Friday, December 30, 2011

Germany's first female doctor ...

Dorothea Erxleben became Germany’s first licensed female doctor in the mid-1700s, but it wasn’t without a long struggle against societal norms. As a teen, she displayed an aptitude for intellectual pursuits, although there were few opportunities outside of the house and home for women. Her father, a doctor in the German city of Quedlinburg, encouraged and supported her academic study, however. She studied medicine under his watchful eye, and was admitted, even as a woman in that day, to the University of Halle, which she attended for a time with her brother. But when her brother was drafted into the military, societal norms prevented her -- a young, single woman -- from continuing her education at the university. She returned to her home town and later married a widower with several children, and subsequently the couple had several children of their own. Her husband became ill, and to support him and the children, she began treating patients. Her activities brought charges of "quackery" from three local physicians (including Henricus Grasshoff, one of my direct ancestors!) after one of her patients died.

Londa Schiebinder, in her book The Mind Has No Sex?: Women in the Origins of Modern Science, writes that “Erxleben considered her enemies accusations ‘gross insults to truth’ and concluded her letter by offering to take a qualifying exam – but only on the condition that her accusers also take the exam. The doctors, of course, refused to take such an exam, and claimed that ‘the dear lady considers herself a doctor, only by virtue of the fact that she can toss around some broken Latin and French. Such is her feminine understanding.’”

After Erxleben passed her exam in 1754, the university rector announced that she "proved herself a man." She practiced medicine without further trouble until her death in 1762.

Friday, December 23, 2011

George Washington's Christmas Day decision ...

In December 1776, George Washington’s Continental Army was in bad shape, but that changed a bit for the better on Christmas Day, thanks in large measure to a quick decision he made in the face of an extreme challenge on that very day.

As 1776 neared its end, Washington and his men had been driven out of New York and westward across much of New Jersey by British forces. The American fighting force faced mounting problems as soldiers’ enlistment periods expired, food and supplies were in short supply, and desertions increased. But these desperate times gave birth to one of the key American victories in the war – the crossing of the Delaware and subsequent defeat of British-hired Hessian mercenaries at the Battle of Trenton on December 25, 1776.

As the river-crossing plan was put into play, almost everything went wrong. Preparations for the crossing, to be carried out by American forces at three points along the Delaware, ran hours behind schedule. The weather turned worse, with an strong wind accompanied by sleet and snow. Floating chunks of ice and ice jams threatened the boats, and several inches of water in most of them made the soldiers they carried even colder and wetter. Some men fell overboard, into the icy water.

Under those conditions, only one of the three American crossings – the one that happened to carry Washington – was successful. In despair, Washington came close to calling off the entire operation, and probably would have done so had going back been even more dangerous for his men than pushing on. In his 2006 book Washington's Crossing, historian David Hackett Fischer described the scene:

“On the Jersey shore Washington wrapped himself in his cloak, sat on a wooden box that had once been a beehive, and brooded over the demise of his plan. The operation was now three hours behind schedule. Later he wrote that the delay ‘made me despair of surprising the Town, as I well knew we could not reach it before the day was fairly broke.’ … But desperate as the mission had become, he decided that it might become more difficult to abandon it. Washington wrote, ‘As I was certain there was no making a Retreat without being discovered, and harassed upon repassing the River, I determined to push on at all Events.’”

So in a single moment, one man's simple, on-the-spot decision -- to go or not to go --gave American patriots a badly needed victory, one without which the American Revolution might have fizzled.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

When European-Americans Didn't Celebrate Christmas ...

Were America’s early English settlements home to widespread mirth and joy during the Christmas season? Did many of America’s English settlers – especially the most pious groups, such as the Puritans -- have a strong affinity to Christmas celebrations and what they represent?  The answer, perhaps surprisingly, is no. In fact, some of those first people to successfully settle in the New England had a strong aversion to Christmas celebrations, notes historian Stephen Nissenbaum in his book The Battle for Christmas.

