The first defibrillator? The work of James Curry

The Wellcome Collection’s latest exhibition, ‘Electricity: the spark of life’, traces how, through the centuries, we have tried to understand and gain control of this vital, invisible force. Although the power of electricity has been recognised since ancient times, it wasn’t until the end of the 18th century that early scientists and physicians became aware of the possibility of using electricity to resuscitate those who had ‘apparently died’.

A book by James Curry (d.1819), is a ‘how to’ guide for physicians and laypeople alike, one of the first publications to give practical advice on how electricity might be used to revive those who appeared to had died. The book is titled Observations on apparent death from drowning, suffocation, etc with an account of the means to be employed for recovery and was published in 1790, and there is a copy in the RCP Library.

Observations on apparent death from drowning, suffocation, etc with an account of the means to be employed for recovery. James Curry, published London, 1790.

The use of electricity for resuscitation was dependent on an understanding of what electricity was, but also on the development of machines and devices for its manipulation and storage. The first ‘electricity machine’ was invented in 1660, but it wasn’t until 1745 that the first capacitor was developed, which could collect the charge from the electricity machine, store it in a glass container, and then deliver it as a static shock. The most popular capacitor in this period was the Leyden jar.

‘Apparatus for applying an electric shock. Showing Leyden jar, Lane's electrometer and 'directors' or conductors’ in De l'ectricite du corps humain. Pierre Bertholon, published Paris, 1786. Wellcome Library, London.

The Leyden jar was soon used in experiments on animals. In 1775, Peter Christian Abildgaard (1740–1801), a Dutch veterinarian, described killing chickens by giving an electric shock to the head and then reviving them with a shock to the chest. Although other scientists struggled to replicate Abildgaard’s findings, another Dutch-born scientist, Daniel Bernoulli (1700–1782), also described how he had revived drowned birds.

Royal Humane Society

In 1774, the Royal Humane Society was established in London (as the Society for the Recovery of Persons Apparently Drowned) by two physicians, William Hawes (1736–1808) and Thomas Cogan (1736­–1818), to promote the use of artificial respiration and to reward those who saved lives. It was soon realised electricity might be used to revive humans as well as animals, and the first recorded case was described in the Royal Humane Society’s Reports. A 3 year-old girl, Sophie Greenhill, was pronounced dead after a fall, but a Mr Squires 'tried the effects of electricity. Twenty minutes elapsed before he could apply the shock, which he gave to various parts of the body in vain; but, upon transmitting a few shocks through the thorax, he perceived a small pulsation; in a few minutes the child began to breathe.'

A local humane society, the Northamptonshire Preservative Society, which had been established in October 1789 to ‘promote the laudable scheme of recovery from a state of Apparent death’, asked a Northampton physician, James Curry, to write a guide on resuscitation for the public as well as physicians.

James Curry (d. 1819). Miniature portrait by unknown artist, 19th century.

Curry’s Observations on apparent death is one of the first texts to attempt to distinguish between real and apparent death, and to outline in detail some resuscitation procedures. Curry describes how electricity might be used, once all other methods have been tried. His words sound uncannily modern:

When the several measures recommended above, have been steadily pursued for an hour or more, without any appearance of returning life, Electricity should be tried; experience having shewn it to be one of the most powerful stimuli yet known, and capable of exciting contraction in the heart and other muscles of the body, after every other stimulus has ceased to produce the least effect. Moderate shocks are found to answer best, and these should, at intervals, be passed through the chest in different directions, in order, if possible, to arouse the heart to act.

Curry recommends that the patient be isolated by placing the body on a door supported by dry, empty bottles and that, in between shocks, the lungs should be artificially filled with and emptied of air. He describes positioning the discharging rods above the collar bone on the right side and the other above the short ribs of the left ‘in order more certainly to pass the shock through the heart’.


It wasn’t until the end of the 19th century that scientists began to understand the physiology of the heart and why electricity can sometimes resuscitate the ‘apparently dead’. In 1874, Edmé Vulpian (1826–1887) first used the term ‘fibrillation’ to describe rapid, irregular contractions of the muscle fibres of the heart. In an article in the British Medical Journal in 1889, the Scottish scientist John McWilliam (1857–1937) gave a detailed description of fibrillation – the first in the English language.

The normal beat is at once abolished, and the ventricles are thrown into a tumultuous state of quick, irregular, twitching action; at the same time there is a great fall of blood pressure. Ventricles became distended with blood, as the rapid quivering movement of their walls is wholly insufficient to expel their contents … Instead of a coordinated contraction leading to a definite narrowing of the ventricular cavity, there occurs an irregular and complicated arrhythmic oscillation of the ventricular walls.

In 1899, two Swiss physiologists, Jean Louis Prévost (1832–1927) and Frederic Batelli (1867–1941), published a paper on the effect of electricity on the hearts of dogs. They found a shock of 40 volts could send the heart into ventricular fibrillation, but a stronger shock (between 240 and 4,300 volts) would halt the quivering, establish a normal rhythm and bring the dog back to life.

The Royal Humane Society, Curry and the other early promoters of electricity as a means of resuscitation had stumbled upon defibrillation without understanding why or precisely how it worked. And their practical techniques were more or less forgotten until the 1930s, when a professor of electrical engineering at Johns Hopkins University, William B Kouwenhoven (1886–1975), began the studies which led to the development of the modern defibrillator.

Frankenstein. Mary Shelley, adapted by Richard Brinsley Peake, published London, 1883. British Library.

But Curry and the early electrical experimenters had an impact on our wider culture in another way. In 1816, Mary Shelley, whose own mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, had been pulled from the Thames after attempting to drown herself, had a ‘waking dream’ about a gentleman scientist who constructs a man-like creature, sparked into life by the application of electricity. The book she subsequently wrote, Frankenstein, was undoubtedly influenced by the contemporary debates about electricity, resuscitation and the meaning of ‘apparent death’ and life.

Sarah Gillam, assistant editor Munk's Roll

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The following sources were used when writing this post:

  • Akselrod H, Kroll MW, Orlov MV. History of defibrillation. In: Efimov I, Kroll MW, Tchou PJ (eds), Cardiac bioelectric therapy: mechanisms and practical implications. London: Springer, 2009: 15-40 [Accessed 3 April 2017].
  • Curry J. Observations on apparent death from drowning, suffocation, etc with an account of the means to be employed for recovery. London: J Johnson, 1790.
  • Hurt R. Modern cardiopulmonary resuscitation – not so new after all. J R Soc Med. 2005;98:327-31.
  • Kelly J. A shock to the system. Invention and Technology 1999;15 [Accessed 3 April 2017].
  • Ruston S. Discovering literature: Romantics and Victorians. The science of life and death in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. British Library [Accessed 25 April 2017].
  • Schechter DC. Early experience with resuscitation by means of electricity. Surgery 1971;69:360-72.  
  • Stillings D. The first defibrillator? Med Prog Technol 1974;2:205-6.