Before the bright sadness

Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, celebrated this year on February 16, is a Christian tradition so fervently embraced by the city of New Orleans in the southern United States, that the two have become almost synonymous. It arrived in the region in the late 17th century with the Le Moyne brothers, Pierre and Jean-Baptiste, when King Louis XIV dispatched them to defend France's claim on the territory of Louisiane, which included what are now the states of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. The expedition reached the mouth of the Mississippi on Lundi Gras – Fat Monday, March 2, 1699 – proceeded up the river and made camp the following day at a spot which lies about 100 kilometres downriver from the present location of New Orleans. It was Fat Tuesday, so the brothers christened it Point du Mardi Gras.

The festival predates the reformation and is celebrated across the globe, taking on the character and beliefs of the locals. Some say the Lenten fast which it precedes may have been introduced for practical reasons; the forty days before Easter were also the last days of winter in the northern hemisphere; no new crops were expected, so for most it was a hungry time. Fat Tuesday was in effect a last chance to eat. The English name for the holiday, Shrove Tuesday, is derived from the archaic verb "shrive" meaning “to obtain absolution for one's sins by way of confession and doing penance”. Other languages are more forthright in their description of the festivities, which are marked by the consumption of as many calories as possible, usually in the form of fat and sugar, in preparation for the fast which begins on Ash Wednesday. In Hawaii, it is Malasada Day, after the fried doughnuts introduced by the Portuguese workers on the sugar plantations in the 1800's. Large batches of malasada were made to use up stores of sugar and fat. The Icelanders call the day Sprengidagur or Bursting Day, presumably to describe the effect it has on the stomach, although unlike other countries, whose Christian  populations feed on cream-drenched pastries and pancakes, they gorge themselves on salt meat and peas.

Irish mannequin in a store window during Mardi Gras, New Orleans, Louisiana, January 6, 2008. Carol M. Highsmith's America, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

The Love Lottery

Back in ancient Rome, when February fell later in the year, around the time of the beginning of Spring in the northern hemisphere, Valentine's Day was a very different affair from the Hallmark Holiday it is today. In his Life of Caesar, Plutarch describes a festival of purification and fertility called Lupercalia, which was celebrated on February 15: "At this time many of the noble youths and of the magistrates run up and down through the city naked, for sport and laughter striking those they meet with shaggy thongs. And many women of rank also purposely get in their way, and like children at school present their hands to be struck, believing that the pregnant will thus be helped in delivery, and the barren to pregnancy."

Lupercalia, the Wolf Festival, began with the sacrifice of two male goats and a dog, directed by the Luperci, or "brothers of the wolf", priests of Faunus. Once the sacrifices had been dispatched their blood was smeared on the faces of Luperci initiates with sheep's wool soaked in milk, and thongs known as Februa (the origin of the name February) were cut from the skin of the animals and handed to the initiates who would run around in the streets whipping people with them (Plutarch's "shaggy thongs"). Shakespeare's Julius Caesar begins during Lupercalia with Caesar instructing Mark Anthony to strike his wife Calpurnia, in the hope that the act will cause her to conceive. It was 44 BC; Anthony used the celebration to offer Caesar a diadem, which he refused – a portent of his death the following month.

Lupercalia survived for at least the next five centuries. Roman armies took the Lupercalia customs with them as they invaded France and Britain and some of these served their needs particularly well. A Lupercalia lottery, where the names of maidens were placed in a box and drawn by young men, may explain the sending of anonymous Valentine's letters. Each man accepted the girl whose name he drew as his lover for the duration of the festival.

In the year 496, Lupercalia was abolished by Pope Gelasius I, who mocked those senators who insisted on preserving it: "If you assert that this rite has salutary force, celebrate it yourselves in the ancestral fashion; run nude yourselves that you may properly carry out the mockery."

The loss of such an important festival left a significant void in the calendar. Gelasius promptly appointed St Valentine as patron saint of lovers and declared that the holiday would be celebrated on February 14. The lover's lottery was replaced with a Christian version; the feast of St. Valentine featured a lottery of Saints. Worshippers would pull the name of a saint out of a box, and, for the following year study and attempt to emulate that saint.

Illustration for “O, Lay Thy hand In Mine, Dear”  from “World’s Best Music” (1900) edited by Helen Kendrik Johnson. The woman in the illustration plays a 16-stringed sitar or guitar, likely a chitarrone. Behind her a cherub plays the violin.

The search for Blessed John

When Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias set out on an expedition in 1487 to sail around the southern end of Africa, his primary instruction was to find a trade route to India. Dias was also charged with searching for the lands described by Prester John, a fabled Christian priest and African prince, who was said to be a descendent of the Magi. In the 12th century, a letter written by Prester John, describing a Christian kingdom marooned in a sea of Muslim infidels, surfaced in Europe and inspired geographic exploration across Asia and Africa.

The letter – or rather letters, since there were more than a hundred versions in circulation – told of a land of milk and honey where "no poison hurts, no frog croaks, no snakes hiss in the herbage; no venomous animals can abide there, or do harm to anyone". The kingdom's rivers flowed with gold. It was also home to the Fountain of Youth. Countless expeditions to Asia were launched with the aim of rescuing Prester John and his kingdom, but not one succeeded. In 1340 a new edition of the letter claimed that Prester John had relocated to Abyssinia. Voyages and expeditions changed tack – in the direction of Africa.

Dias' expedition of three ships, led by his flagship the caravel São Cristóvão, left Lisbon in August 1487 and sailed down the west coast of Africa. They stopped to pick up provisions at Sao Jorge de Mina on the Gold Coast.  By December they had reached Golfo da Conceicão (Walvis Bay). After giving the Cape of Storms a wide berth (they only discovered it on their return voyage), Dias reached what is now known as Mossel Bay on February 3, the day of the feast of Saint Blaise, patron saint of wool combers. He named it Aguada de São Brás. Dias' expedition did not continue on to India – his crew refused to sail any further and he returned to Lisbon in December 1488. Cartographers kept including the kingdom of Prester John in their maps, and the letters became more and more fantastic.

Prester John was never found.

Illustration: PRESBITERI IOHANNIS sive ABISSINORUM IMPERII, A description of the Empire of Prester John or of the Abyssinians, Ortelius, 1603

“Rembrandts of anatomical preparation”

Visit the US Library of Medicine's Dream Anatomy website and it is clear that  anatomy has not always been an exact science. Dream Anatomy points to the invention of the printing press in 15th century as the inspiration for what it calls the "new spectacular visions of the body" that were preserved in print and can be viewed here. Among the works featured on the website are those of 16th century Dutch botanist and anatomist extraordinaire Frederik Ruysch. Although none of the original dioramas that Ruysch constructed have survived, they were faithfully reproduced by the artist Cornelius Huyberts.

In 1668, Ruysch was appointed chief instructor to Amsterdam's midwives who were all required to be examined by him before they were allowed to practice. His job allowed him access to a rare resource vital to his studies – the bodies of stillborn and dead babies. To perform dissections on these subjects required no permission. Ruysch invented a special embalming fluid made from a mixture of clotted pig's blood, paint pigment, Prussian blue, and mercury oxide. With the help of his artist daughter Rachel, Ruysch used preserved specimens from the dissections he had performed to construct a fantastic collection.

Body parts served as Ruysch's sculptural medium. In Finders, Keepers: Eight Collectors Stephen Jay Gould wrote of his work: "Ruysch made about a dozen tableaux, constructed of human fetal skeletons with backgrounds of other body parts, on allegorical themes of death and the transiency of life ... Ruysch built the 'geological' landscapes of these tableaux from gallstones and kidneystones, and 'botanical' backgrounds from injected and hardened major veins and arteries for "trees," and more ramified tissue of lungs and smaller vessels for 'bushes' and 'grass.' The fetal skeletons, several per tableau, were ornamented with symbols of death and short life – hands may hold mayflies (which live but a day in their adult state); skulls bemoan their fate by weeping into 'handkerchiefs' made of elegantly injected mesentery or brain meninges; 'snakes' and 'worms,' symbols of corruption made of intestine, wind around pelvis and rib cage. Quotations and moral exhortations, emphasizing the brevity of life and the vanity of earthly riches, festooned the compositions. One fetal skeleton holding a string of pearls in its hand proclaims, 'Why should I long for the things of this world?' Another, playing a violin with a bow made of a dried artery, sings, 'Ah fate, ah bitter fate'."

Illustration: Alle de ontleed- genees- en heelkindige werken ... van Fredrik Ruysch.
Amsterdam, 1744. Etching with engraving. National Library of Medicine.

No longer Gage?

I first heard of the curious case of Phineas P. Gage in a Psychology I lecture back in the eighties.

25-year-old Gage was foreman of a work gang blasting rock in preparation for the roadbed for the Rutland & Burlington railroad outside the town of Cavendish, Vermont. He was charged with compacting the blasting powder, fuse and sand inserted into holes drilled into bedrock, using an instrument called a tamping iron, a long rod tapered at the end to a fine point like a javelin. At about half-past-four on the afternoon of September 13, 1848, as reported in the Boston Post on September 21, 1848: "the powder exploded, carrying an instrument through his head an inch and a fourth in diameter, and three feet and seven inches in length, which he was using at the time. The iron entered on the side of his face, shattering the upper jaw, and passing back of the left eye, and out at the top of the head." The rod exited his head and landed 25 metres away.

Gage is remembered not only because he survived the trauma, but because his case gave some inkling as to the function of the different parts of the brain – the reason Gage was mentioned in my Psych lecture. Dr. Edward H. Williams, the doctor who attended to the still-conscious Gage reported that he could see his brain pulsating through the hole in his skull and that when he vomited " the effort of vomiting pressed out about half a teacupful of the brain, which fell upon the floor". Although it is not known whether Gage suffered damage to both frontal lobes or just the left one, his case was to provide significant evidence that the frontal lobes give humans the ability to recognise future consequences resulting from current actions, to choose between good and bad actions and suppress unacceptable social responses. Dr. John Martyn Harlow, the doctor who took over care of Gage, wrote in 1868: "The equilibrium or balance, so to speak, between his intellectual faculties and animal propensities, seems to have been destroyed. He is fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity (which was not previously his custom), manifesting but little deference for his fellows, impatient of restraint or advice when it conflicts with his desires, at times pertinaciously obstinate, yet capricious and vacillating, devising many plans of future operations, which are no sooner arranged than they are abandoned in turn for others appearing more feasible. A child in his intellectual capacity and manifestations, he has the animal passions of a strong man. Previous to his injury, although untrained in the schools, he possessed a well-balanced mind, and was looked upon by those who knew him as a shrewd, smart businessman, very energetic and persistent in executing all his plans of operation. In this regard his mind was radically changed, so decidedly that his friends and acquaintances said he was 'no longer Gage.' "

Gage died in 1860 after a series of seizures.

Photograph: Cased-daguerreotype studio portrait Phineas P. Gage (1823–1860) shown holding the tamping iron which injured him. Until recently it was thought that no photographic record of Gage existed. In 2007, antique photo collectors Jack and Beverly Wilgus posted this scan of a daguerreotype in their collection to Flickr. What they thought was a picture of a whaler holding the harpoon which had impaled him turned out to be a photograph of Gage. On closer inspection an inscription on the rod which Gage is holding reads "... through the head of Mr. Phi". The tamping iron recovered from Gage's grave and kept in the Harvard medical museum reads: "This is the bar that was shot through the head of Mr. Phinehas P. Gage". Some researchers have used the photographic evidence, which shows Gage to be well-dressed and confident, to support a theory that Gage made some emotional and psychological recovery and did not remain the sullen, difficult character that Harlow described.

Free to the World

In January 1839, French artist and chemist Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre changed the world. On the 9th day of that month he announced to the French Academy of Sciences that he had all but perfected a process for permanently capturing a moment in time. Daguerre had worked for years alongside fellow pioneer Nicéphore Niépce, whose bitumen-based heliography contributed to the development of the daguerreotype. In 1835, after Niépce's death in 1833, Daguerre discovered  a method of developing images that had been exposed for 20 to 30 minutes, when he accidentally broke a mercury thermometer. He discovered later that he was able to fix the image by using a solution of salts. The French government responded by buying the process from Daguerre in exchange for a pension. It then gave daguerrotype to the rest of the world for free.

In 1840 Edgar Allen Poe wrote about the "dag" and called it "the instrument I believe must undoubtedly be recognised as the most important, and perhaps the most extraordinary, triumph of modern science." Poe had his own dismal countenance recorded for posterity.

Photograph: Boulevard du Temple, Paris, 1838, by Daguerre. This is the first-ever photograph of a person. The street in the image was a busy one, but since exposure took at least ten minutes, the moving cars and pedestrians in the picture do not appear. The exception is the man at the bottom left, who, because he stood still for long enough while getting his boots polished, can be seen quite clearly.

Franklin's electric turkey

The story of how Benjamin Franklin flew a kite during an electric thunderstorm to determine whether or not lightning was an electric phenomenon, is a well-known one. One might expect that Franklin, as a founding father of the United States and signatory to the Declaration of Independence would have been a sensible man. It seems the opposite is true.

Although it is not certain whether Franklin actually went through with the kite experiment – according to his writings he was well aware of the dangers of exposing himself to lightning and it has been proven that if he had performed the experiment in the manner prescribed in his proposal, he would most certainly have been killed – he did have, according to head of the Royal Society’s library and archives, Keith Moore "a penchant for showmanship and dangerous experiments.

In 2005, the Massachusetts Historical Society made public documents describing the story of the first turkey to be cooked using electricity. In a letter to his brother John, dated December 25, 1750, Franklin relates what transpired when he took it upon himself to electrocute a turkey for Christmas dinner. The feast was to be an homage to all things electrical: "A turkey is to be killed for our dinner by the electrical shock and roasted by the electrical jack (spit) before a fire kindled by the electrified bottle, when the healths of all the famous electricians in England, Holland, France and Germany are to be drank in electrified bumpers (tumblers). The birds kill’d in this manner eat uncommonly tender."

The experiment did not go quite as smoothly as planned. According to the letter: "I have lately made an Experiment in Electricity that I desire never to repeat. Two nights ago being about to kill a Turkey by the Shock from two large Glass Jarrs containing as much electrical fire as forty common Phials, I inadvertently took the whole thro' my own Arms and Body." Witnesses saw a "great flash" and heard a crack as "loud as a pistol". Franklin himself saw and heard nothing since he had been rendered unconscious. His arms, he recalled, remained numb until the next morning.

