Showing 31 - 40 of 145 annotations tagged with the keyword "History of Science"

Somatic Fictions

Vrettos, Athena

Last Updated: Feb-11-2010
Annotated by:
Holmes, Martha Stoddard

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Treatise

Summary:

This scholarly study examines "what it meant to ’talk of diseases’ in the second half of the nineteenth century" (2) and how discourses of health and illness were a vehicle for exploring individual and social identities, including gendered, racialized, and national identities. Narratives of physical illness are not simply artifacts of Victorian medical culture, Vrettos argues, but offer examples of the pervasive "master narratives" that shaped Victorian middle-class culture.

Individual chapters focus on the ill female body as an expressive text with variable legibility (and on nurses as privileged readers of ill bodies); "nervous illness" and the role of narrative in reconstructing the self; "neuromimesis" or neurotic imitation of disease; and the "politics of fitness and its relation to imperialist ideology." Vrettos discusses fictional works by Louisa May Alcott, (Hospital Sketches; see this database) Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot (Middlemarch; see this database), H. Rider Haggard, Henry James, Bram Stoker, and Harriet Beecher Stowe.

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A Book of Reasons

Vernon, John

Last Updated: Jan-20-2010
Annotated by:
Aull, Felice

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

In his dedication to the book, the author addresses his sons: "The secret to life? Clean your room." The meaning of this becomes clear as Vernon traces the story of his brother, Paul, with whose death the book begins. Paul was 15 years older than the author and had been only a shadowy presence in his life. When Paul died, John Vernon had to exercise his duties as executor of Paul's "estate," an estate that turned out to be a festering, stinking nightmare of a house.

The house was filled with 20 years worth of trash that represented 20 years of Paul's life as a recluse. This memoir is an attempt to imagine Paul's life and to understand the reasons for the course it took. It is also an attempt to "bear painful news" and to reflect on his own reactions to what he discovers and to Paul's death.

In order to do this, Vernon calls on history, interweaving his memories and what was revealed of Paul's life after his death with discussions of the beliefs and discoveries of past eras. Finding himself nailing a thermometer to the outside of Paul's house, the author describes the development of thermometers, and the nature of heat ("Heat"). What, he asks, is meant by "normal" atmospheric pressure? How abnormal was his brother? After all, he bought nursing-home insurance a year before he died. And how normal is he, John Vernon, affixing a thermometer to this wreckage?

As he builds a primitive set of steps to the house, the author explores the history of tool making and speculates about what distinguishes humans from animals; did Cain murder Abel with a hammer, and is he, John Vernon, his brother's keeper? ("Tools") Similar expositions and speculations interdigitate in subsequent sections entitled "Body," "Corpse," "House," "Origins." [At the end of the book, there is a bibliography of references for each section.]

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Written by a psychiatrist and historian, American Melancholy: Constructions of Depression in the Twentieth Century looks at how culture, politics and, in particular, gender have played a role in the development of a diagnosis.  Hirshbein moves between several different worlds, showing how they intercalate and, indeed, are very much part of the same world: psychiatric nosology and cultural attitudes to the gendered expression of emotion and feelings, medication trials and magazine advice to women about how they should deal with the blues, the relations between treatment paradigms and how society views suffering.

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In four parts this book uses a wide variety of images--caricatures in newspapers, comic books, advertisements, and photojournalism of Life magazine--to explore attitudes to physicians and medical progress in the mass media from the late nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century. Each section centers on a specific type of image and the analysis addresses change in perception of doctors and their achievements by privileging crucial moments of newsworthy events and discoveries.

Early in this history, the media portrayed doctors as frock-coat wearing fops.  Medical metaphors used in a political context proclaimed these attitudes well. The story of four little boys, bitten by a dog in 1885 and sent to Pasteur in Paris for the newly invented rabies vaccination, is used as a pivot point for a transition in perceptions of medicine: from a clumsy, suspicious craft to a useful, progressive science.

The third section is devoted to the public fascination with the history of medicine in the period from 1920 to 1950, Films, newspaper articles, and comic books chart the insatiable taste for scientific success and medical progress. The last section studies images of progress in Life and other magazines through a meticulous analysis of health-related articles. In this section, Hansen shows how the media participated in educating the public to a definition of science that enjoyed an enthusiastically optimistic spin.

