March 10, 1876  The Speed of Sound

For all of Mark Twain’s abilities, he wasn’t much of an investor.  The man turned down a ground-floor opportunity to invest in the telephone, in favor of a typesetting machine which actually made setting type more complicated, than the age-old printer’s method of setting type, by hand.

As the son of a speech pathologist and husband to a deaf wife, Alexander Melville Bell was always interested in sound. Since the profoundly deaf can’t hear their own pronunciation, Bell developed a system he called Visible Speech in 1864, to help the deaf learn and improve elocution.

220px-VisibleSpeech-illustrationsÉdouard Séguin, the Paris-born physician and educator best known for his work with the developmentally disabled and a major inspiration to Italian educator Maria Montessori, called the elder Bell’s work “…a greater invention than the telephone by his son, Alexander Graham Bell”.

As a boy, the younger Bell developed a method of carefully modulating his speech and speaking into his mother’s forehead, a method which allowed her to “hear” him, fairly clearly.  The boy followed in his father’s footsteps, mastering his elder’s work to the point of improving on it and teaching the system at the Boston School for Deaf Mutes (which operates today as the Horace Mann School for the Deaf), the American Asylum for Deaf-mutes in Hartford, Connecticut, and the Clarke School for the Deaf in Northampton, Massachusetts.

539001It was Alexander Graham Bell who first broke through to Helen Keller, a year before Anne Sullivan.  The two developed a life-long relationship closely resembling that of father and daughter.  Bell made it possible for Keller to attend Radcliffe and graduate in 1904, the first deaf/blind person, ever to do so.

Keller used a braille typewriter to write her first autobiography in 1903, dedicating The Story of My Life, to her life-long friend, benefactor and mentor:  “To Alexander Graham Bell, who has taught the deaf to speak and enabled the listening ear to hear speech from the Atlantic to the Rockies.”

CREDIT: “[Alexander Graham Bell with Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan at the meeting of the American Association to Promote the Teaching of Speech to the Deaf, July 1894, in Chautauqua, N.Y.]” [1894, printed later]. Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress.
A natural inventor, it was Bell’s 1875 work on electrical telegraphy, which led to the telephone.  Bell heard a “twang” on the line while working , leading him to investigate the possibility of using electrical wires, to transmit sound.

Rival Elisha Gray was working on a similar concept, and filed a caveat (statement of concept) on February 14, 1876, mere hours after Bell applied for patent.

Bell’s device first produced intelligible speech on March 10, that same year.  His diary entry describes the event: “I then shouted into M [the mouthpiece] the following sentence: “Mr. Watson, come here – I want to see you.” To my delight he came and declared that he had heard and understood what I said.  I asked him to repeat the words. He answered, “You said ‘Mr. Watson – come here – I want to see you.'” We then changed places and I listened at S [the speaker] while Mr. Watson read a few passages from a book into the mouthpiece M. It was certainly the case that articulate sounds proceeded from S. The effect was loud but indistinct and muffled”.


Many of Bell’s innovations came about, much earlier than you might expect.  One of his first inventions after the telephone was the “photophone,” a device enabling sound to be transmitted on a beam of light. Bell and his assistant, Charles Sumner Tainter, developed the photophone using a sensitive selenium crystal and a mirror which would vibrate in response to sound. In 1881, the pair successfully sent a photophone message from one building to another, a distance of over 200 yards.

Several innovations would later build on this accomplishment to produce the modern laser.

0bcb9e63f5In September 1881, Alexander Graham Bell hurriedly invented the first metal detector, as President James Garfield lay dying from an assassin’s bullet. The device was unsuccessful in saving the President, but credited with saving many lives during the Boer War and WW1.

That was the year in which Bell’s infant son Edward died of respiratory problems, leading the bereaved father to design a metal vacuum jacket which would facilitate breathing. This apparatus was a forerunner of the iron lung used in the ’40s and ’50s to aid polio victims.  As many as 39 people still used an iron lung to breathe, as late as 2004.

The telephone was a commercial success, but that wasn’t a foregone conclusion. Looking for investors for his new enterprise, Bell approached Samuel Clemens in 1877, as a potential investor.  Better known as Mark Twain, the author declined the opportunity, believing the market to be confined to bridge-to-engine room communications, onboard maritime vessels.

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Mark Twain

One of the towering figures of American literature, Samuel Clemens achieved considerable financial success during his lifetime but, for all his abilities, didn’t have much of an eye for opportunity.  Mark Twain turned down a ground-floor invitation to invest in the telephone, choosing instead to buy into a typesetting machine which complicated the setting of type, compared with the age-old printer’s method of setting type, by hand.

