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Jan 30 2012

True Science for Boys

Ah, the 19th century…when mad scientists were really mad, and not only that, they were popular at parties. In 1818, Dr Ure and Professor Jeffray obtained the freshly killed corpse of Matthew Clydesdale, only an hour from the hangman’s noose, and proceeded to experiment on it with a battery in the Glasgow University anatomy theater before a crowd of spectators. In my youth, I had to settle for recent roadkill, a 9 volt battery, and a dark basement, all by my lonesome — my jealousy is acute.

Here is a small portion of the account of that day’s fun.

The supra-orbital nerve was laid bare in the forehead, as it issues through the supraciliary foramen in the eyebrow: the one conducting rod being applied to it, and the other to the heel, most extraordinary grimaces were exhibited every time that electrical discharges were made, by running the wire in my hand along the edges of the last trough, from the 220th, to the 270th pair of plates: thus fifty shocks, each greater than the preceding one, were given in two seconds. Every muscle in his countenance was simultaneously thrown into fearful action: rage, horror, despair, anguish, and ghastly smile united their hideous expression in the murderer’s face; surpassing far the wildest representation of a Fuseli or a Kean. At this period several of the spectators were forced to leave the apartment from terror or sickness, and one gentleman fainted.

The account of galvanic experiments on dead bodies is taken from The Young Man’s Book of Amusement, which on the cover promises to teach card tricks and how to make fireworks. You’d think an amusement in which the first step is to obtain a dead body would be listed a little more prominently, but I guess playing with cadavers was just commonplace in the year before Queen Vickie was born.

(Also on FtB)

66 comments

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  1. 1
    Bart B. Van Bockstaele

    I used to go to a pet store and buy dead animals from them. They didn’t like to have dead animals as those were obviously a pure loss. But it sure was a boon for me!

  2. 2
    Anthony K

    You can achieve the same sort of party popularity without a cadaver! Try the human blockhead trick if you’re looking for a disgusted, fainting audience.

  3. 3
    Kevin, 友好火猫 (Friendly Fire Cat)

    Oh that’s just interesting stuff. Creepy as all getout, but totally amazing.

  4. 4
    Glen Davidson

    You never hear about events like that being used to promote science. No wonder it has problems recruiting today.

    The hangings might even bring a few creationists around to our side.

    Glen Davidson

  5. 5
    a3kr0n

    If a kid said he wanted to do this today he would get a full psychiatric workup, and a handful of mind numbing pills.
    So kids don’t even think of experimenting with anything. Just sit quietly at your desk with your hands folded until you’re dead.

  6. 6
    mmmmd

    Wow, that sounds like a major good time. (I am a pathologist). I doubt, however, that that type of experiment would get through the IRB easily. Beyond that, there is a dearth of freshly hanged bodies. Maybe Larry Pittman can help us there?

  7. 7
    Ingdigo Jump

    If a kid said he wanted to do this today he would get a full psychiatric workup, and a handful of mind numbing pills.
    So kids don’t even think of experimenting with anything. Just sit quietly at your desk with your hands folded until you’re dead.

    Really this old card?

    I don’t appreciate your bigotry against me, k thx.

  8. 8
    jamessweet

    I wonder if with all that current flooding through a recently dead brain, if anything resembling a sentient experience of pain might have transiently arisen. I wouldn’t entirely discount the possibility. Sure, it would be nothing that could be contextualized and remembered the way we truly living do with pain… but that the corpse might have been “experiencing pain” on the same level that an insect or a lobster or similar does? I wouldn’t count out the possibility… kinda creepy…

  9. 9
    Ingdigo Jump

    I wouldn’t count out the possibility… kinda creepy…

    …why?

    This is like saying there’s no difference between a lever and a computer right? Both machines.

  10. 10
    peicurmudgeon

    Seems a lot like those frogs that biology students used to play with. Without pithing, the nervious system may function better.

    Besides, all we are is meat.

    They’re Made Out of Meat (2005)

  11. 11
    Predator Handshake

    Brownian @2: that trick surprised me by just getting a reaction out of me. I used to be pretty squeamish as a kid but gradually got over it through biology classes and my current work in pharmacology, but thinking about pushing a foreign object into my nasal cavity really skeeves me out.

  12. 12
    jamessweet
    I wouldn’t count out the possibility… kinda creepy…

    …why?

    This is like saying there’s no difference between a lever and a computer right? Both machines.

    No no, not creepy like “zomg we’re just machines”, but creepy like “wow, they might have made the poor guy (to the extent he still was the same guy, which is not very much, but still) feel pain even after he was dead.”

    Obviously we’re descending into thorny existential issues right now, but my basic point is that if I think it’s “wrong” to torture a fish for fun, then I wonder if it’s “wrong” to “torture” a corpse in this way…?

  13. 13
    mmmmd

    If you don’t feel/recognized pain when you are asleep or unconcious even as the sensory nerves countinue to fire, how would you expect that a brain deprived of oxygen and glucose for hours would?

  14. 14
    ikesolem

    Oh, you can still do things like this today, if you’re so interested:

    “Acquisition of transverse CT, MR and cryosection images of representative male and female cadavers has been completed. The male was sectioned at one millimeter intervals, the female at one-third of a millimeter intervals.”

    http://www.nlm.nih.gov/research/visible/visible_human.html

    Wiki addendum: “The male cadaver is from Joseph Paul Jernigan, a 38-year-old Texas murderer who was executed by lethal injection on August 5, 1993. At the prompting of a prison chaplain he had agreed to donate his body for scientific research or medical use.

    See? Religion has it uses, eh, Igor?

  15. 15
    Cosmic Snark

    Hell, that’s nothing. Ure and Jeffray had it easy. Why, when I was a kid, we had to walk uphill in the snow to find a subject for our science demonstrations, kill him ourselves, and drag the corpse uphill all the way back!

  16. 16
    mattpegan

    That picture is great. I work on cadavers for a living…I’m going to print out a big copy of that and hang it in the lab.

  17. 17
    boskerbonzer

    For anyone so inclined here’s something along the same lines using dogs:

    http://www.eversostrange.com/2011/03/03/living-severed-dog-head/

    After reading the description I haven’t had the guts to watch the video. Plus, I’m one of those freaks who wouldn’t be particularly bothered by a human corpse, but killing a dog for shits and giggles would give me nightmares for months.

  18. 18
    thelastholdout

    I’m surprised that no one has yet mentioned that it was this experiment, or one like it, which helped inspire Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein.

  19. 19
    Anthony K

    @Predator Handshake

    Really, the fun of the trick is knowing that anyone can do it if they’re willing to jam things into their face (straight in, never up, of course). It’s useful to know how to do should you encounter someone who believes in faith healers, like the Brazilian fraud, John of God.

  20. 20
    Anthony K

    I’m surprised that no one has yet mentioned that it was this experiment, or one like it, which helped inspire Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein.

    I was raised to believe that it is impolite to publicly discuss things that helped inspire Mary Shelly. I’m working on it, but some things are hard to change.

  21. 21
    Anthony K

    Oops. Misspelled “Mary Shelley.” Now everyone’s gonna think Dr. Meyers has no standards for his blog.

  22. 22
    F [i'm not here, i'm gone]

    Warning! – Many experiments in this book are extremely dangerous!

    And probably highly illegal if you are just screwing around at home.

  23. 23
    madscientist

    Unfortunately they don’t describe the battery in sufficient detail. Given the era it was probably a copper-zinc Volta pile. At room temperature each pair of plates (1 cell) would give ~1.1V, so those guys were using ~240 to ~300V – far more than necessary to get a response from muscle tissue. At those voltages they didn’t even need to make the incisions – all that would have been needed was a little salt-laden gel to give the electrodes better contact. Placing the electrodes at specific nerves had little to do with the effects observed (though perhaps they learned that with later experiments).

  24. 24
    F [i'm not here, i'm gone]

    things that helped inspire Mary Shelley

    The year without a summer, in addition to such gentlemanly experiments as these.

  25. 25
    Duckbilled Platypus

    So scientists do not have a problem with capital punishment provided they get to play with the corpse?

  26. 26
    Cosmic Snark

    Oops. Misspelled “Mary Shelley.” Now everyone’s gonna think Dr. Meyers has no standards for his blog.

    That’s Mr. Meyers. Mr.

  27. 27
    Duckbilled Platypus

    That’s Mr. Meyers. Mr.

