THE STUDY AUGUST 24, 2011
Dick Cheney, seemingly unsatisfied with his post-White House career of Finally Leaving Everybody Alone, is releasing a memoir next week—and he’s promising big things. “There are gonna be heads exploding all over Washington,” Cheney told NBC. (It’s unclear whether Cheney is referring to the stir caused by the book’s release, or whether he in fact is planning to detonate the heads of his enemies.) Cheney’s prediction brings to mind the old belief in “spontaneous human combustion”—that the human body could suddenly burst into flames. Is there any reason to think the release of Cheney’s book could instigate the ignition of heads across the capital?
Published studies on the topic of spontaneous combustion go back as far as 1833, when Dr. Edmond Sharkey complained in the Dublin Journal of Medical and Chemical Science that spontaneous human combustion had not been sufficiently studied by medical experts. “This silence on the subject has, I suppose, arisen from the presumed unfrequency of the disease, and its consequent deficiency of practical interest; it certainly could not from scepticism as to its existence,” Sharkey wrote. He went on: “The cases on record are so numerous, and have come down to us from different countries and eras, based on such authority as renders them as authentic as any fact in medicine.”
Fortunately, our understanding of the topic has improved since then. In a 2000 article in The Journal of Clinical Forensic Medicine called “Spontaneous human combustion: a sometimes incomprehensible phenomenon,” five French authors examined cases of apparent spontaneous combustion—situations in which the body, but not its surroundings, are destroyed; there is no apparent heat source; and only certain parts of the body are destroyed while others are left unharmed. Their conclusion: It doesn’t exist. “It is now accepted,” they write, “that under certain circumstances, a body can burn by combustion of its own fat with little or no damage to the close surroundings, and that such combustion is never ‘spontaneous’, but is instead ignited by an external source of ﬂame.” Most cases of supposed combustion, they write, were actually caused by other factors. One case in 1991, for example, involved an unconscious man taken to the emergency room. As doctors placed him on the table, the man had a seizure, “beating the air with his arms and striking his thighs”—and suddenly, “the doctors were amazed to see a trail of smoke rising from the man’s abdomen.” But was it spontaneous combustion? No. The fire “had quite simply started in a book of matches in one of the man’s pockets that he struck during the seizure,” and had nothing to do with then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney.