Showing 21 - 30 of 145 annotations tagged with the keyword "History of Science"

Annotated by:
Schilling, Carol

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Biography

Summary:

Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA is the biography of the scientist whose research James Watson and Francis Crick needed to elucidate the structure of the DNA molecule.  Even though the discovery has had profound implications for modern medicine, Franklin's contribution to it almost remained obscure.

In 1968 Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958) became visible to the world beyond a small circle of scientists when Watson published The Double Helix (1968), his "personal account" of puzzling out DNA.  If not for Watson's self-incriminating candor about stealing glances at Franklin's research, we might not know how crucial her lucid x-ray diffractions of hydrated DNA were to him and Francis Crick.  However, the account that indirectly acknowledged Franklin's contribution to their work represented her in a patronizing caricature.  Since ovarian cancer took her life a decade before Watson's memoir appeared, others have been left to respond to his version of the DNA story and representation of his female colleague.  Among Franklin's defenders, Brenda Maddox offers the most complete and insightful restoration of the scientist, her research, and her life. 

Maddox's biography draws from not only the many scientific archives and personal papers of scientists Franklin worked with in England, Europe, and America, but also from previously undisclosed letters written by Franklin, her friends, and her family.  Maddox also interviewed Franklin's relatives.  Doing so allowed her to position Franklin's life within the history of her close, extended Anglo-Jewish family, generations of wealthy London publishers and bankers who experienced discrimination.  This history does more than belie some of Watson's hasty assumptions about Franklin's background.  It creates a biography of a complex woman who negotiated biases as a citizen and a scientist.     

The biography is divided into three parts.  The first narrates the story of Franklin's childhood, rigorous education, and successful career before accepting the fateful research post at King's College, London.  She's known for thinking skeptically and working mathematically.  Yet early on she showed an aptitude for three-dimensional thinking and for understanding crystalline structures.   As an undergraduate at Cambridge she speculated about a "'Geometrical basis for inheritance'" (56).

The second section concentrates on the 27 months at King's when she worked uneasily with Maurice Wilkins, who showed her revelatory x-rays of DNA to Watson.   This balanced account of a controversial episode in the history of science offers evidence that Franklin was close to drawing the same conclusion about the structure of DNA that Watson and Crick rushed into print.  This section also accessibly explains the molecular biology of her day and the painstaking physical and intellectual intricacies of making and interpreting x-rays of crystalline molecules. 

The third section reminds us that Franklin had a very productive, though short career after leaving DNA to others.  She directed research programs for the study of plant viruses, and she investigated the polio virus shortly before she died.  Respected scientists, including Crick, praised her research.   Many, unlike Wilkins, liked working with her.  More than 40 years after viewing what's known as Franklin's Photograph 51, Watson publicly acknowledged that seeing it "'was the key event'" in understanding the geometry of DNA (316).  (See the note on Photo 51 below.)        

View full annotation

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Treatise

Summary:

This is a huge and wonderful book about cancer, the collection of diseases that sickens people all over the globe and kills many of them. An epigraph to the book states, “A quarter of all American deaths, and about 15 percent of all deaths worldwide, will be attributed to cancer,” but the book also describes medical advances that now heal, prevent, or palliate most forms of cancer.

Mukherjee, a cancer physician and researcher, has several strong themes. He sees cancer as an affliction with a long history, a story worthy of a biography; indeed recent discoveries show it to be rooted in our genes (although external factors such as viruses, asbestos, and tobacco smoke can cause genetic disruption). The story of cancer implies a surrounding triangle, the stories of sick people, treating physicians, and biological researchers, all of which Mukherjee artfully weaves across 472 pages. Cancer has Rohrschach blot qualities: depending on time, place, and role in life, humans have perceived different attributes of cancer. As the book ends, however, there is a coalescence of scientific understanding that is satisfying—although there is certainly more to be learned and we are all still vulnerable to genetic errors and, of course, we are intractably mortal.

Another strand is the nature of stories themselves, their twists and turns, presumed early solutions, and personal and social values embedded in them. Mukherjee threads throughout the book the case of a contemporary kindergarten teacher, Carla Reed, who has a leukemia. He bookends his text with ancient Persian Queen Atossa with (presumably) breast cancer. Reed, healed by the end of the book, was Mukherjee’s patient; Atossa was described by Herodotus: both suffered emotional turmoil because of their disease.  Mukherjee understands the affective dimensions of disease for patients and caregivers alike; literature represents these in various ways, and he quotes in his chapter epigraphs and in his prose many writers who describe human experience deeply: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Susan Sontag, Charles Dickens, Thomas Mann, William Carlos Williams, Carlo Levi, and Italo Calvino, to name a few.

