Every one knows that life exists in a latent state in the seeds of plants, and may be preserved therein, so to speak, indefinitely. In 1853, Ridolfi deposited in the Egyptian Museum of Florence a sheaf of wheat that he had obtained from seeds found in a mummy case dating back about 3,000 years. This aptitude of revivification is found to a high degree in animalcules of low order. The air which we breathe is loaded with impalpable dust that awaits, for ages perhaps, proper conditions of heat and moisture to give it an ephemeral life that it will lose and acquire by turns.
In 1707, Spallanzani found it possible, eleven times in succession, to suspend the life of rotifers submitted to desiccation, and to call it back again by moistening this organic dust with water. A few years ago Doyere brought to life some tardigrades that had been dried at a temperature of 150° and kept four weeks in a vacuum. If we ascend the scale of beings, we find analogous phenomena produced by diverse causes. Flies that have been imported in casks of Madeira have been resuscitated in Europe, and chrysalids have been kept in this state for years. Cockchafers drowned, and then dried in the sun, have been revived after a lapse of twenty-four hours, two days, and even five days, after submersion. Frogs, salamanders, and spiders poisoned by curare or nicotine, have returned to life after several days of apparent death.
Cold produces some extraordinary effects. Spallanzani kept several frogs in the center of a lump of ice for two years, and, although they became dry, rigid, almost friable, and gave no external appearance of being alive, it was only necessary to expose them to a gradual and moderate heat to put an end to the lethargic state in which they lay.
Pikes and salamanders have at different epochs been revived before the eyes of Maupertuis and Constant Dumeril (members of the Academy of Sciences) after being frozen stiff. Auguste Dumeril, son of Constant, and who was the reporter of the committee relative to the Blois toad in 1851, published a curious memoir the following year in which he narrates how he interrupted life through congelation of the liquids and solids of the organism. Some frogs, whose internal temperature had been reduced to -2° in an atmosphere of -12°, returned to life before his eyes, and he observed their tissues regain their usual elasticity and their heart pass from absolute immobility to its normal motion.
There is therefore no reason for doubting the assertions of travelers who tell us that the inhabitants of North America and Russia transport fish that are frozen stiff, and bring them to life again by dipping them into water of ordinary temperature ten or fifteen days afterward. But I think too much reliance should not be put in the process devised by the great English physiologist, Hunter, for prolonging the life of man indefinitely by successive freezings. It has been allowed to no one but a romancer, Mr. Edmond About, to be present at this curious operation.
Among the mammifera we find appearances of death in their winter sleep; but these are incomplete, since the temperature of hibernating animals remains greater by one degree than that of the surrounding air, and the motions of the heart and respiration are simply retarded. Dr. Preyer has observed that a hamster sometimes goes five minutes without breathing appreciably after a fortnight's sleep.
In man himself a suspension of life, or at least phenomena that seem inseparable therefrom, has been observed many times. In the Journal des Savants for 1741 we read that a Col. Russel, having witnessed the death of his wife, whom he tenderly loved, did not wish her buried, and threatened to kill any one who should attempt to remove the body before he witnessed its decomposition himself. Eight days passed by without the woman giving the slightest sign of life, "when, at a moment when he was holding her hand and shedding tears over her, the church bell began to ring, and, to his indescribable surprise, his wife sat up and said, 'It is the last stroke, we shall be too late.' She recovered."
At a session of the Academy of Sciences, Oct. 17, 1864, Mr. Blaudet communicated a report upon a young woman of thirty summers who, being subject to nervous attacks, fell, after her crises, into a sort of lethargic sleep which lasted several weeks and sometimes several months. One of her sleeps, especially, lasted from the beginning of the year 1862 until March, 1863.
Dr. Paul Levasseur relates that, in a certain English family, lethargy seemed to have become hereditary. The first case was exhibited in an old lady who remained for fifteen days in an immovable and insensible state, and who afterward, on regaining her consciousness, lived for quite a long time. Warned by this fact, the family preserved a young man for several weeks who appeared to be dead, but who came to life again.
Dr. Pfendler, in an inaugural thesis (Paris, 1833), minutely describes a case of apparent death of which he himself was a witness. A young girl of Vienna at the age of 15 was attacked by a nervous affection that brought on violent crises followed by lethargic states which lasted three or four days. After a time she became so exhausted that the first physicians of the city declared that there was no more hope. It was not long, in fact, before she was observed to rise in her bed and fall back as if struck with death. "For four hours she appeared to me," says Dr. Pfendler, "completely inanimate. With Messrs. Franck and Schaeffer, I made every possible effort to rekindle the spark of life. Neither mirror, nor burned feather, nor ammonia, nor pricking succeeded in giving us a sign of sensibility. Galvanism was tried without the patient showing any contractility. Mr. Franck believed her to be dead, but nevertheless advised me to leave her on the bed. For twenty-eight hours no change supervened, although it was thought that a little putrefaction was observed. The death bell was sounded, the friends of the girl had dressed her in white and had crowned her with flowers, and all was arranged for her burial.
Desiring to convince myself of the course of the putrefaction, I visited the body again, and found that no further advance had been made than before. What was my astonishment when I believed that I saw a slight respiratory motion. I looked again, and saw that I was not mistaken. I at once used friction and irritants, and in an hour and a half the respiration increased. The patient opened her eyes, and, struck with the funereal paraphernalia around her, returned to consciousness, and said, 'I am too young to die.'" All this was followed by a ten hours' sleep. Convalescence proceeded rapidly, and the girl became free from all her nervous troubles. During her crisis she heard everything. She quoted some Latin words that Mr. Franck had used. Her most fearful agony had been to hear the preparations for her burial without being able to get rid of her torpor. Medical dictionaries are full of anecdotes of this nature, but I shall cite but two more.