Thursday, March 17, 2011

Electroplating the dead

In the book of morbid trivia I was reading, there was mention of a French doctor who devised a way of preserving corpses by coating them with a layer of metal. The account, dated to the turn of the 20th c. (and illustrated by the 1st image), is repeated exponentially and word-for-word on the web:

"Dr. Varlot, a surgeon in a major hospital in Paris, has developed a method of covering the body of a deceased person with a layer of metal in order to preserve it for eternity. The drawing illustrates how this is done with the cadaver of a child. The body is first made electrically conductive by atomising nitrate of silver on to it. To free the silver in this solution, the object is placed under a glass dome from which the air is evacuated and exposed to the vapours of white phosphorous dissolved in carbon disulphide. Having been made conductive, the body is immersed in a galvanic bath of sulphate of copper, thus causing a 1 millimetre thick layer of metallic copper to be deposited on the skin. The result is a brilliant red copper finish of exceptional strength and durability."

It sounds plausible and the blogger quoted above references the book Victorian Inventions, but sources the image to the macabre illustrations of American cartoonist Charles Addams (1912-1988). I wasn't satisfied that the story was authentic, and kept searching. I found mention of an earlier French patent granted in 1857 to Eugene Theodore Noualhier, whose process is quoted as follows:

"First stop all the apertures with modellers' wax, or some other convenient material, and place the dead animal body, which may be a human corpse, in a suitable attitude, and spread over the skin, which is of a greasy nature, a layer of a suitable metallic salt; we use in preference pulverized nitrate of silver, which is very easily applied; this salt then penetrates into the pores of the skin, and when a sufficient quantity of nitrate of silver has been thus applied to the body in question, by means of a brush or otherwise, it is then put into a bath of sulphate of copper, and, the galvanic current being established, the whole surface soon becomes covered with a metallic deposit of copper of the requisite thickness, the result being a metallic mummy."

The newspaper clippings make it a little more convincing, but I wondered if such a thing had been tried (and documented) in the United States. Bingo! A patent was issued in 1934 to Levon G. Kassabian for his Method of Preserving Dead Bodies, which is illustrated above (image 2) and summarized below:

"The herein described method of preserving dead bodies, which consists in coating the entire surface of the body to be preserved with wax, then applying to the wax coated body a thin layer or coating of a copper containing solution, then winding the body with copper wire so as to completely enclose same then applying braces to the neck and feet portions of the wire bound body, which braces are provided with electric terminals and then electroplating the wire wound coated body."

You can read the entire patent application here.

1 comment:

  1. Fabulous..........a kind of real life/real death Gormley statue!
    Then do you get to stand up somewhere in a landscape - or in the sometimes flooded crypt of a cathedral? The mind boggles.


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