Ten Things I ♥ about NYC

I grew up in New England. New York City, with all its bustling excitement, was about three hours away. We took several school fieldtrips there. My family would also visit my grandfather—a retired professor at Columbia, who still lived a few steps from that venerable institution.

Twelve years ago this week, the unthinkable happened in the city I love to visit. It hurts to watch destruction and carnage anywhere, but this was particularly painful because it was a place I had visited (I had been to the top of the World several times), so I could imagine everything as it happened. The terrible loss of life and emotions of that day and those following will be forever writ on my heart and that of everyone who experienced that awful day. Yesterday, the anniversary of that horrible day, there were plenty of memorials to those tragic events. But I don’t want to revisit that in this blog. I want to celebrate New York City and what I love about it—then and now.

1. Theatre. I have vivid memories of seeing shows with my school and my family. We saw plays, we saw musicals, and we saw ballet. I can still recall the thrill and awe of the 40-foot Christmas tree rising from below the state at Lincoln Center during George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker. It was one of my first theater-going experiences and the pageantry thrilled my seven-year-old heart. How did they get that huge tree to grow in the theatre? It was magic. It still is.


2. Museums. Fieldtrips are supposed to be educational. Our school day in New York usually included the American Museum of Natural History or the New York Hall of Science. In part, my lifelong love affair with history and knowledge began in NYC: the life-sized blue whale that hung over one of the exhibit halls, the dioramas of Native Americans, the bones of dinosaurs that once wandered the valley where I lived—millions of years separating our existence. All of this and more is on display. New York allowed me to explore King Tut’s tomb at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and modern art at the Guggenheim. Heaven for the girl who would go on to write the blog Curiosity Seldom Pays. (Although I will confess to feeling that I could easily replicate some of the modern art—a canvas that is entirely red? Who can’t do that?)

3. Standing in history’s shadow. New York was the nation’s first capitol. George Washington was inaugurated on the balcony of Federal Hall on Wall Street in 1789. You can stand where he stood, and I have! If you’re a history buff, you can totally get your geek on just walking down the street in Manhattan—from the architecturally significant buildings to the ethnic neighborhoods that tell the story of the American immigrant to the literary pilgrimage spots. New York has history in spades.


4. The Empire State Building. One of those architecturally significant buildings was completed in 1931, and for 40 years the art deco building was the world’s tallest at 102 stories (1250 feet, not including the spire antenna). With observation decks on both the 86th and 102nd floors, you can see all of New York City laid out below you, and on a really clear day, you can see almost 80 miles in every direction—giving you a glimpse of Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania as well. History, architecture, and a really great view. What more could you ask?


5. The Staten Island Ferry. It’s free! In a city where it costs $8.50 to get a small soda (okay, slight exaggeration), free is a miracle. Save your money and skip a harbor cruise; be a real New Yorker and try the ferry. The Staten Island Ferry makes over 100 trips a day during the work week (and around 70 a day on the weekends). The five mile, 25-minute (each way) trip offers a respite from the jostling crowds and some of the best views in New York: the famed New York Skyline, Ellis Island, and the Statue of Liberty.


6. Ellis Island. A recent addition to my New York favorites, we took the kids a couple of years ago. We were on what I like to call the Great AP US History (APUSH) Tour of the East Coast. I could easily imagine the nervous immigrants treading the stairs in the Great Hall. Some of my ancestors came through the earlier immigration station, Castle Garden, but I guess the feelings and emotions were the same. Freedom. A chance for a better life. The welcome of Lady Liberty’s raised lamp (Ellis Island opened in 1892, and the Statue of Liberty was dedicated in 1886.), which offer the promise of light and hope for the future, is still a powerful symbol today. The Ellis Island Immigration Museum is an excellent chance to recall where we came from and to reflect on where we want to go.


