When George Washington died on December 14, 1799, the nation mourned the loss of its first President and the heroic general of the American Revolution, but one man didn't accept the President’s death. Instead of waiting for a divine presidential resurrection, Dr. William Thornton came up with his own plan to bring George Washington back to life.
Dr. Thornton, who was famous for being the architect who designed the United States Capitol Building, was also a trained physician and a friend to George Washington. Thornton was familiar with cutting-edge blood transfusion techniques, which had been banned in France for over 100 years because of their link with a grisly murder. But that didn't stop Dr. Thornton.
Thornton arrived at George Washington’s side only hours after the President died from a viral infection of his throat and bloodletting. The death had been caused by a loss of heat, air, and blood, Thornton reasoned, so it was possible to use heat, air, and blood to restore the President. Dr. Thornton’s plan to “resuscitate” George Washington started with thawing the President’s frozen corpse and warming the body. Dr. Thornton then planned to perform a tracheotomy to inflate the President’s lungs. The final step was to infuse the President’s body with hot lamb’s blood.
Only the intervention of George Washington’s family stopped Dr. William Thornton from creating the first Frankenstein president – though given the range of their ailments, other presidents likely would've appreciated the effort, as well.
On December 13, 1799, George Washington rode his horse through icy rain, snow, and hail. He rushed home for dinner and didn't change out of his damp clothes. Washington hated to be late.
But he paid a price. That night, Washington woke up clutching his chest, almost unable to breathe. His wife, Martha Washington, frantically called for help. Washington’s chief aide, Colonel Tobias Lear, rushed to find a physician.
Col. Lear gave Washington a tonic made from molasses, butter, and vinegar, which nearly choked the President. Every few hours, Rawlins removed blood to cool the President’s fever. By dusk on December 14th, Rawlins had taken out nearly 40% of the blood in George Washington’s body.
George Washington died just after 10 pm on December 14, 1799, from a combination of a viral infection of his throat and the bloodletting treatments.
Dr. William Thornton rushed to Mount Vernon to try to save the President’s life. A specialist in performing tracheotomies, which were dangerous surgical procedures in the 18th century, Thornton was confident he could relieve Washington's suffering. But by the time Thornton arrived on December 15, 1799, Washington was already dead.
Thornton described the scene 20 years later. He saw Washington “laid out a stiffened Corpse.” He wrote: “My feelings at that moment I cannot express! I was overwhelmed with the loss of the best friend I had on Earth.”
Thornton was not deterred, however. He still believed he could help Washington by bringing the man’s corpse back to life.
Thornton wasn't just an expert in tracheotomies. He had also read about the history of blood transfusions in the 17th century. These experiments were deemed so dangerous that the procedure was banned in France. But Thornton still believed it might work.
William Thornton wasn't a mad scientist – in fact, he was educated at Europe’s best medical schools, and he was known for using cutting-edge medical techniques in 1799, such as the tracheotomy.
Thornton was born in 1759 in the West Indies, but he grew up in England. He went on to train as a physician in Scotland and France, before moving to the United States and becoming a U.S. citizen.
In addition to his training as a physician, Dr. Thornton was an amateur architect. Thornton is best known as the “first architect” because he successfully won the competition to design the U.S. Capitol Building. In fact, Washington gave Thornton this honor in 1793. Thornton’s payment was $500, a building lot in Washington, D.C., and a friendship with America’s first President.
The very first known attempt at a blood transfusion occurred in 1492, when Pope Innocent VIII fell into a coma. His physician recommended blood and hired three young boys to donate blood to the Pope. The technology to inject blood intravenously didn't exist, so according to one account, the physician poured blood into the Pope’s mouth.
It didn't work. The Pope died, and so did all three boys.
But the groundbreaking medical work of William Harvey in the 1620s brought blood back into the spotlight. Harvey demonstrated that blood circulated through the body, meaning that it was possible to insert new blood into someone’s veins. By the 17th century, scientists had also designed metal tools that could inject blood into the veins. This combination of technology and scientific theory set off a wave of blood experiments.
Scientists in London’s Royal Society were the first to test Harvey's hypothesis, but rather than attempting a transfusion between humans, which might be dangerous, they experimented on animals.