Spontaneous Human Combustion: Has The Mystery Been Solved?

As many of you know, I’ve done a couple of articles on spontaneous human combustion. It’s an odd and certainly not something you want to discuss over dinner. However, the fact remains, it is happening and each time it does, new theories and questions arise.

Many had been convinced that the “wick effect” is responsible. This is a process by which a persons clothing soaks up melted fat and acts like a candle wick. Still others are convinced that people spontaneously burn due to too much alcohol in their bodies. This is quite prevalent in alcoholics, obviously.

Now a Cambridge professor has come up with a new theory that seems to be quite feasible. Prof Brian J Ford, a research biologist is the proponent of this new way of thinking about SHC.

It’s all in the acetone, says the professor:

Professor’s breakthrough on human combustion theory

A Cambridge professor has tackled the issue of spontaneous combustion – using belly pork.

Prof Brian J Ford is a research biologist and author of more than 30 books, most about cell biology and microscopy but he has turned his attention to the mechanisms behind why people ‘explode’.

He said in an article in New Scientist: “One minute they may be relaxing in a chair, the next they erupt into a fireball.

“Jets of blue fire shoot from their bodies like flames from a blowtorch, and within half an hour they are reduced to a pile of ash.

“Typically, the legs remain unscathed sticking out grotesquely from the smoking cinders. Nearby objects – a pile of newspapers on the armrest, for example – are untouched.”

The first record of spontaneous combustion dates back to 1641 when Danish doctor and mathematician Thomas Bartholin described the death of Polonus Vorstius – who drank wine at home in Milan, Italy, one evening in 1470 before bursting into flames.

Since then more reports of spontaneous combustion have been filed and linked to alcoholism – though the link was later disproved.

The most recent case was 76-year-old Michael Faherty who died on December 22, 2010. West Galway coroner Ciaran McLoughlin recorded the cause of death as spontaneous human combustion.

Prof Ford wanted to disprove the alcoholism theory and also something called the ‘wick effect’ suggested by London coroner Gavin Thurston in 1961.

Thurston had described how human fat burns at about 250c, but if melted it will combust on a wick – such as clothes or other material – at room temperatures.

He wrote: “I felt it was time to test the realities, so we marinated pork abdominal tissue in ethanol for a week.

“Even when cloaked in gauze moistened with alcohol, it would not burn.

“Alcohol is not normally present in our tissues, but there is one flammable constituent in the body that can greatly increase in concentration.”

The body creates acetone, which is highly flammable.

He added: “A range of conditions can produce ketosis, in which acetone is formed, including alcoholism, fat-free dieting, diabetes and even teething.

“So we marinated pork tissue in acetone, rather than ethanol.

“This was used to make scale models of humans, which we clothed and set alight.

“They burned to ash within half an hour.

“For the first time a feasible cause of human combustion has been experimentally demonstrated.”

The amazing thing about all this, is that for such a strange phenomena, SHC is not that rare.

Here are some interesting incidents to add to the BBQ as reported by io9.com:

Spontaneous human combustion has claimed the life at least one member of the nobility; Countess Cornelia Di Bandi. The Countess, who lived in the 1700s, was found half way between her bed and her window one morning, with everything except her lower legs and three fingers burned. She had apparently calmly risen from her bed to open the window in the middle of the night, but combusted before she could reach the window. In the room, two candles had been burned – or at least the tallow had been burned. The wicks were left, completely unburned. Soot covered the room, including some bread on a plate that she had left on a table. Just as a indication of how strange the 1700s were; the bread was taken from the plate and offered to a dog. The dog refused to eat it, making it the most sensible player in that incident.

In 1967, a passenger on a bus in England noticed blue flames in the window of an apartment building hallway. She thought it was a gas jet and called the fire brigade. When they got to the place, they supposedly found the body of Robert Francis Bailey, a homeless man. A fireman reported seeing a slit in the man’s abdomen from which blue flames were issuing.

In St. Petersburg, Florida, a landlady was making the rounds in her apartment building when she noticed one doorknob was incredibly hot. The tenant, Mary Reeser, did not respond to her calls, and so she called for people to open the door. Inside, she found Reeser’s remains, in the middle of a six-foot scorched area of carpet. A chair and an end table in the middle of the scorch mark were upright, indicating that there was no activity. Nearby on the floor, a pile of newspapers were untouched by the flames. The body, on the other hand, was reduced to ash except for a skull and a completely undamaged foot. Some reports, which just may be exaggerated, say that the skull was shrunk down to the size of a teacup.

Too read more historical accounts, take a jaunt over to io9.

I think this is one of those things that has perplexed the medical, scientific and firefighting communities for a few hundred years now.

Coincidentally, it was just last week, I was was reading about the acetone produced by our bodies and found it to be quite fascinating. Most people would be shocked if you told them they had such a chemical rolling around inside them. Acetone is produced when the body burns fat instead of sugar for energy and the excess is evacuated in urine. If you are on a strict diet, you can bet that you are producing enough acetone to start another fire in Chicago. Well, maybe not that much.

The point in all this is professor Ford’s theory has the most merit of any to date and was successfully simulated in a laboratory.

Our hat’s off to professor Ford! Give him some more grant money and maybe he’ll figure out the mystery of the dancing mice.

My thanks to Rachel Allen and Cambridge News for this heart warming story. Also, I want to thank io9 (linked above).

Associated Content:

GT: Friday Video: Inside Spontaneous Human Combustion
GT: The Man with the Flaming Hands
GT: Video: Woman’s Shorts Explode Into Flames From Mystery Stones