University of Virginia Historical Collections at the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library

A Watery Grave: Introduction

Drowning, Resuscitation, Rescue

‘The loss of the Halsewell East Indiaman‘ by James Gillray, published by Robert Wilkinson, after James Northcote line engraving, etching, and stipple, 1787. National Portrait Gallery, London.

Drowning was a frequent hazard 250 years ago, and physicians knew that they could do almost nothing to revive an unconscious person pulled from the water.  Few people knew how to swim—even fishermen and seamen usually could not swim.

Societies for Saving “persons apparently drowned” 
When an English physician read a paper to the Royal Society of London in 1745 about “a man dead in appearance recovered by distending the lungs with air,” the scientific and medical community did not follow up this promising lead.  In 1767, however, the medical climate was more receptive when a physician described several cases of resuscitation in Switzerland to the French Academy of Sciences in Paris.  Soon societies for the revival of the apparently drowned were created in the leading scientific cities—Amsterdam, Milan, Venice, Hamburg, Paris, St. Petersburg, Berlin, and Boston, Massachusetts.  (Soon after its 1786 founding in Boston, the Massachusetts Humane Society issued a broadsheet with instructions for resuscitating the drowned).

Soon the Dutch society had collected enough information on its successful treatments to publish a paper, which was translated into English by Thomas Cogan, an English physician.  He showed it to his friend and colleague William Hawes, an apothecary (pharmacist) who lived near the Thames River.  Hawes was enthusiastic and began to follow the Dutch recommendations.  He even paid people to bring bodies to him within a reasonable time after apparently drowning (which is reported to have led to a novel kind of fraud—but that’s another story).  Local physicians, however, opposed and even ridiculed him.

Establishing the London Society
Cogan and Hawes decided to form a society to promote this new treatment for the drowned, and in 1774 they met with 32 other gentlemen to establish a charitable society that they later named the Humane Society.  After King George III became a patron of the society in 1783, it became the Royal Humane Society.

The society provided medical equipment and services.  It published a list of 21 surgeons and apothecaries who practiced along the Thames River and would provide free help in cases of drowning.  Also, the society would financially reward those who brought word to the surgeons and apothecaries, as well as reward pub owners who took in the apparently drowned person.  If no specialist was available, the society would pay anyone who attempted the treatment for two hours—and pay twice as much if the patient survived.

Early Resuscitation Treatments
The society published instructions for the proposed treatment and provided a box of special equipment. Some of the equipment seems reasonable today—wooden pipes to be used for blowing air through the nostrils and into the lungs, and smelling salts.  But other devices seem strange.  The most expensive piece of equipment was a bellows with a flexible tube.  Observation had led physicians to believe that the intestines retained life longer than other parts of the body; in the terminology of the time, they retained their “irritability” (responsiveness).  Therefore, if the intestines could be stimulated properly, they could revive the rest of the body.  The bellows were used to provide a tobacco smoke enema by driving tobacco smoke, a known irritant, into the intestine through the anus.  Later, this use of tobacco lapsed, as it became clear that the true mechanism of revival lay in restoring respiration directly.

Legacy Today
Once the Society had proved that its methods worked, they became a standard part of medical practice at the time.  Today lifeguards, rescue workers, and thousands of concerned citizens are trained each year in modern resuscitation, and medical personnel save hundreds of drowning victims.  (See the page about the American Red Cross and its involvement in training lifeguards and teaching lifesaving.)  All this developed from the work begun almost 250 years ago by the Royal Humane Society in London.

Addeane S. Caelleigh

Addeane Caelleigh is Director, Institutional Studies School of Medicine

This essay, here revised slightly, was originally published in Academic Medicine and is reproduced with permission of the publishers.

Exhibit content was also created by Normajean N. Hultman, Historical Collections Assistant. For permission to reproduce any of the text or to make comments or suggestions, please contact a member of Historical Collections.

Further Information
The Royal Humane Society
Humane Society of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts
Trauma Resuscitation
Fralin Museum of Art at the University of Virginia
Academic Medicine

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