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The Effects of the Tunguska Blast on an Eyewitness
On June 30, 1908 at approximately 7:14 in the morning, local time, a tremendous blast of unknown origin leveled trees for hundreds of miles in the Tunguska area of central Russia. Modern investigations have indicated that this blast most likely had a cosmic origin. It is theorized that a large asteroid broke up in an explosive fashion prior to striking the Earth’s surface, creating an effect not unlike that of an airburst caused by a 10-15 megaton nuclear warhead (Shoemaker, 1983). The physical devastation was immense. An estimated 830 square miles of forest was flattened, though some trees at the epicenter of the blast event remained standing, but with all bark and leaves stripped off. Pictures taken of the area in 1927, almost twenty years after the event, show this vast area of trees flattened like so many matchsticks, but there is no evidence of an impact crater. No pieces of the meteorite were ever found. The secondary impact sites one might expect to see in the case of a meteorite break-up are nonexistent. Expeditions to the area in the 1950s and 1960s sifted the soil and found microscopic glass spheres containing large amounts of nickel and iridium, but this is the only physical evidence ever documented of whatever it was that caused the blast. In short, there is no definitive evidence that the Tunguska blast was caused by an extra-planetary body. If the explosion was caused by a meteorite breaking up in the atmosphere, it must have been so cataclysmic as to almost completely vaporize the rock.
To almost any culture, a rock falling from the sky would seem very strange, a sign from the gods, perhaps. But a column of fire that culminates in a blast that devastates hundreds of square miles of countryside would have a far greater psychological impact. If a rock falls from the sky, you can at least see the rock. You can touch it. You can explain why it is there and how it came to be there. Even if your explanation is a mythological one, as it might have been in days long past, it is possible for the rock to be rationalized and fit into a belief system. A sudden, devastating blast from the sky directed at an area of open countryside is far more difficult for any culture to explain. It is particularly difficult to explain such phenomena in the context of the early twentieth century. It is, after all, the Age of Reason even in remote central Russia. The devastation is there. The rock is not. What do you make of this?
As is largely the case for humanity in any part of the world, in our Age of Reason, an event that could not be immediately and minutely explained was largely ignored by the local populace. In the month following the blast, there were some accounts in local and regional newspapers (Vasiliev et al, 1981). But unexplained phenomena make people uncomfortable, particularly when they live very close by the site at which it happened and the matter was largely dropped by the local populace until 1927 when the mineralogist Leonid Kulik led an expedition to the site, having persuaded the Russian government that meteoric iron might be found there. The blast happened. Nobody went there for awhile. Nobody talked about it much. The response of the local populace was one of avoidance at least partly because nobody died. No blood, no foul, as our modern saying goes.
Most of the people in the towns and villages surrounding the Tunguska site went about their lives on July 1, 1908 in essentially the exact same way they had gone about them on June 29, 1908, with one exception. This exception was a physician of anglo-asian descent who had left London, England some months before, headed for the towns in the Tunguska region where he was to practice his medical skills in this remote area that was in desperate need of a doctor. The first record of this English doctor in the heart of Russia at the time of the Tunguska blast was not obtained until the investigation of the blast event by Kulik’s expedition in 1927. There were records in England of his departure and of his return, some four years later, but it was not known that he had been in the area of the blast on the day it happened and may indeed have been the nearest eyewitness to the event. This English doctor’s name was Dr. Julian Teng. The Tunguska blast changed his life.
To see the profound effects the cataclysmic Tunguska event had on the life of Dr. Teng, we must first examine his earlier life in London. Born in 1887 or 88, Julian Teng qualified as a medical doctor in 1907, a fact that is indicative of a great deal of wealth or a titanic intellect. Being half Chinese in early twentieth century England, it is unlikely that Teng was of high economic status. Shortly after receiving his M.D., a small article appeared in a London newspaper concerning his acceptance of a commission from the Royal Society for International Health, a charitable organization that paid to send physicians to remote areas of the world. The commission was for a period for four years, wherein the newly minted Dr. Teng would give medical aid to persons in need in central Russia. An article in a now defunct London newspaper, the Gazetteer, indicates that Dr. Teng left London on March 1, 1908 (Brown, 1951).
From this point, until Dr. Teng’s return to London in 1912, records are spotty. No written records of any sort were kept in the towns in the Tunguska region where Dr. Teng plied his trade for the four years he resided in Russia. It is known that Dr. Teng wrote to his family while he was in Russia, but the family has never released the letters. Consequently, the only documentary evidence we have concerning Dr. Teng’s time in the Tunguska region comes from a translation by Ainsley of a written account by Vladislav Korskovich, an independent journalist who visited the Tunguska region in 1916. Korskovich recorded oral histories from what local citizens remembered of the Tunguska event.