There is evidence that Franklin was embarrassed by the incident: "You may Communicate this to Mr. Bowdoin (a Boston friend of Franklin's who also experimented with electricity) As A Caution to him, but do not make it mor Publick, for I am Ashamed to have been Guilty of so Notorious A Blunder."

Illustration: Wild Turkey Cock (Meleagris Gallopavo) from John James Audubon's Birds of America, first published as a series of sections between 1827 and 1838.

Red sky at night

When Norwegian artist Edvard Munch wrote in a journal entry dated 22 January, 1892 of the inspiration for his painting The Scream, he described an experience: "I was walking along the road with two friends – then the sun set – all at once the sky became blood red – and I felt overcome with melancholy. I stood still and leaned against the railing, dead tired – clouds like blood and tongues of fire hung above the blue-black fjord and the city. My friends went on and I stood alone, trembling with anxiety. I felt a great, unending scream piercing through nature."

It is a small triumph for science when it figures out the facts behind a piece of art; in the case of Munch's Scream, three Texas State University scholars, who worked out that the colour of the sky in the painting was a result of fallout from the eruption of Mount Krakatoa that culminated in August of 1883 with the destruction of the Krakatoa islands and the deaths of an estimated 120 000 people.

What science cannot explain is why we are drawn to a work of art or how an artist succeeds in imbuing paint and canvas with so much emotion that we find it impossible to look away. Yes, Munch did paint a red sky, but is it possible that earth's paroxysms as Krakatoa exploded became his own, while strolling at sunset through the streets of Oslo?

Munch was not given to quaint renderings of landscapes, or the people that inhabit them. He once said that he would no longer "paint interiors with men reading and women knitting” but “living people who breathe and feel and suffer and love."

In her book Edvard Munch: Behind the Scream, Sue Prideaux quotes Munch as saying of the painting: "... for several years I was almost mad ...You know my picture, The Scream? I was stretched to the limit – nature was screaming in my blood ... After that I gave up hope ever of being able to love again."

The end begins

A plaque commemorating the epochal events of December 2, 1942 is mounted on a wall near the site where a team of scientists led by Enrico Fermi achieved what was to ensure America's lead in the race to develop an atomic bomb. It was in the squash courts beneath Stagg Field, a football field on the campus of the University of Chicago, that Chicago Pile-1, the first nuclear reactor, went critical for the first time. The "reactor" – a term coined ten years later – consisted of a roughly spherical pile of neutron-producing uranium pellets interspersed with graphite blocks to slow the reaction. Fermi described it as "a crude pile of black bricks and wooden timbers." While a group of 40 dignitaries looked on, a young scientist called George Weil removed the cadmium-coated control rods that served to absorb the neutrons in the reactor, one by one. As each rod was removed, neutron activity in the pile increased. At 3.25 pm the pile achieved the critical mass necessary for a self-sustaining reaction, and remained that way for 28 minutes. Arthur Compton, head of the Office of Scientific Research and Development's S-1 Uranium Committee (later the Manhattan Project) made a coded phone call to James Conant, chairman of the National Defense Research Committee, that brought news of the experiment's success, saying: "The Italian navigator (Fermi) has landed in the new world, the natives are friendly."

The plaque reads: "On December 2, 1942, Man achieved the first self-sustaining chain reactions and thereby initiated the controlled release of nuclear energy."

Photograph, Ed Westcott , US Federal Government, 14 August 1945. War Ends. Celebrations in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, August 1945, after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended World War II. Oak Ridge was one of ten sites in the US which was part of the Manhattan Project, the codename for a project conducted during World War II to develop the first atomic bomb. Workers at the the uranium-enrichment facilities, which covered more than 60,000 acres (243 km²) of several former farm communities in the Tennessee Valley area, were unaware of their role in providing the refined uranium needed to produce atomic bombs at Los Alamos. The site was so secret that even the governor of the state was not told that Oak Ridge was being built. At times, the Oak Ridge plants, which produced uranium-235, the uranium isotope from which Little Boy, the Hiroshima bomb, was made, were consuming one sixth of the electrical power produced in the U.S.

Perfect Storm

Just weeks before the Great Storm struck the south of England, on November 24, 1703, Henry Winstanley, creator of the Eddystone lighthouse, is reported to have said that he wished he could be on the reef in the greatest storm that ever blew under the face of heaven so he would see what effect it would have on his building.

He did not have to wait long. Winstanley was carrying out repairs on the structure when the tempest struck. The "perfect hurricane" that raged across the country for days destroyed the lighthouse as it reached its full might on the 27th of November. According to An Exact relation of the late dreadful tempest, an account published in 1704, "Winstaneley, the Inventer, with two more" was "thrown into the Sea."

The storm killed at least 8 000 people, including a fifth of the sailors in the British Navy, engaged at the time in helping Spain fend off the French in the War of the Spanish Succession. The wind, reported to have reached speeds of up to 120 miles per hour, felled 4 000 oak trees in the New Forest and rolled up the lead roof of Westminster Abbey like parchment.