Alexander Graham Bell’s creation would change the world but, to the end of his days, his work with the deaf gave him greatest satisfaction.

Bell would sell his invention, to finance his work on devices to aid the hearing-impaired.  He didn’t keep a phone on his desk, considering the thing to be an interruption and a nuisance.

Later in life, Alexander Graham Bell described his work with the deaf, as “more pleasing to me than even recognition of my work with the telephone.”


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March 9, 1910 Brown Dog

In the five years I’ve been writing “Today in History”, I’ve written about 450 of these stories.  A father isn’t supposed to have favorites among his “children”, but I have to confess.  I do.  This is not one of those.  This one, I detest.

In the five years I’ve been writing “Today in History”, I’ve written about 450 of these stories.  A father isn’t supposed to have favorites among his “children”, but I have to confess.  I do.  This is not one of those.  This one, I detest.

The Oxford on-line Dictionary defines vivisection as: “noun – the practice of performing operations on live animals for the purpose of experimentation or scientific research”.

During the reign of Queen Victoria, British monarch from June 20, 1837 to January 22, 1901, a powerful opposition arose in Great Britain to the dissection of live animals. Labeled as “vivisection” by opponents of the practice, experiments were often performed in front of audiences of medical students, with or without anesthesia.

Ernest Starling

The Cruelty to Animals Act of 1876 stipulated that subject animals must be anesthetized, unless anesthesia would interfere with the point of the experiment. The measure further required that each animal could only be used once, though multiple procedures were permitted so long as each was part of the same experiment.

In the end, the subject animal had to be killed when the study was over.

In 1902, about the time when Russian physiologist Ivan Petrovich Pavlov was doing his conditioning experiments om dogs, Ernest Starling performed his first “experiment” on a small brown terrier.  Whether a stray or someone’s pet, is unclear.  A further “demonstration” was performed on the same animal by William Bayliss on February 2, 1903, at the end of which the dog was killed with a knife to the heart.

William Bayliss

I don’t care to linger on the details of what was done to this dog.  It was difficult enough, to read about it.  Suffice it to say that Bayliss and Starling’s classes were infiltrated by two Swedish anti-vivisection activists, Lizzy Lind and Leisa Katherine Schartau.

The two women had attended 50 such classes at University College, keeping a diary throughout and later publishing observations in “The Shambles of Science: Extracts from the Diary of Two Students of Physiology”. In it, the pair disputed that the brown dog had been anesthetized, reporting that “The dog struggled forcibly during the whole experiment and seemed to suffer extremely during the stimulation. No anesthetic had been administered in my presence, and the lecturer said nothing about any attempts to anesthetize the animal having previously been made”.

Stephen Coleridge,, Vanity Fair,, July 1910

Stephen Coleridge, secretary of the National Anti-Vivisection Society heard the two women’s story, and spoke angrily on behalf of the terrier.  “If this is not torture”, the barrister asked, “let Mr. Bayliss and his friends … tell us in Heaven’s name what torture is“.

There was little doubt that either professor if not both, would sue for libel.  Bayliss did and the jury retired for 25 minutes, returning with a unanimous verdict.  Bayliss was awarded £2,000 with £3,000 in court costs, equivalent to about £250,000 today, the verdict read to the applause of physicians in the public gallery.

On September 15, 1906, the World League against Vivisection unveiled a statue in Battersea’s Latchmere Recreation Ground, bearing the inscription “In Memory of the Brown Terrier Dog Done to Death in the Laboratories of University College in February 1903 after having endured Vivisection extending over more than Two Months and having been handed over from one Vivisector to Another Till Death came to his Release. Also in Memory of the 232 dogs Vivisected at the same place during the year 1902. Men and Women of England how long shall these Things be?”

Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw and Anglo-Irish suffragist Charlotte Despard spoke at the event, but medical students were outraged.

Brown_Dog_statue,_Battersea,_London(2)London’s teaching hospitals at first explored quiet means of taking down what they regarded as an insult to the profession.  By November, medical students were crossing the Thames with sledge hammers and crow bars, intending to take matters into their own hands.

Riots ensued, the worst nights occurring in London on December 10, 1907, when 1,000 medical students tried to pull the statue down, battling over the memorial with suffragettes, trade unionists and over 400 police officers.

More riots and brawls broke out in the weeks that followed.  Before long, the authorities were looking for a quiet way to make the statue go away.  Four workmen and 120 police officers quietly removed the Brown Dog Memorial over the night of March 9-10, 1910, hiding it in a bicycle shed. 3,000 anti-vivisectionists gathered in Trafalgar Square to demand its return, but to no avail.  The statue never reappeared, later to be broken up and melted down.

dsc04730Seventy-five years would come and go, before a new Brown Dog memorial was commissioned by the National Anti-Vivisection Society and the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection.

