June 24, 1374 The Madness of the Dance

Most such outbreaks coincided with periods of extreme hardship such as crop failure, famine and floods, and involved between dozens and tens of thousands of individuals.

Amidst our people here is come
The madness of the dance.
In every town there now are some
Who fall upon a trance.
It drives them ever night and day,
They scarcely stop for breath,
Till some have dropped along the way
And some are met by death.
– Straussburgh Chronicle of Kleinkawel, 1625


A legend of the medieval Christian church had it that, if anyone were to provoke the wrath of St. Vitus, the Sicilian saint 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 some sixteen miles. In 1238, 200 people jumped, twitched and convulsed on a bridge over the River Meuse, until the span collapsed.

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A major outbreak St. Vitus’ Dance occurred on June 24, 1374. The population writhed and jerked through the streets of Aachen, screaming of visions and hallucinations until, one by one, each collapsed.  There, victims continued to tremble and twitch on the ground, too exhausted to stand.

dancing-plague1Most such outbreaks coincided with periods of extreme hardship such as crop failure, famine and floods, and involved between dozens and tens of thousands of individuals.

This “choreomania”, more commonly referred to as dancing mania, spread throughout Europe, fanning out 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 by the end of a week.  Within the month there were 400 more. Many of this primarily female group actually danced themselves to death, succumbing to heart attack or stroke.  Others collapsed in exhaustion, their bloody feet no longer able to hold them up.

According to one report, the dancing plague was killing fifteen people every day.

Reactions varied. Some thought those suffering from dance mania were possessed by the devil, others by ‘hot blood’. Doctors were called, who advised that the Dance be allowed to run its course. Bands were hired and one town even built a dance floor, 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.

ErgotonRyeEven today there is little consensus about what caused the phenomenon. Some have blamed “St Anthony’s Fire”, a toxic and psychoactive fungus of the Claviceps genus, also known as 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.

Many associate the Salem witchcraft hysteria of 1692 with ergot poisoning but, for others, such explanations are wanting.  Both the dancing episodes of earlier centuries and the witchcraft chapter involved lucid and deliberate action, far more than the convulsions and involuntary spasms associated with ergotism.

Others describe the Dancing Plague phenomenon as some kind of mass psychosis, brought on by the Bubonic Plague.  The Black Death, a pandemic which killed 75-100 million people around the earth, in a world with a population of 450 million.  The explanation seems as plausible as any.  The modern mind is incapable of understanding (at least mine is) what it is to live in a world where one in every four-to-five people on the planet is dead, killed by a horror not one of them understands.

Long before germ theory was commonly understood, disease was thought to be borne of odors. Medieval plague doctors donned head-to-toe waxed canvas gowns and leather hats, with the distinctive beak-like mask filled with aromatic herbs.

Today, a calamity of such magnitude would kill over 1.5 Billion souls.

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June 12, 1928 The Luckiest Man on the Face of the Earth

Sports reporter James Kahn wrote: “I think there is something wrong with him. Physically wrong, I mean. I don’t know what it is, but I am satisfied that it goes far beyond his ball-playing”.

The Lane Tech high school baseball team was at home on June 26, 1920. 10,000 spectators had assembled to watch the game at Cubs Park, now Wrigley Field. New York’s Commerce High was ahead 8–6 in the top of the 9th, when a left handed batter hit a grand slam out of the park. No 17-year-old had ever hit a baseball out of a major league park before, and I don’t believe it’s happened, since. It was the first time the country heard the name Lou Gehrig.

lou-gehrig-columbia-universityGehrig was pitching for Columbia University against Williams College on April 18, 1923, the day that Babe Ruth hit the first home run out of the brand new Yankee Stadium. Though Columbia would lose the game, Gehrig struck out seventeen batters to set a team record.

The loss didn’t matter to Paul Krichell, the Yankee scout who’d been following Gehrig. Krichell didn’t care about the arm either, as much as he did that powerful left-handed bat. He had seen Gehrig hit some of the longest home runs ever seen on several eastern campuses, including a 450′ home run at Columbia’s South Field that cleared the stands and landed at 116th Street and Broadway.

NY Giants manager John McGraw persuaded a young Gehrig to play pro ball under a false name, Henry Lewis, despite the fact that it could jeopardize his collegiate sports eligibility. Gehrig played only a dozen games for the Hartford Senators before being found out, and suspended for a time from college ball. This period, and a couple of brief stints in the minor leagues in the ’23 and ’24 seasons, were the only times Gehrig didn’t play for the New York team.

Gehrig started as a pinch hitter with the Yankees on June 15, 1923. He came into his own in the ‘26 season. In 1927 he batted fourth on “Murderers’ Row”, the first six hitters in the Yankee’s batting order: Earle Combs, Mark Koenig, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Bob Meusel and Tony Lazzeri.


He had one of the greatest seasons of any batter in history that year, hitting .373, with 218 hits: 52 doubles, 18 triples, 47 home runs, a then-record 175 RBIs, and a .765 slugging percentage. Gehrig’s bat helped the 1927 Yankees to a 110–44 record, the American League pennant, and a four game World Series sweep of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

On this day in 1928, Gehrig hit 2 triples and a pair of home runs, leading the Yankees in a 15-7 victory over the Chicago White Sox.  At Comiskey Park, no less.


He was the “Iron Horse”, playing in more consecutive games than any player in history. It was an “unbreakable” record, standing for 56 years, until surpassed in 1995 by Cal Ripken, Jr. Gehrig hit his 23rd and last major league grand slam in August 1938, a record that would stand until fellow Yankee Alex Rodriquez tied it in 2012.

lou-gehrig-5Lou Gehrig collapsed in 1939 spring training, going into an abrupt decline early in the season. The Yankees were in Detroit on May 2 when Gehrig told manager Joe McCarthy “I’m benching myself, Joe”. It’s “for the good of the team”. McCarthy put Babe Dahlgren in at first and the Yankees won 22-2, but that was it. The Iron Horse’s streak of 2,130 consecutive games, had come to an end.

Sports reporter James Kahn wrote: “I think there is something wrong with him. Physically wrong, I mean. I don’t know what it is, but I am satisfied that it goes far beyond his ball-playing”.

Gehrig left the team in June, arriving at the Mayo Clinic on the 13th. The diagnosis of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) was confirmed six days later, on June 19. It was his 36th birthday. It was a cruel prognosis: rapidly increasing paralysis, difficulty in swallowing and speaking, and a life expectancy of fewer than three years.

Yankees Tigers Gehrig Ends Streak

Gehrig briefly rejoined the Yankees in Washington, D.C. He was greeted by a group of Boy Scouts at Union Station, happily waving and wishing him luck. Gehrig waved back, but he leaned forward to a reporter. “They’re wishing me luck”, he said, “and I’m dying.”

Gehrig appeared at Yankee Stadium on “Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day”, July 4, 1939. He was awarded trophies and other tokens of affection by the New York sports media, fellow players and groundskeepers. He would place each one on the ground, already too weak to hold them. Addressing his fans, Gehrig described himself as “The Luckiest Man on the Face of the Earth”.

Henry Louis Gehrig died on June 2, 1941.  He was 37.

I drove by Yankee Stadium back in 2013, the week after the Boston Marathon bombing. The sign out front said “United we Stand”. With it was a giant Red Sox logo. That night, thousands of Yankees fans interrupted a game with the Arizona Diamondbacks, to belt out Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline,” a staple of Red Sox home games since 1997.


I thought about Lou Gehrig, and how the man compares with some of these guys today.  I’ve always been a Boston guy myself.  I think I’m required by state law, to hate the Yankees.  But, all kidding aside.  The man and the club.  They’re a pair of Class Acts.


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May 31, 1916 The Man who Fixed Faces

It’s been said of the American civil war and could no doubt be said of any number of conflicts, that a generation of women had to accustom themselves to new ideas of male ‘beauty’. 

For many, the mention of ‘cosmetic surgery’ conjures images of vanity.  The never-ending and inevitably fruitless attempt to stave off the years.  Add some here and take it off over there.  But what of the face left smashed and misshapen, burned or blown half off in service to country?

plastic-surgery-lead-1494865707“Plastic” Surgery, the term comes to us from the Greek Plastikos and first used by the 18th century French surgeon Pierre Desault, has been with us longer than you might expect.  Evidence exists of Hindu surgeons performing primitive ‘nose jobs’, as early as BC800-600.  The Renaissance-era surgeon Gaspare Tagliacozzi (1545-1599) developed new methods of reconstruction, using the patient’s own arm skin to replace noses slashed off in swordplay.

Lt. William M. Spreckley of the Sherwood Foresters was Dr. Gillies’ 132nd patient, admitted to the hospital in January 1917 at the age of 33 with a ‘GSW, Nose”. He was discharged 3½ years later.

A hillside battle at a place called Hastings changed the world in 1066 yet, if you were on the next hillside, you may not have heard a thing.  The industrialized warfare of the 19th and 20th century was vastly different, involving entire populations and inflicting unprecedented levels of destruction on the human form.