7. The food. When I was a kid, I loved it when my parents would buy us pretzels from the food carts. I grew up in a street-vendorless college town, so buying food off the street was an exotic experience. Then there were the restaurants: My first glass of red wine was in an Italian restaurant in Little Italy, which was also as my introduction to the antipasto platter. There was prosciutto and unusual cheeses from Zabar’s on the Upper West Side, which was my grandfather’s favorite; the smell of coffee from Chock Full O Nuts, where my dad liked to grab a cup of coffee and a snack; there were deli’s with stacks of meat on fresh rye bread—like at the Second Avenue Deli (which is no longer on Second Avenue!) where we took the kids on the Great APUSH Tour—and there was the fabulous New York pizza. (Note to the so-called NY-style pizza place locally: you’re doing it wrong.) So much good food and so many great memories of sharing it with family and friends!

8. The rhythm of New York. People moved quicker. They talked quicker. They seemed to live quicker. The pace of the town I grew up in was sleepy, so it was eye-opening—and exhilarating—to adjust to the pace of New York. As it turns out, I’m more of a college-town girl, but I still enjoy the periodic foray into an urban playground.

9. The subway. The subway is an awesome tool for an aspiring writer. There are hundreds of people riding with you. Where are they going? What are their stories? Are they happy or sad? Tourist or native? Worker bee or boss? How do they talk, interact, live? The possibilities are endless, the stories infinite. Oh, and it’s also pretty dang fun to practice subway surfing. Look, Ma! No hands!

10. Everything else. It’s impossible to list only ten great things about New York—the resilient people, the fabulous Central Park, the skating at Rockefeller Center, the Christmas decorations, the movie locations, the collective knowledge of the universities, the parades, .… I’m so glad to have some small ties to this iconic city. Rock on New York. I’m delighted you’re there.


Text ©Rebecca Bigelow
Photos ©Rebecca Bigelow and Ian Brooks

Additional Reading:

Road Pictures: Tinley Park and Naperville, Illinois

Being a good mom, I recently drove the twins and one of their friends to Tinley Park. They were headed to the First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre for the Warped Tour—an all day punk rock festival. To me the idea of spending 10 hours listening to punk bands brought this to mind:


And made me want to do this:

Cover ears

But the kids were excited to go, and luckily they are old enough to just drop off. This was excellent news for my eardrums, but I needed something in the vicinity to do for 10 hours. Fortunately, a friend of mine, Terri, was available to keep me company, and we were able to make our own fun that didn’t involve this (which I am pretty sure is expressly forbidden in my insurance policy):

Warped mosh

Once we turned the kids loose, our first stop was just a few miles away from the Amphitheatre at the Tinley Park Farmers’ Market (TPFM). We live in downstate Illinois, where there is much more farmland. (Helpful hint: when driving through central Illinois, if the crop is tall, it’s corn; if it is short, it’s soy beans.) Farmers’ market is probably a misnomer in Tinley Park. The TPFM is probably a quarter of the size of our local one, and the most obvious difference is that there were only two or three booths (as opposed to two or three rows of booths) selling actually local produce. Intriguingly, however, one of the TPFM produce stands was selling bananas. The booth was doing brisk business, and I didn’t want to interrupt to ask how they managed to grow bananas locally, so sadly this remains an unsolved mystery.

Despite the decided lack of farmers, the TPFM did have several booths selling food items. The best sign goes to the cheese booth: Caseum Diem (Cheese the Day). I would have bought cheese there just because the sign was clever, but it would have spoiled in the hot car before we returned home. I resisted flavored olive oil, dubious foodstuff on a stick, and assorted jams and jellies. I did end up buying a caramel apple coffee cake ($10). The booth was serving samples, which were delicious. Veni. Gustaverim. Emi. (I came. I tasted. I bought!) Other booths were filled with things we could live without (e.g., fleece blankets, which were probably not the best thing to sell in 90 degree heat, or necklaces of teen pop stars made out of bottle caps) and some beautifully made items that were more than I wanted to spend that day (e.g., painted gourd planters or a lovely oak pie cupboard with punched tin panels). But it was fun to look, and we spent an hour poking around. There was even some entertainment in the form of a violinist (who seemed to be raking in the money) and half of the winning team from the most recent Virginia Beach Sand Castle Championships. He was making palm trees from a sand block for a Caribbean-themed street party that was to be held the next day.


After we had exhausted the TPFM options, we walked a few blocks of Oak Park Avenue because they had benches decorated in children’s book themes: fairy tales and classics like Where the Wild Things Are. They were very cute. (Apparently the bench theme changes each year.)