For all the fuss, it hardly made a difference. There were something like 300 experiments on live animals, in the year 1875.  By the time of the brown terrier’s live dissection, the number was 19,084.  In 2005 the figure had increased to 2.81 million, and that’s just the vertebrates. 7,306 of those, were dogs.

Image – top ofpage.  Original brown dog statue, from 1906

January 26, 1945 Underage, and Under Weight

After the war, Audi Murphy was asked how he could have grabbed that machine gun, and taken on an entire company of German infantry.  “They were killing my friends”, he replied.

In the days following the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, hundreds of thousands of Americans rushed to enlist in the United States’ armed services.  One of these was the son of a Hunt County Texas sharecropper family,  Audie Leon Murphy.

He went to the Marine Corps, Navy and the Army, and all turned him down, for being underweight and under age.  Murphy changed his diet to “fatten” up, and appeared at a Dallas recruiting station six months later, armed with a sworn affidavit from his sister, inflating his age by a year. It was 10 days past his 17th birthday when Audi Murphy, all 5’5½” and 112 lbs of him, enlisted in the United States Army.

f50b348dd608662fdfc1b4b1203ddf06Murphy’s company commander thought he wasn’t big enough for infantry service, and attempted to transfer him to cook and bakers’ school. Murphy refused.  He wanted to be a combat soldier.

Joining the 3rd Infantry Division of George S. Patton’s 7th Army, Murphy participated in amphibious landings in Sicily in July, fighting in nearly every aspect of the Italian campaign.

From Palermo to Messina and on to Naples, Anzio and Rome, the Germans were driven out of the Italian peninsula in savage and near continuous fighting that killed a member of my own family.

By mid-December, the 3rd ID suffered 683 dead, 170 missing, and 2,412 wounded. Now Sergeant Murphy was there for most of it, excepting two periods when he was down with malaria.

Two months after the “Overlord” landings in Normandy, elements of the 7th Army landed in southern France in an operation called “Dragoon”. By mid-September, only three of Company B’s original roster remained, the rest either killed or removed due to wounds or illness. It was around this time when Audi Murphy received his first Purple Heart.  A mortar blast resulted in a heel wound that wasn’t very serious, but a far more dangerous hip wound followed from a sniper, that December.  Murphy repaid the sniper, with a bullet between the German’s eyes.

Reduction of Colmar Pocket - January 20, 1945-February 9, 1944He was still in the hospital when his unit moved into the Vosges Mountains, in Eastern France.

The “Colmar Pocket” was an 850 square mile area held by German troops: Murphy described it as “a huge and dangerous bridgehead thrusting west of the Rhine like an iron fist. Fed with men and materiel from across the river, it is a constant threat to our right flank; and potentially it is a perfect springboard from which the enemy could start a powerful counterattack.”

Rejoining his unit in January, now Lieutenant Murphy became Company Commander, being the only officer remaining in the Company. Disease, wounds and casualties had reduced company B’s fighting strength by this time from an original 235, to 18.

What remained of the unit was awaiting reinforcements on January 26, 1945, as a combined force of German infantry and armor assembled itself outside of town. “I see the Germans lining up for an attack”, said Murphy. “Six tanks rumble to the outskirts of Holtzwihr, split into groups of threes, and fan out toward either side of the clearing. Then wave after wave of white dots, barely discernible against the background of snow, start across the field. They are enemy infantrymen”.

Let Lt. Murphy’s Medal of Honor Citation describe what happened next:

Audie-murphy-tank-scene-world-war-II-2“Second Lieutenant Audie L. Murphy, 01692509, 15th Infantry, Army of the United States, on 26 January 1945, near Holtzwihr, France, commanded Company B, which was attacked by six tanks and waves of infantry. Lieutenant Murphy ordered his men to withdraw to a prepared position in a woods while he remained forward at his command post and continued to give fire directions to the artillery by telephone. Behind him to his right one of our tank destroyers received a direct hit and began to burn. Its crew withdrew to the woods. Lieutenant Murphy continued to direct artillery fire which killed large numbers of the advancing enemy infantry. With the enemy tanks abreast of his position, Lieutenant Murphy climbed on the burning tank destroyer which was in danger of blowing up any instant and employed its .50 caliber machine gun against the enemy. He was alone and exposed to the German fire from three sides, but his deadly fire killed dozens of Germans and caused their infantry attack to waver. The enemy tanks, losing infantry support, began to fall back. For an hour the Germans tried every available weapon to eliminate Lieutenant Murphy, but he continued to hold his position and wiped out a squad which was trying to creep up unnoticed on his right flank. Germans reached as close as 10 yards only to be mowed down by his fire. He received a leg wound but ignored it and continued the single-handed fight until his ammunition was exhausted. He then made his way to his company, refused medical attention, and organized the company in a counterattack which forced the Germans to withdraw. His directing of artillery fire wiped out many of the enemy; he personally killed or wounded about 50. Lieutenant Murphy’s indomitable courage and his refusal to give an inch of ground saved his company from possible encirclement and destruction and enabled it to hold the woods which had been the enemy’s objective”.

