he 19th century was filled with medical experiments that by today’s medical standards seem frankly unlogical and very dangerous. However, it was a period of time when medicine would see amazing strides towards the evolution of modern medicine, yet, this took a lot of failed surgeries, operations, and experiments on humans.
One experiment that stands out and is rarely mentioned is a geologist’s attempt to bring a dead man back to life. On the 4th of November, 1818, a large crowd gathered at the medical theater from the University of Glasgow where they were waiting to see the corpse of a dead man who had been recently executed be brought back to life.
The dead were given to science
Before we get into what happened let’s get to know the corpse a bit better. The dead corpse was of Matthew Clydesdale who was sentenced to death for the murder of a 70-year-old man two months prior to his trial. Due to a law set in 1751 in Scotland (1751 Murder Act), those who were sentenced to death would also have their bodies given away to medical schools for direction and other experiments, without having the body cremated or buried.
His execution took place in the courtyard of Glasgow prison and once it was carried out his corpse was thrown in the back of a carriage and taken to the University of Glasgow. The corpse was given to Andrew Ure, a very well-known pioneer in the field of geology who had made a big contribution in the medical field.
Ure was also fascinated by anatomy and chemistry which made him come up with his own theories relevant to this day. However, one of his theories was quite out of the ordinary as he believed that he would be able to bring back a dead person to life by using electricity. His theory was based on the anatomy of frogs which would have their muscle twitch upon electric shocks even after death.
It is imperative to remember that we are talking about the start of the 19th century were medicine was still a field full of discoveries. At the time it was not known that electrical shocks could be used to restart the heart of a person if the person wasn’t brain dead. Other doctors before Ure tried to bring criminals who had been executed back to life by using electricity but with no success.
Bringing the dead back to life
Ure believed that other doctors performing these experiments were just doing it for fun, whilst he really believed it could work. He wanted to give it a proper try using more powerful batteries. Ure educated himself about electricity which was still quite a new technology not harnessed by mankind very well. Ure learned that electricity does not only affect the muscles within the body, but also the nervous system which in his mind was the key to bringing someone back to life.
On the 14th of November, 1818, Ure decided to try his experiment with a live audience who were in doubt but still had a bit of hope for Ure. He made an incision at the back of the corpse’s neck to reveal the spine. After he let some of the blood drains, the battery was attached to the spinal cord right into the bone marrow. With the first shock, the body already started responding.
“Every muscle of the body was immediately agitated with convulsive movements, resembling a violent shuddering from cold. The left side was most powerfully convulsed at each renewal of the electric contact. On moving the second rod from the hip to the heel, the knee being previously bent, the leg was thrown out with such violence, as nearly to overturn one of the assistants, who in vain attempted to prevent its extension.”
With every shock, he would raise the level of electricity, and many within the crowd watching the experiment live would faint due to the way the corpse was moving, many of them didn’t understand how electricity was affecting the corpse even if it was dead.
“Every muscle in his countenance was simultaneously thrown into fearful action; rage, horror, despair, anguish, and ghastly smiles, united their hideous expression in the murderer’s face,” Ure continued. “At this period several of the spectators were forced to leave the theather from terror or sickness as many fainted.
Ure also tried to electrically stimulate the lungs of the murderer in order to induce breathing which to his surprise actually worked. His lungs were inhaling and exhaling with the help of an electrical stimulus. Due to the massive loss of blood, it was impossible for Clydesdale to come back to life, but Ure assured everyone that if the corpse hadn’t lost blood, it would have come back to life.
Based on today’s medical standards the experiment would have never worked even if Cludesdale’s corpse was full of blood. This is due to him being brain-dead. If the brain does not receive oxygen for a couple of minutes it will die. The brain was untouched for a couple of days, assuring that the soul of that person left many days before the experiment.
It wasn’t exactly Ure’s experiment, but this type of experiment conducted before Ure inspired author Mary Shelley to write her famous novel Frankenstein which was published the same year.