It is beyond horrifying what modern warfare can do to the human form

It’s been said of the American civil war and is no doubt true of any number of conflicts, that a generation of women had to accustom themselves to new ideas of male ‘beauty’.  The ‘Great War’ of 1914 – ‘18 was particularly egregious when it came to injuries to the face, neck and arms, as millions of soldiers burrowed into 450-mile-long trench lines to escape what German Private Ernst Jünger described as the “Storm of Steel”.


In the Battle of Verdun, German forces used 1,200 guns firing 2.5 million shells supplied by 1,300 ammunition trains to attack their Allied adversary on the First Day, alone.

For every soldier killed in the Great War, two returned home, maimed. Artillery was especially malevolent, with “drumfire” so rapid as to resemble the rat-a-tat-tat of drums, each blast sending thousands of jagged pieces of metal, shrieking through the air.


For many, severe facial disfigurement was a fate worse than amputation.  Worse than death, even.  To have been grievously wounded in service to country and return home to be treated not as a wounded warrior, but as something hideous.

The untold human misery of having been turned into a monster, misshapen and ugly.  For these men, life often became one of ostracism and loneliness.  The painful stares of friends and strangers alike, repelled by such disfiguration, offtimes lead to alcoholism, divorce and suicide.

Manchester Massachusetts sculptor Anna Coleman Ladd moved to France in 1917.  Inspired by the work of British artist Francis Derwent Wood and his “tin noses shop”,  Ladd founded the “Studio for Portrait-Masks” of the Red Cross in Toul, to provide cosmetic prosthetics for men disfigured by the war.

world-war-1-face-masks-631.jpg__800x600_q85_cropLadd’s prostheses were uncomfortable to wear, but her services earned her the Légion d’Honneur Croix de Chevalier and the Serbian Order of Saint Sava.

The New Zealand-born otolaryngologist Dr. Harold Gillies was shocked at the human destruction, while working with the French-American dental surgeon Sir August Charles Valadier on new techniques of jaw reconstruction and other maxillofacial procedures.

The interior of the Plastic Theatre at the Queen’s Hospital.  Dr Gillie is seated, on the right

The sterile medical notation “GSW (gunshot wound) Face” does not begin to prepare the mind for a horror more closely resembling a highway roadkill, than the face of a living man.  I left the worst of such images out of this essay.  They’re easy enough to find on-line, if you’re interested in seeing them.  The medical science is fascinating, but the images are hard to look at.

Dr. Gillies watched the renowned French surgeon Hippolyte Morestin, a man known as “The Father of the Mouths” after multiple breakthroughs in oral surgery, remove a tumor and use the patient’s own jaw-skin, to repair the damage.

Joseph Pickard, of the 5th Northumberland Fusiliers, before and after Dr. Gillies.  H/T Daily Mail

Gillies understood the importance of the work, and spoke with British Chief Surgeon Sir William Arbuthnot Lane.  The conversation lead to a 1,000-bed facial trauma ward at Queen Mary’s Hospital in Sidcup, Kent, opened in June, 1917.

The largest naval battle of the Great War, the Battle of Jutland, unfolded between May 31 and June 1, 1916, involving 250 ships and some 100,000 men.

The Queen Elizabeth-class battleship HMS Warspite took fifteen direct hits from German heavy shells, at one point having no rudder control and helplessly turning in circles.

Petty Office Walter Yeo

Petty Officer Walter Yeo was manning the guns aboard Warspite and received terrible injuries to his face, including the loss of upper and lower eylids, and extensive blast and burn damage to his nose, cheeks and forehead.

When all else failed, there were the facial prosthetics.  The masks.

Yeo was admitted to Queen Mary’s hospital the following August, where he was treated by Dr. Gillies and believed to be the first recipient of a full facial graft taken from another part of his own body.

4535390_origDr. Gillies & Co. developed surgical methods in which rib cartilage is first implanted in foreheads, and then swung down to form the foundational structure of a new nose.

At a time before antibiotics, tissue grafts could be as dangerous as the trenches themselves.   “Tubed pedicles” were developed to get around the problem of infection, where living tissue and its blood supply was rolled into tubes and protected by the natural layer of skin.  These tubes of living tissue weren’t pretty to look but were relatively safe from infection.  When the patient was ready, new tissue could be “walked” into place, become whole new facial features.


Dr. Harold Gelf Gillies, the Father of modern plastic surgery, performed more than 11,000 such procedures with his colleagues, on over 5,000 individuals.  Work continued well after the war and through the mid-twenties, developing new and important surgical techniques.

Dr. Gillies received a knighthood for his work in 1930 and, during the inter-war years, trained many other Commonwealth physicians on his surgical methods.  Just in time to send the following generation, off to the next war.