After the war, Audi Murphy was asked how he could have grabbed that machine gun, and taken on an entire company of German infantry.  “They were killing my friends”, he replied.

MurphyMOHThe man who had once been judged too small to fight was one of the most decorated American combat soldiers of WW2, having received every military combat award for valor the United States Army has to give, plus additional awards for heroism, from France and from Belgium.

Audi Murphy returned to civil life and a 21-year career in Hollywood, starring in 40 feature films and a television series.  The transition was difficult  There were frequent bouts of depression and insomnia, and an addiction to sedatives.  He turned to poetry and songwriting for a creative outlet, but images of German war orphans could bring him to tears of guilt.  He slept with a loaded gun under his pillow, and there were episodes which professional colleagues and family members, found alarming.

In Murphy’s Day it was called “Battle Fatigue”, or “Shell Shock”.  He was candid about his own difficulties, and called on government to give increased consideration to the emotional toll inflicted on those whom it sent into combat.

Audi Murphy was killed in a plane crash near Catawba, Virginia, and buried with full military honors, in Arlington National Cemetery.  He was 45.

Audie Murphy Gravesite

Nine years later, the American Psychiatric Association recognized Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in the 3rd edition of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Data from the National Vital Statistics System, a collaboration of the National Center for Health Statistics of the Department of Health and Human Services, reveals a suicide rate among veteran populations approximately twice that of comparable civilian populations.

I wonder about that term. “Disorder”.  The word makes it sound like there’s something wrong with these guys.

When a soldier experiences an event, so traumatic that the very memory of it causes pain, I don’t understand how that can be characterized as a “disorder”. To me it seems like the properly functioning conscience of a good man, recoiling in horror at what he’s seen in service to his country.


January 25, 1925 Serum Run

A 20-lb cylinder containing the antitoxin shipped as far as it could by rail, arriving at Nenana, 674 miles from Nome. Three vintage biplanes were available, but all were in pieces, and none would start in the sub-arctic cold. The antitoxin would have to go the rest of the way by dog sled.

In the 4th century BC, Hippocrates of Kos identified an upper respiratory infection, characterized by the formation of a leathery white “pseudomembrane” on the tonsils, pharynx, and/or nasal cavities of its victims.  Early symptoms resemble a cold or flu, in which fever, sore throat, and chills lead to bluish skin coloration, painful swallowing, and difficulty breathing.  Late symptoms include cardiac arrhythmia with cranial and peripheral nerve palsies.

German bacteriologist Friedrich August Johannes Loeffler first identified Corynebacterium diphtheriae in the 1880s, the causal agent of the disease Diphtheria.  Within ten years, researchers had developed an effective antitoxin.


Today the disease is all but eradicated in the United States, but diphtheria was once a leading cause of death among children and adults over 40.

Diphtheria is highly contagious and spread by direct physical contact and by breathing aerosolized secretions of its victims.  Spain experienced an outbreak of the disease in 1613. To this day the year is remembered as “El Año de los Garotillos”.  The Year of Strangulations.

A severe outbreak swept through New England in 1735. In one New Hampshire town, one of every three children under the age of 10 died of the disease. In some cases entire families were wiped out. Noah Webster described the outbreak, saying “It was literally the plague among children. Many families lost three of four children—many lost all”.

download (7)Dr. Curtis Welch practiced medicine in Nome, Alaska, in 1925. Several children became ill with what he first diagnosed as tonsillitis. More came down with sore throats, early sufferers beginning to die as Welch observed the pseudomembrane of diphtheria. He had ordered fresh antitoxin the year before, but the shipment hadn’t arrived by the time the ports froze over. By January, all the serum in Nome was expired.

There were 10,000 living in Nome at the time, 2° south of the Arctic Circle. Welch expected a high mortality rate among the 3,000 or so white inhabitants, but the 7,000 area natives: Central Yupik, Inupiaq, St. Lawrence Island Yupik and American Indians with lineage tied to tribes in the lower 48, likely had no immunity whatsoever. Mortality among these populations could be expected to approach 100%.