“In New England, for the first two centuries of white settlement most people did not celebrate Christmas,” writes Nissenbaum. “In fact, the holiday was systematically suppressed by Puritans during the colonial period and largely ignored by their descendants.  … It was actually illegal to celebrate Christmas in Massachusetts between 1659 and 1681 (the fine was five shillings) … Puritans were fond of saying that if God had intended for the anniversary of the Nativity to be observed, He would surely have  given some indication as to when that anniversary occurred.” Indeed, many scholars report that there is no biblical reference to December 25 as the date of Jesus Christ’s birth.
Nissenbaum also notes, among other interesting details, that Puritans had other reasons for opposing Christmas celebrations, too, based largely on what they had witnessed of those events – “… rowdy public displays of excessive eating and drinking, the mockery of established authority, aggressive begging (often involving the threat of doing harm), and even the invasion of wealthy homes.”

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Franklin Roosevelt and Al Capone's car ...

On December 8, 1941 – one day after the Japanese surprise attack on American forces at Pearl Harbor -- U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt was set to make one of the most important speeches of his political career.  He was to address Congress (and millions of Americans via radio broadcasts) from the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol, noting the “Day of Infamy” and seeking a declaration of war against Japan.

But before he could do that, there was a problem to overcome. Government regulations had prohibited spending more than $750 for a car, even for the president. So on previous trips around Washington, Roosevelt had used a typical, non-bullet proof car. But on this day, when suspicions ran unusually high so soon after the Pearl Harbor attack, the possibility that Japan might have agents in place to try to kill the president couldn’t be easily dismissed. So riding in a standard, off-the-rack-type of car from the White House to the Capitol seemed to be a tremendous risk for the American leader.

Steven M. Gillen’s 2011 book Pearl Harbor: FDR Leads the Nation Into War offers the resolution to the problem. According the Gillen, it went down like this:
   “'Mr. President, I’ve taken the liberty of getting a new car,’” White House Secret Service head Mike Reilly said to Roosevelt after he stepped out of the White House for the trip to the Capitol. “‘It’s armored, I’m afraid it’s a little uncomfortable, and I know it has a dubious reputation.’
   ‘Dubious reputation?’ FDR asked inquisitively.
   ‘Yes sir. It belonged to Al Capone. The Treasury Department had a little trouble with Al, you know, and they got it from him in the subsequent legal complications. I got it from treasury.’
   Roosevelt seemed amused. ‘I hope Al doesn’t mind,’ he said.”

Al Capone was a notorious gangster who was convicted in 1931. Roosevelt continued using Capone’s car for trips into 1942, when it was replaced by a specially designed armored car that the federal government leased from Ford Motor Co. for $500 annually.
The Capone car has been in private hands for many decades, according to a history of the car provided by RM Auction in 2006. Wonder where it is now ...

(The History Insider note: More recent information suggests that this story is false, despite what would seem to be evidence from a solid source here.)

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Jefferson, Adams, and Shakespeare's chair ...

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Not long after America won its independence from England, Thomas Jefferson was appointed the U.S. ambassador to France and John Adams was appointed the U.S. ambassador to England. In 1796, Jefferson traveled to England to work with Adams in negotiating commercial treaties with some other countries. As those efforts dragged on, the two Americans decided to take time to tour the English countryside together. Their travels included a visit to Shakespeare’s home at Stratford-on-Avon, as noted in David McCullough’s 2001 book John Adams.

“Told that an old wooden chair in a corner by the chimney was where the bard himself had sat, the two American tourists cut off souvenir chips … ,” McCullough writes. McCullough also reports that Adams himself later wrote, in describing the visit, that the American tourists’ souvenir-taking act was “according to the custom.”  

Despite the continuing damage the chair might have suffered at the hands of like-minded visitors, did it survive? Possibly, if in fact it is the same Shakespeare’s chair sold at auction in London for $223, as noted in the March 25, 1877 edition of The New York Times. Or could it have been another chair, such as this “courting chair”? And what became of the chips that Jefferson and Adams cut? Did they make it back to America?