The Ballot Box

800px-US_$20_1905_Gold_Certificate

Monday was President’s Day. In 1968, Congress passed a law that created uniform Monday holidays (to create three-day weekends) and moved the holiday for Washington’s Birthday to the third Monday in February. The law went into effect in 1971, but Washington’s Birthday gradually morphed into a day to celebrate all the presidents. Washington’s loss is the perfect excuse for a quiz on some modern US president. (What? Monday was a holiday. You had an extra day to study!) For each question, vote for Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, or Harry Truman. Highlight the text below each question to see the answers.

1. Which President ordered the Berlin Airlift?

Other leaders suggested sending supplies to cutoff West Berlin in trucks protected by tanks, but Truman feared this could start a new war. He ordered the airlift instead. To bring in the more than 2 million tons of food and coal to West Berliners, American and British planes at the height of the airlift were landing every three minutes. The success of the airlift made the Russian blockage ineffective and let the West win the propaganda battle in this cold war skirmish.

2. Which president ordered the use of the atomic bomb against Japan?

At the Potsdam Conference, Truman hinted to Josef Stalin that the USA was developing a powerful new weapon. Stalin pretended to be uniformed, but he actually knew about the atomic bomb before Truman did! Stalin had spies in the US nuclear program; Truman, on the other hand, learned about the bomb only after his inauguration as president. His decision to drop the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki remains one of the most controversial decisions ever made by a president.

3. Which president is the only one to hold a PhD?

Did you guess Truman again? Wilson actually earned his PhD from Johns Hopkins. His first job was as a professor of history and politics at Bryn Mawr–a women’s college established by Quakers in Pennsylvania. Wilson didn’t particularly care for teaching women, however, writing to a friend, “My teaching here this year lies altogether in the field of political economy, and in my own special field of public law: and I already feel that teaching such topics to women threatens to relax not a little my mental muscle.”

4. Which president once owned a haberdashery?

Truman’s partner in the business was a war buddy named Edward Jacobson. The business failed, but the friendship remained. Jacobson, who was Jewish, would play an important role in 1948 when Israel came into existence, helping convince Truman to recognize the new country. Despite opposition from his advisers, Truman announced that the United States would recognize Israel a mere eleven minutes after the Israelis announced the new country.

5. Which president changed his mind about women’s suffrage during his two terms in office?

Wilson modified his stance on women’s voting rights. At first, Wilson was embarrassed by the suffragettes and did not support their cause. (See his comments on the education of women earlier in this quiz.) After the United States entered World War I, however, he asked Congress: “We have made partners of the women in this war. Shall we admit them only to a partnership of suffering and sacrifice and toil, and not to a partnership of privilege and right?” Despite this, women would have to wait until after the war for the Nineteenth Amendment to pass.

 6. Which president was an avid conservationist?

As president, Teddy Roosevelt doubled the number of National Parks and created over fifty Federal Bird Reserves. He also introduced the Antiquities Act of June 8, 1906. This granted him the executive power to create national monuments at historically or scientifically interesting sites. This allowed Roosevelt to preserve sites like Devils Tower in Wyoming, the Petrified Forest in Arizona, and a large area of the Grand Canyon.

7. Which president created projects that benefited National Parks like Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee?

If you guessed Teddy Roosevelt again, you guessed wrong. His cousin Franklin Roosevelt created an alphabet soup of programs and policies, known as the New Deal, that were designed to shore up banks, help with unemployment, and stimulate the economy. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which was part of the New Deal, was a popular program that created jobs through public works projects. Roads, fire towers, and tree plantings were just a few of the projects the men of the CCC completed in National Parks, such as Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee and the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia.

How did you do? Are you a presidential scholar or do you need to revisit history class?

Text: Rebecca Bigelow; picture is in public domain.

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Penicillin—A Love Story

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This week’s entry is a little late, but I have a good excuse. In researching this week’s topic, I stumbled upon a medical mystery. Here’s the story …

February 14 is Valentine’s Day—a day for chocolate, roses, and romance. But my Valentine was winging his way to Vienna for work. (I know. But someone has to do it!) So for me, there was no chocolate. No roses. No romance. (Full disclosure: we did share a heart-shaped pizza a couple of days before he left and exchanged eCards on the day.) Ordinarily a holiday would be a great blog post, but I didn’t feel much like writing about the history of the day meant for kisses and sweet nothings. Although I could have played up the really gory aspects—beheaded priests and all that (True story. But maybe next year.)—I decided to see what else happened on February 14 (besides the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, which has been done to death [Rimshot!]).