Five children had already died by January 25, while Dr. Welch suspected more in the remote native camps. A plea for help went out by telegram and an Anchorage hospital came up with 300,204 units of serum. Enough for 30 patients. A million units would be required, but perhaps this would be enough to stave off epidemic, until a larger shipment arrived in February.


A 20-lb cylinder containing the antitoxin and wrapped in protective fur shipped as far as it could by rail, arriving at Nenana, 674 miles from Nome. Three vintage biplanes were available, but all were in pieces, and none would start in the sub-arctic cold. The antitoxin would have to go the rest of the way, by dog sled.

On January 27, a US Marshal pounded on the door of Willard J. “Wild Bill” Shannon, begging for his help with the relay to Nome.   It was after midnight and −50° Fahrenheit , when Shannon and his nine-dog team received the serum. The temperature had dropped to −62°F by the time the team reached Tolovana, 24 hours later. Shannon himself was hypothermic, with parts of his face turned black with frostbite.  Three of his dogs had died on the way, of frostbitten lungs.


Leonhard Seppala and his team took their turn, departing into gale force winds and zero visibility, with a wind chill of −85°F.  With Seppala’s 8-year old-daughter and only child Sigrid at risk for the disease, the stakes could not have been higher.

Up the 5,000′ “Little McKinley”, Seppala gambled on a shortcut across the unstable ice of Norton Sound.  The howling gale threatened to break up the ice, stranding the team at sea, while visibility was so poor that Seppala couldn’t see his “wheel dog” – the dog nearest his sled.  The 19-dog team struggled for traction on the glassy skin of the ocean water, returning to the coastline only hours before the ice broke up.

Much of the time, navigation in that frozen wilderness was entirely up to Seppala’s lead dog.  Most sled dogs are retired by age twelve, especially team leaders, but it was twelve-year-old “Togo”, who was trusted with the lead.

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Seppala and Togo ran 170 miles to receive the serum, returning another 91 miles to make the handoff on February 1. Together the pair covered twice as much ground as any other team, over the most dangerous terrain of the “serum run”.

Gunnar Kaasen and his team took the handoff, hitting the trail at 10:00 that night. A massive gust estimated at 80mph upended the sled, pitching musher and serum alike into the snow. Already frostbitten, Kaasen searched in the darkness with bare hands, until he found the cylinder. Covering the last 53 miles overnight, the team reached Front Street, Nome, at 5:30am on February 2. The serum was thawed and ready by noon.

seppala520 mushers and 150 dogs or more had covered 674 miles in 5 days, 7½ hours, a distance that normally took the mail relay 2-3 weeks. Not a single serum ampule was broken.

With 28 confirmed cases and enough antitoxin for 30, the serum run had held the death toll to no higher than seven.

Doctor Welch suspected as many as 100 or more deaths in the native camps, but the real number will never be known. An untold number of dogs died while completing the run.  Several mushers were severely frostbitten.

Gunnar Kaasen and Balto

Gunnar Kaasen and his lead dog “Balto” were hailed as heroes of the serum run, the dog becoming the most popular canine celebrity in the country, after Rin Tin Tin. There was a nine-month vaudeville tour, and Hollywood produced a 30-minute silent film, “Balto’s Race to Nome,” starring himself in the lead role.

A bronze likeness was erected in New York’s Central Park in 1925, with Balto in attendance.  The statue stands there to this day, though Kaasen’s lead is depicted wearing Togo’s “colors” (awards).

Balto’s notoriety was a source of considerable bitterness for Leonhard Seppala, who felt that Kaasen’s 53-mile run was nothing compared with his own 261, Kaasen’s lead little more than a “freight dog”.  The statue was particularly galling.  “It was almost more than I could bear” he said, “when the ‘newspaper dog’ Balto received a statue for his ‘glorious achievements’”.

Balto, statue

Togo lived another four years though the serum run had rendered him lame, never again able to run. The real hero of the serum run spent the last years of his life in Poland Spring, Maine, and passed away at the ripe old age of 16.

Wild Bill Shannon disappeared in 1937, while prospecting for gold.  His bones were discovered four years later, perhaps a victim of exposure, or his final “close call”, with a grizzly bear.

Togo and Seppala
Leonhard Seppala and Togo

Leonhard Seppala was in his old age in 1960, when he recalled his lead dog on the serum run.   “I never had a better dog than Togo. His stamina, loyalty and intelligence could not be improved upon. Togo was the best dog that ever traveled the Alaska trail.”