Daniel Foe, whom we know as Daniel Defoe (some speculate that he added the "De" prefix to make his name sound more aristocratic) recorded his recollections of the events in The Storm, or, a Collection of the most remarkable Casualties and Disasters which happen’d in the Late Dreadful Tempest, both by Sea and Land. His descriptions of the Great Storm are often credited with providing a foundation for both journalistic writing and the novel. Although many who witnessed the destruction (Defoe reported that coastal towns like Portsmouth "looked as if the enemy had sackt them and were most miserably torn to pieces") believed that the tempest was an Act of God, a "Monument to the Anger of Heaven", Defoe's account was based on eyewitness accounts solicited from all over the country by means of advertisements in the London Gazette. Defoe, who himself narrowly escaped being hit by a falling chimney, a common cause of death during the storm, insisted: "No pen could describe it, nor tongue express it, nor thought conceive it unless by one in the extremity of it".

In The Journalistic Imagination: Literary Journalists from Defoe to Capote to Carter, Jenny McKay describes Defoe's The Storm as a "pioneering example of the human-interest story, a record of narrow escapes and loss of life." As an example she quotes his record of the death of the Bishop of Wells, as witnessed by the Bishop's servant. It reads: "…by the Fall of two Chimney Stacks, which fell on the Roof, and drove it in upon my Lord’s Bed, forced it quite through the next Flower [floor] down in the Hall, and buried them both in the Rubbish: and ‘tis suppos’d my Lord was getting up, for he was found some Distance from my Lady who was found in her Bed."

Illustration: Winstanley's Lighthouse at the Eddystone, after Henry Roberts' 1761 engraving, c. 1860

Yo yo-yo

According to, the yo-yo has been around for a very long time. The oldest surviving yo-yo dates as far back as 500 BC, when the Greeks fashioned them from terracotta discs. One theory is that they were used as offerings in rites of passage to signify a child's crossing over to adulthood.

It is the name yo-yo that stuck, but the toy was also known to the English by the French bandalore and quiz. The French called it incroyable, de Coblenz, l'emigrette and joujou de Normandie. Joujou means 'little toy' in French and is a possible origin of the word yo-yo, although an entry in Webster's Collegiate Dictionary states that its origins lie in the northern Philippine Ilokano language, and Panati's Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things says that the word means 'come-come' in Tagalog, an Austronesian language spoken in the Philippines, where the yo-yo was used as a weapon.

For 2 500 years demand for the toy, the second oldest in the world (the oldest is the doll) has, well, yo-yoed. In the 1930s, when the Lego company was left with excess stock they were forced to saw the unsold toys in half and use them as wheels on toy trucks and cars. The first US patent for the yo-yo was issued on November 20, 1866 to James L. Haven and Charles Hittrick of Cincinnati, Ohio, who described it as an improvement on an existing design. Although they referred to it as a "whirligig" it had the familiar construction of a yo-yo – "two disks coupled together at their centres by means of a clutch" – and was weighted around the rim to improve momentum. The yo-yo did not become the faddish plaything we know today until 1928 when a Filipino American named Pedro Flores opened the Yo-yo Manufacturing Company in Santa Barbara, California. By November of the following year, Flores was operating two additional factories in Los Angeles and Hollywood, which together employed 600 workers and produced 300 000 units daily. An entrepreneur named Donald Duncan bought the concern from Flores for $250 000, an amount that he managed, despite it being a big outlay by depression era standards, to win back many times over. Duncan eventually lost the rights to the trademark yo-yo in 1965 when it was decided that the word had become part of common speech. He sold the business and all its trademarks to The Flambeau Plastic Company and concentrated his efforts instead on manufacturing parking meters.

Photograph: Jo Jo-Spiel, Bundesarchiv Bild, "The Yo-Yo game of the 1920s, Charlottenstrasse, Berlin"

Unintended consequences

Eugene Schieffelin thought he was doing his fellow New Yorkers a favour when he released 60 European starlings in Central Park on March 16, 1890. Schieffelin, a German immigrant whose family had distinguished itself in the field of pharmacology, was a member of the American Acclimatization Society which sought, according to its charter, to introduce "such foreign varieties of the animal and vegetable kingdom as may be useful or interesting."

He was, it is said, a little eccentric; the inspiration behind his acquisition of the starling specimens was to provide Americans with physical examples of every bird mentioned in the plays of William Shakespeare. The starling (Sturnus vulgaris), by all accounts, even its name, a vulgar, scheming bird, is mentioned only once in all the bard's scribings. In Henry IV, Part I, when Young Henry Percy, known as Hotspur, wants King Henry to ransom Edmund Mortimer, the Earl of March, held by outlaws in Wales, he determines that he will be able to sway the king by repeating the name Mortimer. He decides the best way is to teach a starling to mimic the sound of his name: "I'll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but 'Mortimer', and give it him, to keep his anger still in motion."