    Who is this Meyers you’re talking about?

  28. 28
    raven

    So scientists do not have a problem with capital punishment provided they get to play with the corpse?

    “In 1818, Dr Ure and Professor Jeffray” Um, right. All scientists think like Scottish doctors in 1818. Nothing new has happened since then.

    It’s the same with xians. They think nothing of nailing people to crosses as long as they turn into gods.

  29. 29
    stringer

    So scientists do not have a problem with capital punishment provided they get to play with the corpse?

    How did you reach that conclusion? Why is it you think all scientists are politically homogenous?

  30. 30
    'Tis Himself

    Browniat has no respect for Herr Doktor Professor Meyer.

  31. 31
    Anthony K

    So scientists do not have a problem with capital punishment provided they get to play with the corpse?

    You write ‘play’ as if it weren’t a rigorous, heavily formalised endeavour.

    Clearly, you’ve no children in organised team sport.

  32. 32
    Anthony K

    Browniat has no respect for Herr Doktor Professor Meyer.

    I told you all that the Uprising of the Browniat would have far-reaching repercussions if it were not put down swiftly and definitively, but did you listen?

  33. 33
    chigau (違う)

    Do the Browniat have cool uniforms? Or, at least, a secret handshake?

  34. 34
    Ichthyic

    The account of galvanic experiments on dead bodies is taken from The Young Man’s Book of Amusement, which on the cover promises to teach card tricks and how to make fireworks. You’d think an amusement in which the first step is to obtain a dead body would be listed a little more prominently, but I guess playing with cadavers was just commonplace in the year before Queen Vickie was born.

    …I’m picturing an episode of “Little Rascals” where Spanky gets Alfalfa to go dig up a corpse for a grand idea to make money by experimenting on it and charging the neighborhood kids to watch…

  35. 35
    Ichthyic

    So scientists do not have a problem with capital punishment provided they get to play with the corpse?

    “I’ll take: ‘Straw Man’ for 500.00, Alex”

  36. 36
    Ichthyic

    Obviously we’re descending into thorny existential issues right now, but my basic point is that if I think it’s “wrong” to torture a fish for fun, then I wonder if it’s “wrong” to “torture” a corpse in this way…?

    is the fish dead too?

    if yes, then you’re just wrong.

    if no, then you’ve made a false comparison, AND you’re wrong.

  37. 37
    Anthony K

    Do the Browniat have cool uniforms? Or, at least, a secret handshake?

    It used to be baggy shorts and Hawaiian shirts over decade-old threadbare T-shirts, until their GF™ started taking them shopping and making them cull their closets.

    And, with what I know about where they’ve been, I wouldn’t touch their hands at all if I were you.

  38. 38
    Duckbilled Platypus

    Um, before this derails, I intended that as mock unsciency commentary. Gosh, I hate to explain my jokes. I had better work on them.

  39. 39
    Irène Delse, on dry land among seabirds

    jamessweet:

    I wonder if with all that current flooding through a recently dead brain, if anything resembling a sentient experience of pain might have transiently arisen. I wouldn’t entirely discount the possibility. Sure, it would be nothing that could be contextualized and remembered the way we truly living do with pain… but that the corpse might have been “experiencing pain” on the same level that an insect or a lobster or similar does?

    The difference is that insects and lobsters here still have a fully functional nervous system. Because I assume you are talking about live critters, not dead, right? But human beings are declared dead when they go through the one biological transition that can’t (yet?) be reversed by medical science: the death of the brain. So the human body through which electricity conducts doesn’t have a working central nervous system any more, even if motor neurons can still conduct electricity and make muscles twitch. If “anything resembling a sentient experience of pain” did arise, it would have been exactly that: the appearance of pain, not its reality.

    Unless, of course, you posit that feelings and consciousness are formed outside of the brain and can be experienced without it… But then you’ll need to invent a whole new biology to justify it!

  40. 40
    Ichthyic

    Um, before this derails, I intended that as mock unsciency commentary.

    It’s like after being exposed to decades of creationist nonsense, you expect us to still carry around an irony meter or something.

    *sigh*

  41. 41
    Ichthyic

    Unless, of course, you posit that feelings and consciousness are formed outside of the brain and can be experienced without it… But then you’ll need to invent a whole new biology to justify it!

    well, at least he would have dualism to fall back on as a philosophical model.

    but then, starting from dualism, the only thing to do would be to review the last 200 years of science already disproving it.

