Q: A friend of mine recently tried to tell me that many years ago some scientist was able to bring dead animals and people back to life. Does he have his story straight or is he mixing fact and horror film?
Tom Bryant, of Collinsville
A: Turns out it’s a little of both. The year was 1931, and Boris Karloff probably was frightening moviegoers as much as the Depression as he lumbered around the celluloid countryside as Frankenstein in the time-honored film adaptation of Mary Shelley’s classic novel.
One of the people apparently haunted by the macabre goings-on was a brilliant scientist by the name of Dr. Robert E. Cornish. He was a child prodigy, graduating with honors from the University of California Berkeley when he was just 18. The highly gifted biologist then earned his doctorate at 22. But, even then, at least part of his attention was focused on the oddball, attempting such projects as developing glasses for reading newspapers under water.
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After “Frankenstein” was released, his work really took a bizarre turn. He became convinced that, like the mad scientist Dr. Victor von Frankenstein, he, too, could find a way to overcome death. For much of the next two decades, he worked to do just that.
Fortunately, he didn’t need a modern-day Igor to rob graves for fresh hearts and brains. Instead, he built a bizarre seesaw-like device that could rock cadavers up and down fast enough to keep the blood circulating. As this was being done, he pumped the bodies full of a blood thinner mixed with epinephrine (the hormone adrenaline).
His early tries produced lifeless results. In 1933, he reportedly attempted to revive victims of heart attack, drowning and electrocution with his teeter-totter without success. So he decided to perfect his method on fox terriers, which he asphyxiated with nitrogen gas and left them for dead for 10 minutes before attempting to revive them. He named them all Lazarus, after the man Jesus restored to life, but there would be no similar miracle for Cornish’s Lazarus I, II or III.
Cornish finally had the scientific world buzzing when he successfully reanimated Lazarus IV, according to the July 1934 issue of Modern Mechanix and Inventions. The doctor reported that the pooch “shuddered back to life with a whine and a feeble bark.” But it wasn’t a new lease on life that people would look forward to. Although the revived dog could crawl, bark, sit and eat, it was blind and severely brain-damaged.
A few months later, newspapers reported even greater success.
“Recently Lazarus V was put to death with an overdose of ether,” one reported. “Half an hour after its breathing had stopped and five minutes after its heart was stilled, the animal was revived by means of chemicals and artificial respiration. Dr. Cornish, enthusiastic, has been reported as saying that Lazarus V returned nearer normalcy in four days than (Lazarus IV) had in 13 days.”
That, however, seems to be the pinnacle of his success in what would have been hands down the greatest scientific achievement of all time. Eventually, the University of California Berkeley, where he set up shop, evicted him from campus. So Cornish continued his project in a garden shed, ruffling the feathers of neighbors who frequently complained of strange odors emanating from his property.
Cornish continued to hold onto his hope of trying his experiment on humans. He even improved his system, ditching the seesaw for a crude heart-lung machine he had fashioned from vacuum cleaner parts and an old radiator. But his invitation for human volunteers long went unaccepted.
Then came the final bizarre twist. Thomas McMonigle was sitting on death row in California’s San Quentin State Prison for the gruesome 1945 kidnapping and murder of 15-year-old Thora Chamberlain, of Campbell, Calif. What better way, he figured, to escape his court-appointed fate than allow Cornish to bring him back to life? If successful, McMonigle might be a free man because the sentence had been carried out and he couldn’t be tried again.
Clinton Duffy, the prison warden, said McMonigle’s request was totally impractical because McMonigle’s body would have to be left inside the gas chamber for an hour while the gas was being removed. Cornish appealed, saying he’d first re-create the event with a sheep and bring it back to life to prove it could be done. But Cornish couldn’t sway the California courts, who probably were worried about the legal problems of double jeopardy that would force them to release a potentially dangerous man.
On Feb. 20, 1948, McMonigle entered the gas chamber to meet his maker, not Cornish, on the other side. Eventually, Cornish reportedly gave up his dream and settled down to marketing and selling a toothpaste he had formulated. He died in 1963 at age 59.
For a closer look at Cornish, try Frank Swain’s 2013 book, “How to Make a Zombie: The Real Life (and Death) Science of Reanimation and Mind Control.” You can find extended excerpts online.
What was the first Hollywood (not British) film shown on TV after the U.S. movie industry ended its ban and started selling television rights to its films in late 1955?
Answer to Saturday’s trivia: As we head toward the nation’s 58th presidential election, candidates might want to remember that only one commander-in-chief has ever been elected without winning either his home state or his state of residence: James K. Polk, who lost both North Carolina, where he was born, and Tennessee, where he was living when he was elected in 1844. Two others were elected even though they lost their state of residence: Woodrow Wilson in 1916 (New Jersey) and Richard Nixon in 1968 (New York). Six others have been elected without winning their state of birth: Zachary Taylor, Abraham Lincoln (he lost Kentucky in both 1860 and 1864), George H.W. Bush (Massachusetts) and his son, George W., who lost Connecticut in both 2000 and 2004.