An appendix lists American radio dramas about medical history from 1935 to 1953. A wealth of sources are documented in the notes and the whole is completed with an intelligent index.

 

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Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Short Story

Summary:

Late in the twentieth century, the young doctor Goodheart fails in a city practice and accepts a salaried position in the country.  Even there his difficulties persist. A challenging patient—the Reverend Pastor--refuses a tiny muscle biopsy that would not only confirm the diagnosis of trichinosis, but establish the doctor’s reputation. “I would rather die than let myself be skewered alive!” the pastor shouts (p. 11).

Deeply discouraged Goodheart wanders into the country at twilight, sighing, “If only there were a means of making the human body as transparent as jelly fish” (p. 13). Suddenly a woman appears in a blaze of light. She is “Electra the spirit of the twentieth century” (p. 15). She gives the astonished doctor a box and bids him open the lid. The nearby tree immediately becomes “as transparent as a jelly fish” (p.17). Next the box, judiciously aimed, illuminates the inner workings of a frog.

Goodheart applies his box to the ailing pastor and sees parasites teaming throughout his body. Then he effects a dramatic cure with helminthotoxin made from the worms themselves—a treatment that had been invented sometime during the century.

The box proves to be a simple electrical device, easily replicated. Declining financial recognition, to the vexation of his wife, Goodheart communicates the workings of the box to the world with no mention of Electra. But fame and riches flow his way and he dies in old age an honored man.

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This study sets forth the mystery of scurvy  which devastated the British Navy during the eighteenth century. Among several diseases common on board, including yellow fever, typhus, or typhoid fever, syphilis, tuberculosis, and dysentery, scurvy was the most devastating. Caused by a lack of vitamin C, scurvy’s symptoms appear as swollen and bleeding gums, livid spots on the skin, and prostration. Untreated, the illness results in agonizing death. When Commodore George Anson’s flagship, Centurion, sailed from Plymouth in 1741, rounded Cap Horn and returned to Britain, his ship carried home only two hundred of the two thousand men he set out with. A deadly combination of voyages lasting a year or more, unhealthy conditions on board, including malnutrition, filth, crowding, ignorance about basic facts of biology, as well as inexperienced sailors pressed into crewing on ships managed by violent officers using harsh physical punishment resulted in millions of deaths at sea from the age of Columbus to the nineteenth century, when scurvy remedies were finally found.

Bown credits three men with discovering a solution to the mystery of scurvy: a surgeon, James Lind (1716-1794), sea captain James Cook (1728-1779), and a  physician, Gilbert Blane (1749-1843). Lemon juice had been known to prevent and cure scurvy since the 17th century, but 18th century medical men disregarded empirical knowledge in favor of the theory of humours.

James Lind entered the Royal Navy as a surgeon’s mate in 1739 under appalling conditions similar to those described by Tobias Smollett in Roderick Random (1748). He initiated a two-week controlled experiment where he separated the afflicted sailors into 6 groups who each received a different diet: cider, vitriol, vinegar, sea water, oranges and lemons, and nutmeg paste. The group receiving the oranges and lemons obtained the best results. Lind published his treatise on scurvy in 1753. However, he was unable to explain the causes of scurvy and why oranges and lemons led to its cure.

James Cook circumnavigated the world 3 times. On his lengthy voyages, he stopped for fresh fruits and antiscorbutics wherever he could, as he noticed these kept the seamen free of scurvy. Cook showed that scurvy was curable, but not why.

During the War of American Independence, Gilbert Blane served as a physician on board several warships in the British Navy. He instituted a diet of fresh fruits and better hygiene on board ship. He published Observations on the Diseases Incident to Seamen, in which he advocated using oranges and lemons to cure scurvy. He advised that lemon juice be mixed into the sailors’ grog.

The British Navy encountered an historic ordeal in 1805 with the Battle of Trafalgar. Admiral Nelson, commander of the British Navy, had nearly died from scurvy in 1780. Now he faced Napoleon Bonaparte and the French fleet. Bown argues that the near- elimination of scurvy on board their ships contributed mightily to the British victory.

A timeline, from 1492 to 1933, concludes the volume. Recommended readings, a bibliography and an index are provided.

