The Science of Reanimation, Part 2

Last time we discussed how the brain can survive for up to six minutes after the heart stops.  Cardiac arrest can lead to death due to the fact that the heart is no longer pumping blood throughout the body supplying nutrients and oxygen, specifically to the brain.  Thus, the objective of any reanimating substance is to get the heart beating again to re-supply the brain with nutrients and oxygen.


Herbert West by Menton3 (

There are drugs that can treat varying types of arrhythmias (irregular or abnormal heartbeats) such as epinephrine, atropine and lidocaine. However, at this time there is no medicine that actually works to re-start a stopped heart. Certain medications can make the heart more susceptible to defibrillation, which is re-starting the heart with a specific pulse of electricity. Defibrillation was first demonstrated by two Swiss physiologists in 1899, where they observed that electrical shocks could induce ventricular fibrillation in dogs.

The defibrillator device was invented by William Kouwenhoven in 1930 and was first used on a human in 1947. However, this device could only be used when the chest cavity was open during surgery. It was not until the early 1950’s that the close-chested “paddle” defibrillator was invented. Essentially these devices apply an alternating voltage greater than 1,00 volts on the individual’s chest to re-start the heart.


Paddle Defibrillator in use (

With this brief history of defibrillation in mind, it is easy to see that over most of Lovecraft’s life the concept of “reanimation” did not appear to be feasible. With the development and refinement of defibrillation as well as other medical procedures, such as artificial respiration, from the 1930’s through the early 21st century, the reanimation of the “dead” does not seem so strange and mysterious today. However, in the early 20th century such concepts were in the realm of science fiction or in Lovecraft’s case horror.

The role of electricity in the operation of the human heart was initially discovered in 1906 with the development of the electrocardiogram by Willem Einthoven in 1924. Again, much of this information was largely unknown to Lovecraft. Thus, with a knowledge of chemistry it made sense that Lovecraft’s mode of reanimation would be some type of therapeutic drug or treatment. The result is Dr. Herbert West’s serum.


Herbert West – Reanimator from H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society

From what we know of reanimation today, that the goal is getting the heart to start beating again as quickly as possible, it is interesting to note that Dr. West’s serum is not injected into the heart but instead, typically in the arm. This is an indication that West’s serum does not act like many of the drugs cited earlier used to treat cardiac arrhythmia. The West serum does not function by re-starting the heart; instead the serum probably kick starts or turns on all of the cells and tissues of the individual. While this does include re-starting the heart (in a number of instances West uses his stethoscope to determine if the individual is now alive), the serum operates on a more cellular yet holistic basis. I hypothesize that the serum actually increases the efficiency of the physiology of the individual’s entire body – circulation, respiration, immunity and nervous systems – all operate at a higher level of efficiency and performance. This would explain the super-human feats that all individuals injected with the serum can do. However, the only apparent limitation associated with the serum is the brain. The serum does not appear to have the ability to repair the damage incurred by the brain between the time of death and the point of reanimation. Additionally, there may be other side effects associated with the serum itself that are largely unknown and not well documented by the doctor. West may have been so obsessed with finding intact bodies that were extremely fresh, thinking that brain damage was the factor responsible for the irrational and violent reaction of the test subject that he may not even have considered that the serum itself may be causing some of the damage to the brain tissue.


Herbert West by 224umi (

So what exactly is the serum? We know that it is species-specific; that a serum designed for humans could not be used on a dog or cat. In fact, West himself thought this high degree of specialization for the serum may have also been race-specific as well. In the chapter Part III: Six Shots by Midnight when West and Cain obtained the body of an African-American boxer who is injected with the serum, the initial lack of response is thought by West to be result of the serum being prepared for “white specimens.” As Leslie S. Klinger notes in The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft (2014) this racist sentiment is unjustified for the serum does indeed work on the boxer. This supports the hypothesis that the serum is specific-species. If the serum was based say on blood type then it would work on some individuals and not others.  This is clearly not the case; a human-specific serum should work on all Homo sapiens and not be “race” specific. Variability associated with the results of the serum is largely dependent on the size / weight of the individual as well as how long the brain has been inactive, not race.

In addition to being specific to the individual species being treated, the serum was always being refined and modified by West. In fact, there appear to be three main “phases of progress” associated with the serum. Phase I of the serum is the one described from Part I: From the Dark to Part III: Six Shots by Midnight in Lovecraft’s tale “Herbert West – Reanimator.” Phases II and III will be discussed in the next article. However, based on a review of the three identified Phases of the serum and other available information I hypothesize that the serum is a type of Cell Therapy, which involves injecting living cells into an individual as a sort of immunotherapy.


Potential applications for Stem Cell Therapy – is the West serum a type of cell therapy designed to reanimate dead tissue (

An example of cell therapy is injecting T cells into an individual as a means of fighting cancer cells through immunotherapy. More recently, Stem Cell Therapy has been noted as a very promising means of treating neurological or genetic diseases. In the case of West’s serum, the serum can reanimate dead tissues. While some of these cells are obviously the same as those for the individual species being treated (human carrier cells for humans being treated), some other cells are involved in the treatment. What are these “other” cells? This will be discussed, as well as how West modified the serum and treatment in Phases II and III, in the next article. Thank you – Fred.


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