The primary story, however, is the interplay of cancer and a large cast of observers, investigators, doctors, scientists, activists, and government officials. Sidney Farber and Mary Lasker dominate the first 100 pages with their two-decade war against cancer. While surgery—historically dramatic and disfiguring—had been a mainstay for treatment of cancer, Farber pursued a biochemical route, which elaborated into chemotherapy, the second major approach of the late 20th century.

Mukherjee also explains ancient views, Hippocrates’, Galen’s humors, Vasealius’ anatomy, Hunter’s stages, Lister’s antisepsis, and Röntgen’s X-rays, which became the third major approach. By 1980, however, the American “War on Cancer” had not been won.

Further advances in cellular biology and genetics would be needed to make targeted molecular therapy possible.  Mukherjee tells this complicated story clearly and engagingly, showing the human investigators to be personable and dogged in their pursuits.  

Another important approach is prevention. The biostatistical work of Doll and Hill, for example, showed the links between tobacco and lung cancer. Screening, such as Pap smears and mammograms, also saved lives, but the basic cellular understanding still eluded investigators.

The final 150 pages explain the search for and discovery of genetic factors, specifically oncogenes. Harold Varmus and J. Michael Bishop were the leaders, winning a Nobel Prize in 1989. Bert Vogelstein, Judah Folkman, Robert Weinberg and Douglas Hanahan took the work further, opening the doors for such drugs as Herceptin, Gleevec, and Avastin. 

View full annotation

Annotated by:
Coulehan, Jack

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

This novel takes place during the Ice Age at a time when modern humans (Cro-Magnon) have immigrated into northern Europe and begun to interact with the Neanderthal people, who have already been successful inhabitants of Europe for perhaps 100,000 years. Within several thousand years of this fateful encounter, which took place about 35,000 years ago, the Neanderthal people had completely died out. Early mitochondrial DNA evidence indicated that modern humans are unrelated to the Neanderthal--their gene pool simply disappeared--although more recent studies show that perhaps 2 to 3% of our mitochondrial DNA was inherited from the Neanderthals, who prbably died out as a result of modern humans' greater success in competing for food and other resources.

In this scenario modern humanity originated from a version of the Biblical story of Cain and Abel, of brother "killing" brother, except in the paleontological case the younger brother was responsible for the demise of the elder. Bjorn Kurten, an eminent European paleontologist, used this novel to present his ingenious theory to explain what happened.

The story is told from the perspective of Tiger, a young black (Cro-Magnon) man whose father is killed in a raid by men from another band of blacks. Later, he devotes his life to searching for his father's killer. In the process he travels widely and encounters a band of whites (Neanderthal), a seemingly primitive form of humanity known to Tiger's folk as "trolls." The trolls have a high-pitched, bird-like language that Tiger is eventually able to learn, even though it is virtually impossible for whites (trolls) to learn the black language, because they are unable to articulate the broad range of vowel sounds it includes.

The whites are also different in that their bands are equalitarian, with women playing major leadership roles, while black tribes are strictly hierarchical and patriarchal. Tiger travels with the white band and mates with Veyde, one of its prominent members. However, one day the band is decimated by a marauding black tribe led by the warrior, Shelk.

In the story's climax Tiger carries out a scheme to infiltrate the "bad" tribe and kill Shelk, who he believes is his father's murderer. In fact, ther real murderer was Shelk's twin brother, also called Shelk. The two had used the same name to make it appear that "Shelk" could be in two places at once, thus proving he had supernatural powers. We learn that the Shelk twins had mixed black-white parentage. Children of such unions seem god-like in that they are stronger and more attractive and creative than "normal" people of either group. The "good" Shelk finally finds the white father he has been searching for all his life. And, Tiger lives happily ever after with his white mate Veyde, but their children, though strong and resourceful, will inevitably be sterile. 

View full annotation

Summary:

Creation tells the story of Charles Darwin (Paul Bettany) at home with his family in Down House during the last decade he researched and wrote, but hesitated to publish, The Origin of Species (1859).  The film represents the sorrow of those intellectually ripe years when he worked out his insights into the process of natural selection as his "radiant," beloved daughter Annie-Anne Elizabeth-(Martha West) became fatally ill.  These events were compounded by Darwin's own mysterious chronic illness, which he attempted to relieve through laudanum and trips to Great Malvern for Gulley's cold water cures.