Today the descendants of the imports brought to America on a whim, number 200 million. They have driven many indigenous species such as the bluebird and the flicker from their traditional nesting grounds, many say in a planned, deliberate fashion. Their droppings, produced prolifically where they roost, are also cause for consternation. On one occasion 11 tons of starling poo had to be scraped off the dome of the state capitol in Springfield, Illinois. As Stan Richards and David Culp put it in their book The Peaceable Kingdom, which uses the lesson of the starling as a parallel for introducing radical initiatives in business without first determining the repercussions: "Shakespeare would have been flattered (til he had to wash the poop off his car)."

Photograph: Starlings over Tøndermarsken, south-west Jutland, Denmark, (

London's Leonardo

Robert Hooke, contemporary of Isaac Newton and Christopher Wren, has been described in several biographies in less than flattering adjectives. His first biographer, Robert Waller, called him "despicable, melancholy, mistrustful, and jealous", and a slew of subsequent biographers followed suit with "positively unscrupulous, cantankerous, envious and vengeful". The bad press, combined with the fallout from a dispute which he had with Newton over work he carried out on gravitation, did nothing to help his reputation. Hooke and his work fell into relative obscurity in the centuries following his death in 1703. It is said that Newton, who became president of the Royal Society after Hooke's death, so despised him that he did everything in his power to ensure that his work did not come to light, and went as far as destroying the only known portrait of the man. Several attempts have been made to construct an image using verbal descriptions of Hooke.

In January 2006, Hooke's minutes of the earliest years of the Royal Society's work were discovered. The 320-year-old Hooke Folio tells the story of what really conspired ,better than any biographer could, recording in detail the conversation that led to the birth of science as we know it today. On November 3, 1664, when he was 29-years-old, Hooke gave a sneak preview, at a meeting of the Royal Society, of his book Micrographia, or some Physiological Descriptions of minute bodies made by magnifying glasses with observations and inquiries thereupon, history's first treatise on microbiology. The book includes drawings of insects, plants and other objects as viewed through the microscope, an invention that heralded a scientific and artistic revolution in the late 17th century. It was Hooke who first coined the term "cell" to describe the minute partitions that he saw in plant and animal tissue.  

Illustration: Robert Hooke's flea. Micrographia, 1664

Cowasjee's Nose

It was after reading an account of an Indian nose job penned by army Surgeon General Lucas in a 1794 edition of The Gentleman's Magazine: or, Trader's monthly intelligencer, that Joseph Constantine Carpue first began to meditate on the possibilities of performing a similar procedure in his modern surgery at Duke of York's hospital. Carpue is credited with performing the first "modern" rhinoplasty 20 years later.

Cowasjee, the patient in Lucas' Indian rhinoplasty, was a bullock driver for the British army and was captured by the troops of the enemy, Tipu Sahib, Sultan of Mysore, who cut off his hands and nose. So he remained for a year, until a local potter performed the operation, known to Westerners as the Hindu Method, and restored his features. According to the report rhinoplasties were commonplace in India, where noses had for centuries been amputated as a form of punishment for criminals, war prisoners, or people indulged in adultery.

According to "Sushruta: Rhinoplasty in 600 B.C" an article by specialist plastic surgeon, Sanjay Saraf published in The Internet Journal of Plastic Surgery 2007: Volume 3 Number 2 (, the nose was regarded in Indian society as a symbol of dignity and respect. Rhinoplasty was developed millennia ago, as a way to restore these qualities to those who had lost their noses. Saraf's article quotes a passage from Sushruta Samhita, an encyclopaedic treatise written around 600 B.C by Father of Indian surgery Sushruta, that vividly describes his method for restoring a patient's nose to its former glory: "The portion of the nose to be covered should be first measured with a leaf. Then a piece of skin of the required size should be dissected from the living skin of the cheek, and turned back to cover the nose, keeping a small pedicle attached to the cheek. The part of the nose to which the skin is to be attached should be made raw by cutting the nasal stump with a knife. The physician then should place the skin on the nose and stitch the two parts swiftly, keeping the skin properly elevated by inserting two tubes of eranda (the castor-oil plant) in the position of the nostrils, so that the new nose gets proper shape. The skin thus properly adjusted, it should then be sprinkled with a powder of liquorice, red sandal-wood and barberry plant. Finally, it should be covered with cotton, and clean sesame oil should be constantly applied. When the skin has united and granulated, if the nose is too short or too long, the middle of the flap should be divided and an endeavor made to enlarge or shorten it.”

Illustration: The famous Indian Rhinoplasty (reproduced in the October 1794 issue of the Gentleman's Magazine of London) Science Museum,

Dimber Damber

Bampfylde Moore Carew, one-time King of the Gypsies, was born into relative affluence, the son of the Rector of Bickley, near Tiverton, Devon, in 1693. His biographer (it is not quite certain who this is, but Liam Quin, of says authorship of The Life and Adventures of Bampfylde Moore Carew, [a full, scanned version is available on Google Books] probably belongs to the wife of printer and compiler Robert Goadby, to whom Carew dictated his memoirs) describes him as "tall and majestic; his limbs strong and well-proportioned, his features regular, his countenance open and ingenious, bearing all those characteristical marks to which physiognomists denote an honest and good-natured mind".