 

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Mind Talk: The Brain's New Story

Drake, Bob

Last Updated: Mar-10-2009
Annotated by:
Shafer, Audrey

Primary Category: Performing Arts / Film, TV, Video

Genre: Video

Summary:

This documentary film explores the interdisciplinary quest to understand the mind--its relationship to the brain, to the soul, to consciousness and sentience, and to the societal implications of free will. The film begins with the crisscrossing flow of people in a train station and an overvoice expressing the existential questions of "who are we?" and, ultimately, "who am I?"

This compelling image, filmed in black and white, serves as a representation of people as humanity and as individuals, as well as a metaphor for flow, such as of time or of impulses along a neural network. Hence, already in the introduction, the viewer is aware that this film will address some of the deep philosophical questions of all time complemented by visual imagery which enhances and enlarges on the dialogue.

The film is then divided into twelve sections: The Soul, The Body, Mental Disorder, Mind to Molecule, Bit to Brain, Consciousness, Free Will, Citizenship, The Moral Brain, The Brain on Trial, The Medical Mind, and Who Am I? Experts from multiple fields such as theology, neuroscience, psychiatry, law and justice, philosophy, sociology, history of medicine, physics, computer science, and filmmaking offer insights and questions either directly to the camera, or as voice-over for other imagery.

For example, to name just a few of the numerous eminent persons in the film, there are statements by mathematical physicist Roger Penrose (Shadows of the Mind: A Search for the Missing Science of Consciousness, and The Emperor’s New Mind: Concerning Computers, Minds and the Laws of Physics), philosopher Daniel Dennett (Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life, and Brainchildren: Essays on Designing Minds), philosopher John R. Searle (Mind, Language and Society: Philosophy in the Real World) and neurologist Antonio Damasio (Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain). The multiple experts all address the basic question posed by the film: "What will a science of the brain add to the human story?" but the approaches to the question, and what aspects of the question are most important, vary considerably in this far ranging journey through religion, history, ethics, medicine and science.

A few of the many interesting segments of the film include sections on cognitive neuroscientist Nancy Kanwisher who studies specialization by parts of the brain, such as a face-recognition center; developmental neuroanatomist Miguel Marin-Padilla, who has studied the motor cortex for over 25 years, which he demonstrates by dissection to be smaller than the tip of his finger; and Dennett’s one-armed robot, Cog, which is "learning" in developmental stages as an infant would. Eloquent commentary is also provided by computer scientist Jaron Lanier, sociologist Howard Kaye, psychologist Nicholas Humphrey, and filmmaker Ken Burns, among others.

Much of the film deals with psychopathology and implications for morality, behavior, and responsibility for behavior (free will and crime). Segments include an interview with a patient with manic-depressive disorder, a historical note on Phineas Gage (whose dramatic wound of his frontal lobe so altered his behavior), and a lawyer, psychiatrist and judge discussing free will, diminished capacity, and the legal system.

The film concludes with some concerns about reductionism to the biologic model of the mind, the growing haziness of borders between human and artificial intelligence, and the role of psychoactive medications. Although full mapping of the brain may not lead to complete understanding of the mind, still, the film concludes, the quest is fun.

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Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Performing Arts / Film, TV, Video

Genre: Film

Summary:

Paul Ehrlich (Edward G. Robinson) works as a hospital dermatologist, but his two passions are his family and his independent research into dyes and stains. When he abandons his call-duty to attend a lecture by Robert Koch, hospital officials have all they need to dismiss the annoying Jew. Koch, however, engages him to develop dyes to enhance the visibility of the newly discovered tubercle bacillus.

Ehrlich's health is broken by the research, but one success leads to another. With Emil von Behring (Otto Kruger), he works on a serum to save children with diphtheria. Moved by the anxiety of the mothers, he refuses to maintain untreated controls. His superiors are furious, but the state is grateful and he is awarded his own institute.

Ehrlich turns his attention to finding a "magic bullet" to treat syphilis, but his relationship with von Behring founders. Arsenic derivatives are endlessly modified until success is reached in 1910 with agent 606. A few deaths in treated subjects prompt Ehrlich's enemies to arrange a formal inquiry, but he is completely exonerated and reconciled with von Behring.