In 1851 he took a very sick ten-year-old Annie with him to the waters and, inconsolable, left her to be buried in the local churchyard.  Through his physical and emotional suffering, he continued to dissect barnacles, breed and skeletonize pigeons, engage the village parson and local farmers alike, consult with supporters Thomas Hooker and Thomas Huxley, exchange hundreds of letters, and remain an affectionate father and husband. 

The loss of "the joy of the Household" strengthened his wife Emma's (Jennifer Connelly) religious beliefs, as it exhausted whatever might have existed of his. The story, artfully told in beautifully sequenced flashbacks, keeps the tensions and accommodations between Charles and Emma on the subject of religious faith in balance, emphasizing their loving partnership as spouses and parents.  Emma supported his work, read his manuscript, and understood its importance, even as she disagreed with its implications for her spiritual life.  Darwin contributed to the local parish church Emma attended.    

Some of the most compelling moments in the film occur during Darwin's joyous outings with his children when they suddenly witness the demise of woodland creatures.  In these scenes, the ineluctable struggles between life and death that Darwin's theory of natural selection eloquently describes resonate with his personal experience.  We see a fledgling fall from its nest near a sheep's skull and decay before our eyes.  We hear Annie explain to her horrified siblings that if the fox they encounter didn't kill the screeching rabbit in its jaws, its pups would die.

These scenes, along with the earlier view of the captive Fuegian child Boat Memory dying of small pox in an English hospital, suggest the fragility of the young that Annie's death makes devastatingly personal for Darwin.  The film simultaneously acknowledges Darwin's empirically derived logic of such deaths in his scientific treatise and his suffering from the brutal manifestations of that logic in the life of his family.  While scientific explanation fails to console him for the loss of Annie, the film suggests human affection as the best, though still potentially painful response.     

View full annotation

Annotated by:
Donley, Carol

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Investigative Journalism

Summary:

In 1951 when Henrietta Lacks was dying of cancer in the colored ward of Johns Hopkins, cancer cells taken from her without her knowledge "became the first immortal human cells grown in a laboratory"(4).  Known as HeLa cells, they are still reproducing today and are used world wide in research for cancer, cloning, genetics, Parkinsons, and many technologies. Henrietta's family did not know she was the source of these immortal cells until scientists began testing the family members too.  Poor and black, they were very angry to find the white establishment had made fortunes using HeLa cells while the family got nothing for it and couldn't even get good health care. In her thorough and careful investigation, Rebecca Skloot interviewed the Lacks family; scientists, doctors, and others who worked with HeLa cells; historians; journalists; ethicists. This book traces the complex stages of her search for the truth about what happened to Henrietta Lacks, her HeLa cells, and her family.

View full annotation

Summary:

Mary Anning was born in Lyme Regis in 1799 on the southern coast of England. With her father, she learned to hunt for fossils that have become popular curiosities among tourists. But the science of paleontology was still in its infancy. Her father died in 1810 leaving his small family in precarious circumstances. The following year, at the age of twelve, Mary unearthed the full skeleton of the world’s first ichthyosaur--more than 30 years before Richard Owen would propose the term, dinosauria (terrible lizards) to describe the class of these extinct creatures.

For the rest of her life she was driven to scour the cliffs day in, day out. Wearing odd, bulky clothing to protect her from the elements, she found many important fossils, including the first Plesiosaur and the first representative of a certain kind of pterodactyl.  She sold them to scholars. Although isolated and poor, she kept up with the new discoveries through the literature, and was skilled at reading the landscape and the unique bones.

Mary never prospered from her work, but received all visitors with generosity, flattered and proud of the small attention they gave her. Lacking privilege and a husband, her discoveries were taken over by male scientists who used them to build the new science and their reputations. Religious concerns over the age of the objects is a backdrop for the discoveries; however, Mary appears to have been convinced that her fossils challenged the standard interpretations and yet unshaken in her faith. She died of breast cancer at age 48.

View full annotation

Mendel's Dwarf

Mawer, Simon

Last Updated: Jun-15-2010
Annotated by:
Clark, Stephanie Brown

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

This novel interweaves facts about the history of genetics with compelling fictional characters and plots in two connected stories. The primary story traces the life and work of the fictional Benedict Lambert, brilliant 20th Century geneticist, and an achondroplastic dwarf; his research is to discover the gene mutation which has caused his condition. He is also the great-great-great nephew of Gregor Mendel.