    *shrug*

  42. 42
    jaycubed

    Considering that other routine forms of English amusement included “baiting” animals by, say, tossing a bear into a pit with a pack of bulldogs/mastiffs (Queen Liz-1′s fave amusement) or box of rats into a pit with a group of terriers (the working man’s equivalent, including bets on which dog kills more): electrogalvanic experiments on a hanged man’s body does seem like (upper class) boy’s play. Perhaps poking a dog’s corpse with a stick would be the common boy’s equivalent.

  43. 43
    Irène Delse, on dry land among seabirds

    F:

    things that helped inspire Mary Shelley

    The year without a summer, in addition to such gentlemanly experiments as these.

    Plus, possibly, the death of her first child as a baby. (Some historians of science-fiction even speculate that considering the dangers of childbirth and early childhood at the time, the idea of making fully developed living bodies out of the lab could have fascinated a woman of Mary Shelley’s era, at least as a wild speculation of what progress could bring. At 21, when she wrote Frankenstein, Mary had borne two babies, lost the first and was pregnant for a third time. She would also shortly lose her second and third children.)

  44. 44
    ikesolem

    Along the Frankenstein lines, what do you think inspired H.P. Lovecraft to write “Herbert West: Reanimator”?

    Was it the fact that he never had any children that inspired him to that morbid turn of mind? Or is that explanation restricted to female writers? Maybe he wasn’t getting laid enough? Freud could explain it, no doubt…

    We followed the local death-notices like ghouls, for our specimens demanded particular qualities. What we wanted were corpses interred soon after death and without artificial preservation; preferably free from malforming disease, and certainly with all organs present. Accident victims were our best hope. Not for many weeks did we hear of anything suitable; though we talked with morgue and hospital authorities, ostensibly in the college’s interest, as often as we could without exciting suspicion. We found that the college had first choice in every case, so that it might be necessary to remain in Arkham during the summer, when only the limited summer-school classes were held. In the end, though, luck favoured us; for one day we heard of an almost ideal case in the potter’s field; a brawny young workman drowned only the morning before in Summer’s Pond, and buried at the town’s expense without delay or embalming. That afternoon we found the new grave, and determined to begin work soon after midnight.

    Now, that’s how you get your hands on a corpse, for those so inclined…

  45. 45
    doktorzoom

    Jamessweet @ 8: If nothing else, there’s probably the germ of a Philip K Dick short story in that.

    (It occurs to me that “Philip K Dickishness” would be a fairly good username–I offer it gratis to anyone who wants to adopt it…)

  46. 46
    Ingdigo Jump

    So scientists do not have a problem with capital punishment provided they get to play with the corpse?

    Ignoring the stupid for a moment let me rephrase the question.

    An innocent man is murdered by the state, do you reject the body and let it rot or use it for your research in medical care for others?

  47. 47
    Ingdigo Jump

    No no, not creepy like “zomg we’re just machines”, but creepy like “wow, they might have made the poor guy (to the extent he still was the same guy, which is not very much, but still) feel pain even after he was dead.”

    Obviously we’re descending into thorny existential issues right now, but my basic point is that if I think it’s “wrong” to torture a fish for fun, then I wonder if it’s “wrong” to “torture” a corpse in this way…?

    FFS. Electrical impulse–> Nerve twitch.

    Let me explain. If you take a broken computer and hook a light up to it and run a current through the circuitry, the light turning on does not mean you booted up windows

  48. 48
    Irène Delse, on dry land among seabirds

    ikesolem:

    Along the Frankenstein lines, what do you think inspired H.P. Lovecraft to write “Herbert West: Reanimator”?

    Well, reading Frankenstein, for one. Plus all Edgar Allan Poe, plus tons of horror pulp fiction. (After flunking high school for “health reasons”, but in fact probably a nervous breakdown, he spent several years nearly recluse, spending his days in solitary walks and reading every “weird story” that he could get his hands upon.)

    Having had two parents die mad in insane asylums may also have contributed! “Herbert West” is portrayed a lot more like a mad scientist that the well-meaning Victor Frankenstein.

