The case of the luminous patients

On the evolution of light in the human subjectIn June 1842 the Provincial Medical Journal devoted no less than ten pages to a long essay by the physician Sir Henry Marsh – an eminent namesake of the contemporary neurosurgeon, who was a leading light in Irish medicine and became physician to Queen Victoria.  What subject could be so important that a leading journal would make it the main feature of that week’s issue?  Sir Henry explains:

Having obtained from an unquestionable and authentic source an account of a phenomenon of a very curious and interesting nature, not hitherto recorded or brought into public notice, I am induced to bring forward some facts I have been able to collect, illustrative of the spontaneous evolution of light from the living human subject.

Sir Henry continues with a long list of examples of bioluminescence – the phenomenon whereby organisms such as plankton and fireflies produce their own light.  Finally he gets down to business.  He reports a story told to him by a colleague:

“It was ten days previous to L. A.’s death that I first observed a very extraordinary light, which seemed darting about the face, and illuminating all around her head, flashing very much like an Aurora Borealis. She was in a deep decline, and had that day been seized with suffocation, which teazed her much for an hour, and made her so nervous that she would not suffer me to leave her for a moment, that I might raise her up quickly in case of a return of this painful sensation.

Bioluminescent plankton
Bioluminescent plankton

After she settled for the night I lay down beside her, and it was then this luminous appearance suddenly commenced. Her maid was sitting up beside the bed, and I whispered to her to shade the light, as it would awaken Louisa. She told me the light was perfectly shaded. I then said, ‘What can this light be which is flashing on Miss Louisa’s face?’ The maid looked very mysterious, and informed me she had seen that light before, and it was from no candle. I then inquired when she had perceived it; she said that morning, and it had dazzled her eyes, but she had said nothing about it, as ladies always considered servants superstitious. However, after watching it myself half an hour, I got up and saw that the candle was in a position from which this peculiar light could not have come, nor, indeed, was it like that sort of light; it was more silvery, like the reflection of moonlight on water.”

The doctor watched this mysterious light for over an hour before it disappeared.  But it happened again:

“Three nights after, the maid being ill, I sat up all night, and again I saw this luminous appearance, when there was no candle nor moon, nor, in fact, any visible means of producing it. Her sister came into the room and saw it also. The evening before L. A. died I saw the light again, but it was fainter, and lasted but about twenty minutes. The state of body of the patient was that of extreme exhaustion…Her breath had a very peculiar smell, which made me suppose there might be some decomposition going forward.”

Sir Henry comments:

The person from whom I derived the knowledge of this interesting fact is one of a clear head, superior power of observation, and utterly exempt from the distortions and exaggerations of superstition. The young lady about whose person these luminous appearances were manifested, I had seen several times before her return to the country; her lungs were extensively diseased; she laboured under the most hopeless form of pulmonary consumption.

Acknowledging that the case seems unlikely, Sir Henry claims to have come across the phenomenon himself:

A few months since I was ill attendance upon a young lady who was in the last stage of pulmonary consumption. She had read in the newspapers a brief notice of a communication which I had, a short time previously, brought before the College of Physicians, upon the evolution of light in the living human subject, and feeling deeply interested in so remarkable a phenomenon, had, more than once during my visits, directed her conversation to that subject. It is no less remarkable that she should, in her own person, have subsequently exhibited similar phenomena. The following statement I received from her sister: “About an hour and a half before my dear sister’s death, we were struck by a luminous appearance proceeding from her head in a diagonal direction. She was at the time in a half recumbent position, and perfectly tranquil. The light was pale as the moon; but quite evident to mamma, myself, and sister, who were watching over her at the time. One of us at first thought it was lightning, till shortly after we fancied we perceived a sort of tremulous glimmer playing round the head of the bed; and then recollecting we had read something of a similar nature having been observed previous to dissolution, we had candles brought into the room, fearing our dear sister would perceive it, and that it might disturb the tranquillity of her last moments.”

Sir Henry cites several other anecdotes of a similar nature, observing that in rural Ireland they were generally attributed to supernatural causes: he believes that the human body often becomes luminous near death, and that many families assume this is a sign of the spirit leaving the body.

For the following very interesting and important fact, I am indebted to my friend Dr. William Stokes:” When I was residing in the Old Meath Hospital, a poor woman labouring under an enormous cancer of the breast was admitted. The breast was much enlarged, and presented a vast ulcer with irregular and everted edges, from all parts of which a quantity of luminous fluid was constantly poured out. Upon being asked whether she suffered much pain, she answered, “Not now, Sir, but I cannot sleep watching this sore which is on fire every night.”  I directed that she should send for me whenever she perceived the luminous appearance, and on that night I was summoned between ten and eleven o’clock. The lights in the ward having been then extinguished, she was sitting leaning forward, the left hand supporting the tumour, while with the right she every now and then lifted up the covering of the ulcer to gaze on this, to her, supernatural appearance. The whole of the base and edges of the cavity phosphoresced in the strongest manner. The light was steady. I directed that the ulcer should remain open, while I retreated gradually, keeping my eyes fixed on the light, which I found distinctly visible at the end of the ward, which must have been more than twenty feet from her bed. The light within a few inches of the ulcer was sufficient to enable me to distinguish the figures on a watch dial. I have no very distinct recollection of the colour of the light, but I remember that its intensity was variable, it being on some nights much stronger than on others.”

Sir Henry then casually throws out a proposition which must have irritated the theologians of contemporary Dublin:

Can it be that the soft halo of light, thrown around the head by the ancient masters in Scripture paintings, owes its origin to this appearance observed, but never recorded?

So what is the cause of this phosphorescence – if that is indeed what it is?  Sir Henry has an idea:

It is not improbable, then, that all the cases of phosphorescence or luminousness to which we have referred may be reduced to one common head – to chemical actions in peculiar conditions evolving light through the instrumentality of electrical phenomena. Hitherto few instances of phosphorescence in the higher animals have been observed, or at least recorded; no doubt a luminous appearance has been observed in the renal secretion, and in the ova of lizards, but the evolution of light from the living bodies of the higher animals has generally escaped observation.

He suggests that the luminous gas or fluid emitted by these patients is highly flammable – and that cases of spontaneous human combustion are those in which this flammable material has ignited.

I shall conclude by describing an experiment of considerable interest, as connected with our subject which was, I believe, first performed by Magendie, and which has been lately repeated under my own inspection. Half an ounce of olive oil, in which two grains of phosphorus were dissolved, was injected into the crural vein of a dog.

Because why wouldn’t you?

Before the syringe was completely emptied, a dense white vapour began to issue from the nostrils, which became faintly luminous on the removal of the lights. An additional half ounce of phosphorated oil, of equal strength, was then injected, and the lights extinguished. The expirations immediately became beautifully luminous, resembling jets of pale coloured flame pouring forth from the nostrils of the animal. This extraordinary spectacle continued until the death of the dog, which occurred in about five minutes.

Oh yes, that’s why you wouldn’t.

In this experiment the rapid transit of the injected fluid from the vein in the remote extremity to the lungs, and its instantaneous expiration in the gaseous form, were very remarkable. The result of the experiment would also seem to shew that in some, at least, of the instances of luminous appearances referred to, the presence of phosphorus formed an element in the production of the effect.

It’s not immediately clear what relevance this has to luminous humans, who tend not to have had phosphorus injected into their veins.  Sir Henry’s conclusion:

The subject of the evolution of light from the living human subject is one which, it must be conceded, is of rare interest; it remains open for investigation, and will, I hope, be further and successfully prosecuted.

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