Christmas Comes Early: My Advance Copies Have Arrived

My husband lifted two boxes inside the front door when he came from work on Friday. “Something for you,” he said. My mom had warned that she’d sent presents and not to open them so I paid little attention to the boxes and left them sitting by the door. Until the next morning when I happened to glance at the return address, fully expecting to see my mom’s name but instead saw: Beacon.

My books!!

The official publication date isn’t until January 7 but here’s some visual proof that this thing is real. At this time last year, I was tearing my hair out finishing the draft, rewriting, deleting, questioning everything, undoing that previous deletion, writing, deleting, repeat. Repeat.

This year is much better.

Books

“Neuro” hype and 21st Century Phrenology

brain

Is the brain the hottest organ in the body? That’s the argument made in a recent Slate story “The End of Neuro-Nonsense” that argues that brain hype reached its peak in 2008 and is now on the decline for a variety of reasons. Quoting from the new book Brainwashed that details the perils of brain-centrism: “Naïve media, slick neuroentrepreneurs, and even an occasional overzealous neuroscientist exaggerate the capacity of scans to reveal the contents of our minds, exalt brain physiology as inherently the most valuable level of explanation for understanding behavior, and rush to apply underdeveloped, if dazzling, science for commercial and forensic use.”

Maybe so.

But I’d argue that we’ve been living a “neurocentric,” to quote the term used in the article for our brain obsession, world for nearly 200 years. We just had a different name for it in the past: phrenology.

Phrenologists posited that the brain was made up of individual organs with specific functions and attributes. The size and shape of these organs, as read on the skull, revealed our character. Many argued that these organs – and thus our personalities – were changeable, improvable. With a little exercise, we could make ourselves better by strengthening positive traits and weakening others. With phrenology, doctors could easily determine not only how but why someone thought, felt, and coped with life in a particular way. It provided comfort and insight into our seemingly unknowable depths, a way to understand behavior and personality with seemingly scientific precision. Who wouldn’t like that?

Like the 19th century, many of us hope today, as the phrenologists did, that mapping the brain will reveal the secrets of our natures. And once known, this information will allow us to manipulate and transform ourselves into something better. We just call it “neuro” this and “neuro” that now, from neuromarketing to neuroeconomics, a transmutation of language strikingly similar to what occurred in the 19th century as phrenological terms (high brow, low brow, shrink, well rounded) passed from the lab to daily conversation. Colorful fMRI images of the brain on TV encourage us to think of almost everything through its effect on the brain, the modern equivalent of the phrenological charts that adorned the walls of pharmacies and general stores and were featured in the pages of magazines and books. Just as in the past, popular neuroscience suggests that the way to make us smarter, happier, and even more beautiful is through concentrated efforts to improve the brain regardless of how little we actually know about how the brain works. It seems to me that popular brain science is the phrenology of the 21st century, and we’re just as ravenous for that knowledge today as they were in the 19th century.

So maybe 2008 marks the most recent crest of a brain obsession with more than two centuries of history behind it that seems bound and determined to rise again.

 

“Mothers to the Motherless:” Policewomen in Chicago

Policewomen Agnes Walsh (from left), Anna Loucks, Theresa Johnson, Anna Sheridan, Lulu Burt, Mabel Rockwell, and Miss Clara B. Olsen.  Source: Chicago History Museum

Policewomen Agnes Walsh (from left), Anna Loucks, Theresa Johnson, Anna Sheridan, Lulu Burt, Mabel Rockwell, and Miss Clara B. Olsen.
Source: Chicago History Museum

On August 5, 1913, ten women were sworn in as officers – or “copettes” as one reporter called them – for the Chicago Police Department. The women, all trained as social workers, did not wear uniforms or carry revolvers but they did have a badge.

The fight for female officers had been raging for decades. Women’s groups had long argued that female detainees and juveniles needed protection from male officers and other male prisoners. Searched, interrogated, and detained in cells often beside or within sight of men, women detainees often suffered rape and sexual assault. Even outside of jails and courtrooms, advocates argued that women with police authority could keep better order and protect the morals of women and children at beaches, public parks, and other places of amusement than male officers. They could become, in effect, “mothers to the motherless.”

Few police departments and politicians supported the effort. Many labeled the crusade unnecessary and a waste of money. Others argued that women were physically incapable of being officers. Even after many cities passed ordinances authorizing the hiring of women officers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, few appropriations were made to actually make the hires.

Chicago Mayor Carter Harrison pushed the city council to hire female officers for the department in 1913. An order was passed, and Harrison appointed ten women. Police training consisted of a two hour lecture delivered by the terrifically named Chief McWeeny (especially fitting considering the pervasive belief that women were not strong enough to be officers) who told the new recruits to have compassion, not be “too strenuous,” “don’t be too nosy,” and to “present all cases fairly and squarely.” The women then received a police whistle, a book of rules, and badge.