As an adolescent who had developed a taste for the hunt, Carew and his friends chased down and killed a deer belonging to Colonel Nutcombe of the Claybanger parish and in so doing caused "havock" in their neighbour's corn fields. To avoid punishment for the misdemeanour, Carew ran away and joined the gypsies and so began a career of swindling and imposture. He travelled to Newfoundland and on his return, posing as the mate of a vessel, he eloped with the daughter of an apothecary whom he later married.

When Clause Patch, (the King of the Beggars in John Fletcher's play Beggar's Bush) died, Carew was elected his successor. A conviction of vagrancy earned him transportation to Maryland, where he escaped and befriended native Americans who relieved him of the heavy collar he had been made to wear. Carew made his way to New London and embarked for England. He avoided impressment on board a man-of-war by pricking his hands and face and rubbing in bay salt and gunpowder to simulate smallpox. Although he Life and Adventures of Bampfylde Moore Carew is a series of frauds and deceptions, it was a popular read. The colourful, well-educated Carew was appealing – he was seen as someone who could outwit the establishment while never doing anything really bad. The first edition of Carew's biography, published in 1745, describes him as “the Noted Devonshire Stroller and Dogstealer”. "The Oath Of The Canting Crew", which spells out the requirements of belonging to the gypsies, as well as other canting songs and a canting dictionary, is included in most editions. The notes to the Oath are available on, where author Liam Quin has transcribed a collections of canting songs.



The Oath Of The Canting Crew

I, Crank Cuffin, swear to be
True to this fraternity;
That I will in all obey
Rule and order of the lay.
Never blow the gab or squeak;
Never snitch to bum or beak;
But religiously maintain
Authority of those who reign
Over Stop Hole Abbey green,
Be their tawny king, or queen.
In their cause alone will fight;
Think what they think, wrong or right;
Serve them truly, and no other,
And be faithful to my brother;
Suffer none, from far or near,
With their rights to interfere;
No strange Abram, ruffler crack, Hooker of another pack,
Rogue or rascal, frater, maunderer, Irish toyle, or other wanderer;
No dimber, dambler, angler, dancer,
Prig of cackler, prig of prancer;
No swigman, swaddler, clapperdudgeon;
Cadge-gloak, curtal, or curmudgeon;
No whip-jack, palliard, patrico;
No jarkman, be he high or low;
No dummerar, or romany;
No member of the family;
No ballad-basket, bouncing buffer,
Nor any other, will I suffer;
But stall-off now and for ever
All outtiers whatsoever;
And as I keep to the foregone,
So may help me Salamon! [By the mass!]



Illustration: Portrait of Bampfylde Moore Carew, frontispiece of The Life and Adventures of Bampfylde Moore Carew, 1745

Blue stocking doc

The story goes that Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, the first woman in Britain to gain a medical qualification, made the decision to pursue a career in medicine when she went to visit family friend Emily Davies. While seated by the fire with Elizabeth and her sister Millicent, Davies, who later founded Girton College for women in Cambridge, declared: "It is clear what has to be done. I must devote myself to securing higher education while you (Elizabeth) open the medical profession for women. After these things are done, we must set about getting the vote." Millicent, thirteen at the time, was given the suffrage portfolio.

Garrett's resolve to study medicine was virtually unheard of at the time. Many considered it indecent, and she was refused admission to medical school, forced to study anatomy privately and disallowed from sitting examinations at London University and the Royal Colleges of Physicians and Surgeons. Eventually the Society of Apothecaries allowed her to enter for the Licence of Apothecaries' Hall, which she obtained on 28 September, 1865. This entitled her to have her name entered on the medical register, the second woman after Elizabeth Blackwell, and the first woman qualified in Britain to do so.






Illustration: Breaking up of the Blue Stocking Club, Thomas Rowlandson, 1915
Elizabeth Garrett, her sister Millicent Fawcett and campaigner for women's rights in education, Emily Davies, all belonged to the so-called Blue Stocking Club, a group of women who, in the latter half of the 19th century sought to improve the lot of women by campaigning for access to education, healthcare and the right to vote. "Bluestocking" was a scathing reference to the frumpy appearance of feminists and female academics who favoured unfashionable clothing like cheap blue knitted stockings. Rowlandson's satirical print is meant to expose the true nature of these woman who, left to their own devices end up assaulting one another instead of calmly discussing society over tea. The overturned bottle of French Cream in the foreground alludes to the influence of French culture, regarded by the British as artificial and morally dangerous, especially to women.

Association of genius

When the so-called Father of Microbiology, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, first witnessed the microbes in a drop of water in which he had suspended some ground nutmeg in order to see, through a microscope which he had fashioned, what it was that gave the spice its flavour, he lacked the language to express what he saw. He resorted to the term "animalcules" to describe the tiny beasts swimming before his eyes. Van Leeuwenhoek, who had never attended university, knew neither Greek nor Latin. He was a draper by trade.

