Showing 21 - 30 of 37 annotations in the genre "Biography"

Annotated by:
Coulehan, Jack

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Biography

Summary:

This biography begins on April 20, 1995 when the ashes of Marie and Pierre Curie were transferred from their graves in a Paris suburb and re-interred in the Pantheon, thereby placing the Curies among the "immortals" of France. Thus, Marie became the first (and so far the only) woman to be honored in this way. Goldsmith's biography is a straightforward and well-written narrative that eschews hagiography, wordiness, and psychological interpretations.

The story of Marie Curie (1867-1934) is well known. Born into an intellectual but impoverished Polish family, she struggled to obtain a scientific education, first in Poland and then at the Sorbonne in Paris. While a graduate student, she met and married the young chemist Pierre Curie. Together, with essentially no funding and dismal laboratory space, they discovered and characterized radioactivity. Later, on her own Marie discovered and isolated two new elements, polonium and radium. Subsequently Marie and Pierre created the Curie Institute, where Marie was in the forefront in envisioning medical applications of radioactivity and radium.

The story is especially powerful in its depiction of bias against women in science. Marie had to fight for many years to obtain a faculty position at the Sorbonne (unheard of for a woman), or even space to conduct her experiments. When the Nobel Committee awarded its 1903 Prize in Physics, Pierre had to fight to have his wife included in the citation, even though the bulk of the brains and energy behind the discovery of radioactivity were clearly Marie's. Marie was later vindicated when she won her second (and solo) Nobel Prize in 1911 for the discovery of radium.

Obsessive Genius doesn't shy away from Marie Curie's recurrent clinical depressions, which began during her adolescence, nor from her obsessive, hard-driving personality. The book presents an even-handed picture of repeated conflict between her love of her husband and children (one of whom, Irene Joliet-Curie, in 1935 became the second woman scientist ever to win the Nobel Prize); and her passion for her work.

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Maimonides

Nuland, Sherwin

Last Updated: Mar-29-2006
Annotated by:
Coulehan, Jack

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Biography

Summary:

This concise and well-written biography is meant to be, as Sherwin Nuland tells us, "a guide for the perplexed," for those who may recognize the name of Maimonides and his historical importance to Jewish religion and culture, or who may even have read some of his works, but have no knowledge of the man behind the name. The story begins, as it should, in Medieval Spain with its vibrant Judaeo-Islamic culture, in which the historical relationship between Judaism and medicine developed and later expanded throughout the European and Islamic worlds. Though they were outsiders in both civilizations, Jewish physicians became the most sought after healers in the Christian and Muslim worlds.

Moses son of Maimon (also known as Maimonides and the Rambam, 1138-1204) was born in Cordoba, the cultural and political center of Muslim Spain. He and his family had to flee Cordoba to avoid persecution in 1148. They wandered through Spain until 1160, when they settled in Fez, Morocco. Again fleeing from persecution, Maimonides moved to Fustat, Egypt, when he was 30 years old and remained there for the rest of his life. During these early years, the young rabbi wrote numerous biblical commentaries, culminating in the Mishneh Torah, his great code of Jewish law. Later, he attempted to reconcile faith with reason in another great work, The Guide for the Perplexed, completed in 1190.

Maimonides's specifically medical work is difficult to characterize and evaluate. The traditional historical assessment is that he was "unique in his time in the theory and practice of medicine." Essentially, he practiced Galenic medicine, as transmitted and developed in the flourishing Islamic tradition. We don't know how he acquired his medical knowledge, but by the time he reached Fustat, Maimonides was acknowledged to be a leading physician and in 1190 he was appointed personal physician to the vizier of Egypt. Late in life, Maimonides wrote a number of medical treatises, most importantly his Medical Aphorisms, which presents a coherent, well-organized, and practical medical system based on Galen and Aristotle.

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Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Biography

Summary:

Journalist Jonathan Eig traces the life of Lou Gehrig, one of the finest first basemen that major league baseball has ever known. Gehrig played as a tremendously reliable and powerful hitter for 17 seasons with the New York Yankees, the only team for which he played, many of them with Babe Ruth; he starred in 7 World Series games, playing on 6 championship teams. Gehrig's consecutive game streak of 2130 games, part of the reason for his nickname Iron Horse, was only broken recently, in 1995, by Cal Ripken, Jr. of the Baltimore Orioles.

Born June 19, 1903, Gehrig was only 35 years old when he developed the symptoms of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a neurodegenerative disease of vicious and progressive muscle wasting. He died June 2, 1941, quietly, at home. A relatively unknown disease at the time, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, soon became known as "Lou Gehrig's disease."

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Chekhov: 1860 - 1904

Laffitte, Sophie

Last Updated: May-09-2005
Annotated by:
Coulehan, Jack

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Biography

Summary:

This biography, first published in French in 1971, was written by a Soviet émigré living in Paris. She begins her introduction with a quotation from Chekhov, "Happiness and the joy of life do not lie in money, nor in love, but in truth" (1). She follows this statement with an observation of her own, "Chekhov makes no prognoses, never raises his voice, does not explain, insist, and above all, does not instruct. . .