Today, the memory of the 1925 serum run lives on in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, held every March and run over much of the same terrain as the ‘Great Race of Mercy’.   Togo himself is stuffed and mounted,  standing watch at the Iditarod museum headquarters, in Wasilla.

January 22, 2000 Third Eye Open

According to Halvorson, “John Lennon once asked Huges to trepan him, but Bart told him he was a third-eyer, so he wouldn’t notice any difference.”

The procedure is called “trepanation”.  It may be the oldest surgical operation for which there is archaeological evidence.  Trepanation involves drilling or scraping a hole into the human head, and seems to have begun sometime in the Neolithic, or “New Stone Age” period.

One archaeological dig in France uncovered 120 skulls, 40 of which showed signs of trepanation. Another such skull was recovered from a 5th millennium BC dig in Azerbaijan. A number of 2nd millennium BC specimens have been unearthed in pre-Colombian Mesoamerica; the area now occupied by the central Mexican highlands through Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and northern Costa Rica.


Hippocrates, the “Father of Western Medicine”, described the procedure in detail in his treatise “On Injuries of the Head,” written sometime around 400BC. The Roman physician Galen of Pergamon expanded on the procedure, some 500 years later.

Archaeologists discovered 1 in eight of all the skulls in pre-Christian era Magyar (Hungarian) graveyards, to have been trepanned.

Trepanation has obvious applications in the treatment of head trauma, though the procedure has been used to treat everything from seizures to migraines to mental disorders. During medieval times, the procedure was used to liberate demons from the heads of the possessed and to cure ailments ranging from meningitis to epilepsy.


Trepanation took on airs of pseudo-science, many would say “quackery”, when the Dutch librarian Hugo Bart Hughes published “The Mechanism of Brain Blood Volume” in 1964. In it, Hughes contends that our brains drain of blood and cerebrospinal fluid when we begin to walk upright, and continues to do so, the older we get.

According to Hughes, young children are far more creative than adults due to a “natural trepanation effect”, as the fontanel or cranial “soft spot” allows for greater “elasticity” and “pulsation” of the brain.

18dys7vqhsmikjpgTo prove the value of his ‘third eye’ theory, to his own satisfaction if to no one else, Hughes drilled a hole in his own skull in 1965, using a Black & Decker electric drill. He must have thought it proved the point, because he expanded on his theory with “Trepanation: A Cure for Psychosis”, followed by an autobiography, “The Book with the Hole”, published in 1972.

Peter Halvorson, a Hughes follower and director of the International Trepanation Advocacy Group (ITAG), was at first skeptical of the idea.  “It was a time of my life when I felt a certain dullness. I was very much a sealed-skull adult, and I was struggling with that. After the trepanation I felt a positive lift. There’s no doubt trepanation is an enhancement.”

Halvorson trepanned himself with an electric drill in 1972. Today, he explains on his ITAG website ( that “The hypothesis here at ITAG has been that making an opening in the skull favorably alters movement of blood through the brain and improves brain functions which are more important than ever before in history to adapt to an ever more rapidly changing world”.

According to Halvorson, “John Lennon once asked Hughes to trepan him, but Bart told him he was a third-eyer, so he wouldn’t notice any difference.”

vote-fieldingAt age 27, Amanda Feilding brought an electric dentist’s drill to her London apartment, and drilled a hole in her skull. After four unsuccessful years trying to find a surgeon to do it for her, “I thought, ‘Well, I’m a sculptor, I may as well do it myself'”.

Feilding is so convinced of the benefits of the procedure that she turned it into a political platform, running for the Parliament from Chelsea, on the slogan, “Vote Feilding – Trepanation for the National Health.”  In two separate runs, she garnered a total of 188 votes.

In 2000, British-born Heather Perry was living in Beryl, Utah.  Hearing that John Lennon had wanted a hole in his head, Perry set her heart on having one of her own.  On January 22, 2000, Peter Halvorson and Williams Lyons helped drill a hole in her head for producers of the ABC News program “20/20.” Thirty million viewers tuned in to the spectacle, resulting in $500 fines on the pair for practicing medicine without a license, and three years’ probation.  The two men were also ordered to undergo psychiatric evaluation.

18lpu4r7gdundjpgAt the time, the Iron County DA also considered charges against ABC News reporter Chris Cuomo, for aiding in the crime.

St. Louis neurologist Dr. William Landau wasn’t impressed with Hughes’ brain blood volume theory, explaining that “There is no scientific basis for this at all. It’s quackery.” Dr. Robert Daroff, Professor of Neurology at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, was a little more to the point. “Horseshit,” he said. “Absolute, unequivocal bullshit”.


