Captivating respiration: the ‘Breathing Napoleon’

I’ve always felt uncomfortable around waxworks and dummies. As a child, I dreaded those occasions when our weekend museum visit would take us to Cleckheaton’s Red House Museum, the drawing room of which was set out so that the visitor had to walk down a central aisle surrounded on all sides by reclining dummies in period costume. They seemed poised to stand up at any moment, ready to dismiss the interlopers trooping through their house, and I always walked quickly past them, avoiding the eyes that I was sure would be trained upon me.

In retrospect, it could have been a much more troubling experience. As I was researching something on the British Newspaper Archive this week, I came across the ‘Breathing Napoleon’ – a travelling exhibit of the 1830s hailing from across the Channel. This effigy of the French leader reclined on a couch dressed in his uniform, his sword by his side; the flesh, when pressed, was said to ‘yield as living flesh would’ and the limbs could be moved into any position desired. Most strikingly, the figure’s chest moved in imitation of the act of respiration.


An advert for the Breathing Napoleon’s appearance at Dublin’s Royal Arcade described it as a ‘splendid Work of Art’, ‘produc[ing] a striking imitation of human nature, in its Form, Color, and Texture, animated with the act of Respiration, Flexibility of the Limbs, and Elasticity of Flesh, as to induce a belief that this pleasing and really wonderful Figure is a living subject, ready to get up and speak.’ For a shilling (half price for children), one could watch ‘the chest heave … and [observe] the continual, gentle, but regular undulation consequent upon breathing’. The Waterford Chronicle noted that it was ‘difficult at first sight to get rid of the idea that you are actually looking upon a living being’, but the Kentish Chronicle was less convinced: ‘The attitude in which the artist has placed this figure is not judiciously selected, it is too stiff, too like death.’

It’s striking that the Breathing Napoleon was described as both a work of art (as above) and as an anatomical exhibit. Indeed, The Spectator related that the primary purpose of the figure was to showcase a new material imitating human flesh (variously referred to as ‘Sarcomus’ or ‘Sarkomos’) from which the model was made. These two functions were not mutually exclusive, however; such exhibits were capable of being enjoyed as  educational objects as well as novelties. For an extra shilling, one could make ‘a closer examination of the body’, an opportunity that The Spectator particularly recommended to medical visitors who may like to assess the accuracy of the model.

Breathing automata were not a new contrivance – the Jaquet-Droz musician (above) is a famous example – but the Breathing Napoleon particularly captured the imagination as a kind of physical encapsulation of  revolutionary spirit, as well as a demonstration of technical or artistic prowess (though it would be interesting to know more about differing responses to the model in Britain and in France). In 2013, a Moscow exhibit of a ‘Breathing Lenin’ attracted attention (you can see a video of it in action here). Apart from its rather unsettling, uncanny nature – Lenin is posed as he is in his Red Square Mausoleum, making the act of respiration even more incongruous than that of the reclining Napoleon – the ‘breathing’ of the figure seems to open up a rich interpretative space. Slight as the movement may be, imbuing a model of Napoleon or Lenin with the act of respiration may – albeit rather unsubtly – carry with it much more than an instructive or entertaining message. This signifying power of respiration – and the uncanniness of the not alive and yet breathing body – is just one of the things that I’ll be investigating in more detail soon, as I start work on my main project within Diseases of Modern Life on air technologies and air therapies in the nineteenth century.

Call for Papers: Medicine and Modernity in the Long Nineteenth Century, 10-11 September 2016 at St Anne’s College

CFP: Medicine and Modernity in the Long Nineteenth Century
St Anne’s College, Oxford
10th – 11th September 2016


In our current ‘Information Age’ we suffer as never before, it is claimed, from the stresses of an overload of information, and the speed of global networks. The Victorians diagnosed similar problems in the nineteenth century. The medic James Crichton Browne spoke in 1860 of the ‘velocity of thought and action’ now required, and of the stresses imposed on the brain forced to process in a month more information ‘than was required of our grandfathers in the course of a lifetime’. Through this two day interdisciplinary conference, hosted by the ERC-funded Diseases of Modern Life project based at Oxford, we will explore the phenomena of stress and overload, and other disorders associated with the problems of modernity in the long nineteenth century, as expressed in the literature, science, and medicine of the period. We seek to return to the holistic, integrative vision of the Victorians as it was expressed in the science and literature of the period, exploring the connections drawn between physiological, psychological and social health, or disease, and offering new ways of contextualising the problems of modernity facing us in the twenty-first century. We are particularly interested in comparative perspectives on these issues from international viewpoints.

Topics might include, but are not limited to:
• Representations of ‘modern’ disorders and neuroses in literature and the medical press
• Defining modernity and its problems in the nineteenth century
• Medical and psychiatric constructions of modern life
• Social and mental health and welfare
• Diseases from pollution and changing nineteenth-century environments
• Diseases from worry, overwork, and mental or physical strain
• Diseases from excess, self-abuse, stimulants, and narcotics
• The role of machinery and technology in causing or curing disease
• Changing relationships between doctors and patients
• Emerging medical specialisms
• Global Modernities

We welcome proposals from researchers across a range of disciplines and stages of career. We plan to publish a selection of papers from the event in the form of an edited volume. Please send proposals of no more than 300 words accompanied by a short bio, to by Friday, 4th December 2015.

Amelia Bonea, Melissa Dickson, Jennifer Wallis, Sally Shuttleworth

Crackpot File Revisited

Regular readers of this blog might recall that I have a file in my desk that is the repository of all the half-baked pseudo-scientific crackpot ideas that I have come across in the course of my research and filed under ‘C’. My Crackpot File, I am pleased to report, is the very picture of health, growing plumper by the day, fed with fact-sheets on mesmerism, galvanism, snake-oil tonics, green tea awareness campaigns, and all manner of bunkum. Given the amount I have crammed into its increasingly strained binders over the years, I was most excited to at last have occasion to remove a page. This came about a month ago, when a piece appeared in Science Alert reporting on ‘new’ neuroscientific research indicating that magnetic stimulation of the brain can reset unhealthy activity in the right anterior insula of the prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain that is known to be overactive in patients with depression. The full article can be found here:

Something about it rang a bell and I started searching through my papers until I came across my notes on Dr Joseph Babinski (1857-1932). Babinski left a legacy to mainstream medicine, lending his name to the reflex known as the ‘Babinski sign’, where the big toes moves upwards upon stimulation of the sole of the foot. This is still used today to test normal responses in infants. Other experiments he conducted, however, led me to relegate him unfairly to the depths of the Crackpot File, namely his work in the short-lived practice of metallotherapy, much in vogue during the later decades of the nineteenth century and led by researchers from the famous French asylum, the Salpêtrière. Their reasoning was based upon the fact that when metals are placed in contact with moist skin, a chemical reaction results which stimulates the nervous system to produce slight electrical currents. This led to radical treatments of hysterical patients by conducting charges through their bodies by way of metallic plates. The fad prompted some with nervous dispositions to wear these plates about their persons, and women with hysterical tendencies to seek solace in bathtubs filled with rusty pieces of scrap iron. Ingesting gold was theorised to fortify the nerves by effecting a similar process internally, but it was Babinski who made the most outlandish claims for the treatment. His experiments in magnetic transmission involved two hysterics who both suffered from hemianesthesia – the loss of sensation in either lateral half of the body. Babinski seated his patients back to back and reported that he was able to use a magnet to transfer their conditions, so that one patient would have complete sensation, while the other would be fully anesthetised.

BabinskiJoseph Babinski (1857-1932)

In the full flush of enthusiasm for his discovery, Babinski suggested a number of applications for his process, proposing that it might be possible to transfer hysteria to another body altogether, such as that of a pig (the ideal subject to infect with hysteria since, one way or another, it would eventually be cured). Babinski ultimately tried to distance himself from these claims, but in the light of the latest research, it seems he may have been closer to the mark than even he suspected. Although far-fetched, his is part of an ongoing scientific and imaginative exploration of the currents that flow through the human body, which may be altered or mediated by various chemicals, metals, or medical technologies. I salute you, Dr Babinski. Please accept my most humble apologies for ever having filed you under C!

Melissa Dickson