And there it was on the History Channel’s This Day in History website: February 14, 1929—Penicillin Discovered. Awesome. I can’t take it—I’m allergic—but I can write about it. So, as any good historian would do, I began to investigate the facts of this premise: penicillin was discovered by Alexander Fleming (1881–1955) on Valentine’s Day in 1929. The trouble began with the sources. I could find dozens, hundreds and thousands even, that made similar claims to the History Channel, but I couldn’t find any primary source material to back it up.

Discovery

Digging deeper, I determined Fleming had actually made the discovery in September 1928. He was studying bacteria at St. Mary’s Hospital in London, England, and he noticed odd patterns in one of his cultures that had been contaminated by spores of Penicillium (likely from another lab in the building).  The Penicillium mold prevented the Staphylococcus bacteria from growing in an area around the spores. Further experiments by Fleming followed, and he learned that the mold was harmless to animals and prevented Staphylococcus growth even when diluted. He also noted that the penicillin (Fleming’s name for the active substance) was not very stable because it quickly lost strength.

Obviously then, Fleming did not discover penicillin on Valentine’s Day. I returned to the sources. Some said he actually “announced” the discovery on February 14.  Possible. I started a new line of research. Perhaps his first paper on the subject was published on February 14, 1929. Again, I was stymied. Fleming’s work first appeared in The British Journal of Experimental Pathology, which helpfully noted the article had been “received for publication May 10, 1929”—definitely not Valentine’s Day.

Endeavor

More research followed—for me and for penicillin. I read about the other investigators who helped to develop penicillin, including Oxford University researchers, Howard Florey (1898–1968) and Ernst Chain (1906–1979). In a collaboration that began in the late 1930s, Florey and Chain (and others in their lab) purified penicillin and discovered therapeutic uses; however, production and scale were still issues, especially with the start of World War II (1939–1945) in Europe. These problems would be solved in partnership with a lab in Peoria, Illinois, and large scale production would go on to save many soldiers from infection during the war and many civilians in the years after.** Fleming, Florey, and Chain won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1945 for their contributions.

Fleming, a modest man, remarked: “I did not invent penicillin. Nature did that. I only discovered it by accident.” But it would probably be more accurate to say he rediscovered it. It turns out that Fleming was not the first person to note the abilities of Penicillium! Others had witnessed molds’ healing ability, including a medical student, Ernest Duchesne (1874–1912), whose thesis, “Contribution to the study of vital competition in microorganisms: Antagonism between moulds and microbes,” also considered the therapeutic values of molds. The year? 1897. And there were others before Duchesne. Unfortunately for modern medicine, Duchesne died before he could continue his research, and Duchesne’s work went largely unnoticed at the time. It took Fleming and his contaminated sample to get the idea noticed.

Challenger

But not on February 14! I searched again, trying to find the “patient zero” for the History Channel article. Who had Fleming told on February 14? His wife? The milkman? The story must have started somewhere! I mentioned the problem to my husband (a scientist, but not a bacteriologist) via a Skype chat (because remember he is still in Vienna, poor thing!) and asked him where a British scientist might make such an announcement. He suggested the Royal Society.  And I was off pulling another thread in my attempt at unraveling the Valentine’s Day conundrum, even though my research had now run to dozens of hours over several days. “Why bother?” You ask. Because (A) I’m frustrated by unsolved mysteries, (B) misinformation irritates me, and (C) I’m stubborn. (Full disclosure: friends and family would probably say it is mostly C!)  So now it was a matter of principle!

Cleared for Launch

I checked the records of the Royal Society. Nada. I searched for medical conferences held in February 1929. Zilch. I planned an alternate blog post in case I failed. And frankly, I was beginning to think that was the one that would run. But then, I found it. No fanfare (although I confess, the trumpeters were playing jubilantly in my head!), no ticker-tape parade, just a single reference. Could it be? I checked and triple checked. I wasn’t going to publish this unless I was sure. I found other sources to confirm, and I am pleased to announce the following:

Alexander Fleming presented some of his work on penicillin at the Medical Research Club in London on February 13, 1929.

That’s right. The day before Valentine’s Day. Where the Valentine’s Day mythos began is anyone’s guess. Perhaps someone thought it would be funny if the antibiotic that cures some sexually transmitted diseases was discovered on Valentine’s Day and fudged the date. Perhaps the initial error was a typo. Perhaps, it was lazy research. Regardless, the premise that penicillin was discovered (or even announced) by Alexander Fleming on Valentine’s Day in 1929 is completely debunked. Sorry History Channel. I know it’s a bitter pill to swallow.

Text: ©Rebecca Bigelow
Photo: Alexander Fleming in his lab.
Original via Wikimedia; edits Rebecca Bigelow.

**On a personal note, penicillin came to the market too late to save my uncle (on my father’s side) who died in 1931, at the age of six, from complications from strep throat. Penicillin probably would have saved him, but 1943 was the year mass production of penicillin began—coincidentally, the year my father turned six.

Additional Reading:

This Day in History

Fleming and Penicillin History

Some of the Sources for February 13, 1929

Wild(life) Weather

groundhog

February 2 was Groundhog Day. The day plays host to a somewhat bizarre ritual in the United States and Canada in which people haul a rodent out of its burrow and hold it up to see if it sees its shadow. Tradition holds that if the groundhog sees its shadow, we get to suffer through six more weeks of winter. No shadow? Early Spring! On Saturday, Punxsutawney Phil, the most famous of the groundhog prognosticators, predicted early spring. Woot! But it turns out Phil is right only about 40 percent of the time.

Phil-osophy

In fact, I’ve long thought that if Punxsutawney Phil’s people flipped the predictor, Phil would be far more precise. After all, if the groundhog sees his shadow, the sky must be clear. Surely a sunny February 2 is a better forecaster of early spring than a cloudy one? It seems, however, that part of the legend has its basis in European folklore. Candlemas, a Christian observance (mixed with Pagan practice) where people would have their candles blessed, marked forty days after Christmas and the midpoint of winter. Candlemas also falls on February 2, which is roughly half way between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. Candlemas, like Groundhog Day, has its own weather-predicting traditions. There were rhymes, variously worded, but similar to this:

If Candlemas be fair and bright
Winter will have another fight.
If Candlemas brings cloud and rain,
Winter will not come again.

Sound familiar, Phil? And in Germany, they believed that a badger (some sources say a hedgehog, and I suppose one must use whatever small animal is most readily available) seeing its shadow would bring more winter.

Re-Phil

This brings us back to Punxsutawney. In the 1800s Germans immigrated to the United States and many settled in Pennsylvania (becoming known as Pennsylvania Dutch or Pennsylvania German for the dialect they spoke), bringing their traditions with them. In Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, however, people were more likely to eat Phil’s ancestors than seek weather advice from them—at least until a local newspaper editor got involved. Clymer Freas was the editor of the Punxsutawney Spirit. He endowed Phil with weather wisdom, created Phil’s abode in Gobbler’s Knob, and promoted the first official ceremony, February 2, 1887, in the paper. Today, thousands (an estimated 30,000 on Saturday) descend on Punxsutawney for the festivities.

Phil-ibuster

All those town visitors bring in tourism dollars. Other areas, not to be out done, decided their own groundhogs (also known as woodchucks or marmots) were equal to the task of weather prophecy. Chattanooga Chuck, Stormy Marmot, Balzac Billy, and General Beauregard Lee are among the soothsaying Sciuridae (yes, groundhogs are members of the squirrel family) that are looking to stage a coup and reign in Phil’s stead as king of Groundhog Day.

Ful-Philled   

Still, Phil probably doesn’t have to worry about these pretenders to the throne. It’s more likely Phil will be put out of business by climate change. The winter of 2012 was the fourth warmest on record in the United States (2000, 1999, and 1992 were first, second, and third, respectively). 2012 was actually the 36th consecutive year where global temperatures were above average. If this trend continues, Phil can perpetually pick early spring and retire. Or, if we insist on having a weather rodent, we can choose a tropical replacement. May I suggest the Asylum (PA) Agouti*?

*Asylum, Pennsylvania, is a mere 200 miles from Punxsutawney. An agouti, besides being an excellent crossword puzzle word, is a rodent native to Central America, the West Indies, and northern South America.

Text: © Rebecca Bigelow
Groundhog photo: © Matt MacGillivray (qmnonic)

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