January 12, 1967 Frozen

“I should prefer to an ordinary death, being immersed with a few friends in a cask of Madeira, until that time, then to be recalled to life by the solar warmth of my dear country”. – Benjamin Franklin

The human brain is an awesome thing. Weighing in at about 3lbs, the organ is comprised of something like 86 billion neurons, each made up of a stoma or cell body, an axon to take information away from the cell, and anywhere between a handful and a hundred thousand dendrites bringing information in. Chemical signals transmit information over minute gaps between neurons called synapses, about 1/25,000th to 1/50,000th of the thickness of a sheet of paper.

Signal+Transmission+Dendrites+Cell+body+Nucleus+SynapseThere are roughly a quadrillion such synapses, meaning that any given thought could wend its way through more pathways than there are molecules in the known universe. This is roughly the case, whether you are Stephen J. Hawking, or Forrest Gump.

For all of this, the brain cannot store either oxygen or glucose (blood sugar), meaning that there’s about 6 minutes after the heart stops, before the brain itself begins to die.

Legally, brain death occurs at “that time when a physician(s) has determined that the brain and the brain stem have irreversibly lost all neurological function”. Brain death defines the legal end of life in every state except New York and New Jersey, where the law requires that a person’s lungs and heart must also have stopped, before that person is declared legally dead.

Clearly there is a gap, a small span of time, between the moment of legal death and a person’s permanent and irreversible passing. So, what if it were possible to get down to the molecular level and repair damaged brain tissue.  For that matter, when exactly does such damage become “irreversible”?

“Information-theoretic death” is defined as death which is final and irreversible by any technology, apart from what is currently possible given contemporary medical methodologies.  For some, the gap between current legal and clinical definitions of death and the truly irretrievable, is a source of hope for some future cure.

cryonicsThe Alcor Life Extension Foundation, the self-described “world leader in cryonics, cryonics research, and cryonics technology” explains “Cryonics is an effort to save lives by using temperatures so cold that a person beyond help by today’s medicine can be preserved for decades or centuries until a future medical technology can restore that person to full health”.

The practice is highly controversial, and not to be confused with Cryogenics, the study of extremely low temperatures, approaching the still-theoretical cessation of all molecular activity.  Absolute zero.

The Cryogenic Society of America, Inc. includes this statement on its home page: “We wish to clarify that cryogenics, which deals with extremely low temperatures, has no connection with cryonics, the belief that a person’s body or body parts can be frozen at death, stored in a cryogenic vessel, and later brought back to life. We do NOT endorse this belief, and indeed find it untenable”.

The modern era of cryonics began in 1962, when Michigan College physics professor Robert Ettinger proposed that freezing people may be a way to reach out to some future medical technology.

The Life Extension Society, founded by Evan Cooper in 1964 to promote cryonic suspension, offered to preserve one person free of charge in 1965. Dr. James Hiram Bedford was suffering from untreatable kidney cancer at that time, which had metastasized to his lungs.

James Bedford
Dr. James Hiram Bedford

Bedford became the first person to be cryonically preserved on January 12, 1967, frozen at the boiling point of liquid nitrogen, −321° Fahrenheit, and sealed up in a double-walled, vacuum cylinder called a “dewar”, named after Sir James Dewar, the 19th century Scottish chemist and physicist best known for inventing the vacuum flask, and for  research into the liquefaction of gases.

Fifty-one years later, cryonics societies around the world celebrate January 12 as “Bedford Day”.  Dr. Bedford has since received two new “suits”, and remains in cryonic suspension, to this day.

Advocates experienced a major breakthrough in the 1980s, when MIT engineer Eric Drexler began to publish on the subject of nanotechnology. Drexler’s work offered the hope that, theoretically, one day injured tissue may be repaired at the molecular level.

Cryonics1-640x353In 1988, television writer Dick Clair, best known for television sitcoms “It’s a Living”, “The Facts of Life”, and “Mama’s Family”, was dying of AIDS related complications. In his successful suit against the state of California, “Roe v. Mitchell” (Dick Clair was John Roe), Judge Aurelio Munoz “upheld the constitutional right to be cryonically suspended”, winning the “right” for everyone in California.

The decision failed to make clear who was going to pay for it.

As to cost, the Cryonics Institute (CI) website explains, “A person who wishes to become a Lifetime CI Member can make a single membership payment of $1,250 with no further payment required. If a new member would rather pay a smaller amount up front, in exchange for funding a slightly higher cryopreservation fee later on ($35,000), he or she can join with a $75 initiation fee, and pay annual dues of only $120, which are also payable in quarterly installments of $35”.

