Wednesday, 2 January 2013

A Question of Authenticity

First published 14 January 1889 Ten Thousand Years in Ice tells of “how a prehistoric man was resuscitated from a frozen state” and was one of Robert Duncan Milne’s best known stories. There are two key reasons for this; firstly, as Sam Moskowitz noted, it was the only of Milne’s stories to have been included in a book.  At which point it is probably worth mentioning that Milne was essentially a high functioning alcoholic and the $2,000 he received from his uncle, Duncan James Kay, to both fund the publication of a collection of stories as well as pay for a trip back home failed to do either:

‘Milne made serious preparation for his trip to Europe and booked passage. The day of sailing, he started for the ship, stopping on the way to tipple a few. He never made the trip to Europe, never published the book and never, apparently, returned the money’ Moskowitz, p. 234

To this end the appearance of Ten Thousand Years in Ice in a collection called Argonaut Stories (1906) was, for many years, the only published record of Milne’s work outwith the newspapers in which it initially appeared. As was common at the time short stories of this type were often syndicated, and it was its appearance in a Hungarian newspaper, Pester Lloyd, which lead to Ten Thousand Years in Ice’s lasting infamy when it caused ‘something of a sensation’.

Tales of suspended animation and subsequent reanimation are now very much sci-fi standards but were, even in RDM’s day, nothing new: from the Easter story to the likes of Sleeping Beauty (whose origin is a million miles away from the Disney version!) the concept of cheating death by pausing, or freezing, one’s ageing process has always held a fascination for us. Indeed in his chapter on the subject, An Unwitting Hoax, Moskowitz lists several very similar 'trapped-in-ice' stories from the nineteenth century which pre-date Milne's and are cited as possible influences on Ten Thousand Years in Ice. As stated in an earlier blog 'A Singular Circumstance' there was a newspaper article from 1839 (regarding a toad surviving in the middle of a sandstone block) in which I believe Milne's father took a particular interest and may in turn have been the inspiration for RDM.

Where ‘scientific romances’ generally differed from these older stories was in their attempt to rationalise the processes involved in order make them more credible, and Ten Thousand Years in Ice was no exception. Describing the means by which his protagonists were to reanimate the frozen body Milne, like his contemporaries, was not content to merely cite divine intervention or introduce a magic ‘sleeping potion’ but instead named his chemical agent and added some background detail to the drug which lent the story a certain degree of authenticity:

“Where is that phial, I wonder?” interjected the doctor, looking over his medicine-chest, and taking out bottle after bottle; “ah, here it is,” he said, at last, “here is the substance on which I rely to restore action of the heart and give life to our friend here. It has only lately been introduced into pharmacopoeia; but since its introduction it has done wonders in cardiac affections.  It is distilled from a plant which grows only in East Africa. Its name is strephanthus, and its effect is to accelerate the action of the heart. Milne, p.175

The ‘strephantus’ (the italics are Milne’s) mentioned here is clearly a variation on strophantus which was indeed an ‘East African plant’ which was used to treat cardiac complaints. Discovered by fellow Scot, Sir John Kirk (another minister’s son) whilst accompanying Livingstone’s second African expedition, extracts of the plant were used to form Strophantine, which had been commercially available from 1887.

With regards to the credibility of the story several pertinent points to consider here are that firstly Milne obviously kept himself abreast of modern scientific innovations- an aspect which becomes clear the more one reads his work and something which made his writing very topical. Secondly that he was familiar with the manner in which such innovations were presented- the italics used here mirror those used in scientific/medical journals when referring to species types, another aspect which helped add to the authenticity.

The third and final fact to consider is the extent to which the above account gains added gravitas through stating that it was a Knight of the British Empire, Sir John Kirk, who had discovered the plant in question. As he was knighted in 1881, some twenty years after his African trip, he was just plain old John Kirk when he found the plant so his title is, here, applied retrospectively. However its inclusion is in itself undoubtedly something which could confer an added degree of credibility to any story of scientific discovery: an aspect which clearly had not escaped the attention of the Hungarian translator, Mme. Fanny Steinitz, who employed some artistic licence and attributed the story to Sir Robert Duncan Milne.  This appeared to add such an extra level of ‘authority’ to the story that very soon after it appeared the San Francisco Argonaut began receiving letters asking whether or not the story by 'Sir' Robert (or in one case Dr. Milne) was actually true!

Ten Thousand Years in Ice is available to read here:  but the letters from the Hungarian correspondents can be found in Moskowitz’s collection, available to buy here: as well as here:;seq=151;view=1up;num=135

One curious omission from both Moskowitz's account as well as that found in the earlier Argonaut Stories is that the editor of The Argonaut also got in on the 'unwitting hoax'. As can be seen in the excerpt below the Argonaut  deliberately, and rather mischievously, enjoyed a laugh at the expense of their Hungarian correspondents by playing up on Milne's new-found (and entirely fictitious!) peerage:

More information of the life and work of Sir John Kirk can be found at the links below.


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