When Robert Edwin Cornish graduated from the University of California at Berkeley at the age of 18, no one doubted that the young prodigy had an amazing future ahead of him. And they were right (sort of).
The oldest child of Berkeley City Attorney Frank Cornish, Robert actually began school at the age of eleven having been home schooled by his mother up to that point. Once in university, he quickly distinguished himself as a brilliant student and the youngest student ever elected to Phi Beta Kappa at Berkeley, not to mention an accomplished musician. By the time he was twenty-two, he had earned his doctorate and went on to become a research associate in anatomy at Berkeley. It was there that he engaged in a series of ambitious, not to mention far-out, experiments in human physiology. By 1932, he was already making headlines over stories such as inventing special lenses that could be used to read newspapers underwater as well as josquest to make synthetic vitamins. In that same year, he distinguished himself further by developing the first practical antidote to thallium poisoning in response to a health scare involving poisoned barley. Not only was he directly credited with saving the lives of three children who had been accidentally poisoned, but he seemed on the verge of revolutionizing nutrition with his vitamin research.
But what Robert E. Cornish would become best known for was inventing a machine to reanimate the dead.
While hardly the first to make this claim, he had the advantage of living in an era in which the boundary between life and death was already being pushed back due to advances in emergency medicine. Along with improved methods of artificial respiration and blood transfusion, surgeons were routinely carrying out operations that might have been impossible just a few years earlier. In an article which he wrote in 1934, Cornish described in detail the process he was planning to use to revive the recently deceased.
As he explained in his article, the reanimation process had four essential steps: first, remove or neutralize the agent causing death, second, conduct artificial respiration, third, restart the heart, and fourth, nurse the patient back to health. While his first experiments involved using electric shock to restart the heart, Cornish eventually decided that it was too dangerous to patients who might be left insane as a result. As an alternative, he used a "teeter board" allowing gravity to produce artificial respiration. Essentially a see-saw, the board allowed the body to be teeterded at regular intervals (about every six to eight seconds) with which Cornish and his colleagues hoped to create enough blood flow to get the heart started again.
While the teetering was taking place, Cornish and his colleagues also planned to monitor the heart carefully using stethoscopes and, if necessary, injecting additional fluid into the body to build up arterial pressure to the necessary level. The fluid would consist of human blood mixed with heparin to reduce clotting. They would also inject epinephrine to constrict the smaller arteries and build up the required arterial pressure. While all this was happening, intermittent pressure to the heart, along with brief blasts of oxygen to the lungs, would help compress the fine capillaries in the lungs and, hopefully, get the heart restarted.
Though Cornish suggested that this grandiose plan could be tried out on an executed prisoner, he was obliged to start small. His first subject, a mongrel terrier named Lazarus IV (no word on what happened to Lazarus I through III), had been deliberately asphyxiated and then subjected to the teeter-board process in April, 1934. In describing this experiment, Cornish carefully pointed out that the dog had met all clinical tests of death before the reanimation process began. While the dog was successfully revived, Cornish didn't consider the experiment a success since the dog's brain had been left permanently damaged by what had happened. Though all physical functions were restored, the dog seemed sluggish in responding to commands and Cornish suggested that much more research would be needed before anything similar could be tried with a human.
"The world must not jump to the conclusion that we, in our humble experiments with the dog, have arrived at a solution for death," he told reporters. "We do know. as a result of these experiments, that we have taken a dog, asphyxiated it, and by scientific experimentation have brought the dog back to the point where it eats normal dog meals, sleeps, breathes, and lives. Whether it lives constantly in a world of today, or exists in a world of shadows, we have no way of knowing. Further research or greater study by higher scientists may one day return that answer. Until we know the answer to that riddle, we shall try no human experiments."
Despite his caution, Cornish's success with Lazarus IV and a second dog, Lazarus V, made the notion of successfully reanimating the dead seem distinctly plausible. Movies featuring scientists restoring the dead to life became increasingly popular during the late 1930s and 1940s, largely due to Robert Cornish's research. One movie that came out in 1935, Life Returns, actually featured a charismatic scientist who was largely based on Robert Cornish (who also appeared as himself in the movie).
Reanimating the dead also became a standard staple in horror movies including such classics as The Walking Dead (1934) and The Man They Could Not Hang (1939). In both movies, Boris Karloff played a character who is executed and revived using methodology not that dissimilar to Cornish's research (The Walking Dead even featured a teeter-board). Not surprisingly, reviving the dead doesn't turn out so well onscreen (they were horror films, after all) with more than a hint that Cornish and others like him were dabbling in matters best left alone.
Despite the misgivings raised by his research, Robert Cornish was more than willing to take his experiments to the next level and try reviving a human being. Since his work with dogs had allowed him to refine his method, he felt reasonably certain that he could succeed in restoring a recently executed criminal. He even described how he would counteract the effects of hydrocyanic acid fumes (such as in a standard gas chamber) by using methylene blue, an antidote for cyanide poisoning. This would be quickly followed by the reanimation process that he had used with dogs and, hopefully, lead to a successful revival.
As you might imagine, approaching officials at San Quentin and other prisons where executions were conducted went nowhere. Until, that is, when a condemned prisoner named Thomas McMonigle contacted Robert Cornish and offered himself as a test subject.
Which was when things got interesting....
To be continued