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companied by degenerative changes as typical as those which mark
life's decline. For every tissue wastes as it works ; and cells degener-
ate, die, and are cast off from every surface and tissue of our frames
as the natural result of living and being. " Generally speaking," says
a writer, in discussing the degeneration of human tissues, " those parts
which live most slowly are those of which the duration is the greatest,
and in which there is consequently the least frequent change. Of the
exuviation of epidermic structures en masse — a process altogether
comparable to the fall of the leaf — we have striking examples in the
entire desquamation of serpents, the molting of the plumage in birds,
and the shedding of the hair in mammalia ; and, in the shedding of
the antlers of the stag, we have an example of the exuviation of a
highly organized and vascular part, which periodically dies, and which,
being external, is cast off entire. *\Vhat means all this,' says Sir
James Paget, * but that these organs have their severally appointed
tissues, degenerate, die, are cast away, and in due time are replaced by
others, which in their turn are to be developed to perfection, to live
their life in the mature state, and to be cast off ? '" And, again, the
same high authority remarks that "it is, further, probable that no
part of the body is exempt from the second source of impairment ;
that, namely, which consists in the natural death or deterioration of
the parts (independent of the death and decay of the whole body) after
a certain period of their life. It may be proved, partly by demon-
stration and partly by analogy, that each integral or elemental part of
the body is formed for a certain natural period of existence in the or-
dinary conditions of active life, at the end of which period, if not pre-
viously destroyed by outward force or exercise, it degenerates and is
absorbed, or dies and is cast out ; needing, in either case, to be replaced
for the maintenance of health." To these weighty words we may
lastly add the opinion of Dr. Carpenter, who remarks that, " when the
adult type has once been completely attained, every subsequent change
is one rather of degeneration than of development, of retrogression
rather than of advance."

Degeneration is thus an invariable concomitant of life. So far



DEGENERATION. 393

from being in any way an abnormal phase of living action, it is seen
to be as natural a process for living beings to retrogress — wholly, as
we have seen in some cases, or partly, in others — as it is for them to
develop and advance. And what is thus undoubtedly true of the
individual man or other animal is no less so of the race. " Buried
civilizations " are by no means unknown ; extinct culture is an archaeo-
logical fact ; the decline and fall of nations are matters of history. May
not these things be likewise explained as a part of that wide theory
of life which regards even the highest interests of man as lying within
the operation and sway of causes which mold his physical organiza-
tion ? If this notion be accepted, then is the idea of degeneration as
a normal phase of life rendered still more feasible and plain. Reach-
ing to the individual and to the species as well ; extending and includ-
ing in its scope the lowly organized as well as the higher being ; affect-
ing one group or class lightly, and influencing another wellnigh to the
complete exclusion of progress, we find degeneration and retrogression
to be numbered among the stern realities of existence. And no less
clearly and forcibly may we trace the truly natural place of degen-
eration in our own physical history : since, as physiology teaches and
daily experience declares, not an action is wrought or a thought con-
ceived without the presence of change and decay of tissue — a process
this which, limited in early life by progressive growth and by devel-
opment, at last comes in our latter days to assume the reins of gov-
ernment, and in time to dissipate our energy and substance into the
nothingness of physical and corporate extinction.

The philosophy of biology, however, may, in conclusion, be found
to point out to us that the subject of degeneration, while treating of
a powerful factor in modifying the living form, yet possesses a favor-
able aspect in relation to progress and evolution. High authority in
matters biological may be found for the statement that degeneration
is really a result of progress, that it is dependent on high development,
and that, while it simplifies the living being, " it produces the same
effect as differentiation, for it leads to variety in form." Thus there
is a kind of evolution and progress inseparable even from degeneration
itself. For the retrogression may in itself lead to variety and change,
and in due time such variety may be the starting-point of new and
higher developments. So, likewise, we are reminded that reduction
and degeneration of some parts may proceed contemporaneously with
the higher development of others, with the total result of perfecting
the organism and of evolving a higher type of structure. The degen-
eration of a frog's tail is in reality a feature of its higher type as com-
pared with its tailed friends, the newts and salamanders. The disap-
pearance and reduction of the tail which the young crab possesses is a
chief reason why we esteem the crab, whose body is all head and
chest, a higher animal than the lobster or prawn, with head, chest, and
tail complete. The degeneration of the " outside" gills of the Alpine



