In A Nutshell
After George Washington died, his physician and close friend, William Thornton, announced a bizarre plan to revive the deceased president. He proposed thawing Washington’s frozen body, introducing air into his lungs through a hole in his trachea, and giving him a transfusion of warm lamb’s blood. Luckily, his morbid offer was declined.
The Whole Bushel
By all accounts, George Washington was a courageous soldier. During the Revolutionary War, he had two horses shot out from under him, and his coat was tattered by bullets that just missed him. Had he been captured by the British, he would most assuredly have been executed. But while he did not seem to fear death, he did fear the prospect of being buried alive. It was a reasonable concern at the time; history reports cases of coffins found clawed by those unfortunate souls thought dead before their time.
On Thursday December 12, 1799, the former President was enjoying his retirement, touring the grounds of his plantation on horseback. The weather was terrible, and even after returning to his home, he did not bother to quickly remove his cold, wet clothing. He soon became ill and took to his bed. Three doctors came to visit him, each prescribing a regimen of bloodletting, which Washington himself wholeheartedly endorsed. Within a few hours, they’d drained him of half the blood in his body and his condition deteriorated. Realizing he would soon pass, he thanked the men for their help and told his personal secretary Colonel Tobias Lear “I am just going. Have me decently buried and do not let my body be put into the vault less than three days after I am dead. Do you understand me? ’Tis well.” These would be his final words.
Another doctor had been summoned when Washington took ill, a gentleman named William Thornton, a polymath who was trained in the best medical schools of Europe. Thornton’s best-remembered role in history would be as the architect of the United States Capitol building. In his papers, he described Washington as “the best friend I had on Earth,” and rushed to be by his side. Unfortunately, Thornton did not make it. By the time he arrived, Washington’s body had been frozen.
Thornton was undaunted, and he proposed a Frankenstein’s monster experiment to resurrect the first President of the United States. Thornton wrote: “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.”
This experiment was not as bizarre as it sounds. The science of transfusions was in its infancy at the time, and lambs were the go-to animals for the procedure, thought to possess a remarkable vitality. To Thornton’s consternation, Washington’s widow declined to allow her husband’s corpse this indignity.