How To Save A Life In The 19th Century

Seeks For Her cover_Blog sidebarTomorrow is Release Day for my latest Montana Romance novella, Seeks For Her! I had a lot of fun coming up with a story for two minor characters in other Montana Romance books, specifically Rebecca Turner (Grover’s mom, who was featured in The Indomitable Eve) and Dr. Thomas “Seeks For Her” Smith, who is the brother of Lily Singer, heroine of In Your Arms. I wanted to take two characters who would have been on the outer fringes of *cough* “respectable society” and give them a love story.

More than that, I wanted to be able to include just a little bit of what medicine was like at the very end of the 19th century. It was actually so much more advanced than people generally give it credit for. Germ theory had been discovered. The importance of disinfectants in surgery was known. Heck, surgeries of all kinds, including cancer surgery, were more and more commonplace. I wanted to deal with a little of this. I wanted to deal with lives being saved on more than one level.

But I did run into one fact that threw a glitch into the climax of the story. Without giving away any spoilers, as I did some research on 19th century life-saving methods, I discovered that CPR—something we all know and see depicted all the time in our modern lives—wasn’t actually explicitly invented (or at least the information wasn’t widely disseminated) until 1962! Uh oh. So how would someone be revived in 1897 then?

The good news is that even though CPR wasn’t “invented” until the 1960s, the methods and theories behind it had been discussed, experimented with, and used in various forms long before then.

800px-Gardner-L'imprudenteOf course, it goes without saying that people have known from the beginning of time that if you stop breathing, you die. And the connection has always been there that if you can get someone to start breathing again, they might not die. All it takes is getting air into those lungs, and sometimes getting water out of them. As medical science advanced through the Middle Ages and Early Modern Age and people understood more about what was inside someone’s body and what all the parts did, they began to form ideas about how to “force” the body’s processes once they’d stopped.

The most important prototype to what we now know as CPR was a method described by Dr. H.R. Silvester. This process involved laying the person in distress on their back and raising their arms above their head, then bringing them down to press against their chest, then repeating the process. By moving the arms above the head, the chest cavity is expanded, allowing air to flow into the lungs, and by pressing the arms against the chest, air is forced out of the lungs.

Another version of this method with the person lying face down is actually included in the 1911 Boy Scout Handbook. A similar method was also mentioned in early 20th century jiu-jitsu handbooks, stating that the method could be traced back to 17th century Japan. So there were ideas out there about how someone could be revived in a crisis.

CPR_It was in the mid-20th century, though, that the connection was made between chest compression and artificial respiration. That’s when CPR as we visualize it today began to be shared as the most effective method of reviving someone, especially heart-attack victims. It was all trial and error at first, of course. At least until people realized they had a real, live life-saving method on their hands.

So did I stretch the boundaries of historical accuracy a little in that scene in Seeks For Her? Personally, I don’t think so. The medical community was well on its way to figuring things out through exactly the kind of high-intensity situations that my characters encounter in the climax. I think that doctors throughout history must have tried what at the time they thought were extreme measures based on a firm knowledge of the way the human body works. That’s how discoveries are made.



[images courtesy of Wikicommons… except for my cover, of course.  That’s courtesy of Pehr Graphic Design]


3 thoughts on “How To Save A Life In The 19th Century

  1. Very interesting. I think I read that something like CPR existed much earlier, but disappeared during the Victorian era. When I get the time, I’ll look it up.

    • I definitely got that feeling too while doing my research, Ella. There was a lot about how people in Japan practiced methods close to CPR within martial arts societies (for lack of a better way to put it). I think it’s one of those things that may have been in practice long before it was written down in any medical texts.

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