The Attempt to Bring George Washington Back to Life

Here is a post for all of the Messiah College students headed to Mount Vernon on Saturday as part of the History Club field trip.

Over at the Mount Vernon website, Mary Thompson has a very interesting piece on Dr. William Thornton’s attempt to resuscitate George Washington after his death on December 14, 1799.  Here is a taste:

At least one friend wanted to help the process of “resuscitation” along after George Washington’s death in 1799.  William Thornton was a physician, trained in the best medical schools in Europe, who also designed the Library Company of Philadelphia (1789), the United States Capitol (1792), and a number of important homes in the DC area, including the Octagon, Woodlawn, and Tudor Place.  He was appointed one of three commissioners for the new federal city (1793-1828) and was named first superintendent of the U.S. Patent Office in 1802.  Twenty years after Washington’s death, Thornton wrote that when the former president was suffering through his final illness, a family member invited Thornton to Mount Vernon to see if he could help.  Thornton left for the estate, in the “fullest confidence of being able to relieve him by tracheotomy.”  He was shocked to discover that Washington had died before his arrival and was now “laid out a stiffened Corpse.  My feelings at that moment I cannot express!  I was overwhelmed with the loss of the best friend I had on Earth.”  But Thornton had a backup plan:

The weather was very cold, & he [Washington] remained in a frozen state, for several Days.  I proposed to attempt his restoration, in the following manner.  First to thaw him in cold water, then to lay him in blankets, & by degrees & by friction to give him warmth, and to put into activity the minute blood vessels, at the same time to open a passage to the Lungs by the Trachaea, and to inflate them with air, to produce an artificial respiration, and to transfuse blood into him from a lamb.  If these means had been resorted to, & had failed all that could be done would have been done, but I was not seconded in this proposal; for it was deemed unavailing.  I reasoned thus.  He died by the loss of blood & the want of air.  Restore these with the heat that had subsequently been deducted, and as the organization was in every respect perfect, there was no doubt in my mind that his restoration was possible.

Twenty years later, Thornton still seemed a little miffed that people questioned his idea, wondering “whether if it were possible it would be right to attempt to recall to life one who had departed full of honor & renown; free from the frailties of age, in the full enjoyment of every faculty, & prepared for eternity.”  Thornton at least got his way, after insisting that the body be enclosed within a lead coffin, so that Washington could eventually be buried at the United States Capitol.4   That move never happened.