Ted Williams went into cryonic preservation in 2002, despite the bitter controversy that split the Williams first-born daughter Bobby-Jo Williams Ferrell, from her two half-siblings John-Henry and Claudia. The pair were adamant that the greatest hitter in baseball history wanted to be preserved to be brought back in the future, while Ferrell pointed out the will, which specified that Williams be cremated, his ashes scattered off the Florida coast.

teds_new_will_072502The court battle produced a “family pact” written on a cocktail napkin, which was ruled authentic and allowed into evidence. So it is that Ted Williams’ head went into cryonic preservation in one container, his body in another.

The younger Williams died of Leukemia two years later, despite a bone marrow donation from his sister. John-Henry joined his father, in 2004.

Walt Disney has long been rumored to be in frozen suspension, but the story isn’t true. After his death in 1966, Walt Disney was interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California.

FranklinIn April 1773, Benjamin Franklin wrote a letter to Jacques Dubourg. “I wish it were possible”, Franklin wrote, “to invent a method of embalming drowned persons, in such a manner that they might be recalled to life at any period, however distant; for having a very ardent desire to see and observe the state of America a hundred years hence, I should prefer to an ordinary death, being immersed with a few friends in a cask of Madeira, until that time, then to be recalled to life by the solar warmth of my dear country! But…in all probability, we live in a century too little advanced, and too near the infancy of science, to see such an art brought in our time to its perfection”.

Maybe so but, for the several hundred individuals who have plunked down $25,000 to upwards of $200,000 to follow Dr. Bedford into cryonic suspension, hope springs eternal.

June 24, 1374 Dancing Plague

There was a major outbreak of St. Vitus’ Dance on June 23, 1374. The population writhed through the streets of Aachen, screaming about visions and hallucinations, until they collapsed.  There they continued to tremble and twitch on the ground, too exhausted to stand. 

A legend of the medieval Christian church had it that, if anyone provoked the wrath of Saint Vitus, the Sicilian martyred in 303AD, he would send down plagues of compulsive dancing.  One of the first outbreaks of St. Vitus’ Dance occurred sometime in the 1020s in Bernburg, Germany. 18 peasants disturbed a Christmas Eve service, singing and dancing around the church.

In a story reminiscent of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, a large group of children jumped and danced all the way from Erfurt to Arnstadt in 1237. A distance of nearly thirteen miles.

In 1238, 200 people jumped, twitched and convulsed on a bridge over the River Meuse, until it collapsed. The survivors were taken to a nearby Chapel of St. Vitus, the Patron Saint of epileptics.  Many would not be fully restored to health, until September.


There was a major outbreak of St. Vitus’ Dance on June 23, 1374. The population writhed through the streets of Aachen, screaming about visions and hallucinations, until they collapsed.  There they continued to tremble and twitch on the ground, too exhausted to stand.

Most outbreaks coincided with periods of extreme hardship, involving between dozens and tens of thousands of individuals.

The dancing mania quickly spread throughout Europe, spreading to Cologne, Flanders, Franconia, Hainaut, Metz, Strasbourg, Tongeren and Utrecht. Further outbreaks were reported in England and the Netherlands.

One Frau Troffea began to dance in a street in Strasbourg in July 1518, going at it somewhere between four to six days. 34 joined in within the week.  Within the month there were 400 more. Many of these people actually danced themselves to death, succumbing to heart attack, stroke, or exhaustion.

Reactions varied. Some thought those suffering from St. Vitus’ Dance were possessed by the devil. Others hired bands, to play along.  Some even built dance floors to contain the phenomenon.


There were no fewer than seven distinct outbreaks of the dancing plague during the medieval period, and one in Madagascar as late as 1840.  Even today there is little consensus about what caused it.

Some have blamed “St Anthony’s Fire”, the toxic and psychoactive fungus Claviceps purpurea, or ergot, often ingested with infected rye bread.  Symptoms of ergot poisoning are not unlike those of LSD, and include nervous spasms, psychotic delusions, spontaneous abortion, convulsions and gangrene resulting from severe vasoconstriction.

Dancing PlagueOthers believe such outbreaks to be evidence of Sydenham’s chorea, a disorder characterized by rapid, uncoordinated jerking movements primarily affecting the face, hands and feet and closely associated with a medical history of Rheumatic fever.  Particularly in children.

A third theory describes the phenomenon as some kind of mass psychosis, brought on by starvation. disease and the Black Death, the Bubonic Plague.

Today such episodes seem quaint, even amusing.  These people were dealt a pandemic about which they understood nothing, a calamity which killed an estimated 75 to 100 million, at a time the total world population was some 450 million.