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The film opens with the discovery of Dr. Victor Frankenstein's will in his Transylvanian village. A skeleton, presumably Dr. Frankenstein's, and a man wrestle for the box holding the will. The man wins, takes it to a town meeting where the will is read and calls for the transfer of the property to the dead scientist's grandson, Frederick. Following this scene we meet the grandson, Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (Gene Wilder), a surgeon who is busy instructing medical students in clinical neuroanatomy (comparing the brain to a cauliflower). When asked about his grandfather by a medical student, Freddy, who pronounces the family name "Fron kon steen", declares that Victor was "a cuckoo". The student is relentless in pursuing the family ties, exasperating Freddy, who finally plunges a scalpel into his thigh, a sight gag paying homage to Peter Sellers' stabbing himself with a letter opener in A Shot in the Dark (1964). When the courier from Transylvania arrives, he persuades Freddy to return to his ancestral castle for the execution of the will. A hilarious railroad platform scene in which Freddy bids goodbye to his "beautiful, flat-chested" (as described in the online original etext of the script by Gene Wilder) fiancée, Elizabeth (Madeline Kahn), only highlights the incredibly neurotic natures of the two lovers -- Wilder as a possessed but wacky scientist and Kahn as a narcissistic and apparently remote and shallow woman.

In Transylvania, Freddy and the viewers meet the remainder of the major characters. Inga (Teri Garr), a bosomy and mindless but beautiful and dedicated blonde, escorts him to the castle, where he meets the hunchback Igor, played by the incomparable Marty Feldman, who instructs Freddy, with one of the lines all Young Frankenstein addicts love to quote, to "walk this way", by which he means with a limp and a cane, not directions to anywhere at all. After remarking that the huge castle doors have huge knockers (which they do) -- which Teri Garr winsomely mistakes for a compliment on her equally huge knockers -- Freddy and his entourage enter the castle and meet Frau Blücher (played magnificently by Cloris Leachman), the spinster who keeps the castle, nourishing an undying flame for Freddy's dead grandfather. Soon Freddy and Inga discover, by means of a secret passageway behind a  -- surprise! surprise! -- revolving bookcase wall in Freddy's room, his grandfather's hidden subterranean laboratory (Brooks used the same electrical apparatus as the 1931 Frankenstein film) and scientific journals. With the materials and methods now at hand, Freddy undergoes a spiritual transformation, embracing his forebear's obsession with creating life from dead bodies, rejecting his earlier rejection of Victor's work as "Doo-Doo!".

At this juncture we move into the scientific creation mode and of course meet the Monster, exuberantly portrayed by the talented Peter Boyle. When Igor tries to steal a brain from a neighboring morgue there occurs the infamous mix-up of an "Abnormal" brain (labelled "DO NOT USE THIS BRAIN!") for the intended brain of H. Delbrück ("the finest natural philosopher, internal medicine diagnostician and chemical therapist of this century" and also the author of 17 cookbooks) making at least this viewer wonder if Mel Brooks had in mind a real scientific genius, Max Delbrück, who had received, only 5 years before, a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1969 for his work on bacteriophages.

The predicted spoofs ensue: the actual process of transforming the very large corpse of Peter Boyle into the very large body of the living Monster (with Inga remarking, after Freddy states that for the experiment to be a success, the monster must have enlarged body parts, that he "vould have an enormous schwanzstucker" -- a pseudo-German/Yiddish word that everyone in the audience immediately comprehends); the inclusion of Gene Wilder's rendition of the legendary exclamation, "It's alive!" by Colin Clive in the 1931 Frankenstein; the monster's mercurial disposition; the wildly comic scene with the Monster meeting the Blind Man (Gene Hackman); the Monster's fascination with music and antipathy to fire -- they all give rise to set pieces of Brooks's unique mix of lowbrow comedy with intellectual puns, Yiddish asides and the ubiquitous combination of visual and physical jokes.

After Elizabeth unexpectedly arrives in Transylvania we witness an apparently unlikely, and therefore uproariously believable, liaison with the Monster outside the castle, with Madeline Kahn eventually taking on the classic Marge Simpson type hairdo of Elsa Lanchester in the 1935 Bride of Frankenstein. The last important scene before the ending involves Freddy nostalgically summoning the Monster back to his natal castle for a transference of Freddy's calm brain to the Monster's. The ending, with the Monster a fully acculturated and now sophisticated man about town, and with Freddy and Inga still in love in Transylvania, is a brilliant win-win result for Freddy, Inga, Elizabeth and the Monster, although hardly predictable. Without giving away too much of the denouement, suffice it to say that the movie ends on a high note transforming, as it were, a linguistic pun into a musical one.