394 THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.

salamander's young, which never have access to water, is not a mark
of inferiority but of superiority ; it is, in reality, the casting off of the
old or larval and aquatic characters and the putting on of the new and
higher features of the land-animal. Even the degeneration of human
structures — the modification of the tail which early human existence
exhibits, and of muscular structures well developed in lower life — are
no proofs of inferiority, but are evidences of superiority in ourselves.
Thus, even in the great work of evolving higher races out of the lower,
to degeneration much is owing for its aid in repressing larval charac-
ters and the structures which belong to lower existences. While pro-
gressive evolution develops the great tree of life, extends each branch,
clothes it with verdure, and expands each blossom, it is degeneration
which lops the worn and aged stems, prunes the weakly foliage, trims
the budding growths, and so directs and molds the outlines of the or-
ganic whole. It is to evolution and progress that the world of life
largely owes its forward march. But hardly less is the debt of grati-
tude due by the living hosts to degenerative change and retrogression
which, though stem andofttimes cruel in their ways, nevertheless mark
wisely and well the pathways of life, and prevent the useless and weak
from cumbering the ground. — Gentlemaii's Magazine.



THE PHENOMENA OF DEATH.

By THOMAS D. SPENCER, M. D.

THERE seems to be no subject from which the mind so instinc-
tively shrinks, few thoughts more repellent to the soul, and no
dread vision of the night, howsoever fantastic it be, that presents to
the imagination so formidable an aspect as that of death. Indeed,
with this all nature seems at variance. The English ivy creeping over
fallen ruins, or the fresh moss covering the prostrate trunk of some
forest oak, seems as if endeavoring to hide from view the havoc which
death has made. Beyond the merely instinctive desire to exist, the
dread of death is a matter of education. Never does the child forget
his first sight of a corpse ; the darkened chamber, the storm of grief,
the white face and rigid features, all combine to form an indelible im-
pression on the mind.

It is probably the extensive paraphernalia attending the funeral
of the present day that render death so formidable. In war — on
the battle-field, where death assumes its most sanguinary aspect — the
mind of the soldier, from constant association, becomes so inured,
that it ceases to be impressed with natural terror, and death seems
but another foe to be met and conquered. Although the considera-
tion of this topic be repugnant to the naturally healthy mind, there



THE PHENOMENA OF DEATH. 395

come times in the life of every individual, that might be tenned peri-
ods of self-consciousness, during which the mind brushes aside the
more vulgar affairs of life, and grapples with the awe-inspiring mys-
teries of death. As these phenomena are considered one after another
in their manifold aspects, the mind, owing to the association of ideas,
becomes involved in such an intricate labyrinth of thought, that, after
wandering here and there, vainly endeavoring to solve the problem of
death, it gives it up as a hopeless conundrum.

It is our purpose to discuss, as briefly as possible, some of the most
important aspects of dissolution.

Addison said that there was nothing in history more imposing than,
nothing so pleasing and affecting as, the accounts of the behavior of
eminent persons in their dying hours ; and Montaigne remarks, while
speculating on death, that of all the passages in the annals of mankind
those which attracted and delighted him most were the words and
gestures of dying men. " If I were a maker of books," he continues,
" I would compile a register with comments of various deaths, for he
who should teach men to die would teach them to live." There are
three elements presented in this fear of death : First, the extinction of
life's pleasures, interests, and hopes, to which the mind looks forward
with a degree of apprehension, proportionate to the amount of happi-
ness they are capable of affording. With the young and vigorous the
loss of these animal enjoyments is contemplated with extreme misery ;
hence the custom, among the early Greeks, of bearing the lifeless body
of youth to the funeral-pyre at the break of morn, " lest the sun
should behold so sad a sight as the young dead." Second, the dread
of the unknown future, also depending upon the nervous temperament.
And, lastly, comes a fear more powerful than either, which is the dread
of pain, inherent in nature. From time immemorial the actual mo-
ment of dissolution has been supposed to be accompanied by a throe
of anguish known as the " death-agony." This is believed to occur
at that moment when the spiritual and physical forces that have been
so intimately blended for many years are torn asunder, the one to
molder and decay, the other to take upon itself that new life beyond
the ken of man.

This last element properly belongs to the physiologist, and as such
Ave propose to consider it. Sir Francis Bacon, in one of his essays,
published for the first time in the year 15T7, gave to the world the
following profound thought : " It is as natural to die as to be bom,
and to the little infant, perhaps, the one is as painful as the other."
In profundity of thought and depth of research Bacon stepped in
advance of his contemporaries, and lived in the future. Thus we find
that, contrary to the generally received opinion of even this latter day,
Nature evidently designed that the end of man should be as painless
as his beginning.

At birth the babe undergoes an ordeal that, were he conscious.



396 THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.

would be more trying than a most painful death ; yet he feels it not.
Bom in an unconscious state, the brain incapable of receiving conscious
impressions, his entrance into this hitherto unknown world is accom-
plished during a state of oblivion, known as Nature's anaesthesia :

" Painlessly we come, whence we know not —
Painlessly we go, whither we know not ! "

From the earliest period of human history death has been consid-
ered as necessarily accompanied by pain ; so general is this belief, that
the terras " death-agony," " last struggle," " pangs of death," etc.,
have been in almost universal use in every age and under all conditions
of society.

Nothing could be more erroneous ; the truth is, pain and death
seldom go together — we mean the last moments of life. Of course,
death may be preceded by weeks or even months of extreme suffering,
as occurs during certain incurable diseases.

So exaggerated has been this notion that it has been considered an
act of humanity to anticipate the " death-struggle " by violence ; for
ages it was customary among the lower classes of Europe to hasten
death by suddenly jerking the pillow from beneath the head of the
dying, thus throwing the head backward, straining the pharyngeal
and thoracic muscles, rendering the respiration, already difficult, shortly
impossible. A Venetian ambassador, in the time of Queen Mary, as-
serted that it was a common custom among the country-people to
smother the dying by means of a pillow placed over the face, upon
which leaned or sat the nearest relative. This was founded upon the
pious belief that a short road was the best one. This custom was
handed down from generation to generation, parents performing it for
their children, and vice versa. But, perhaps, the saddest privilege ever
allowed the near friends of a dying man, occasionally occurred during
the reign of Queen Elizabeth, when through executive clemency — in
executions by hanging — they were permitted to grasp the feet of the
suspended criminal, and, by clinging to the extremities, precipitate
their additional weight on the body, thereby hastening strangulation.
It is needless to say that these theories are false in both conception
and practice. Death is a physiological process, and like all other ani-
mal functions should be painless.

A^Tien the fiat of death went forth, Nature kindly provided an
anaesthetic for the body. As the end of life draws near, the respira-
tions become slow and shallow, interrupted now and then by a deep,
sighing inspiration, as though the lungs were vainly endeavoring to
throw off the palsy creeping over them. As the intervals between the
inspirations grow longer, the blood becomes saturated with carbonic-
acid gas — the same as that formed from burning charcoal, whose dead-
ly fumes have so often aided the suicide to painlessly destroy life.

While the power of breathing is gradually failing, the heart, which



THE PHENOMENA OF DEATH. 397

is in close sympathy with the hiiigs, begins to contract Avith less force,
propelling the blood only a short distance through its arterial chan-
nels, thus causing the extremities to grow cold.

