On the Nature of Death, 1834

This historical science comes at you courtesy of gg over at SkullsintheStars, a true history buff and an awesome physicist. He handed me this paper the other day, figuring it would be right up my alley, and it is, but it’s also a HUGE can of worms. Because, let’s be honest, it’s not easy to talk about death. And it’s even harder when you’re trying to talk about ideas written by a guy in 1834, who’s prose is, at the very least…convoluted. An example:

The sensorial functions constitute the sensitive system,-that by which we perceive and act,- and consequently are connected with the world which surrounds us. The nervous and muscular, the vital system, that by which we are maintained. From the same experiments it appears, that what is called death consists in the loss of the first of these classes of functions, the sensorial, the nervous and muscular functions still continuing…

Yeah. Aren’t you glad now that Sci is reading this FOR you and you’re getting the Cliff’s Notes?
Philip, APW. “On the nature of death” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, 1834.
death.jpg
The character Death, from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman.


The thing I found interesting about this particular paper is how much of an example it is of the time in which it was written. Not only that, this article was one of the first to propose the use of electric voltage in resuscitation. Also, it talks about suffocation. There’s that.
Dr. Philip undertook in this publication to explain the nature of death. Not what happens after death. He was very specific that he would not cover anything “metaphysical”. His concern was, well, with HOW people die.
I’m not sure how many people really think of this. Sure, we think of the causes of death: cancer, heart attacks, etc. But what about HOW people die? I think that there’s a certain effort in society not to think about the actual act of passing on. But Dr. Philip confronts it fearlessly. He felt that understanding of the process of death and of why and how death occurs was essential to discovery of how to save people from it. Unfortunately for him, the resources he had available at the time weren’t the greatest…and he basically got everything wrong. But he also came up with some ideas which influenced the way people lived for almost 100 years afterward. Not only that, Dr. Philips was the first to propose the idea of using electricity to bring people back from the brink of death. So clearly he got some stuff right.
The 19th century understanding of death came from the understanding of the body. In that time, the body was divided into three classes of function: the muscular, which are obviously the muscles of the body, the nervous, which basically covers the motor systems, and the sensorial, which covers what we now know as the sensory system. Scientists did not yet understand that motor and sensory nervous systems were a part of the same overall system, though they did recognize these systems as being spread throughout the body. In that time, the motor system was thought to be throughout the body, while the sensory system was thought to reside in the brain and spinal cord.
Of course, all these systems worked together. In those days, it was thought that your systems were either in states of “excitement” or sedation, which seemed, as far as I can tell, to correspond with how energetic the patient was feeling. And Dr. Philip thought that it was these states of excitation or sedation that ended up producing death.
So how did this work? He started with the idea of a peaceful death from old age. He thought that, as we age, our body becomes less and less able to achieve a state of “excitement”. Children, he explained, are very energetic and have a lot of excitement. But as we age, we tend to mellow out. He thought that this excitement (which he thought stemmed from the nervous component) was essential for normal human growth. As we grew up, the excitement lessened, until we reached our full height, and a ‘normal’ level of excitation. This also meant that the varying heights of people could say a lot about how much “excitation” they had, which Dr. Philips felt expressed itself through the personality. So short, tiny people were more energetic, while tall people were more languid. Obviously, we all know now that this is not the case, but Dr. Philip found plenty of people that seemed to back up his claim.
So how does this relate to death? He thought that sleep was a form of sedation, and we received excitation from the nervous system when we wanted to wake up. Of course, as we got older, we had less and less excitation to spare. Finally, one day when we are really old, there simply isn’t enough for us to get up, respiration ceases, and we are dead.
Dr. Philip knew that most people don’t die peacefully in their sleep. Instead, most people die from various types of “violent” death, like disease or injury. He thought that in the case of most diseases and bleeding injuries, violent episodes like these sapped your excitation, making you really tired, and possibly causing your death. Other kinds of disease, like insomnia or disorders of movement, also increased excitation, but Dr. Philip thought that when the symptoms went AWAY, your resulting exhaustion would then be the cause of your death. Organ failure was similarly a “lack of excitation”, when the organs could not get the “stimulants” needed to excite them. Now we know that those “stimulants” are neurotransmitters, and that excitation is really the control of the central nervous system over the rest of the body.
This idea of excitation that decreased as you got older wasn’t new, and it lead to some very interesting ideas of how to increase your lifespan. Because excitation reduced as you got older, this meant a lot of excitation in your life (which many people believed was caused by outside influences such as stress) was bad for you, using up your allotted amount of excitation and causing you to die early. So this meant that through the Victorian age, people took their relaxation very seriously. Excitation could cause harm and early death, so the best thing (to those who could afford it) was to live the most quiet and retired life as possible.
Now we know that the whole “excitation” theory is not the case, though it IS true that high levels of stress in your life can lead to a decreased immune response, with more chance of you getting sick. But this means a lot of stress over a long time. So working in, say, finance, probably not too good for you. Going skydiving like you always wanted? I say go for it.
Dr. Philips was of the firm opinion that there were two kinds of death. The first was the kind where respiration ceased. Then, a person was dead. But they weren’t ALL dead. Just MOSTLY dead.
princess bride.jpg
The classic example of “mostly dead”.
Because he noticed that, even though a person may have stopped breathing, their heart continued to beat, and blood continued to be pumped through the veins for several minutes. So in his idea, death went like this:
1) Breathing stops because the sensorial system isn’t strong enough to excite you and keep you going
2) The nervous (motor neurons) and motor systems keep going for a few minutes, the body is still alive.
3) The motor and nervous system stop, the body is dead.
This gave Dr. Philip several ideas, which actually have become very important and modern clinical practice today. For example, he theorized that, if death begins when respiration stops, all you need to do to keep the body alive is to keep breathing. He was the first to try pumping the lungs to induce breathing, which we now know as artificial resuscitation. He also hypothesized that, if the breathing is controlled by the “sensorial system”, and the sensorial system was controlled by electrical impulses (and idea that, at the time, was fairly new), then all you’d need to restore breathing was to use electrical current on the lungs.
Of course, that’s wrong. You don’t want electrical current on the LUNGS. But this hypothesis of using electrical current has come down to us today, when we use defibrillators to send electricity across the chest, basically “recalibrating” the heart. During a heart attack (the most common kind is “left ventricular fibrillation”, where the left ventricle of your heart can’t get enough blood and ends up basically out of sync with the rest of the heart and not pumping), the heart gets all out of sync with itself. To see a heart during a heart attack literally looks like a red writhing bag of worms. Crazy. Jolting a heart with electricity can bring the whole thing to a standstill, and allow the neural impulses to start again, stopping the heart attack and starting normal rhythm again. At least, that’s basically how I understand it. He may have got the particulars wrong, but the idea he had pretty right. And he was right that, in the event of death, the “vital organs” will cease function last, long after your brain is dead. This idea allowed people to look into things like organ transplants from deceased donors, and could be the basis for the organ transplant system that we have today.