According to Korskovich: “a man came to the trading post at Vanavara riding a panicked horse down from the north at around eight o’clock in the morning on June 17” (it must be noted that the blast took place at 7:02 AM on June 17, local solar time and by the Julian calendar, which was in use there in 1908). “Everyone in the village was awake and gathered there because of the big explosion that had knocked people down in the streets and damaged crops. The villagers had to catch the horse to get the man to let go of its neck. The rider looked like a local man” (the Russians of that region have traces of Chinese ancestry), “but no one knew him. His eyes were open, but he would not speak or move. They had to shoot the horse. Later, the villagers said he got better, but it took many months. After that, he was a doctor there for some years. They said his Russian was terrible” (Ainsley, 1949).
At Vanavara, it is reported in the testimony of S. Semenov, as recorded by Leonid Kulik’s expedition in 1930:
“At breakfast time I was sitting by the house at Vanavara trading post (65 kilometres/40 miles south of the explosion), facing North. [...] I suddenly saw that directly to the North, over Onkoul’s Tunguska road, the sky split in two and fire appeared high and wide over the forest (as Semenov showed, about 50 degrees up – expedition note). The split in the sky grew larger, and the entire Northern side was covered with fire. At that moment I became so hot that I couldn’t bear it, as if my shirt was on fire; from the northern side, where the fire was, came strong heat. I wanted to tear off my shirt and throw it down, but then the sky shut closed, and a strong thump sounded, and I was thrown a few yards. I lost my senses for a moment, but then my wife ran out and led me to the house. After that such noise came, as if rocks were falling or cannons were firing, the earth shook, and when I was on the ground, I pressed my head down, fearing rocks would smash it. When the sky opened up, hot wind raced between the houses, like from cannons, which left traces in the ground like pathways, and it damaged some crops. Later we saw that many windows were shattered, and in the barn a part of the iron lock snapped.” (Vasiliev et al., 1981).
It is known that Dr. Julian Teng was headed for the trading post at Vanavara where he was to meet with Mr. Semenov, who was a leader in the community and the contact for the Royal Society for International Health. Travel conditions and communications being what they were in central Russia in 1908 however, no one knew when Dr. Teng was to arrive and so it wasn’t until Teng “got better” that anyone would have known who he was. From these fragments, it seems clear that the unknown doctor who rode down from the north on a panicked horse was indeed Dr. Julian Teng.
If Dr. Teng was riding down from the north, he must have been closer than nearly any other human being to the blast that knocked Semen Semenov unconscious for a few seconds and broke the iron lock on his barn door. We can only imagine the effect the blast had on him who faced it alone, without a village around him to tell him it wasn’t all in his head.
Korskovich’s third hand account is all we have of Dr. Teng’s four year sojourn in Russia. Additionally, we cannot be absolutely certain that the doctor referred to in Korskovich’s account is in fact Julian Teng, though the evidence seems to point heavily in that direction. What is known is that Dr. Julian Teng’s trip to Russia had a dramatic effect on his character from the point of view of those who knew him before he left and who came into contact with him again after his return to London in 1912.
Everything known about the time between Dr. Teng’s return to London in August of 1912 and his commission to a mental institution in 1920 comes from a few small articles in the London Gazetteer and a book written on mental illness by Dr. Basil Gates in 1924. Gates’ book naturally never names Julian Teng as one of its subjects, but the dates given in the book coupled with the Gazetteer articles and the fact that Gates’ subject “John” is referred to as being a “brilliant physician of mixed ancestry” lead one to the nearly inescapable conclusion that “John” is in fact Dr. Julian Teng. Too, records show that Dr. Basil Gates was a colleague of Dr. Teng’s when they worked at Charing Cross Hospital together from 1912 until Dr. Teng’s dismissal from the hospital in 1918.
According to Gates, “John” was a “staid young man of reserve and dignity, possessed of brilliant mind and great acumen” (Gates, 1924) prior to his departure for a foreign post. Upon his return he was “frenetic and excitable, prone to strange thoughts and fancies though his medical skills had, if anything, grown to surpass those of any medical practitioner I have ever known” (Gates, 1924).
