Jacksonian Miscellanies, #67

August 18, 1998

The Man Who Lived on Water for 53 Days

Copyright by the editor, Hal Morris, Secaucus, NJ 1997. Permission is granted to copy, but not for sale, nor in multiple copies, except by permission.

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The following account, from the Transactions of the Albany Society (see title page below), pp113-120, tells of a generally sane acting young man who decided that "when it was the will of the Almighty that he should eat, he would be furnished with an appetite", and having no appetite, starved to death.

The fact that anyone should act that way, and that his family would acquiesce to it (after a little struggle) may furnish some insight (as an extreme case) into the thinking of the time.

The attempt by the Physician presenting the case, to understand how a man could live so long without food provides a glimpse of the understanding (and misunderstanding) of physiology at the time.

Note that the president of the Albany Institute is STEPHEN VAN RENSSELAER.




VOL. 1.





FOR 1828.







Corresponding Secretaries.


Recording Secretaries.










JUNE, 1828.


The ALBANY INSTITUTE is composed of two Societies, which for various periods of time have existed in this city­the Society for the Promotion of Useful Arts in the State of New­ York, and the Albany Lyceum of Natural History. Circumstances not necessary to be explained, led to an union of effort and property between their members and other citizens, and as a necessary consequence, to an enlargement of the objects of investigation. The present title of the association was adopted, under the idea that it would comprise the pursuit, both of science and literature, in their most extensive sense.

It has been deemed advisable to commence the publication of some of the papers read before the Society. The members do not flatter themselves that they will greatly add to the general stock of knowledge - they may hope, however, that their efforts will tend to disseminate a taste for it.

ART. XII. An Account of a Man who lived on Water for fifty-three Days. By JAMES M'NAUGHTON, M.D. Professor of Anatomy and Physiology in the University of the State of New­York.

Read June 7, 1830.

The subject of the following narrative lived in the town of Fairfield, Herkimer county, in this state. His father is a respectable farmer, to whom, and to his wife and daughter, I am indebted for the particulars I am about to relate.

Reuben Kelsey, the individual referred to, was, until three years ago, considered a young man of great promise -- remarkable for the correctness of his conduct, and his diligence in the prosecution of his studies. After having received the ordinary advantages at the academy at Fairfield, he entered on the study of medicine, and read in the office of Dr. Johnson. In the year 1825 he attended the lectures at the College or Physicians and Surgeons of the Western District.

Although among so many, it is not always possible to know what proficiency each makes; yet, from all I can gather. he must have at least equalled his companions in the progress he made in his studies. His health seemed good, and there was nothing very peculiar in the operations of his mind. But in the course of the summer, after the close of the session or the college, his health began to decline, and his mind seemed to have undergone a change. His spirits, which were never very buoyant, became more sedate, and his thoughts seemed habitually to dwell on the subject of religion. He quitted Dr. Johnson's office and went home. From that time until his death, he never left his father's house, even for a day. For the three years immediately preceding his death, he almost constantly kept his room, apparently engaged in meditation. His only companion was his bible. He read nothing else, and his whole thoughts seemed to be fixed upon another world. He shunned society, even that of the pious; but he seemed happy and full of hopes. To his family be was kind and attached; and, with the exception of the deep cast of his devotional feelings the equilibrium of his intellect did not seem, to his friends at least, to be materially disturbed.

Considering the little exercise he took, his general health, during the period, was as good as could have been expected. He came to the table at every meal, when called­and seemed not deficient in appetite. The only sickness of any consequence he experienced during his seclusion was an attack of cholera morbus, in the summer of 1828, from which he soon recovered, and seemed to enjoy his wonted health, until the latter end of May, 1829. At this time, his friends began to notice that his appetite was failing. It continued to decline more and more, until about the beginning of July, when it seemed entirely to have disappeared. For some weeks he had eaten very little; but on the 2d of July, he declined eating altogether­assigning as a reason, that when it was the will of the Almighty that he should eat, he would be furnished with an appetite.