The life and genetic work of Gregor Mendel comprise the second story. Intersecting with Gregor Mendel's 19th Century scientific experiments to artificially fertilize pea plants is Lambert's affair with married librarian Jean Piercey. When Jean becomes pregnant, she decides on termination after learning from Benedict that there is "a fifty-fifty change of ending up like me . . . a second Benedict, another squat and crumpled creature betrayed by mutation and the courtly dance of chromosomes . . . " (180).

By the novel's end, Mendel's work has been published, and dismissed; Benedict Lambert has discovered the location of the gene mutation which causes achondroplastic dwarfism, publishes the results in Nature, and is asked to make a presentation on "the New Eugenics". Jean regrets the abortion, and wants Benedict's child, but a ?normal" one. In an attempt to help Jean in her quest, Benedict uses his genetic knowledge, his laboratory privileges, and his sperm without the knowledge or consent of Jean's husband.

In the lab with eight of Jean's fertilized embryos Lambert must decide: "Four of the embryos are proto-Benedicts, proto-dwarf; the other four are, for want of a better word normal. How should he choose?" The results of this scientific and personal act of fertilization are unexpected and tragic.

View full annotation

Annotated by:
Mathiasen, Helle

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: History

Summary:

The Crimean War (1853-1856) holds a place in the history of medicine, specifically, the history of nursing. For as the British public read the 1850s Times reports about the total lack of care suffered by their wounded in this conflict, a British nurse, Florence Nightingale, volunteered to recruit a team of nurses to aid the suffering men. The Times created a relief fund for the sick and wounded, and Queen Victoria, an enthusiastic supporter of this war against Russia, sponsored an even larger fund. Female nurses had a reputation for drunkenness and promiscuity. Nightingale made it a point to recruit nuns and women from the lower classes who would be more manageable than educated, upper class women. Three black nurses applied, including Mary Seacole, but they were rejected.

The Turks, British allies, allowed Florence Nightingale the use of their army barracks at Scutari, across from Constantinople: "'I have been well acquainted with the dwellings of the worst parts of most of the great cities of Europe,' Nightingale wrote,' but have never been in any atmosphere which I could compare with that of the Barrack Hospital at night'" (111). Open sewers ran beneath these vermin-infested structures  which were crammed with sick soldiers lying on the filthy floor. There were no supplies and few doctors. Typhus, typhoid, cholera or dysentery killed many patients. Nightingale's meticulous statistics showed alarming escalation of mortality rates; she believed in cleanliness and fresh air but not in the germ theory of disease. When comparing her numbers with those of other military hospitals, Nightingale understood that soap alone would not save the men.

Rappaport describes the nursing offered by army wives, widows and other volunteers, including French nuns. The women's living conditions, especially during pregnancy and childbirth, often resulted in sickness and death. Others volunteered as cooks, including Elizabeth Davis who alleged that while "...she and the other nurses dined on the stewed-up, tough old meat used to make soup for the patients, Nightingale ‘had a French cook, and three courses of the best of every kind of food ... served up everyday at her table'" (168-169).

Nightingale became famous as the heroine of the Crimean War. She is known now as the founder of professional nursing. Recent research has questioned whether Nightingale was the real angel of the Crimea. Rappaport investigates the work of the Jamaican nurse, healer, and entrepreneur Mary Seacole, one of the 3 black nurses rejected for service in the Crimean War. She financed her journey to and stay in the Crimea herself. She built a British Hospital in the Crimea, and treated the wounded at Balaklava there and in the field. The soldiers called her Mother Seacole because she cared for their material and spiritual needs. She sold gin and raki and home-cooked meals, and went bankrupt because too generous with credit. Seacole recouped her losses and achieved bestseller status with her memoir, Mrs. Seacole's Wonderful Adventures in Many Lands (1857), the first memoir by a black woman from Britain.

View full annotation

Suburban Shaman

Helman, Cecil

Last Updated: Feb-22-2010
Annotated by:
Nixon, Lois LaCivita

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Because this lucid, rich, and incisive book has not, as yet, been published in the United States, it has not acquired the readership it deserves. For those teaching Medical Humanities or those interested in broader or more global stories and perspectives about physician training, practice, and experiences, Helman’s most recent publication should be considered.