This shows a great change in outward demeanor, though possibly attributable to a broadening of experience, it is so severe a change that an explanation of traumatic origin seems more likely. Certainly, being the closest surviving person to the Tunguska Event would qualify as a traumatic trigger for psychological imbalance followed by a marked change in personality. That Teng was traumatized by the Tunguska Blast seems evident from Korskovich’s account of a man who was awake but unable to speak or move – symptoms of a mental fugue state. While it is true that victims of traumatic mental fugues frequently recover completely, some suffer from lingering mental damage of which the range of forms is as varied as the victims. It is my contention that the Tunguska Event caused this kind of lingering mental damage to Dr. Julian Teng. Whether the damage was physical (due to radiation form the blast or physical trauma) or psychological, Dr. Gates’ account of the patient “John” indicates a progressive disorder that began as almost unnoticeable but slowly, over the course of some years, took on more significance until it dominated every aspect of “John’s” life.
An article in the London Gazetteer dated 14 October, 1912 states that a “Dr. Julian Teng, lately returned from a charitable mission on the Russian subcontinent (Brown, 1951)” was hired on as an attending physician at Charing Cross Hospital. Two years later, on January 8, 1915, there is an article stating that Dr. Julian Teng has been promoted to head of the contagious diseases department:
“Dr. Julian Teng, whom this paper has followed with some interest since his departure upon a charitable mission for the Royal Society for International Health in March 1908, has lately been appointed Head of Contagious Diseases at Charing Cross Hospital. Devout readers of the Gazetteer will remember his appointment as attending physician there just two years ago. When queried as to the speed of Dr. Teng’s advancement, the Physicians’ Board at Charing Cross acknowledged that it was unprecedented but that Dr. Teng was the candidate most qualified for the post. Said Dr. Basil Gates, of the Board: ‘Dr. Teng is a physician of tremendous talent and unusual experience. We expect great things from him in the future’(Brown, 1951).”
These articles show the outlines of a very successful individual, highly regarded by his peers and with a steep career trajectory. But just three years after his appointment as Head of Contagious Diseases, Dr. Teng left the hospital to enter private practice. The Gazetteer article dated 2 July, 1918 seems to indicate that it was a voluntary move and not at all surprising for a physician of such talent to want to leave the strictures of hospital life to strike out on his own. Dr. Gates, however, has a different story.
Gates indicates that “John” lost his medical position at his hospital after a severe mental breakdown on June 30, 1918 and that “John’s” superiors were concerned for the safety of both his patients and hospital staff. “So erratic and bizarre was John’s behavior on that day that he was subjected to summary dismissal and escorted from the hospital by London police. When questioned about this incident later, John would only say that ‘the world has changed, is changing, and that nothing will ever be the way it was ever again.’ He said that ‘machines were invented not by people, but by God or the Devil and that the motor car was the tipping point beneath which a vast chasm stretched like a mouth ready to swallow all humanity’ (Gates, 1924).”
Apparently, Dr. Teng or “John” was in private practice for two more years until, on the anniversary of his dismissal from the hospital, he suffered a final breakdown that landed him in what was colloquially called a “madhouse”, though the specific institution to which Dr. Teng was consigned used gentler language. It was called the Renfield Residence and it is possible that it was the location Bram Stoker had in mind for his madhouse in the famous “Dracula” novel. The treatments available there were likely state-of-the-art in 1920, but would likely seem barbaric by modern standards.
The committal was quietly performed by Dr. Teng’s old colleague, Dr. Gates, and no article appears in the newspapers of the time. Only Dr. Gates’ book sheds any light on the two years between Dr. Teng’s dismissal from the hospital and his commitment to the Renfield Residence or on the years he spent there.
According to Gates, Dr. Teng opened a small general practice in Southampton following his dismissal from Charing Cross. Southampton was not and still is not the most salubrious of neighborhoods and it is likely that Dr. Teng made a spare living from his patients. Gates visited Teng at his tiny surgery in Soho from time to time and witnessed a slow but steady deterioration in his former friend. Gates’ book says that “John” became more and more disconnected from everyday reality and that his treatments for his patients became increasingly unorthodox, though they were apparently somewhat effective, according to the patients Gates spoke to. Eventually, however, they shear strangeness of Teng’s demeanor meant that the numbers of patients visiting his surgery for treatment shrank to the point where only the “deranged, drunk, or highly desperate (Gates, 1924)” would see him.
Finally, on June 30, 1920, exactly 12 years after the shattering Tunguska Blast, Gates visited Teng’s surgery an found the door locked fast – an unprecedented event. Gates pounded on the door, but “John” did not come to let him in. However, Gates saw him peering down at the street from a window above, in the flat he maintained directly atop his surgery. As Gates puts it: “His look was one of a man who has never seen the person before him or, indeed, of one to whom the existence of other human beings had never occurred (Gates, 1924).”