It is not correct as has been stated in the newspapers, that he refrained from eating, in consequence of a vision warning him to do so, nor that he commenced his fast, in imitation of our Savior in the wilderness. It does not appear that he had set any definite time for his fast, nor very distinctly assigned his motive for fasting at all. Indeed, it is more than probable, that the great motive in the first instance, was, that he felt no inclination to eat, and that after all desire for food had left him, he became convinced that there was more merit in abstinence than in eating. Towards the close of his life, he told his sister that he had not experienced the least hunger except on the second day of his fast. For the first six weeks he went regularly to the well, in the morning, and washed his head and face, and took a bowlful of water with him into the house. With this he used occasionally to wash his mouth­he also used it for drink. His parents think, that the quantity of water he took in 24 hours, did not exceed, if it equalled, a pint. When he had fasted about a week, his parents became alarmed, and sent for medical aid.

The physicians, fearing that death would speedily ensue if nothing were done, advised his friends to insist on his taking food, and if necessary, to make use of compulsory measures, to induce him to comply with their wishes. Attempts were accordingly made, to force him to take nourishment, and about a table spoonful of water gruel, was, in consequence, swallowed. But it was found in vain to struggle with him, as neither fear nor entreaty would avail. From that time until his dissolution, he was allowed to follow his inclination, without control or constraint. On one occasion he went three days without taking even water; but this was probably more than he could persist in, as observed to go to the well, and to drink copiously and greedily.

On the 11th day of his fast, he replied to the expostulations of his friends, that he had not felt so well, nor so strong, in two years, as at that moment, and consequently denied the necessity of taking food. For the first six weeks he walked out every day, and sometimes spent a great part of the day in the woods. His walk was steady and firm, and his friends even remarked that his step had an unusual elasticity. He shaved himself until about a week before his death, and was able to sit up in bed to the last day.

His mental faculties did not seem to become impaired as his general strength declined; but on the contrary, his mind was calm and collected to the end. His voice, as might have been expected, towards the last, became feeble and low, but continued, nevertheless distinct. Towards the close of his life, he did not go into the fields, nor during the last week even to the well; but still, he was able to sit up and go about his room. During the first three weeks of his abstinence, he fell away very fast, but afterwards he did not seem to waste so sensibly. His colour was blue, and towards the last, blackish. His skin was cold and he complained of chilliness. His general appearance was so ghastly that children were frightened at the sight of him. Of this he seemed himself to be aware; for it was not uncommon to observe him covering his face when strangers were passing by.

Professor Willoughby visited him a few days before he died. He found his skin very cold, the respiration feeble and slow, but otherwise natural; but the effluvia from the breath, and perhaps the skin, were extremely offensive. During the greater part of the latter weeks of his life, the parents say, that there was a considerable discharge of a foul, reddish matter, from the lungs. To this, perhaps, the offensive smell referred to, may be chiefly attributed. The pulse was regular, but slow, and feeble, and what struck Professor Willoughby as most remarkable, was, the diminished size of the radial artery. Owing to the emaciation, it could be very distinctly felt. It seemed to be as small as a stout thread, and much firmer than natural. The artery had contracted to accommodate itself to the diminished quantity of blood it had to convey, and its greater hardness may be attributed partly to this contraction, and partly to the absorption of some of its elements, and the almost total suspension of nutrition.

Alvine evacuations were rare. His mother thinks he passed several weeks without any­but the secretion of urine seemed more regular. The voiding of this secretion was one of the last acts of his life.

After a lapse of fifty­three days, or nearly eight weeks, nature became exhausted, and his spirit fled. His hopes continued bright to the last, and he departed this life in the full expectation of a glorious immortality. And it is not unreasonable to suppose, from his unblemished life, and ardent piety, while in the possession of his faculties, however erroneous some of his later opinions may be considered, that, in his last hope, he has not been disappointed.

The body was examined by Dr. Johnson, the day after death. The viscera did not exhibit any very striking mark of disease. The stomach was not contracted as might have been expected­but was loose and flabby. The gall bladder was distended with a dark, muddy looking bile. The mesentery, stomach, and intestines, were excessively thin and transparent­and there was no fat in the omentum. It looked somewhat like the arachnoid membrane of the brain. At the time of death Mr. Kelsey was 27 years of age.

Such are the principal facts I have been able to gather respecting the case of this excellent young man. I may however observe, in conclusion, that, from a consideration of all the circumstances of the case, from the known honesty of all the parties particularly mentioned, and the concurring testimony of friends and neighbours, there is not the smallest reason to suspect, that, in the case, the least deception has been attempted, either by the unfortunate individual himself, or by any one connected with him.