You’re freaking me out, Grandma.


This is why moms say “No sweets before dinner!”


I thought the cow was supposed to be milky white.


Let the wild rumpus start!


Notice the shot put-sized pea.

After admiring the benches, we departed Tinley Park for Naperville. Parking in both towns turned out to be free, and in Naperville, it was plentiful. We found a spot in the second lot we tried. The first order of business was lunch and we chose a bar and grill that seemed to be doing booming trade: Jimmy’s Grill. Terri had fish tacos and I had a burger and fries. We both thought the food was tasty. They charged extra for cheese and mushrooms (making my $9 burger a $10 burger), but soft drinks were a reasonable $2. Terri’s fish tacos were $11 or $12. Having an OCD-fueled germ phobia, I thought the place could have been a tad cleaner (table and seats were not wiped well; there was no changing table in the restroom, so another patron was changing her son’s diaper on the sink), but overall, it was a decent meal at a reasonable price.

Driving into Naperville, we had noticed a little river walk. After lunch, we strolled over to the park entrance. That part of the walk went through woods, so it was shady (welcome on a hot day) and followed a winding brick path along the river. It was lovely. The Morton Arboretum had placed information plaques by some of the trees, and there were benches dotted along the way. On the opposite shore you could see the stadium of North Central College. We also spotted a chipmunk, several ducks and their babies . . .



.  . . and this guy, who was just hanging out on a downed tree.


We walked the whole length of that part of the river walk (about 1.2 miles roundtrip) and then headed into town to explore the various shops. We sniffed all the spice sample jars in a spice shop, and Terri ended up buying some Chili 9000 (staff assured us that was not the temperature of your tongue after ingesting said Chili 9000.), which blended chili, cocoa, cinnamon, and other spices. We next tried samples in a gourmet popcorn store, and we each bought a small bag for $5—hers was plain salted, mine was kettle corn. Of course the small bag there was the size of a large bag at the movie theatre. Then we crossed the street and browsed a Barnes and Noble bookstore. After that, we stopped at Potbelly’s to get a soft drink and sit for a bit (less than $2 per drink) before purusing a few more shops along that main street, including some resale stores (one describing itself as upscale sold old designer shoes for outrageous prices—a pair of Manolo Blahnik’s shoes, for example, that were dirty and well-worn were still being sold for $100! Me: Why?), a board game store, and more.

Then we walked a different part of the river walk, heading the opposite way. This part had a concrete path along the river and a wider brick path up at street level. There was less shade here, but it was still fun to people watch, admire assorted art and fountains (including the aptly named Dandelion Fountain) and crisscross the river on the various bridges (covered bridges for pedestrians only or regular street bridges. Naperville’s vibrant downtown had more shops and restaurants than we could explore, the river walk was an unexpected delight, and there is even a historic area that we didn’t investigate because it was closed for an Ale Fest the day we were there.



As the day turned to evening, we headed back to Tinley Park,** topping up the gas tank in Naperville because it was about 16 cents a gallon cheaper than Tinley Park (although both cities had considerably higher gas prices—over $4 a gallon—than central Illinois). We had a quick dinner at an Arby’s in Tinley Park and arrived at the amphitheatre before the last set. We walked around a bit outside the venue. There was music in the parking lot, which was competing with the noise music inside. Inside there were several stages and the sound bled between them. Fingernails on the chalkboard to me, but the kids came out happy and hungry (a vegan, a vegetarian, and a frugal teen did not do well with the venue fare), so we took them over to Subway to get reasonably priced food before driving home.

The adventures were successful all the way around; although I still think Terri and I had the better day. We’re already planning a return trip to Naperville with another friend in the fall. There are tons more shops to check out, and the river walk should be lovely when the leaves turn.

Photo 1: National Archives (public domain)
Photo 2: Noisy Whistler; Nathan Jones, Flikr
Photo 3: Warped 2010; Ted Van Pelt, Flikr
Text and all other photos ©: Rebecca Bigelow

**We drove to Naperville with the GPS set to “Avoid Toll Roads.” We drove back on the toll roads. The former route was picturesque, but took longer. The latter was shorter, but cost us about $7! Highway robbery and/or reason to buy an I-pass?

Tinley Park by the numbers:

Incorporated: 1892

Population: 56,703

Capacity of the Amphitheatre: 28,000

Weird Claim to Fame: Tinley Park Lights UFO sightings in 2004, 2005, and 2006

Naperville by the numbers:

Settled: 1831; incorporated as a city: 1890

Population: 141,857

Naperville’s Smartest Decision: Keeping parking free—a choice made in the 1970s so the downtown area could compete with shopping malls that were opening in the surrounding area. It clearly worked.

Any Way You Slice It


I made my last school lunch this year. (The twins graduated high school in May.) By my reckoning, if I made sandwiches for their lunches every school day (180 days a year)* from K–12, times two kids, times two slices of bread, it would be roughly 1,300 loaves of bread**or more than 9,000 slices. That is a lot of bread (both literally and figuratively), not to mention a lot of work for the Sandwich Maker- in-Chief.

Fortunately, my task was made more efficient by Otto Rohwedder. Never heard of him? Well, you can toast his invention (also literally and figuratively!) and celebrate sliced bread. Bread, of course, has been ubiquitous at meal times for millennia, and the fourth Earl of Sandwich had the bread-and-filling lunchtime meal named after him by 1762, but the world would have to wait until the twentieth century for the convenience of pre-sliced bread.

Cutting Edge

Rohwedder, a jeweler by trade, first developed the idea in 1912 and had a prototype by 1916. The invention was not without setbacks, however. A fire destroyed his model and the blueprints for the slicer, along with the factory that was going to produce the machines, in 1917. Unwilling to leave his idea half-baked, Rohwedder started from scratch. It would be ten years before he had enough dough to try again, but by November 1928, he had a patent (1867377) for the new slicer.

The next problem was persuading bakers to try out his invention. They believed that sliced bread would dry out faster than the whole loaf and that people wouldn’t want to buy pre-sliced loaves. Undeterred, Rohwedder figured out a way to wrap the bread to prevent rapid drying (and to keep the sliced loaf together), and he finally convinced a baker friend, M. Frank Bench, owner of the Chillicothe Baking Company in Chillicothe, Missouri, to try the machine. The first loaf of sliced Kleen Maid Bread hit the shelf on July 7, 1928—only 85 years ago this week!

It’s a Wrap

To Bench’s surprise, the pre-sliced bread was a hit. The Chillicothe Baking Company quickly saw their bread sales jump 2,000 percent. Rohwedder soon sold more of the machines, including one to a baker in the St. Louis area, Gustav Papendick, who made a few improvements of his own to the wrapping process; Papendick also receiving patents for his contributions. (Early attempts to keep the sliced bread together included pins or rubber bands!) Finally, the Continental Baking Company (which would eventually become Hostess Brands) took sliced bread national when they introduced pre-sliced Wonder Bread in 1930.

Pre-sliced bread became so popular that in 1943 housewives even took umbrage when the government deemed the automated slicing process to be detrimental to the war effort and briefly banned the slicing (for the general public, although the military still used sliced bread to feed the soldiers) during World War II.  Fortunately for sandwich makers everywhere, the ban only lasted about three months. With sliced bread sales rising, the sales of spreads, including jams, jellies, and peanut butter, also skyrocketed, and the pop-up electric toaster for home use (also patented in the 1920s) was suddenly popular because the uniform bread slices made the toaster less frustrating to use.

Pre-sliced bread, first marketed as “The Greatest Forward Step in the Baking Industry Since Bread was Wrapped,” soon became the gold standard by which all other inventions were judged. With thousands of inventions in the last 85 years, different people may argue that the computer or the compact disc or the Chia Pet is the best thing since sliced bread, but sliced bread will be remembered as THE invention to beat. Chew on that the next time you reach for a slice.

*Full disclosure: They only took sandwiches half the time, and prior to the picky middle school years, they often ate cafeteria food, but we are imagining here.

**Loaves of the only brand of bread sandwich bread my kids like—minus the heels, which they don’t—make seven, two-slice sandwiches.