Two days later, on August 7th, two of the female officers made their first arrest. It was of another woman, Nellie Cameron, for disorderly conduct. The novelty of women arresting women attracted a fair bit of media attention. Everyone was eager to see how women would handle a potentially physical interaction in making arrests. One officer claimed that female criminals would put up a bigger fight than normal for policewomen because they would not be afraid of another woman. Those opposed to policewomen jumped on every opportunity to show that women could not handle the work, though given the limited role and power (not to mention gear and a proper uniform) afforded these early women officers, the comparison of male and female officers could hardly be fair.

Concern about women’s physical strength led the police chief to assign a new batch of women officers to jujitsu instruction in 1914, a development that led to the New York Times to report, “Policewomen to Wrestle.”

Women’s path into police work and law enforcement was long and hard. In 1913, there were 38 in the U.S. By 1915, this number had risen to 70 in 26 cities. Most served in limited roles, mostly keeping order among women and children, in public places. It would be decades more before they earned a more equal place on the force. Even so, these early women forged a pioneering course.

There are few things in history that I love more than what I like to refer to as “women in unexpected places.” It’s usually a job or activity deemed “unwomanly” or dangerous to feminine virtue for one lame (and generally unconvincing, at least to me) reason or another. This is what draws me to policewomen and people like 19th century phrenologist, educator, and doctor Lydia Folger, who had her own medical practice (at a time when women struggled to even be educated and get adequate medical care) and wrote books and gave lectures on such taboo topics as the workings of the female body. Folger and other women like her were leaning in long before Sheryl Sandberg, and their stories have long energized and encouraged me. Really, they are the reason I do history.

Agitation for female police officers

A [Museum] Walk Through Medicine’s Past

Let me tell you about a wonderful place.

I spent the month of May abroad, touring – much of it on foot – in Ireland, Wales, and England. One of my best mornings was spent in London at the free museum and library of the Wellcome Trust (my history dorky-ness reigns unimpeded through work AND vacation times). I first discovered it online while doing research for my next book on the history of 19th century alternative health. The center is an amazing resource for understanding the history of medicine and science, and the connections between medicine, life, and art. Intriguing, right?

Even better for my little Wisconsin history heart, the foundation for the library came from the collections of Wisconsin-born pharmaceutical salesman Henry Solomon Wellcome (1853-1936). Wellcome ran a successful pharmaceutical business in London but devoted much of his time and resources to collecting books and objects related to medicine, health, alchemy, and even witchcraft from around the world.

Here’s three cool things I saw:

2013-05-29 11.11.09

1. Prosthetic limbs through time.

Prosthetic body parts have been used since at least the time of the Greeks and probably earlier (the Greeks left what is likely the first recorded use). None of these are quite that old but can you imagine wearing one of these? Near these limbs was a box of glass eyes.

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2. Phrenological Skull

In the late 18th and 19th centuries, phrenologists argued that the shape and size of various parts of the brain – these parts were known as organs – determined your personality. Your skull was supposedly a “faithful” cast of the brain encased within so rather than perform some risky operation to take a look at your brain, phrenologists could simply feel and measure the bumps on your head. Phrenology was very controversial in the medical community – and even among phrenologists themselves as this skull demonstrates. One half shows the organs as described by phrenology’s founder, Franz Joseph Gall, while the other half shows those of Gall’s disciple Johann Spurzheim.

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3. Charles Darwin’s Walking Stick

These are two of Darwin’s walking sticks, both intricately carved, one from ivory and one from whalebone. Darwin was a walker – he claimed to get many of his best ideas while walking. As a fervent walker myself, I loved to know that the clicking sound of Darwin’s walking stick hitting the ground became something of his calling card and signature sound.

 

 

 

Snake oil

You’ve heard of snake oil, right? It’s one of those phrases I heard and read for years without giving much thought. Snake oil means fake, fraudulent, bad – I took it in without really taking it in. I mean, what is snake oil exactly? And why snakes? Why not pig or frog oil? Fish oil? Now that’s a good oil. But snakes? That’s just bad medicine.

Popular lore equates patent medicines with snake oil. Most patent medicines did not literally contain this reptilian liquid. But some did.

