Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 13.djvu/104

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This page has been validated.

94

THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.

mentioned immediately precedes unconsciousness, as all who have taken anæsthetics know.

It is probable that the entrance of water into the lungs has a great deal to do with the painlessness of drowning. It is certain that unconsciousness comes on more quickly when the person is deprived of air because the lungs are filled with water, than when the air-passages are closed, while the lungs remain intact. Most persons can hold their breath for a minute, very many for a minute and a half, some for two minutes. In one of the variety theatres of New York appeared recently "The Brilliant Pearl of the Enchanted Grotto, christened Undine, who performs, while under water, incased in a mammoth crystal illuminated glass tank, feats of astonishing suppleness and almost unbelievable endurance." This performer can probably remain under water, holding her breath voluntarily, two minutes and perhaps more. I have myself, watch in hand, seen Johnson, the celebrated ocean-swimmer, remain under water, in a tank before an audience, for the astonishing space of three minutes and twenty seconds, and, before he rose, the involuntary contractions of his respiratory muscles were uncomfortable to witness. In such cases, although extreme distress may be felt, there is no approach to unconsciousness. But if a person's head is under water, and he does not hold his breath, unconsciousness will usually come on in one or two minutes at the farthest.

If this be so, it is evident that a person will drown more quickly if he loses his presence of mind on falling into the water than if he retains it. In the former case he will swallow water with his first gasp after sinking, while in the latter case he will hold his breath as long as he can. The latter will suffer more than the former. There is also a difference in the amount of mental agony in the two cases. A person who cannot swim sinks at the first plunge, but, as soon as the impetus of his fall is destroyed, his frantic struggles or a kick against the bottom, if he happens to touch it, sends him up to the surface, for the specific gravity of the body is so nearly that of water that a very slight motion of the hands or feet is sufficient to keep one afloat. Arrived at the surface, he gasps for breath, swallows a quantity of water, sucks some of it into his lungs, catches hold of straw's or small floating objects in a wild, senseless way, and, every time he lifts his arm above the surface, produces the same effect as if a piece of lead had been tied to his feet. So down he goes again half strangled, and the same process is repeated. As soon as unconsciousness comes on, the struggles cease, and the body remains beneath the surface. During all this agony the suffering of the drowning man is undoubtedly chiefly mental. It comes from the instinctive dread of death which even the stoic cannot rid himself of, and is of the same nature as the mental agony of the condemned man before his execution, though less prolonged. And it is probable that even this mental suffering is so much affected by the convulsive and tremendous physical agitation that, in a measure, the