The blood sent to the brain is not only diminished in quantity, but
is laden with carbonic-acid gas, which, acting on the nervous centers,
produces a gradual benumbing of the cerebral ganglia, thereby de-
stroying both consciousness and sensation. The patient gradually
sinks into a deep stupor, the lips become purple, the face cold and
livid, cold perspiration (death-damp) collects on the forehead, a film
creeps over the cornea, and, with or without convulsions, the dying
man sinks into his last sleep. As the power of receiving conscious
impressions is gone, the death-struggle must be automatic. Even in
those cases where the senses are retained to the last, the mind is usually
calm and collected, and the body free from pain,

" If I had strength to hold a pen, I would write how easy and de-
lightful it is to die ! " were the last words of the celebrated surgeon,
William Hunter ; and Louis XIV is recorded as saying with his last
breath, " I thought dying had been more difficult."

That the painlessness of death is due to some benumbing influence,
acting on the sensory nerves, may be inferred from the fact that un-
toward external surroundings rarely trouble the dying.

On the day that Lord Collingwood breathed his last, the Mediter-
ranean was tumultuous ; those elements which had been the scene of
his past glories rose and fell in swelling undulations, and seemed as if
rocking him asleep. Captain Thomas ventured to ask if he was dis-
turbed by the tossing of the ship. " No, Thomas," he answered, " I
am now in a state that nothing can disturb me more — I am dying ;
and I am sure it must be consolatory to you, and all that love me, to
see how comfortably I am coming to my end." In the " Quarterly
Review " there is related an instance of a criminal who escaped death,
from hanging, by the breaking of the rope. Henry IV of France
sent his physician to examine him, who reported that after a moment's
suffering the man saw an appearance like fire, across which appeared
a most beautiful avenue of trees. When a pardon was mentioned, the
prisoner coldly replied that it was not worth asking for. Those who
have been near death from drowning, and afterward restored to con-
sciousness, assert that the dying suffer but little pain. Captain
Marryat states that his sensations at one time when nearly drowned
were rather pleasant than otherwise. " The first struggle for life once
over, the water closing round me assumed the appearance of waving,
green fields. ... It is not a feeling of pain, but seems like sinking
down, overpowered by sleep, in the long, soft grass of the cool
meadow."

Now, this is precisely the condition presented in death from dis-
ease. Insensibility soon comes on, the mind loses consciousness of
external objects, and death rapidly and placidly ensues from asphyxia.



398 THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.

In spite of the natural antagonism to death, a moment's reflection
will show that it is as much a physiological process as life ; the two
terms are correlative, the degree of vital activity depending on the
extent of molecular death occurring at the same time. Strange as the
paradox may seem, without death we can not live : every thought
emanating from the brain, every blow struck by the arm, is accom-
panied by destruction of nervous or muscular tissue. The bioplas-
matic or living matter of Beal, which enters into the formation of
every animal tissue, is constantly germinating into cells (the origin
of all life), and as constantly passing into decay, their places being
taken by other protoplasts, thus keeping up the "active dance of
life."

This disassimilation or interstitial death occurs to such an extent,
that Nature, in her wisdom, has provided excrementory organs for
the purpose of removing from the system the effete material thus
produced. Every living structure, after passing through certain stages
of development, maturity, and finally retrogression, must come to an
end. This may be but the ephemeral existence of some of the lower
forms of fungi, which, born in the cool of the morning, die as the
sun goes down; or, like the famous dragon-tree of Teneriffe, may out-
last the Pyramids that keep watch by the Nile.

The last topic for consideration is the psexidopia of death, or visions
of the dying. This subject, coming under the realm of mental science,
properly belongs to metaphysics rather than to physiology. Various
theories have been advanced to explain these phenomena, but they must
remain as hypotheses at best, for they are not susceptible of demon-
stration. It is not an uncommon occurrence for the dying, after lying
some hours in a semi-conscious condition, to start up suddenly, and, with
glowing face, point eagerly to some object invisible to the bystanders,
and with animated voice and gesture state that they behold the glo-
ries of heaven, or the familiar countenance of some friend long since
dead.

The question naturally arises as to whether these visions are merely
the fantasies of a disordered and fast-disorganizing brain ; or are the
dying actually permitted a momentary view of those mysteries hitherto
unknown ?

