One Ambitious Doctor Tried Bringing George Washington's Dead Body Back To Life

Even though death is an inevitable part of life, that doesn't make it any easier to deal with. In the midst of grief, family, friends, and loved ones may act a bit out of character as they try to process their loss. Some people lash out in anger, while others almost drown in their tears and sadness. Then there are some that may do or say things that are very out of character. One example is wanting to bring the deceased back to life.

Now, generally speaking, once someone dies, there is usually no bringing them back. However, during the 18th century, there was a doctor who believed that he could achieve this nearly impossible feat. In December 1799, Dr. William Thornton desperately wanted to try to resuscitate a dear friend, who suddenly succumbed to an illness. Who was this friend? None other than the general, war hero, and the first President of the United States, George Washington.

Washington Makes An Unusual Request Before He Died

When a nation loses its leader, it's a big deal. This was especially true when America lost her first president. According to Mount Vernon, on December 14, 1799, George Washington died within 48 hours of contracting a viral infection in his throat, known as epiglottitis. His death was a devastating loss to his family and friends, the entire country which he had helped lay the foundation for.

Though he fell ill rather suddenly, the infection that the Founding Father developed was severe. Epiglottitis is so dangerous that even with modern medicine, it can be life-threatening (per the Mayo Clinic). Washington apparently had an inkling that the end was nigh and made his final wishes clear to his personal secretary, Tobias Lear. Washington specifically asked that his body not be placed 'in the Vault less than three days after his death' to which Lear agreed.(per Mount Vernon).

Considering he was on his deathbed, it seems a bit unusual that of all things he's concerned about his burial arrangements. However, it turns out that his desire to not be immediately entombed was not as odd as you might think. During the 18th and 19th century people the world over developed a fear of being buried alive, or taphophobia (per History 101). Stories of folks being buried prematurely date back to the 14th century, so clearly this happened enough over the years that people were petrified of it happening to them (per the Smithsonian Magazine), even the president. 

Dr. Thornton Offers Up A Bizarre Proposal

Shortly after Washington died, a close friend of his arrived at Mount Vernon; a man named Dr. William Thornton. Having trained in the best medical schools in Europe, he was summoned before Washington passed to see if he could help the president. Unfortunately, he did not make it in time and was devastated by the loss of his friend. Despite death usually being the end of life, Thornton had a rather unorthodox idea. He wanted to resuscitate the president (per Mount Vernon).

Partially due to Washington's request to delay his entombment for no less than three days and the cold weather at Mount Vernon in December, Washington's body was initially frozen to preserve it. As such, Thornton proposed a way to bring his friend back to life. His thought process included thawing the president's body with cold water before warming it up slowly. He would then perform a tracheotomy (his specialty) to restore air flow to his lungs before performing a blood transfusion of lamb's blood to repair his blood flow as well (per Mount Vernon). Despite the nobleness of the intentions, this outlandish idea was not allowed to be implemented. George Washington's body now rests in the family tomb next to his wife at their estate in Mount Vernon, Virginia.