He is the least Russian of the great Russian writers." To a large extent, her short biography is devoted to presenting a particular vision of Chekhov that might be called "compassionate objectivity." Although her subject may not have insisted or instructed his readers, Ms. Laffitte does. In fact, there is a hagiographic quality about this book that leads the reader to conclude that if Chekhov had been a believer, by now he would have been canonized as Blessed Anton of Moscow.

Ms. Laffitte proceeds in multiple short chapters. While they are generally in chronological sequence, each one also takes up an issue or theme in Chekhov’s life. She makes copious and skillful use of her subject’s letters and notebooks. She also devotes considerable attention to Chekhov’s medical career, unlike V. S. Pritchett, whose short biography entitled, Chekhov. A Spirit Set Free (1988, see annotation in this database) portrays medicine as more of a hobby than a serious enterprise for Chekhov.

Ms. Laffitte also has a habit of tying up loose ends without presenting much evidence for her point of view, or acknowledging that uncertainty exists. For example, when dealing with what she calls Chekhov’s "moral depression" of the mid-1890s, she concludes, "By a logical exertion of willpower, Chekhov was gradually to emerge from this moral depression" (168). It seems here that she considers depression--assuming this is the correct term to use in the first place--a weakness or failure of will, rather than a clinical disorder.

Nonetheless, this short literary biography (not out-of-print) provides much easier reading than most of the major Chekhov biographies that have appeared since it was published.

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Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Biography

Summary:

In four lengthy chapters, the biographies of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert are carefully presented. Special attention is given to health, both physical and psychological, throughout life and at its end. Autopsy information is included. In particular, the author emphasizes the impact of illness on the composers' relationships with family members and doctors, and on their musical composition.

Evidence is derived from a wealth of primary sources, often with long citations from letters, poetry, musical scores, prescriptions, diaries, the remarkable "chat books" of Beethoven. Neumayr also takes on the host of other medical biographers who have preceded him in trying to retrospectively 'diagnose' these immortal dead.

Late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Vienna emerges as a remarkable city of musical innovation and clinical medicine. The composers' encounters with each other link these biographies. Similarly, many patrons, be they aristocrats or physicians, appear in more than one chapter, such as the Esterhazy family and Dr Anton Mesmer.

The disease concepts of the era, prevalent infections, and preferred therapies are treated with respect. Rigid public health rules in Vienna concerning burial practices meant that ceremonies could not take place in cemeteries and may explain why some unusual information is available and why other seemingly simple facts are lost.

Biographical information about the treating physicians is also given, together with a bibliography of secondary sources, and an index of specific works of music cited.

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To a Distant Island

McConkey, James

Last Updated: Jan-31-2005
Annotated by:
Coulehan, Jack

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Biography

Summary:

During a sabbatical year in Florence, English professor and writer James McConkey immersed himself in reading Anton Chekhov’s works, as well as biographies of the Russian writer. He began to feel a particular affinity for Chekhov’s crisis of 1889-1890 and his resolution of that crisis by traveling alone to Sakhalin Island off the eastern coast of Siberia to investigate conditions in the penal colonies that the Russian government had established in that distant region. Perhaps because McConkey himself was recovering from a series of traumatic experiences in his own life, he felt a kinship to this depressed young Russian author and his search for a new direction in life.

McConkey responded to this feeling of kinship by writing To a Distant Island, which is partly biographical, in that it retells the story of Chekhov’s six month long journey to Sakhalin Island in 1890; and partly a memoir, in that McConkey relates Chekhov’s life events to the feelings and events of his own life at the time. McConkey establishes this perspective from the beginning, when he explains why he refers to Chekhov throughout the book as "T": "I honor the man too much to call him by name throughout an account, which. . . is bound to be a fiction of my own" (8).

To a Distant Island dwells especially on the motivation for Chekhov’s journey to Sakhalin, a question scholars have debated for a hundred years now. Of the many contributing reasons for the trip, McConkey chooses to highlight and fictionalize "the suicidal tendency that surfaced again a decade later in the marriage his health simply couldn’t afford" (26). McConkey refines this to "T. wants to escape--he wants out, at whatever the personal cost" (27). It is in this state of mind (or soul) that the brilliant and sensitive T. begins his journey to the end of the earth.

Perhaps as a metaphor that characterizes any human quest, McConkey devotes most of the writing and energy to T’s justification, preparation, and outward-bound journey. Only 37 pages remain for the story of what happens to his hero once the goal is achieved; and less than 6 pages for the homeward trek (or homeward "sail" in this case). [This is a technique, come to think of it, quite the opposite of Homer’s in "The Odyssey"!]