The traditions and superstitions of the past have led to a popular
belief in the latter theory. Shakespeare expressed the sentiment of
his day when he placed in the mouth of the dying Queen Katharine
these words :

" Saw you not even now a blessed troop
Invite me to a banquet, whose bright faces
Cast thousand beams upon me like the sun ? "

Science, with its iconoclastic hand, has swept away these pleasing
fancies, and in their places has constructed a fabric founded on analo-



THE PHENOMENA OF DEATH. 399

gy. In the anaesthesia induced by chloroform, a condition is produced
closely resembling that immediately preceding death (caused by the
carbonic-acid poisoning), in which visions are constantly presented to
the mind, the character of which depends upon the natural tempera-
ment of the individual. Thus it often occurs that a patient, when
under the influence of chloroform, has beatific visions similar to those
of the dying. It is my fortune to have at preseut a patient who inva-
riably, when under the influence of chloroform, asserts that she sees
angels hovering round her bed. The impression is so strong that she
becomes much annoyed if the reality of these visions is disputed. The
asphyxia produced by burning charcoal is ofttimes accompanied by
disturbed fancies, similar to those preceding death, and the natural
inference is that they are the resultant in both cases of one and the
same cause. During the last moments of life, the mind gradually
loses cognizance of external surroundings, and is rapt in self -contem-
plation. Though still in a semi-conscious condition, the weeping of
friends and the voices of attendants fall upon dull ears. The eyelids
are closed, the pupils slightly contracted, and rolled upward and in-
ward. The dying man has forgotten the present, for he is living in
the past. One by one the events of a whole life appear, its joys and
sorrows, perchance long since forgotten, rise before him in startling
distinctness, and then disappear in the swiftly moving panorama. The
familiar faces of the friends of his youth are thrown upon the mental
retina, their cheery voices reverberate in his ears, and the thought of
meeting these friends in the near future is perhaps his last conscious
impression. As this drowsiness creeps over the system,, these images,
molded from the past, become as realities to the disordered imagina-
tion. The germs from which originate these strange combinations
have probably been lying dormant for years in the registering ganglia
of the brain.

Dreams never surprise us, no matter how strange the scenery pre-
sented, or how great the violation of truth and reality: so it is in this
last great vision of life. What wonder that a dream so vivid should
be carried into action ? The brain, with a convulsive effort, sends the
message through the system, the muscles spring into activity, and the
dying man, with outstretched arms, calls the attention of the awe-
stricken bystanders to these fantasies of his own brain. Thus some
pass away as though falling asleep ; others with a sigh, groan, or
gasp ; and some with a convulsive struggle.

These death-bed visions are comparatively of frequent occurrence,
and are generally accepted as realities. The theory which we promul-
gate, though not new, will naturally excite prejudice ; but it is better to
know the truth than to cherish a belief, however pleasing it be, founded



400 THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.

UMOX OF THE TELEGRAPH AXD POSTAL SEEYICE.

By ALDEX B. IIUET.

THE recent consolidation of competing lines of telegraph into one
gigantic corporation, and the consequent agitation of the ques-
tion of Government control by the public press, Boards of Trade, and
in Congress, make an inquiry into the subject of postal telegraphs,
at the present time, of unusual interest.

In determining the question as to whether the L'nited States
should constitute this means of communication a part of the general
postal system, the first important consideration is, whether such action
is authorized by the Constitution ; secondly, whether such control has
proved a success in the several countries where it is thus organized ;
and, finally, whether a beneficial result is likely to follow from similar
action in this country.

As to the first proposition, there can be no doubt. That clause of
the Constitution wherein this authority is granted is found in section
8 of Article I, in this language : " Congress shall have power ... to
establish post-ofiices and post-roads." By this comprehensive and ex-
plicit declaration, the framers of the Constitution, without doubt, in-
tended to lodge with the General Government the exclusive privilege
of regulating and conducting the transmission of intelligence among
its citizens — in other words, the intent was to give to the General Gov-
ernment the exclusive monopoly of the postal service, by which was
meant the interchange of intelligence, not only by the methods then
in use, but also by the use of improved methods thereafter devised



Online LibraryD. S. (David Samuel) MargoliouthThe Popular science monthly (Volume 19) → online text (page 48 of 110)