Popular Science Monthly/Volume 8/March 1876/Natural Euthanasia

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By B. W. RICHARDSON, M. D., F. R. S.

BY the strict law of Nature a man should die as unconscious of his death as of his birth.

Subjected at birth to what would be, in the after-conscious state, an ordeal to which the most cruel of deaths were not possibly more severe, he sleeps through the process, and only upon the subsequent awakening feels the impressions, painful or pleasant, of the world into which he is delivered. In this instance the perfect law is fulfilled, because the carrying of it out is retained by Nature herself: human free-will and the caprice that springs from it have no influence.

By the hand of Nature death were equally a painless portion. The cycle of life completed, the living being sleeps into death when Nature has her way.

This purely painless process, this descent by oblivious trance into oblivion, this natural physical death, is the true euthanasia; and it is the duty of those we call physicians to secure for man such good health as shall bear him in activity and happiness onward in his course to this goal. For euthanasia, though it be open to every one born of every race, is not to be had by any save through obedience to those laws which it is the mission of the physician to learn, to teach, and to enforce. Euthanasia is the sequel of health, the happy death engrafted on the perfect life.

When the physician has taught the world how this benign process of Nature may be secured, and the world has accepted the lesson, death itself will be practically banished; it will be divested equally of fear, of sorrow, of suffering. It will come as a sleep.

If you ask what proof there is of the possibility of such a consummation, I point to our knowledge of the natural phenomena of one form of dissolution revealed to us even now in perfect, though exceptional, illustration. We have all seen Nature, in rare instances, vindicating herself despite the social opposition to her, and showing how tenderly, how soothingly, how like a mother with her foot on the cradle, she would, if she were permitted, rock us all gently out of the world; how, if the free-will with which she has armed us were brought into accord with her designs, she would give us the riches, the beauties, the wonders of the universe for our portion so long as we could receive and enjoy them; and at last would gently withdraw us from them, sense by sense, with such imperception that the pain of the withdrawal would be unfelt and indeed unknown.

Ten times in my own observation I remember witnessing, with attentive mind, these phenomena of natural euthanasia. Without pain, anger, or sorrow, the intellectual faculties of the fated man lose their brightness. Ambition ceases or sinks into desire for repose. Ideas of time, of space, of duty, lingeringly pass away. To sleep and not to dream is the pressing, and, step by step, still pressing need; until at length it whiles away nearly all the hours. The awakenings are short and shorter; painless, careless, happy awakenings to the hum of a busy world, to the merry sounds of children at play, to the sounds of voices offering aid; to the effort of talking on simple topics and recalling events that have dwelt longest on the memory; and then again the overpowering sleep. Thus on and on, until, at length, the intellectual nature is lost, the instinctive and merely animal functions, now no longer required to sustain the higher faculties, in their turn succumb and fall into the inertia.

This is death by Nature, and when mankind has learned the truth, when the time shall come—as come it will—that "there shall be no more an infant of days, nor an old man who hath not filled his days," this act of death, now, as a rule, so dreaded because so premature, shall, arriving only at its appointed hour, suggest no terror, inflict no agony.

The sharpness of death removed from those who die, the poignancy of grief would be almost equally removed from those who survive, were natural euthanasia the prevailing fact. Our sensibilities are governed by the observance of natural law and the breach of it. It is only when Nature is vehemently interrupted that we either wonder or weep. Thus the old Greeks, fathers of true mirth, who looked on prolonged, grief as an offense, and attached the word madness to melancholy, even they were so far imbued with sorrow when the child or youth died, that they bore the lifeless body to the pyre in the break of the morning, lest the sun should behold so sad a sight as the young dead; while we, who court rather than seek to dismiss melancholy, who find poetry and piety in melancholic reverie, and who indulge too often in what, after a time, becomes the luxury of woe, experience a gradation of suffering as we witness the work of death. For the loss of the child and the youth we mourn in the perfect purity of sorrow; for the loss of the man in his activity, we feel grief mingled with selfish regret that so much that was useful has ceased to be. In the loss of the aged, in their days of second childishness and mere oblivion, we sympathize for something that has passed away, and for a moment recall events saddening to the memory; but how soon this consoling thought succeeds and conquers—that the race of the life that has gone was run, and that for its own sake the dispensation of its removal was most merciful and most wise!

To the rule of natural death there are a few exceptions. Unswerving in her great purposes for the universal good, Nature has imposed on the world of life her storms, earthquakes, lightnings, and all those sublime manifestations of her supreme power which, in the infant days of the universe, cowed the boldest and implanted in the human heart fears and superstitions which in hereditary progression have passed down even to the present generations. Thus she has exposed us all to accidents of premature death, but, with infinite wisdom, and as if to tell us that her design is to provide for these inevitable calamities, she has given a preponderance of number at birth to those of her children who by reason of masculine strength and courage shall have most frequently to face her elements of destruction. Further, she has provided that death by her, by accidental collision with herself, shall, from its very velocity, be freed of pain. For pain is a product of time. To experience pain the impression producing it must be transmitted from the injured part of the living body to the conscious centre, must be received at the conscious centre, and must be recognized by the mind as a reception; the last act being in truth the conscious act. In the great majority of deaths from natural accidents there is not sufficient time for the accomplishment of these progressive steps by which the consciousness is reached. The unconsciousness of existence is the first and last fact inflicted upon the stricken organism: the destruction is so mighty that the sense of it is not revealed.

The duration of time intended by Nature to extend between the birth of the individual and his natural euthanasia is undetermined, except in an approximative degree. From the first, the steady, stealthy attraction of the earth is ever telling upon the living body. Some force liberated from the body during life enables it, by self-controlled resistance, to overcome its own weight. For a given part of its cycle the force produced is so efficient that the body grows as well as moves by its agency against weight; but this special stage is limited to an extreme, say of thirty years. There is, then, another period, limited probably also to thirty years, during which the living structure in its full development maintains its resistance to its weight. Finally, there comes a time when this resistance begins to fail, so that the earth, which never for a moment loses her grasp, commences and continues to prevail, and after a struggle, extended from twenty to thirty years, conquers, bringing the exhausted organism, which has daily approached nearer and nearer to her dead self, into her dead bosom.

Why the excess of power developed during growth or ascent of life should be limited as to time; why the power that maintains the developed body on the level plain should be limited as to time; why the power should decline so that the earth should be allowed to prevail and bring descent of life, are problems as yet unsolved. We call the force that resists the earth vital. We say it resists death, we speak of it as stronger in the young than in the old; but we know nothing more of it really, from a physical point of view, than that while it exists it opposes terrestrial weight sufficiently to enable the body to move with freedom on the surface of the earth.

These facts we accept as ultimate facts. To say that the animal is at birth endowed with some reserved force, something over and above what it obtains from food and air, would seem a reasonable conclusion; but we have no proofs that it is true, save that the young resist better than the old. We must, therefore, rest content with our knowledge in its simple form, gathering from it the lesson that death, a part of the scheme of life, is ordained upon a natural term of life, is beneficently planned, "is rounded with a sleep."

  1. From "Diseases of Modern Life," by Dr. B. W. Richardson, now in press of D. Appleton & Co.