A very interesting question presents itself in regard to this case. How could life have been so long protracted under such circumstances? It is not perhaps possible in the present state of our knowledge to answer this question in a satisfactory manner. It is not usually supposed that water alone affords any nourishment, at least to the higher animals; but this opinion is incorrect. Water is an ingredient in almost every one of the animal tissues, and a supply of it is as essentially necessary for the preservation of life as that of solid aliment. Plants, it is well known, require little more than air and water to live and grow, to a large size; the same is the case with many kinds of fish. It is therefore likely that air and water contribute materially towards nutrition, even in the human species. But these are not sufficient of themselves, to support life for any great length of time, when all the functions are vigorously performed. But when they are feebly performed, the wheels of life are not so much worn out, consequently they require less repair. In such cases, water and air, together with what can be absorbed from the system itself, may be sufficient to preserve life for a considerable period. In the case above related, life must have been supported by means of water and air, together with what was furnished by one part of his own system, to repair other parts more essential to his being.

It is well known that in the most perfect health, many fluids after having been secreted by the arteries, are again resumed by the absorbents, and carried into the venous system to be again, in all probability, used for the nutrition of some particular organs for which from their nature, they may be well adapted. This is true not only in respect to lymph, serum, mucus, saliva, &c. which are considered recrementitious, but also in respect to the urine, and the alimentary mass, after the separation of the chyle. The urine, if long retained in the bladder, becomes darker in its colour, and more highly charged with saline matter, than when it is early expelled. This arises from the absorption of its more watery parts. The faeces also become indurated in consequence of the absorption of the fluid parts, and the breath and cutaneous transpiration become tainted with the effluvia. It is not improbable that the general mass of fluids is much more frequently contaminated in that manner than in the present age is usually allowed.

With a knowledge of these facts, it ought not to be considered unreasonable, were we to conclude, that the system may, for a time, be sustained by its own resources­that is, that some of its less essential constituents may be absorbed and used for the nourishment of organs concerned in the nobler functions, upon which the continuance of life depends. I am inclined to the opinion that such is the ordinary course in the most perfect health­namely, that a portion of matter which is no longer fit for sustaining one organ, may yet be fit for the nutrition of some others; and that in this manner it may serve to nourish several tissues before it becomes utterly effete, and is absolutely required to be expelled from the system. It is also probable that in some extraordinary states of the system, such as in the case mentioned, matter is longer retained than in the ordinary condition of the body, when the functions are all well performed, and an adequate supply of food regularly taken;­just as happens in ordinary repairs, when good materials are wanting, such as can be procured -- are made use of. Fat is one of the least essential constituants of the body­it is only secreted when the several functions are sluggishly performed -- and deposited in different situations, until the exigencies of the system require it to repair the waste of parts, in which decomposition is going on faster than the supplies from without can be elaborated to preserve the due balance between the actions of nutrition and decomposition.

We find in accordance with these views, that the secretion of fat ceases whenever the muscular or vascular systems are much excited. We all know that a hard working man is hardly ever fat, even when well fed -- we also know how soon the fat already secreted is absorbed in consumption and fevers. Fat is therefore one of the first constituents of the body taken up whenever the animal or vital functions are much excited -­ It is also soon absorbed, even when the vascular and muscular systems are but little exerted if the supply of food be too scanty. Man and beast soon grow lean on spare diet, no matter how little they may be exercised. Granting that fat may be absorbed and converted into nourishment, it will be asked, whether even with its aid, life could have been so long protracted as in the above, case without any other assistance than what water and air afford.

Fat is known to consist of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, the ordinary elements of vegetables, and air contains nitrogen; fat and air, then, contain the elements of our ordinary food, whether animal or vegetable; consequently, with the addition of water, they possess the elements of what is found adequate to support the system in the most perfect vigour. That fat is abundantly nourishing, is well known : The most perfect chyle has been observed to be formed from fat.*(Magendie's Physiology, P. 253). A Russian sailor could live on water and oil alone for weeks. But it will be objected that in such case, the oil is first reduced to the state of chyle; the objection, however, is not so formidable as it may at first appear. When fat is absorbed from the system, it is not found in the blood in its entire state. It is probable that in the act of absorption it is decomposed, and that its elements form new combinations with the venous blood. It has already been in the state of chyle, in which state it was incorporated with the venous blood, changed by respiration, and separated from the blood by the secreting arteries. It is more than probable that the absorbents, when taking it back again into the circulation, have the power of reducing it into the same elements of which it consisted originally, when in the state of chyle it was introduced into the blood.