Stanley's snake oilSource: Wikipedia

Stanley’s snake oil
Source: Wikipedia

Clark Stanley, better known as “The Rattlesnake King,” likely inspired the association with his “Snake Oil Liniment,” which cured everything from rheumatism and sciatica to lumbago, frostbite, and sore throat. Stanley claimed to have learned of snake oil’s healing powers from his years as a cowboy out west with the Hopi Indians in the 1870s and 1880s. He shared his discovery with the public at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago where he pulled live snakes out of a sack, slit them open, and plunged their bodies into boiling water. As the fat from the snakes rose to the top of the pot, Stanley skimmed it off, mixed it with his previously prepared oils, and sold his liniment freshly prepared to the crowd that gathered to watch the spectacle.

A few years later, in 1897, he published The Life and Adventures of the American Cowboy: True Life in the Far West by Clark Stanley, Better Known as the Rattlesnake King, which explained cowboy life, contained lyrics to cowboy songs, and of course, promoted the healing wonders of his snake oil liniment. Stanley’s liniment became so successful that a reporter who visited his office in Beverly, Massachusetts, found it filled with snakes, some more than seven feet long. He claimed to have killed 3,000 snakes in 1901 alone to meet demand for his product.

Stanley’s was not the only snake oil remedy on the market. Consumers could also find Tex Bailey’s Rattle Snake Oil, Tex Allen’s Rattlesnake Essential Oil Compound, and Monster Brand Snake Oil, among others, that capitalized on American fascination with cowboys, the Wild West, and Indians.

Snake oil itself had an even longer history in Chinese medicine where people had rubbed the fat of the Erabu sea snake, not rattlesnakes, on aching joints for centuries. Stanley may actually have learned about snake oil from Chinese laborers in the West rather than the Indians as he professed. [1]

Either way, Stanley (and others like him) made snake oil a popular fixture in both the pharmacy and our language.

 


[1] James Frank Dobie, Rattlesnakes (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982), 75-76; Dan Hurley, Natural Causes: Death, Lies and Politics in America’s Vitamin and Herbal Supplement Industry (New York: Broadway Books, 2006), 1-2; Gene Fowler, Mavericks: A Gallery of Texas Characters (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2008), 97-100; Joe Schwarcz, “Why are snake-oil remedies so-called?” The Gazette [Montreal] (23 February 2008), http://tinyurl.com/d7tcfbc

 

History of the Apple in 10 Objects: Medicine Jar

Medical vase c. 1515 for storing herbs, roots, syrups, pills, ointments, and sweetmeats.
Source: Victoria and Albert Museum

Apples are good to eat and drink – but they could also heal. Long before we thought that “an apple a day kept the doctor away” (a relatively recent development), doctors and other healers used the fruit medicinally. A 14th century Italian medical book mentions that apples cure more effectively when served hot and sprinkled with sugar and other spices (medicinal apple pie, if you ask me). These roasted or baked apples were thought to ease digestion after a big meal. If you needed an excuse to eat pie, now you have an ancient medical justification for its benefits.

Cooked apples could also be found in the Arab pharmacopeia. Some of the first recipes for fruit pastes, sweets, and jams involving apples came from medical books not cookbooks. People in the Middle East pioneered the growing and refining of sugar on a large scale and more often used this sugar as medicine rather than as a tasty sweetener.

Raw apples also had their benefits. The fibrous apples kept English monks regular in the 14th and 15th centuries, and some believed that an apple at the start of the meal stimulated the stomach and heart. Eaten at the end of the meal, apples gave teeth a fairly good clean. While certainly not a substitute for a toothbrush, in the Middle Ages, this was pretty advanced preventative dentistry.

Apple pulp provided a vehicle for many medicines in the medieval pharmacy. Apple-based medicines were applied to the skin and some apples also appeared on ingredient lists for beauty products. The origin of the word pomade, the waxy substance used to style hair, traces its name to apple pulp.

 

 

Medicine on the Radio

On February 18, 1922, B.J. Palmer took to the airwaves of radio station WOC:

“WOC is coming to you from the Up-E-Nuf tower atop the Palmer School of Chiropractic, the Chiropractic Fountain Head, in Davenport, Iowa, where the west begins and in the state where the tall corn grows!  Broadcasting by authority of the Federal Radio Commission…”

Palmer at the WHO mic

Palmer was the son of chiropractic’s founder, D.D. Palmer. A lover of technology and a savvy businessman, Palmer quickly saw the potential of this new technology to communicate messages to a large audience. He hoped that by spreading the message of chiropractic that he could “broaden listener’s intellectual power” and ultimately, “uplift the American standard of intelligence.” Although the station call letters were arbitrarily assigned, Palmer seized on a marketing opportunity when he saw one and proclaimed that WOC stood for “Wonders of Chiropractic.” It became the nation’s first commercial radio station west of the Mississippi.