    Early deaths in the close family (his father, then his grand-father who more or less raised him) can also have left an overall morbid impression. And bringing the dead back to life implies, even unconsciously, the hope of being able to converse again with loved ones.

    But as for wishing for a kind of sexless reproduction? Who knows, maybe! Lovecraft was married for a short time, but according to biograph S.T. Joshi, he seems to never have had much sex drive, and may actually have been asexual.

  49. 49
    myeck waters

    doktorzoom #45

    (It occurs to me that “Philip K Genderedinsult” would be a fairly good username–I offer it gratis to anyone who wants to adopt it…)

    FIFY

  50. 50
    Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :)

    …why single out “boys” in this? :/

  51. 51
    Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :)

    doktorzoom #45

    (It occurs to me that “Philip K Genderedinsult” would be a fairly good username–I offer it gratis to anyone who wants to adopt it…)

    FIFY

    Ah, good old purity trolling.

  52. 52
    KarenX

    (Some historians of science-fiction even speculate that considering the dangers of childbirth and early childhood at the time, the idea of making fully developed living bodies out of the lab could have fascinated a woman of Mary Shelley’s era, at least as a wild speculation of what progress could bring. At 21, when she wrote Frankenstein, Mary had borne two babies, lost the first and was pregnant for a third time. She would also shortly lose her second and third children.)

    And! And! And her mother–Mary Wollstonecraft–died from childbed fever several days after she was born.

  53. 53
    Glen Davidson

    Experiments with electricity likely did help to give rise to the later Frankenstein who was brought to life by electricity.

    However, the first version didn’t involve electricity. It was all chemistry, with a significant amount of praise for how much improved chemistry was over alchemy.

    Glen Davidson

  54. 54
    Josh, Official SpokesGay

    …why single out “boys” in this? :/

    I think you may have missed the title of this 19th century book. It’s in the last part of the post.

  55. 55
    myeck waters

    Azkyroth #51

    Ah, good old purity trolling.

    You misspelled “puberty”.

  56. 56
    Ingdigo Jump

    But as for wishing for a kind of sexless reproduction? Who knows, maybe! Lovecraft was married for a short time, but according to biograph S.T. Joshi, he seems to never have had much sex drive, and may actually have been asexual.

    Um if I recall correctly this was contradicted by his wife

  57. 57
    vintagebees

    Reminds me of some of the stories in Bill Bryson’s excellent book, “A Short History of Nearly Everything.”

  58. 58
    HappiestSadist, Repellent Little Martyr

    Ing: Yes, she did say he was “adequately excellent”. Which, despite being an odd phrasing, does suggest he didn’t just lie there and make that face.

    Now you’re making me think of what HPL would be like in the sack. Possible concussion yesterday, now this? My poor brain won’t even be intact enough to send any amusing nervous reaction at this rate.

  59. 59
    rorschach

    I read in (I think) Mary Roach’s book “Stiff” that convicted murderers back in that time were more afraid of being dissected after death than of being killed in the first place. Anatomists were really struggling to find corpses to study and teach on, so there was apparently quite the market for digging up freshly buried people.

  60. 60
    Alethea Kuiper-Belt

    IIRC, that was religious, and also fuelled a fear of cremation. Apparently god is pretty good as raising thoroughly rotted cadavers, when at the last trump the dead shall be raised. But ashes and disassembled ones are beyond him.

  61. 61
    chigau (違う)

    I ♥ Mary Roach.

  62. 62
    DLC

    what if they had re-animated the murderer! He might have gone around threatening children or hiding out in windmills!

  63. 63
    Bob Dowling

    How is it that I can leave my body for transplant reuse or leave it for medical science but I can’t leave it for “the amusement of schoolchildren”?

  64. 64
    scottplumer

    So was this the origin of defibrillators?

  65. 65
    Ms. Daisy Cutter, General Manager for the Cleveland Steamers

    Happiestsadist:

    Now you’re making me think of what HPL would be like in the sack.

    Dammit, I can’t find that image macro of HPL’s purported O-face. So I’ll just GIS, find something suggestive thereof, and let you all thank me for making you get out the brain bleach.

  66. 66
    Pierce R. Butler

    (Also on FtB)

    The voltage levels in our esteemed host’s brain also need adjustment – but I can’t tell which way the dial should be turned.

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