The conclusion? "Sakhalin, then, gave to T. nothing he hadn’t known all along. . . Perhaps despair--that absence of hope--is a requisite for any deepened understanding of a universal hope for something never to be found in the present time or place" (82).

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Annotated by:
Davis, Cortney

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Biography

Summary:

Tenderly Lift Me is the latest publication from Kent State University Press in the Literature and Medicine series edited by Martin Kohn and Carol Donley. Not all the 39 caregivers Bryner honors through poetry, biographical sketches and photos are nurses, but all have discharged their caregiving duties as the title indicates: tenderly. The book opens with a preface by Bryner who wants "people to care about nurses the way nurses care about people who are total strangers" (p.xii). A literate and insightful introduction by Suzanne Poirier and Rosemary Field follows.

The book, divided into eight parts, contains biographical sketches and interviews with nurses or tender caregivers, their photographs, and poems by Bryner in which she speaks in the voices of the individual nurses, celebrating but never sentimentalizing their stories.

Some of the nurses are daughters of blue-collar workers: Carol Johnson (p. 77) went on to become a cardiothoracic nurse practitioner, harvesting veins for open heart surgeries. Helen Albert (p. 52), the granddaughter of a slave, became "the first black registered nurse hired in Warren, Ohio." The nurses celebrated are both living and dead; some are aged, this book the only vessel that might hold their histories. All the caregivers, like Father Damien, born in 1840, caretaker to a colony of lepers in Molokai, come alive in Bryner's prose and poems, speaking to us in image and metaphor as well as fact and biography.

There are journal entries from Kate Cumming, who cared for confederate soldiers during the Civil War (p. 151), and comments from contemporary nurses, like Sylvia Engelhardt, one of the first nurses to graduate from an associate degree program and feel the "sting of labels" (p. 69), or Theresa Marcotte Kokrak (p. 46) who remembers traveling though Canada's seventy-below wind-chill to report to duty. Bryner celebrates the nurses' accomplishments as well as the daily events, the doubts and frustrations, the dark moments that these nurses have overcome in order to care for others, nurses who are "human, and sometimes a little heroic, but not from heaven" (P. xii).

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Annotated by:
Willms, Janice

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Biography

Summary:

This biography, written by a second party in conjunction with the person whose story is portrayed, is the tale of a black lay-midwife working in the southern United States during the mid to latter part of the 20th century. Gladys Milton, mother of seven children herself, is called to midwifery training by the Health Department in a rural county in Florida.

After an introductory chapter that sets the stage for the ultimate challenge to Gladys, the following few chapters follow her through some of the high points of her childhood and early years of motherhood. The remainder of the work describes broadly the career--with its ups and downs--of Gladys as midwife, doing home deliveries and working in the birthing center she has established in her own home. The final chapters deal with the legal efforts and ultimately the hearing in which the Health Department attempts to revoke Gladys's license to deliver babies.

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Summary:

Two scholars found and translated a personal narrative of a blind 22 year old, Thérèse-Adèle Husson, written in 1825 to the director of the Quinze-Vingts Hospital, an institution that provided permanent lodging and support for the blind in France. Husson hoped to be placed there. Subtitled "Reflections on the Physical and Moral Condition of the Blind," Husson writes about the gait, demeanor, table manners, touch, hearing, character, perceptions of the sun, moon, flowers, furniture and cloth, marriage considerations, and concludes with an education plan for the blind.

After "Reflections" Husson wrote 10 novels, including Story of a Pious Heiress; the editors have included this novel’s introduction, "Note on the Author’s Youth," which gives further autobiographical details. These two writings of Husson are framed by a thoughtful introduction by editors Weygard and Kudlick about the historical conditions of the blind in early 19th Century France, and an equally interesting and provocative concluding chapter about the manuscript, life, and world of Husson.

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This is a brilliant reconstruction of a most improbable event: the major contributions made to the great Oxford English Dictionary by a deeply delusional, incarcerated 'madman,' and the development of a true friendship between him and the editor of the dictionary. One sees here the redemptive potential of work and love in even the most deeply psychotic patient.

Incongruously the patient is an American physician who was discharged because of service-related mental instability from the U.S. Army after the Civil War and received a pension for life. He went to Europe to seek relief of his delusional symptoms and ended up killing a man. Judged to be criminally insane, he was institutionalized at the newly built showpiece of the British penal system, the Asylum for the Criminally Insane, Broadmoor. While there he read an advertisement requesting volunteer help in reading specific books and making word lists and describing how the words were used in the books for the preparation of the new Oxford English Dictionary.

Over the next twenty years Dr. Minor, who was a voracious reader and had accumulated a large library, became the greatest contributor and maintained a lively correspondence with the famous editor, Dr. James Murray. For these many years they never met and Dr. Murray did not suspect that Dr. Minor was insane and institutionalized. After their meeting they became friends. The institutional care appeared to be very humane and Dr. Minor was a special patient in many ways, yet never regained his normal demeanor.

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