Broadcasting from the Palmer School of Chiropractic, the Wonders of Chiropractic” drew nearly one million listeners daily. Programming extended beyond spines and adjustments to include sports, news, farm reports, stock updates, music, and church services. In fact, one of its early sportscasters was a young Ronald Reagan who recreated sports events for fans in the Quad Cities. Games weren’t called live as they are today. Instead, sportscasters would dramatize the game based on information picked up from the tele-type. So the job required an interest in sports as well as decent storytelling skills.

But chiropractic education remained a big part of the schedule and Palmer would take to the airwaves each evening to explain the benefits of chiropractic care. “The Mission of WOC is to establish Good Will for Chiropractic,” Palmer explained. “WOC is educating millions to a favorable mental receptivity to Chiropractic.” He proudly proclaimed that the name chiropractic was said on air an average of 28 times daily.

Thousands of people came to visit the WOC studios, anxious to see radio in action. Visitors saw the recording studios but also the music room where the Palmer School of Chiropractic Orchestra performed.

Palmer later went on to purchase another station in Des Moines. Its call letters were WHO, or “With Hands Only,” the standard method of chiropractic adjustment.  Palmer also wrote a book for radio broadcasters called Radio Salesmenship in 1942 that became a standard in broadcasting schools. He later added television stations to his broadcasting venture, truly embracing all avenues to spread the gospel of chiropractic.

Both stations are still around today, though chiropractic education has slipped from the schedule. Palmer’s story is a fascinating piece of early radio history.

Colorful Pills for Colorful People

In the 19th century, Pink Pills for Pale People offered hope. And if that didn’t work, there was always Dr. Wilson’s Blue Pills for Blue People. Or Red Pills for Pale and Weak Women.

Directions for use of the Pink Pills for Pale People

At a time when little about the human body or medicine was understood, millions of people sent away for patent medicines. These remedies were sold on street corners and in theaters, and in the pages of newspapers and periodicals. Despite the name, few were actually patented. To do so would have meant revealing the secret ingredients that made these pills, powders, and elixirs so appealing. Instead, the names were trademarked and the ingredients proprietary.

These patent medicines are what most people think of when they hear the word “quack.” Bottles filled with dangerous mixes of alcohol or opium, aromatics, and coloring, sold by charlatans masquerading as doctors or scientists preying on the innocent and uninformed. But the actual story is a bit more fuzzy.

Sure, some people out to make a quick buck sold potentially lethal remedies. But many were sold by people who truly believed in the remedies they sold. Lydia Pinkham, for instance, sold a vegetable compound for female complaints based on a remedy she had used for years that riffed on several recipes found in John King’s American Dispensatory, a popular botanical handbook. Pinkham’s remedy contained a lot of alcohol – 18% – a not uncommon phenomenon among these remedies, but it’s harder to say if she was a true charlatan. As medical historian Roy Porter has written, “The historian cannot peer into the souls of ‘quacks’ and find foolproof evidence of fraud.”

Many other proprietary remedies were sold by actual doctors. Doctoring didn’t quite pay in the 19th century what it does today (in fact, as unbelievable as it sounds today, many doctors had two jobs to get by) so some doctors came up with their own remedies to sell and support their families. Others believed they had found a truly miraculous remedy that they wanted to offer to the public. Still other doctors prescribed patent remedies to patients.

All of this is to say that patent medicines, the realm of the quack in the popular imagination, are far more complicated than they at first appear.  Right or wrong, patent remedies promised affordable relief to many people who could not afford or did not have access to medical care.

World Posture Queen

I have a bit of a “thing” for beauty queens. Not Ms. America or Ms. Universe. But agricultural queens like Alice in Dairyland and the Wisconsin cranberry queen, food product queens like the Swiss Miss (an actual “Miss” at one point), and my newest discovery, the World Posture Queen.

The World Posture Queen was the queen of chiropractic, a way to publicize the fledgling healing system. The contest began in Michigan in 1955 as a way to bring attention to the annual meeting of the Michigan Academy of Chiropractic. The young woman with the straightest spine and the most perfect poise and personality would win. Contestants were given X-rays to determine whose spine was the straightest. Crooked spines were grounds for elimination. While strictly a local event the first year, the World Posture Pageant went national in year two, and international by year three.

Posture queens appeared on TV, including “What’s My Line” and “The Tonight Show.” In 1967,  World Posture Queen Ruth McCarter visited the White House and got a personal tour of the Rose Garden by President Johnson.

For fifteen years, World Posture Queens brought attention to chiropractic, prompting the 1958 issue of Chiropractic Economics to announce that “Posture Contests are BIG Business.” Despite its apparent success, the contest for perfect posture was discontinued in 1969. The demands of the contest were simply too much for its organizers.