11 Responses

  1. Not only that, Dr. Philips was the first to propose the idea of using electricity to bring people back from the brink of death.
    What about Shelley’s Frankenstein in 1818?

  2. ooooh, John, you got me. I thought Frankenstein was published later than that. But I don’t know that they talk about it in the book as being scientifically viable, do they?

  3. How did he explain death by electrocution?😉

  4. Sir Humphrey Davy (who coined the term “electro-chemistry”) was a friend of Mary Shelley’s father, and she had read his works on electricity and chemistry as a child. Of course, Luigi Galvani’s experiments with electricity and muscle responses in dead frogs (later repeated with human corpses, using the improved Volta pile) were old hat by the 1790s. Even Ben Franklin (who, let us not forget, was better known during his lifetime as a scientist than a politician) investigated medical uses for electricity.
    The University of Pennsylvania English Department hosts a terrific website about Frankenstein (which is where I learned this stuff), with lots of information and links about the science of the early 19th c. that Mary Shelley drew on. It’s an old, unmaintained site that’s starting to suffer link rot, but you can get to the main contents page here. And if you click Contexts and scroll down, there are a number of essays regarding science and Frankenstein.
    If you haven’t read Frankenstein lately, it’s a book that just gets better and better the older you get.

  5. Well, that’s embarrassing. I left off the </a> tag.
    In any case, here’s a better link to the science resources for Frankenstein.

  6. Yay! I think this is the first time someone actually listened to one of my suggestions!

  7. “when we use defibrillators to send electricity across the chest to shock the heart back into beating.”
    That’s not exactly correct. Defibrillators stop _fibrillating_, i.e. uncontrollable muscle contractions in the heart – muscles in the heart never stop moving. So it’s more like ‘rebooting’ the heart.

  8. A minor quibble HP. Franklin was best known as a journalist and a statesman in his time. By the general public, he was known more as an inventor than a scientist. I think it is stretching it quite a bit to say that scientist/inventor was his best known hat in his lifetime. I would argue that the only reason it was really well known at all, is because he was the quintessential renaissance man. He was equally comfortable with the “common” man of his time, the intelligentsia and people of power.
    Ultimately, it is hard to make any real claims as to what he was best known for, because he was at all times, everything he was. It isn’t like people differentiated Franklin the scientist, from Franklin the statesman, journalist and frontiersman. He was something of a cultural icon, especially in Europe, because he was everything he was. While he probably would have been somewhat iconic for his accomplishments in any one of his hats, it was ultimately the sum of all he was that made him the figure he was at the time and today.
    I do have to concur though, that Shelley’s Frankenstein probably did a lot for the notion of electricity as potential medicine. I tend to think that in a great many cases, science fiction has as much influence on science as actual research and development. Even today, though the influence today is more in the regard of creating budding young scientists, than influencing actual research.

  9. Sci must admit…she’s not a very well read rat. I have never…actually read Frankenstein. That confession hurt. I NEED to read it. I KNOW! Someone send me a copy! I’ll put it next in line!!
    Alex: yes, you are very right. I misspoke, I’ll correct that.
    HP: thanks for the links!
    And DuWayne: Sci wants to be the 21st century Ben Frnaklin, minus the Garrison Keeler sense of humor, and plus the Thomas Jefferson sense of intellectual elitism. Double the sexual innuendo, also.

  10. Me too Sci…Since I was a rather young child.

  11. As I recall, the original novel does not specify how life is actually bestowed upon the creature in question; the notion of it being by the application of electricity in general or from lightning in particular seems to have originated with the movie adaptation.

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