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When Jamie Heywood, the eldest of three brothers in a tight New England family of engineers, learns that his middle brother Stephen (they all are in their 20’s at the outset of this drama which begins, for them, in early 1998) has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), he has just assumed the position of entrepreneur in technology transfer at Gerald Edelman’s Neurosciences Institute, the prestigious think tank of the 1972 Nobel Laureate in Physiology and Medicine, in La Jolla, California.

Jamie quickly announces his resignation and simultaneously his decision to devote his life to helping his brother in the only way he can--as manager, CEO, COO and staff of, initially, a loosely organized team effort to develop a cure for ALS, an insidious wasting disease of the nervous system that progressively leaves the person with the merest remnants of voluntary motor function.

Jamie’s resignation and his move from the West to East coast is but the mildest of changes in the weather for what becomes a perfect storm of technology recruiting, fund-raising, career-rebuilding and the emotional equivalents of El Niño, profoundly affecting at least four families, three of them Heywoods: Stephen Heywood, the strapping carpenter/house-restorer with ALS, and his wife, Wendy; Jamie, and Melinda, his belly-dancing wife with a PhD in medieval French literature; the brothers’ mother, Peggy, and father, John; and, lastly, the author and his father, Jerome, and mother, Ponnie (a Polish diminutive).

Concomitant with Stephen’s development of ALS, Ponnie begins to evidence the dementia of Steele-Richardson-Olszewski syndrome, also known as progressive supranuclear palsy, a form of brain decay uncannily similar to ALS. (Fortunately for the Heywoods, ALS involves only the motor nerves, not the cognitive apparatus.)

The author’s decision to include his family’s ordeal is wise, generous and instructive. The Heywoods and Weiners are both engineering families with an academic engineer as the pater familias and both are trying their best to cope with a deteriorating illness that dismantles the center of all cerebral engineering activity, the brain. The comparison of the diseases and the responses of all the players involved are culturally and psychologically dissected with the author’s trademark precision and kindness. But this book, as the title indicates, is more about the keeper than the brother.

Within minutes of his learning of Stephen’s diagnosis, Jamie becomes a man possessed. He moves quickly, as though by intuition and almost a fated skill, from technology transfer to technology-bricolage; genetic therapy on the fly; and people-, funding- and support-transfer. In fact, when there is no transfer involved, Jamie creates in order to transfer.

Like Gregor Samsa, in the short story by Franz Kafk, from whom Weiner also deftly borrows another parable, "An Imperial Message," (to illustrate, metaphorically, the pathophysiology of ALS as a disease in which neural messages, like the Imperial Message, go awry), Jamie undergoes a metamorphosis, albeit admittedly much less drastic than Gregor’s. He molts his undergraduate degree in engineering at MIT to emerge as a self-appointed manager of any and all ALS research and gene therapy in the U.S. that might help retard the progress of his brother’s illness.

Recruiting, petitioning, nourishing, cajoling, funding, and courting researchers and clinicians alike, Jamie meets, entertains, enlists and co-ordinates the efforts of gene therapy researchers and other medical scientists. He becomes a fund-raiser with the help of Melinda and her family of belly dancers, raising $240,000 as a result of the First Annual Belly Dance Extravaganza. His efforts involve the Heywood and Weiner family members, as epicentric waves of activity inevitably affect them all.

We watch, through Weiner’s eyes (and the diaries of Wendy and Melinda, whom he cites with permission), as the four families experience the predictable mood shifts that accompany a devastating illness and the great adventure of a risky attempt to work a miracle (a miracle that Jerome E. Groopman grumpily and stuffily bemoans in a cited Wall Street Journal editorial): excitement when a genetically engineered ALS mouse outlives its cohorts and money starts to flow; and disillusionment, when Stephen’s disease relentlessly progresses, Jamie’s marriage dissolves for a lack of boundaries, as Melinda, Jamie’s wife, records in her diary, and the author’s mother slips deeper into a dementia that Lucretius, Weiner’s authorial inspiration of the book, would easily recognize as part of the world explored in his famous treatise De Rerum Natura.

By the end of the book, there is an air of exhaustion yet surprising calm--perhaps the calm after the storm--as we witness the normalcy of Stephen, in his motorized wheelchair, playing with his son. As Stephen repeatedly affirms to Weiner, now a family friend and no longer merely a reporter, "I’m fine."

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