Gates got a local policeman to force the door and instructed the man to remain in the surgery while he proceeded to the flat above. We will never know exactly what Dr. Gates found there, but he describes it as “a device of immense dimensions and complexity, consuming the whole of the available space in the flat such that I thought John must sleep within it or underneath it. It resembled a laboratory designed for chemical analysis, with retorts and innumerable vials and distillation chambers, but at the same moment it had the semblance of a vast engine with all the associated gears and cranks and piping. I noted the presence of a goodly number of metal and glass tubes filled with mercury at what were apparently varying pressures and temperatures and the entire flat was permeated with the smell of electricity and burnt metal. It was clear that John had finally gone stark mad (Gates, 1924).”
Gates found a place for “John” at the Renfield Residence, where he had an adjunct position, and proceeded to spend much of his remaining years studying “John” and other, similar cases. Gates died in 1929, an apparent victim of the Great Depression.
Gates’ study of “John” in the years between his committal in 1920 and the publication of Gates’ great work in 1924 reveal several things. First, Gates found that “John’s” madness followed a long cycle. It was worst on June 30 and mildest on December 29, exactly 182 days later, and as far as one can get from June 30. But the cycle was progressive and as the years passed even the days of his mildest insanity became very bad.
Second, “John” heard voices, significantly coming from outside his head. “John” believed that these voices told him the future. Any student of psychology knows that the hearing of voices is not unusual and that there are two basic types of patients who hear voices. First, there are those for whom the voices come from inside their heads. For these patients, a cure is possible and even likely as they realize that the voices come from within and so, in some way, they know that the voices are aspects of their own inner voice. Second, there are patients for whom the voices come from outside. The prognosis for these patients is much more dire as they do not recognize that the voices are really aspects of their own personality that they have not dealt with. From this, it would seem that a cure for “John” would be difficult, if not impossible.
Third, “John” had a remarkable lucidity when his own “voice” was foremost. At such times (and they were not altogether infrequent) he knew who he was and who the people around him were. He recognized his surroundings and the reasons for his incarceration. He was highly cooperative and vigorous in implementing treatment regimes prescribed by Dr. Gates. He apparently retained all of his old medical skills and his brilliant intellect.
Fourth, “John” had a terrible compulsion to write down what his “voices” told him. Initially, Dr. Gates thought that this would make the thoughts more real, and he forbade “John” to have pen and paper. As a result, “John” sharpened the edge of a pilfered spoon and used it to carve his thoughts into the walls of his cell. “John” was so persistent in this that his caretakers were effectively unable to stop him. Additionally, if the voices were strong (as they became particularly in the months of June and July) “John” would not sleep or eat until he had written what the voices told him. After three years of this, and at the urging of “John’s” orderly and “John” himself, Dr. Gates finally allowed “John” to have a pen and paper. Dr. Gates states that the volume of “John’s” writing went up enormously and that it seemed he did little else with the time he had apart from his treatments, though Gates notes that the act of writing “and of committing these compelling thoughts to paper seemed to ease his mind and he was calmer, lucid more of the time and more amenable to treatment even while in his excited state (Gates, 1924).”
Dr. Gates may have written more on Julian Teng, but if he did, it was never published. As a result, his 1924 compendium is the last word on the subject. During the worldwide economic depression beginning in 1929 and lasting largely until World War II, the Renfield Residence ran out of funds and was forced to close. The patients that had resided there were sent to other institutions or simply released onto the street if there was no other place for them. As a result, the fate of Julian Teng is unknown. Only pieces of his prophetic writings were reprinted in Dr. Gates’ book and, so far as is known, these are the only traces of his mental history that remain. The rest is forgotten.
In conclusion, we may see that natural cataclysms, while they may cause an individual no physical harm, may still have far-reaching effects on their subsequent lives. It would not be too strongly put to say that the Tunguska Blast ended the brilliant career of Dr. Julian Teng before it even began and that, though he lived for many years after the event, his spirit died in 1908 in the remote lands of central Russia.
Ainsley, George F. (1949). Articles in Russian Journalism Before the October Revolution. Foreign News, London.
Brown, Adrian S., editor (1951). Archives of the London Gazetteer, 1857-1930.
Gates, Basil (1924). Treatments and Case Studies in Schizophrenia. Waterhouse Press, London. 512 pp.
Shoemaker, Eugene (1983), Asteroid and Comet Bombardment of the Earth, vol. 11, US Geological Survey, Flagstaff, Arizona: Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences.
N. V. Vasiliev, A. F. Kovalevsky, S. A. Razin, L. E. Epiktetova (1981). Eyewitness accounts of Tunguska (Crash).