Mar 20, 2021 I Brent Swancer

The Time a Notable Scientist Tried to Bring a Prisoner Back From the Dead

Born in 1903 in San Francisco, California, the American biologist Robert E. Cornish was throughout his life considered brilliant. He was a child prodigy, graduating from the University of California, Berkeley with honors at the age of just 18 and earning his doctorate by 22. He was by all accounts a genius, with vast potential in the field of science, yet he mostly focused on rather oddball projects. He famously worked on a device that would allow newspapers to be read underwater with special lenses, as well as various other off-kilter inventions, before finally finding his true calling with something altogether grander and more macabre. You see, Cornish became obsessed with the idea of bringing the dead back to life, and he was pretty sure he knew how to do it.

Dr. Cornish started with dogs. In 1934, he began experiments in trying to revive dead specimens through his own pet theories, but it took some trial and error to get it to work. He spent several months perfecting his methods, going through many dogs in the process until he hit upon the method that seemed to work best. In his experiments, Cornish would euthanize the dogs, then even as their bodies were still warm he would set them up on a teeterboard that was very much like a see-saw, on which he would vigorously rock them back and forth to keep the blood circulating as they were injected with a mixture of saline, oxygen, fresh blood, epinephrine, and anticoagulants. He would claim success in some of these attempts, explaining of the process:

The Arterial pump takes arterial blood from the reservoir to the head while the vena stump James off the venous plan. The blood is RT realized in the reservoir where there is a steady flow of oxygen. The artificial blood circulation ensures the metabolism necessary to the life of the head. The isolated head lives on for hours and reacts to external stimuli. The isolated even react to the sunlight. The dog doesn’t feel pain. All the blood of the body is drained up through the carotid artery, the dog is dead. 10 minutes have elapsed since the animal died. The blood removed from the animal is pumped back into its vessel by auto-injector. The artificial grab circulation gradually induces heart to start breathing again. Heart action begins to be normal. The dog breathes normally. We can now disconnect the auto-injector and leave the organism to maintain its life with its own resources.

Robert E  Cornish 1934
Robert E. Cornish

Dr. Cornish was so confident in these results that he arranged a public demonstration, which Time Magazine also attended. It all generated quite a bit of publicity at the time, with the morbid curiosity of seeing this mad scientist trying to bring dead dogs back to life proving irresistible. Dr. Cornish brought five fox terriers to the demonstration, all named Lazarus, and set up his teeterboard and equipment. He then euthanized the dogs, much to the shock of onlookers, and carried out his mysterious process. Of the five Lazarus dogs, three of them died permanently, but two of them were successfully revived to be brought back to life in one form or another after being clinically dead for 5 minutes. One of the dogs was resuscitated, but was little more than a vegetable, unresponsive and apparently blind, merely ambling about mindlessly like a zombie with little sign that it was even aware of its surroundings. Only one of the dogs seemed to have come out of it alright in the end, waking in the same sort of zombified state, but gradually returning to normal. Considering that any of these dogs came back from the dead at all, the demonstration was considered a resounding success, but there were problems.

Although Dr. Cornish was hugely excited about the success and it all proved his theories worked, more and more people were beginning to ask what the purpose of bringing back zombie dogs was. When the news of the experiments and the demonstration got out, people were horrified and there was a wave of outrage and criticism aimed towards Corning’s work, to the point that he even lost his job at UCLA. Nevertheless, he continued his work on pigs and tried to turn his image around, even appearing in a film a Universal horror movie called Life Returns, but this did little to enamor the public towards him and his gruesome work. He was largely perceived as a Dr. Frankenstein type figure, nobody would have anything to do with him, and he began to slip into obscurity. However, Dr. Cornish was not so easily deterred. Indeed, he wanted to take his experiments one step further and try it out on human beings. In 1947 he announced his intentions to get his hands on a freshly dead corpse from death row in order to try out his theory on a human, with one report from the era saying of this:

Dr Cornish, elated at the sensational success of his experiments with dogs, wants to make the attempt on humans. He is now seeking permission to experiment with a criminal executed by poison gas. Given the body after physicians declare the man to be dead, he would strap the body to a teeterboard and attach electrical heating pads to the limbs. Next, a chemical known as methylene blue would be injected into the veins to neutralize the poisonous fumes that had caused death. Pure oxygen would then be pumped into the lungs through a mask and the teeterboard rocked slowly to keep the blood in circulation. Dr Cornish believes firmly that the dead man would live. He does not agree with other scientists that the brain of the man so revived would be hopelessly damaged.

Robert Cornish 1
Dr. Cornish and the dogs

Of course, this was even more morbid and macabre than his dog experiments, and the state of California denied his requests, however, he managed to get around this. At the time, there was a convicted child killer on death row at San Quentin by the name of Thomas McMonigle, who actually reached out to Cornish to volunteer. In his mind, if he were to die and be brought back to life, he would be a free man since he would have technically finished his sentence and be protected by the double jeopardy law, which prevents people from being tried for the same crime twice, so he had nothing to lose. The excited Cornish then approached the California Department of Corrections with this news, but he was still denied, despite numerous appeals. Cornish was so desperate to get his hands on McMonigle’s body that he offered to prove that the process would work by killing a sheep in the gas chamber and bringing it back to life, but these offers fell on deaf ears. The state was just not interested in using dead prisoners for experiments in making the undead, and even if they were, it was pointed out that the gas chamber required the room to be aired out for an hour before anyone could enter, which would’ve denied immediate access to the corpse anyway. McMonigle would be executed in the gas chamber and stay dead on February 20th, 1948, with no way to know if Cornish would have really been able to bring him back.

After this, Dr. Cornish once again faded into obscurity, lost all clout in academia, and by the 1950s this once promising genius was reduced to a door-to-door salesman peddling his own homemade tooth powder. It is a spectacular fall for someone who had shown such promise, and considering his general brilliance we are left to wonder if he perhaps really was on to something. Did Cornish really have some grasp of the secret of defeating death? What would have happened if he had been allowed to experiment on a freshly dead human being? Was he approaching some breakthrough secret or was he just a mad scientist lost in his own obsession and hubris? Since he died with his secrets and was never allowed to proceed with his experiments, we will probably never know for sure, relegating him to the strange history of weird science.

Brent Swancer

Brent Swancer is an author and crypto expert living in Japan. Biology, nature, and cryptozoology still remain Brent Swancer’s first intellectual loves. He's written articles for MU and Daily Grail and has been a guest on Coast to Coast AM and Binnal of America.

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