Bauhaus-Universität Weimar

The Cyclopaedia of Anatomy and Physiology, vol 1: A-Dea
Todd, Robert Bentley
is considered by Blumenbach a valuable cri¬ 
terion of the reality of death. The flexibility 
of the joints obviously depends upon the re¬ 
laxation of the muscles. 
Rigidity is a change which has attracted 
great attention from its importance as an evi¬ 
dence of death. Its period of accession de¬ 
pends principally upon the nature of the ma¬ 
lady. After long and exhausting illnesses, 
its appearance is early, but the duration is brief, 
and the intensity trifling. The same remark 
applies to the modifying influence of old age. 
w hen the individual has been cut off by sud¬ 
den accidental causes or by acute diseases, 
it comes on for the most part much later,* 
lasts longer, and is mpre intense than in the 
former instances. It may appear within half 
an hour after death or may be delayed twenty 
or thirty hours, according to the circumstances 
just mentioned. The mean duration is from 
twenty-four to thirty-six hours ; but it may 
last six or seven days according to Nysten, 
whose researches upon this subject are very 
valuable. We remember observing it once on 
the eighth day after death in the body of a 
criminal who had been executed by hanging, 
but are not aware at what time it had com¬ 
menced. The parts which first present this 
change are the neck and trunk ; it then appears 
in the lower extremities, and lastly in the 
upper. Its departure observes the same order. 
It is yet to be proved that rigidity is not an 
invariable consequence of death. Nysten at¬ 
tributes Bichat’s assertion of its non-appear¬ 
ance in some cases of asphyxia, to the lateness 
of its developement. If it could be wanting 
in any case, it would probably be so in sub¬ 
jects attenuated and of flabby fibre. Louis in 
his Letters on the Certainty of the Signs of Death 
declares that he never found it absent even in 
the infirm and age-worn patients of Salpétrière, 
and Foderé gives a similar testimony to its 
universality .f 
The seat of rigidity is the muscular sub¬ 
stance. Of this we may be assured by the 
following facts. (1). It is observed in all those 
animals (including many of the invertebrata) 
which have a distinct muscular tissue. (2). Its 
intensity is in a direct ratio with the develope¬ 
ment of this tissue. (3). It is destroyed by 
division of the muscles, a fact first noticed by 
Nysten.J (4). It remains when the cellular 
membrane, skin, aponeurosis, and ligaments 
are removed.§ (5). When very strong, it ren¬ 
ders the muscles prominent as in voluntary 
contraction, or in that spasm which is induced 
by rammollissement of the brain and spinal 
marrow. Ch. Louis makes a remark of this 
kind in his admirable memoir upon some cases 
of sudden death.|| 
In hemiplegiac subjects rigidity is observed 
* We very recently however observed the phe¬ 
nomenon only an hour and a half after the death 
of a boy by acute peritonitis. 
f Méd. Lég. t. ii. p. 361. 
$ Rech, de Physiol, et Pathol. China. 
§ Devergie, Diet, de Méd. et Chir. Prat. Art. 
|| Rech. Anat. Path, p.500. 
to be no less strong in the paralysed limbs 
than in those which were unaffected by the 
disease. The temperature of the body has been 
said to influence it. Beclard* speaks of cooling 
as being always antecedent to rigidity, and 
Nysten has made a similar statement. But we 
have had many opportunities of disproving this 
observation. Ch. Louis noticed the pheno¬ 
menon in some of the cases just adverted to, 
while the bodies were quite warm. Its occur¬ 
rence in cold-blooded animals is, we think, a 
sufficient refutation of the idea that it bears 
any necessary relation with the loss of heat. 
Moreover Devergie has very properly pointed 
out the inconsistency of this notion with the 
fact that rigidity appears first upon the trunk, 
the region which is the last to be deserted by 
The cause of rigidity is referred by most 
authors to a sort of lingering vital contraction. 
It is often spoken of as the last effort of life: 
“ Il semble que la vie,” says Nysten, “ se 
réfugie en dernier lieu dans'ces organes, et 
y détermine le spasme qui constitue le rai¬ 
deur.” f This author not only refers it to con¬ 
traction, but endeavours to explain how a very 
low degree of the ordinary kind of contraction 
may be sufficient to stiffen the muscles though 
not to move the part with wdiich they are con¬ 
nected. Supposing that a muscular effort equal 
to 20 would completely bend the elbow, one 
equal to 10 would semiflex it; one equal to 
5 would bend it a quarter of the distance; 
while aforce equal to l-20th only, would perhaps 
produce no motion at all, nothing but rigidity ! 
Beclard alleges three causes ; the last contrac¬ 
tion of muscular fibres, the general cooling of 
the body, and the coagulation of the fluids. 
The second of these we have already disposed 
of. Notwithstanding the high authorities in 
favour of the opinion that rigidity is caused 
by a vital contraction, we confess that to us it 
appears a very untenable position. All mus¬ 
cular contraction in its normal condition alter¬ 
nates with relaxation; and although rigidity 
might be supposed to bear some analogy to 
the tonic spasm of tetanus, it differs widely 
from the latter in one important respect, that 
when overcome by violence it does not return. 
When we consider that the continuance of 
the phenomenon in question is long after 
the cessation of any vital action; that the 
usual time of its accession is precisely that 
which we have every reason to consider the 
most unfavourable for the occurrence of any 
vital action, viz. when all animal heat is ex¬ 
tinct, and when sanguineous congestions in the 
depending parts of the body prove the capil¬ 
laries to have lost their contractility; it is diffi¬ 
cult to regard the process as of a vital cha¬ 
racter. The mere fact that the rigidity comes 
on and remains long after the muscles have 
ceased to respond to the stimulus of galvanism, 
reduces the hypothesis to the last degree of 
improbability. Moreover we should scarcely 
expect the last act of life tobe performed in 
* Anatomie Générale, p. 127. 
t Op. cit. §v. art. 3.


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