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How the icemen cameth

Lucy Inglis
About the Humane Society, the 18th century lifeguards who patrolled the frozen waters of London's Serpentine in search of ‘hidden sparks’

If you were asked to put a date on the first recorded restarting of a human heart using electricity, what would you say? Perhaps 1947 in Ohio when Claude Beck used it to restart the heart of a boy suffering a congenital heart defect? Or perhaps any time after 1899, when the first defibrillators were demonstrated in Geneva?

Yet in 1794, the first use of electricity to restart the heart was recorded in Soho. Young Sophia Greenhill fell from a window, suffered a blow to the head and was pronounced dead at Middlesex Hospital. A local man, Mr Squires, heard of the accident and hot-footed it to the hospital. Using a friction-type electricity machine, he began to shock her chest. He felt a pulse, and the child began to breathe again. She survived with only a concussion.

Mr Squires’ achievement was part of the growing fund of knowledge in late eighteenth century London regarding resuscitation and cardiac massage. In 1773 Islington-born doctor William Hawes paid for ‘reception houses’ between Westminster and London Bridges where drowned or injured people could be brought and attempts would be made to resuscitate them. By summer 1774, the reception houses had been so successful that Hawes met with a group of philanthropists including playwright Oliver Goldsmith in the Chapter coffeehouse in St Paul’s Churchyard and formed the Society for the Recovery of Persons Apparently Drowned.

The most potent resource in nature

In 1776, the Society changed its name to the Humane Society. In the same year one William Henly wrote in with a suggestion that electricity be used to shock the heart in ‘cases of Apparent Death from Drowning’. After all, he reasoned, why not use ‘the most potent resource in nature, which can instantly pervade the innermost recesses of the animal frame’? The research continued and Mr Squires, the man who appeared so fortuitously at Sophia Greenhill’s side, was the first recorded member of the Society to successfully ‘reanimate’ a Londoner using Henly’s suggestions.

George III, a patron of the ‘Royal’ Humane Society, gave land on the north bank of the Serpentine for a headquarters and receiving house to be erected. The ‘lifeguards’ were trained in the latest techniques of resuscitation and on using equipment for restoring respiration and pulse. In winter the lifeguards donned greatcoats emblazoned with ‘Iceman’ on the back and patrolled the banks for any skater who might fall through the ice. They were required never to drink on the job, and were trained to deal with suicide attempts and working on the ice with hypothermic subjects. They couldn’t always win of course, and in 1816 Harriet, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s wife, drowned herself in the Serpentine after he had abandoned her for Mary Godwin.

The Royal Humane Society’s receiving houses are the earliest model for what became casualty departments. Lifeguards and Icemen had become familiar sights, walking the banks of the Serpentine, on hand in case of emergency because, in the words of the Society’s motto, ‘a small spark may perhaps lie hid’.

Lucy Inglis is a writer and historian. Her book, Georgian London: Into the Streets was published in September 2013. Image credit: CC Horia Varlan.

In winter the lifeguards donned greatcoats emblazoned with ‘Iceman’ on the back and patrolled the banks for any skater who might fall through the ice.



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