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Anecdotes from the Archive

Anecdotes from the Archive


Intriguing finds from Scientific American's past
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Bringing Back the “Apparently Dead”

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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In their August 28th, 1869, issue, Scientific American listed some techniques to aid in restoring breath to "persons apparently dead from drowning." The methods were given by Professor Benjamin Howard and were sanctioned by the Metropolitan Board of Health of the City of New York.

The article gives two different methods, the first being the quicker and less complicated:

“Unless in danger of freezing, never move the patient from the spot where first rescued, nor allow bystanders to screen off the fresh air, but instantly wipe clean the mouth and the nostrils, rip and remove all clothing to a little below the waist, rapidly rub and dry the exposed part, and give two quick, smarting slaps on the stomach with your open hand.”

If the stomach-slapping technique fails, the article advises to quickly begin performing artificial breathing. To start, the patient should be placed facedown and the clothes that had been removed should be folded into a bundle and placed under the stomach, making the head lower than the torso. The rescuer is then instructed to press on the patient’s back with force for 30 seconds.

Saving a drowned person


Next, turn the patient back over and place the clothes bundle under the back to elevate the ribs. Find a bystander to hold the tongue out of the mouth and hold the arms together above the patient’s head. This next part seems tricky, as the rescuer must straddle the patient and try to force water of out of him by pressing and rubbing upward against the ribs. “With your hands resting on his stomach, spread out your fingers so that you can grasp the waist about the short ribs. Now, throw all your weight steadily forward upon your hands, while you at the same time squeeze the ribs deeply, as if you wished to force everything in the chest upwards out of the mouth.” This reminds me of trying to get the last of the toothpaste out of the tube, except for being unable to roll a human up from the bottom.

Saving a drowned person

After counting to 3, the rescuer is to give a final push and let go, propelling himself back to sit on his knees. Initially, this is to be performed 4 to 5 times per minute and should increase to 15 times per minute. It should continue in order to replicate the act of natural breathing.

In about 2 hours time, the patient should begin breathing on his own (assuming he will be breathing at all). At this point, the article instructs the rescuer to strip the patient “rapidly and completely” and cover him in blankets only. He should be taken to a bed in a room with free circulating fresh air and left to rest, except when administering him hot brandy and water every 10 to 15 minutes an hour.

I find it interesting that Howard’s technique uses no form of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation (I think it had already been in use since the 18th century, if not sooner), and takes an approach that seems likely to leave one with severe bruising and broken ribs. I also find it intriguing that the rescuer’s top hat never fell off as he attempted to save a life.

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