Fearing that he might sound like a madman if he used the language he was familiar with, he sought the advice of his close friend, the artist, Johannes Vermeer, who suggested that he draw what he saw and submit his observations to The Royal Society. He wrote his first letter on September 17, 1683.

Van Leeuwenhoek made observations on plaque taken from between his own teeth: "a little white matter, which is as thick as if 'twere batter." Leeuwenhoek reported how he: "... then most always saw, with great wonder, that in the said matter there were many very little living animalcules (little eels), very prettily a-moving. The biggest sort had a very strong and swift motion, and shot through the water (or spittle) like a pike does through the water. The second sort oft-times spun round like a top and these were far more in number."

Illustration: The Geographer by Johannes Vermeer, 1668-69. It has been suggested that Van Leeuwenhoek is the man portrayed in the painting. Van Leeuwenhoek and Vermeer were born within days of one another and always lived in close proximity in their native Delft. Art historians have long debated whether Vermeer used camera obscura, a technique which may have been introduced to him by Van Leeuwenhoek, to create his intimate and extremely detailed portraits.

Watch Tim's Vermeer, a documentary film about inventor Tim Jenison's efforts to duplicate the painting techniques of Johannes Vermeer, to test his theory that Vermeer painted with the help of optical devices.

Martha, sweet Martha

"I  seated myself on an eminence, and began to mark with my pencil, making a dot for every flock that passed. In a short time finding the task which I had, undertaken impracticable, as the birds poured in in countless multitudes, I rose, and counting the dots then put down, found that 163 had been made in twenty-one minutes. I traveled on, and still met more the farther I proceeded. The air was literally filled with Pigeons; the light of noon-day was obscured as by an eclipse, the dung fell in spots, not unlike melting flakes of snow; and the continued buzz of wings had a tendency to lull my senses to repose. Before sunset I reached Louisville, distance from Hardensburgh fifty-five miles. The Pigeons were still passing in undiminished numbers, and continued to do so for three days in succession."

This excerpt from an account by naturalist John James Audubon, of a migration of passenger pigeons Ectopistes migratorius in 1813, attests to the extent of their numbers in North America during the 19th century.

A century later they were all gone.

Further on in Audubon's account the reason for the bird's demise becomes clear. While Audubon believed at the time that no amount of slaughter could diminish their number,  the birds were being hunted on a massive scale as food for the poor, the slaves and the pigs. Trees in the pigeons' nesting grounds were felled and burned to bring them down. The birds were intoxicated with alcohol-soaked grain and caught in nets. Hunters tied live pigeons with their eyes sewn closed to stools and, raised high in the air, used them to lure others flying overhead as they flapped their wings in a futile attempt to land. It is from this wicked practice that the name "stool pigeon" is derived.

Laws were passed to try and halt the decrease in numbers which had become evident by the 1870's. In Michigan it was illegal to net birds within two miles of their breeding grounds, but the legislation was not properly enforced; in 1878, in Petoskey, Michigan, 50 000 birds were killed every day for five months, pursued by professional hunters until every last one of the intensely gregarious birds was dead.

By 1897, when barely a bird was to be found in the wild, it was too late to revive the species. The small captive flocks refused to be bred. The species would only initiate courtship and mating when gathered in large numbers.

Martha, the last of the Passenger pigeons, died in Cincinnatti Zoo on September 1, 1914, age 29.

Measure of a man

It was Scottish born detective and spy Allan Pinkerton who is credited with inventing the mug shot. Pinkerton, who emigrated to the United States when he was 23, was Chicago's first detective, and later formed the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, which had as its motto "We never sleep".  The first mug shots were those featured on Wanted posters in the Wild West.

In 1882, Frenchman Alphonse Bertillon introduced the term anthropometry (Identification anthropométrique) to define his system for precisely measuring humans. In developing the system, Bertillon, whom Conan Doyle's character Sherlock Holmes described as "the French savant" in his book The Naval Treaty, dissatisfied with the random methods used to identify previously-arrested criminals, began taking measurements of inmates at the La Santé Prison in Paris in his spare time to jeers from both prisoners and fellow police officers. His system, Bertillonage, was the only scientific system used by police to identify criminals until fingerprinting was introduced. Bertillon also standardised the mug shot. He used metric photography to place an object, in this case the face of an offender head on and in profile, precisely within a defined space. A mat printed with metric frames was mounted along the side of the photographs.

Bertillon's obsession with classification led him to offer testimony as a handwriting expert in the trial of Alfred Dreyfus. The "long tissue of absurdities" (according to fellow witness Maurice Paleologue) which Bertillon offered as evidence that Dreyfus was guilty of treason was a significant contributing factor to the innocent Dreyfus' guilty verdict and subsequent lifelong imprisonment on Devil's Island.