When fat is absorbed, as it does not exist in the blood in its entire state, its elements necessarily form now combinations with that fluid. When the venous blood reaches the lungs, and is exposed to the influence of the air, it parts with its superfluous carbon. By the combination of the carbon with the oxygen of the air, carbonic acid is generated, caloric is evolved, And the venous blood converted into arterial, and consequently again rendered fit for the nutrition of the system. Besides the caloric extricated by the generation of carbonic acid in the lungs, there is, more or less, doubtless, evolved in the several new combinations formed in the act of nutrition. When life becomes feeble, and the system is no longer capable of furnishing matter fit for generating carbonic acid in sufficient quantity, or for nourishing the body properly, animal heat becomes diminished, nutrition is suspended, and life at last departs from the worn out frame.

Applying this reasoning to the case under consideration, the following is the sum of our explanation: The water drunk preserved the blood from acrimony­the fat and other less essential parts of the body, were absorbed, carried into the venous system, and thence into the lungs­in the lungs the superfluous carbon of the fat, &c. was discharged, and carbonic acid generated­by the formation of carbonic acid, heat was evolved, and the venous blood converted into arterial. The arterial blood thus renovated, conveyed, nutrition and heat to all parts of the body; life was for a long time supported, in a great measure, at the expense of the system itself ; and in proportion as materials fit for nutrition became scanty, all the functions became more and more feeble, until nature became exhausted, and life departed.

The case was very analogous to those of hybernating animals. These, when merely torpid during the winter, and possessing some animal heat, are observed to be much leaner in the spring than at the beginning of winter, when they first become torpid. Bears, for example, in northern regions, are torpid during the cold season,* (Edenburgh Encyclopedia, Art. Hybernation, and Spallazani's Tracts, vol. 1., ch 5) and though fat at the commencement of the winter, are observed to be lean at the approach of warm weather. The fat is probably absorbed for the purpose of furnishing the carbon necessary for generating animal heat, and also for the nutrition of the more important organs worn out even by this feeble life. In many other hybernating animals, all the functions are suspended -- even life itself is frozen up. These, of course, undergo no change. This every body knows happens to insects. It is also well known that many kinds of fish may be frozen, and that upon being cautiously thawed, they leap, as it were, into life again, when the vital principle is released from its icy fetters.

If the explanation above offered be admissible, we can readily account for the prolongation of life in the case referred to. The principal channels of waste in the human body are, the pulmonary and cutaneous exhalations, and the alvine and urinary excretions. In the above mentioned case, the discharges from the bowels were so few and so small, as scarcely to deserve to be taken into consideration; and we may safely say, that the quantity of water taken was at least equal to the quantity of urine discharged. The cutaneous and pulmonary exhalations, therefore, are almost the only sources of waste to be accounted for. The quantity of carbon discharged in respiration does not much exceed half a pound in twenty­four hours, even in a state of vigorous health; and in a feeble condition of the system, doubtless falls much short of that quantity*(Thompson's Chemistry, vol. 4, p. 468). The pulmonary exhalation, and the cutaneous transpiration, owing to the diminished temperature of the system, must also have been smaller than in health. It is therefore probable that the system lost no more than six or eight ounces of its weight in a day. But even if we allow that it lost a pound every day, which must exceed the actual loss, we can still find no difficulty in believing that life could have been prolonged to the period of fifty-three days by its own resources, without any foreign aliment beyond air and water. There are many remarkable cases on record in which life has been protracted much longer than in the case of Mr. Kelsey without any nourishment; but in all these, so far as I can recollect, life was much more feeble than in him. All the more destructive functions were in a great measure suspended while in his case the muscular and vascular systems were comparatively active, consequently the body wasted faster, and life was sooner extinguished.

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