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April 18, 1906 American Plague

The disease process unfolded with horrifying rapidity. The Italian writer Boccaccio wrote that plague victims often “ate lunch with their friends and dinner with their ancestors in paradise.”

images (49)In the early 1330s, a deadly plague broke out on the steppes of Mongolia. The gram-negative bacterium Yersinia Pestis preyed heavily on rodents, the fleas from which would transmit the disease to people, the infection then rapidly spreading to others.

High fever would precede the appearance of “buboes”, a painful swelling of the lymph glands, especially in the armpit, neck and groin. Spots appeared on the skin turning from red to black, often accompanied by necrosis and gangrene in the nose, lips, fingers and toes.

In some cases, Bubonic plague will progress from the lymphatic system to the lungs, resulting in Pneumonic plague. Y. Pestis can progress to the blood stream as well, a condition known as septicemic plague. In medieval times, septicemic mortality rates ran from 98% to 100%.


The disease process unfolded with horrifying rapidity. The Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio wrote that plague victims often “ate lunch with their friends and dinner with their ancestors in paradise.”

Plague broke out among a besieging force of Mongols on the Black Sea city of Caffa, in 1346. Italian merchants fled with their ships in the Spring of 1347, carrying in their holds an untold number of rats and the fleas that came with them. One-third of the world’s population died in the five-year period which followed, equivalent to over two Billion today.

The Black Death of the 14th century is far and away the most famous, but it’s not the first. The Plague of Justinian, 541-542AD, centered mostly around the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) and Sassanid Empires, the disease resulting in the death of 25 million individuals. Roughly 13% of the world’s population, at that time.

150827150729-plague-explainer-cohen-orig-mg-00001604-full-169The Black death of 1346-’53 was a catastrophe unparalleled in human history, but it was by no means the last such outbreak.  The Third Pandemic began in China in 1855, spreading to Hong Kong and on to British India. In China and India alone the disease killed 12 million people. It then spread to parts of Africa, Europe, Australia, and South America.

In the newly formed Territory of Hawaii, the first signs of the plague began to appear in Honolulu in December, 1899. Not sure how to control the outbreak, city health officials decided to burn infected houses. Changing winds soon fanned the flames out of control. On January 20, 1900, an inferno consumed nearly all of Chinatown, 38 acres, leaving 6,000 homeless.

In January 1900, Honolulu’s Chinatown burned down in an effort to control bubonic plague.

In 1900, The ship Australia brought Yersinia Pestis with it from Hong Kong into San Francisco. The ship was immediately quarantined and, despite the escape of two stowaways confirmed to have the bacilli, there was no immediate outbreak. The quarantine seemed to work for a time, but there was no way to contain the rats on board. They are probably the reason that plague spread to the city.

norway_rats_on_ropeThe body of an elderly Chinese man was discovered in a Chinatown basement. An autopsy found the man to have died of plague. There were more than 18,000 Chinese and another 2,000 Japanese living in the 14-block Chinatown section of the city. Many called for a quarantine of Chinatown, but Chinese citizens objected, as did then-Governor Henry Gage, who tried to sweep the whole outbreak under the carpet. Business interests likewise objected to the quarantine. Except for the Hearst Newspapers, not much was heard about it.

100 confirmed cases of plague were discovered by the end of 1902, but Governor Gage was still denying its existence. There were a total of 121 cases with 113 deaths by 1904, but the outbreak seemed to be contained.

yersinia-pestis-plague-bacteria-pasiekaSan Francisco was hit by a massive earthquake on April 18, 1906, followed by a great fire. Thousands of San Franciscans were crowded into refugee camps with an even higher number of rats. For the first time, the disease now jumped the boundaries of Chinatown.

On May 27, 1907, a San Francisco sailor was diagnosed with bubonic plague. The epidemic spread aggressively over that summer, the New York Times reporting in November that “the disease increased with such virulence that it looked for a time as if the city were to be decimated as were medieval Europe”.

The plague popped up one last time, but local, state, and federal health officials combined to all-but eradicate the rat population, and with it the disease. It was all over by 1909.

Reported cases of human plague in the United States, 1970 – 2012

Or was it. Nothing could stop the fleas from infected rats from transferring to wild rodents, squirrels, and prairie dogs, and permanently establishing plague bacilli in the western United States.

In 2015, the CDC reported 15 cases of Bubonic plague in the United States, as of October.  Four of them were fatal.  The bacterium is treatable with modern antibiotics, but I can’t help thinking about the massive quantity of anti-microbials used in livestock production. Given the apparent increase in multiple-drug resistant “superbugs”, I hope that people far smarter than I am, are thinking about it too.


If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

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.

download (19)
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.