Part One (“Setting Out”) begins in South Africa where Helman’s family, comprised of a dozen doctors, has lived for generations and where his own medical studies occurred. As a child, he accompanied his father on rounds while other children spent holidays at the beach. Before long he discovered how hospitals, during the madness of Apartheid, were to “some extent a distorted mirror-image of the world outside” (3). Appalled by the differences in care and treatment, the keenly aware young man kept notes. His vivid observations of the harsh context of social injustices provide an unequivocal, eloquent, and disturbing critique of medicine then and there. His acute observations of physician behaviors and indigent populations in the city and in the bush contribute, as readers discover in later chapters, to the author’s expanded and compelling interests in cultural anthropology.

Part Two (“The Family Doctor”) leads to London. “After all the heat and light and space of Africa, London—with its low leaden sky and constant drizzle—was like living inside a Tupperware box, one stored deep inside a refrigerator” (47). In the 60s Helman’s migration required an adjustment to a world of technology and order, where as a family practitioner, he had become, in fact, a suburban shaman. In any society, patients wanted “relief from discomfort, relief from anxiety, a relationship of compassion and care, some explanation of what has gone wrong, and why, and a sense of order or meaning imposed on the apparent chaos of their personal suffering to help them make sense of it and to cope with it” (xvi).

Gradually Helman saw connections between the role of family physician and traditional healer: both involved an understanding of “not only a body’s internal equilibrium but also the equilibrium of the patient’s relationships with the world he or she lives in and how treatment should aim not only to treat the diseased organ but also to restore the patient’s life that equilibrium of relationships” (xvii). His encounters with patients and the stories they reveal suggest how important these often overlooked connections are and why they ought to be included in medical training and practice.

By the time readers reach Part Three ("States of the Art”), the author has moved into broader realms of thinking, in which medicine and illnesses are examined anthropologically. After 27 years of clinical practice Helman’s white coat and stethoscope are placed on a hook. Now, as a credentialed anthropologist at University College London, his larger lens allows for sustained scrutiny of the complexities, ambiguities, and nuances in such chapters as “Grand Rounds,” “Hospitals,” “Placebos,” “Third Worlds.” Helman’s range of experiences, multi-disciplinary training, intellectual conclusions, and abundant common sense argues for techno-doctors to learn from holistic practitioners. Whether devastating or humorous, the critiques reflect not just care provision but shared human capacities: the insights are thoughtful and fresh and very worthwhile.

View full annotation

Summary:

This study examines representations of feminine illness in American culture from 1840 to 1940. It argues that the figure of the invalid woman emerged in the 1840s amid significant changes in "American literature, medicine and culture," including the emergence of a specifically American literature, the professionalization and masculinization of medicine, and the "sometimes complementary, sometimes opposed" ideologies of feminism and domesticity (17).

The book discusses mid-nineteenth-century medical theories that articulated women as "biologically inferior . . . given to disease and pain" (34) before analyzing contemporary literary works by E.D.E.N. Southworth, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Nathaniel Hawthorne (see this database for annotations of The Birthmark and Rappaccini’s Daughter) Washington Irving, Edgar Allan Poe, and works by twentieth-century authors including Ellen Glasgow, Charlotte Perkins Gilman (see this database for The Yellow Wallpaper annotated by Felice Aull and also annotated by Jack Coulehan), Tillie Olsen, Edith Wharton, F. (Francis) Scott Fitzgerald (see this database for Tender Is the Night annotated by Jack Coulehan, also annotated by Pamela Moore), and Henry James. Art, advertisements, and the film, Dark Victory (see annotation) are other points of reference.

Price Herndl examines compliant and resistant uses of women as invalids; the surprisingly small changes in figures of feminine illness in response to changes in women’s rights; the links literature constructs between illness, money, work, and value; shifting theories of cure (from somatic to psychic); and the rise of germ theory in relation to fictional representations of illness. She argues that male and female fiction writers in the period she studies use feminine illness for different purposes: "What that figure signifies is kaleidoscopic, shifting to suit the political needs of its user" (218).

Invalid figures in literature and culture, Price Herndl asserts, can "divert political dis-ease into an overwhelming attention to the individual body and away from the body politic," locating people’s problems in their individual bodies and selves rather than in the oppressive aspects of their culture (220). Recurrent representations of sick women reflected the extreme unease attached to the position of women in American culture in the years 1840-1940. While her study stops at 1940, Price Herndl asserts that after World War Two and at other points when "masculine privilege seems threatened . . . illness is figured more and more often as male" (220).

View full annotation