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January 23, 2009

Benjamin Franklin and the three dead flies in Madeira

In 1773 Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of the United States of America, wrote to Barbeu Dubourg, his translator, on the general subject of causes of death. He included some experiments for recalling to life those who had apparently been killed by lightning and he also told the story about the three flies in Madeira wine. He wrote:

” I have seen an instance of common flies preserved in a manner somewhat similar. They had been drowned in Madeira wine, apparently about the time when it was bottled in Virginia, to be sent to London. At the opening of one of these bottles, at the house of a friend where I then was, three drowned flies fell into the first glass that was filled. Having heard it remarked that drowned flies were capable of being revived by the rays of the sun, I proposed making the experiment upon these; they were therefore exposed to the sun upon a sieve, which had been employed to strain them out of the wine. In less than three hours, two of them began by degrees to recover to life. They commenced by some convulsive motions of the thighs, and at length raised themselves upon their legs, wiped their eyes with their fore feet, beat and brushed their wings with their hind feet and soon after began to fly, finding themselves in Old England, without knowing how they came thither. The third continued lifeless till sunset, when, losing all hopes of him, he was thrown away.”

This story is certainly wrong from a scientific point of view. No fly could have survived being drowned in Madeira wine for months or years and then buzz off to a second life in “Old England”. My guess would be, that the bottle had been opened a couple of hours before , maybe even decanted and put back into the rinsed bottle, giving any fly a good chance to be lured into the bottle by the lovely aromas of Madeira wine. Nevertheless I like the story because it shows, among other things, two interesting facts:

First: Man was, is and always will be fascinated by the thought of bringing the dead back to life. To be able to pull someone out of Death’s tightly closed hands is a deed unmatched. Even with resuscitation becoming somewhat “normal” business in modern medicine, the excitement, the thrill and the relief will still be felt by those working together to succeed in “recalling to life” a human being.

Second: So highly was Madeira wine regarded back then, that the reputation of Madeira wine to have special, almost mystical, qualities seems to have been common thought in 1773. Today it is common knowledge that the “medicine of wine” can indeed prolong your life. May be this is just another example of something being common knowledge, before science could prove it 200+ years later? Anyway, it’s one more good reason to drink Madeira wine - not that anyone should need one more good reason...

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