wounded people by putting them into a state of suspended animation until they can be properly treated. To allay fears and public outcry that the experiments are inhumane and unethical, the Safar Center has claimed that all of its experiments use proper pain medication and anesthetics, as well as pointing out that they are overseen by the University of Pittsburgh’s veterinary staff. The center ultimately plans to begin human trials.
Although there is no known successful experiment on a human being brought back from life after such dramatic cooling, it is in theory possible and there is one fairly recent case that shows it can indeed work. In 1999, a Swedish medical student by the name of Anna Bagenholm was skiing when she lost control and crashed head first into a thin patch on ice on a stream. She slipped into the icy water and struggled for 40 minutes under the ice as her friends tried to help free her until her heart finally stopped. It took an additional 40 minutes for a rescue team to arrive, by which time Bagenholm was clinically dead, with no sign of respiration or heartbeat. Nevertheless, she was rushed to a hospital and given CPR as the team desperately struggled to do what they could. Later, 3 and a half hours after Bagenholm’s heart had stopped, doctors were able to detect a heartbeat once again and proceeded to successfully revive her. Anna Bagenholm would go on to lead a perfectly normal life, with nearly no discernible negative physical effects from her harrowing ordeal. It certainly seems that at least in theory, the idea of bringing back a human from the dead is plausible in certain situations.
The thought of being able to bring the dead back to life is a seductive one. It is perhaps no wonder why humankind has gone to such great lengths to pursue such things; after all who wouldn’t want to buy a little more time and have one more chance at living again after shuffling out of this mortal coil? The thought of living once again is almost intoxicating, but is it really physically possible to truly beat death?
One of the main limitations to returning from the dead lies in our very cells. All of our cells are covered with a thin membrane that essentially protects it from its surroundings and filters out molecules that are not necessary to its survival. When a cell approaches death, this membrane becomes thin and the cell will either be absorbed by surrounding specialized maintenance cells, it will basically eat itself, or the cell membrane will rupture, its content spectacularly spewed into the surrounding tissue. Once any of these three things happen, there is no going back and the cell’s death is final. When this final cellular death occurs, reanimation becomes impossible short of actual magic or a miracle, which would be the basis of a whole other article.
The key to any attempt to bring back the dead therefore lies in making sure that the body’s cells do none of those things and that the outer membrane remains intact. In some circumstances, our cells can retain their membranes for a remarkably long time after we are no longer living in any physically recognizable way such as exhibiting breathing, a heartbeat, or brain waves. True reanimation relies on reviving these surviving cells before they crash or are destroyed for good, but it is a difficult thing to do, especially since the type of cells that are most prone to oxygen deprivation and thus more likely to quickly disintegrate are brain cells. One of the only ways that has been found to plausibly stave off cellular death even after apparent physical death is a state of suspended animation caused by extremely low temperatures, but it is uncertain just how long after death the cells can be preserved in this way and that is one of the problems. The real hurdle to truly bringing back the dead to a state they enjoyed in life ultimately comes down to both time and making sure that the brain cells do not sustain the kind of damage that will basically make them something akin to a mindless zombie. If we can find a way do do that, then only then will we have truly mastered death, at least in some circumstances.
We have looked at some of the weird history of trying to cheat death, but what does the future of reanimation research hold? While it has undeniably been important and the basis of many advances in the medical field for the purposes of organ storage and resuscitation techniques, will there ever truly be a time when dying will become not our final end or an immutable fact of life, but rather just a minor inconvenience? Will we ever have the ability to truly block the inexorable coming of our demise and turn it from something that is an “inevitable end” to something that is merely “occasional”? If so, what ramifications would such an ability have on society as we know it? One thing that we can be sure of is that as long as the lure of life after death exists, there will be those who toil away in labs, or perhaps even in a garden shed, feverishly trying to find a way to do it.