Text: Rebecca Bigelow; advert: public domain

Additional Reading:

On a Personal Note: Thank you for your patience with Curiosity Seldom Pays. This spring has been quite eventful with family mishaps and happenings, but life is returning to normal. Thus, I hope to return to a more regular blogging schedule.

The Ballot Box


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.

Additional Reading:

Penicillin—A Love Story


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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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Life Is a Highway


I took my kids on a college visit last week. As we drove down the highway, I began wondering about the interstate system. I knew that the first transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869 at a spike-driving ceremony in Promontory Summit, Utah. (Although the railroad would not be a continuous line until 1870 because in 1869 passengers still had to complete one small portion of the journey by stage coach, but I digress!) Nevertheless, by the late 1800s, people could crisscross the country by train, but the train’s heyday was short-lived. The American love affair with the automobile also began around the turn of the century, and the people needed roads to drive on. So when was the first transcontinental interstate completed and where did the construction crews drive the proverbial golden spike for the interstate?

Get Your Kicks

Route 66 (The Mother Road) was one of the original US highways (work completed in 1926), but it only meandered from Chicago, Illinois, to Santa Monica, California. The Lincoln Highway actually was a transcontinental road, and it will celebrate its 100th birthday in October 2013. A motorist could leave New York City, drive over 3,000 miles along its route, and arrive in San Francisco. One traveler did make such a trip in 1919. Dwight D. Eisenhower, then a lieutenant colonel in the army, joined the first Army Transcontinental Motor Convoy. It was supposed to be a reliability test of the road and the army’s vehicles. Eisenhower noted that “Delays sadly were to be the order of the day.” At times the convoy rolled along at less than six miles per hour, equipment broke down, road conditions were in turns dusty or muddy, and many of the bridges were in poor condition, collapsing under the weight of the convoy. The trip took sixty-two days. Eisenhower would later compare that trip to his experiences in World War II Germany, where he witnessed the Nazis (and later the Allies) easily moving troops along the more modern Autobahn.

King of the Road

Convinced that a modern highway system was need for national defense, postwar President Eisenhower championed the law that would create the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. Of course other presidents, notably Franklin Roosevelt, had studied the idea as well, but Eisenhower helped figure out how to finance the project, by using Federal gas taxes and other similar sources of revenue to create the funds needed to actually pay for the US government’s share of the construction costs. The act also set national standards for the road construction, including width of lanes (12 feet) and shoulders (10 feet).

Hit the Road Jack   

So once there was funding, where was the first road built? There are actually three states that make a claim: Missouri was the first to sign contracts ordering work under the new act, and a section of what is now I-70 in St. Charles County was the first to receive the Federal funds.  Kansas, on the other hand, was the first to complete a road (also a section of I-70) with the Federal money (although construction had already started when they received the funding). Pennsylvania, however, claims that their turnpike was the first interstate because a large section of it opened in 1940, well before the 1956 act!

So, which state was first is a matter of interpretation. What about completion? Surprisingly, the first transcontinental east-west interstate was not completed until August 1986—thirty years after Eisenhower signed the act! This was Interstate 80, and fittingly, I-80 was also completed in Utah, but this time near Salt Lake City. Winding from New York City to San Francisco, the odometer of a car making this trek would clock just over 2,900 miles—making I-80, at the time of completion, the world’s longest completed freeway. The completion of I-10, I-90, and I-70 would follow, although critics argue I-70 is still not complete as it is missing exchanges.

The Long and Winding Road

You may have noticed that all of these even-numbered roads run east-west. What about the north-south interstates? These odd-numbered interstates include I-95, the major East Coast north-south route, which is the interstate that traverses the most states (sixteen). Despite that feat, I-95 isn’t scheduled to be complete until at least 2018, as there is a nine-mile gap between Pennsylvania and New Jersey! There is another interstate oddity to mention: Hawaii has three interstates (H-1, H-2, and H-3) all on the island of Oahu. If the roads aren’t even inter-island, how can they be interstates? They get the designation because they were completed with interstate funds.

In all, more than 47,000 miles of roadway make up the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highway today. I think Eisenhower would be pleased to note an east-west cross-country journey can now be completed in less than fifty hours. Road trip, anyone?

Text: © Rebecca Bigelow; Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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