Most of us probably know – more or less – how to resuscitate one of our fellow human beings. Even if you have not taken a course in cardiopulmonary resuscitation, you have probably seen the technique many times on television or in the movies.

The early history of resuscitation was in many ways also the stuff of drama. On June 1, 1782, for example, a Philadelphia newspaper carried news of the latest resuscitative miracle: a five-year-old child had been restored to life after drowning in the Delaware River.

Little Rowland Oliver was playing on one of the busy wharves that industrialisation had brought to the Delaware’s banks when he tumbled into the water. He struggled for ten minutes, then went limp. Finally, a worker fished him out and carried him home.

Although Rowland was delivered lifeless to his family, the paper reported that his parents recognised he was only “apparently dead”. This energised them into action. They “stripped off all his clothes immediately, slapped him with their hands” and “rubbed him with woollen cloths dipped in spirits”.

The doctor who arrived shortly afterwards did more of the same. They also immersed Rowland’s feet in hot water and thrust an emetic agent down his throat. After about 20 minutes, life…

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