The Bloodland of Belarus

Belarus, a former Soviet republic of about 10 million, is said to have the highest per capita number of World War II films in the world. Many of them are considered to be some of the finest war movies in history, most notably the 1985 film Come and See, which tells the story of a young teenager who joins the Belarusian resistance and witnesses horrific atrocities.

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The Soviet theatrical poster for Come and See.

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Louis Brandeis

On this day in 1916, Louis Brandeis became the first Jewish person to be appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he would serve until 1939.

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Born to immigrants fleeing antisemitism from what was then the Austrian Empire, he graduated Harvard Law at only 20 years old, with what is rumored to be the highest GPA in the school’s history.

As early as 1890, he helped develop the concept of a “right to privacy” and rallied against big banks, powerful corporations, monopolies, political corruption, and mass consumerism, all of which he felt were anathema to American values. As an attorney, he devoted most of his time to public causes, earning the moniker of the “People’s Lawyer” for his insistence on working pro bono in order to take on the most important issues of the day. He was also dubbed the “Robin Hood of the law” for his fight against railroad monopolies, defense of workers’ rights, and the conceptualization of the newly created Federal Trade Commission, which protected consumers from unfair business practices. He was also recognized for developing the “Brandeis Brief,” which relied on expert testimony from people in other professions to support his case, setting a new precedent in evidence presentation.

Brandeis’ nomination to the Court was so fraught that, for the first time in its history, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a public hearing on it. According to fellow Justice William O. Douglas, it was controversial because Brandeis was a “militant crusader for social justice whoever his opponent might be. He was dangerous not only because of his brilliance, his arithmetic, his courage. He was dangerous because he was incorruptible… [and] the fears of the Establishment were greater because Brandeis was the first Jew to be named to the Court.” Indeed, opponents regarded him as an anti business “radical” and “agitator” who lacked the “dispassionate temperament” needed to be a judge. Blatant anti semitism was, of course, also a factor. But enough people came to his defense that he won the nomination 47 to 22.

Ultimately, Brandeis became one of the most influential figures ever to serve on the Court, his opinions recognized by legal scholars as some of the “greatest defenses” of freedom of speech and the right to privacy ever written by a Justice. Throughout my first year of law school, I came across many of his brilliant opinions, many of them lonely dissents in the face of familiar uphill battles against privacy violations — see his prescient dissenting opinion in Olmstead v. United States (1928):

The makers of our Constitution undertook to secure conditions favorable to the pursuit of happiness. They recognized the significance of man’s spiritual nature, of his feelings and of his intellect. They knew that only part of the pain, pleasure and satisfactions of life are to be found in material things. They sought to protect Americans in their beliefs, their thoughts, their emotions and their sensations. They conferred against the government, the right to be let alone—the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men.

The Amazing Tulou of China

I have always been fascinated by the architectural ingenuity of humanity, especially in periods or places where resources seem lacking. One case in point is the tulou, a type of large, multi-storied communal home built with wood and fortified with mud walls. Built between the 15th and 20th centuries in China’s subtropical Fujian province in the south, these structures were not only durable — 46 survive to this day — but they conformed with feng shui principles and are cleverly sited to be close to tea, tobacco, rice fields, and lush forests, giving their denizens access to crucial resources and livelihoods.

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Noor Inayat Khan: Pacifist Muslim, British Spy, and WWII Heroine

Back in 2014, PBS aired a docudrama called Enemy of the Reich: The Noor Inayat Khan Storywhich centered on one of World War Two’s most fascinating and unlikely war heroes: a Russian-born Indian-American Muslim who was steeped in pacifism yet went on to serve the British war effort in occupied Paris. (There’s a mouthful!)

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A British commemorative stamp, circa 2014. (Courtesy of NPR)

NPR did a feature on the film (which I still have yet to see), including an interview with its executive producer, Alex Kronemer. Continue reading

The World’s First Atlas

Today’s Google Doodle is a particular treat for a map lover like me: it commemorates the publication in 1570 of the world’s first atlas, the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (Theatre of the World) by Flemish cartographer Abraham Ortelius.

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As Forbes explains, Ortelius’ work was an unusual concept at the time: an expertly-crafted book of similarly-sized maps neatly organized by geography. Continue reading

The Hungarian Doctor Who Pioneered Handwashing

Handwashing is easy to take for granted. It is one of the earliest and most basic forms of etiquette and hygiene we that we learn, not to mention a major pillar of our individual and collective health.

But like so many other “givens” in modern medicine and public health, hand washing was not always so accepted, even among health professionals. In fact, it practically came down to one person to discover and advocate the importance of washing one’s hands: NPR tells the story of Hungarian medical underdog Ignaz Semmelweis and his semi-successful attempts to improve the lives of millions through this deceptively simple practice.

Semmelweis was a man of his time, according to Justin Lessler, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.

It was a time Lessler describes as “the start of the golden age of the physician scientist,” when physicians were expected to have scientific training.

So doctors like Semmelweis were no longer thinking of illness as an imbalance caused by bad air or evil spirits. They looked instead to anatomy. Autopsies became more common, and doctors got interested in numbers and collecting data.

The young Dr. Semmelweis was no exception. When he showed up for his new job in the maternity clinic at the General Hospital in Vienna, he started collecting some data of his own. Semmelweis wanted to figure out why so many women in maternity wards were dying frompuerperal fever — commonly known as childbed fever.

He studied two maternity wards in the hospital. One was staffed by all male doctors and medical students, and the other was staffed by female midwives. And he counted the number of deaths on each ward.

When Semmelweis crunched the numbers, he discovered that women in the clinic staffed by doctors and medical students died at a rate nearly five times higher than women in the midwives’ clinic.

But why?

Like any rational, scientifically-minded individual, Semmelweis carefully assessed the data and sought out some empirical basis for this pattern.

“What Semmelweis had discovered is something that still holds true today: Hand-washing is one of the most important tools in public health. It can keep kids from getting the flu, prevent the spread of disease and keep infections at bay.

Semmelweis kept trying to convince doctors in other parts of Europe to wash with chlorine, but no one would listen to him.

Even today, convincing health care providers to take hand-washing seriously is a challenge. Hundreds of thousands of hospital patients get infections each year, infections that can be deadly and hard to treat. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says hand hygiene is one of the most important ways to prevent these infections.

Over the years, Semmelweis got angrier and eventually even strange. There’s been speculation he developed a mental condition brought on by possibly syphilis or even Alzheimer’s. And in 1865, when he was only 47 years old, Ignaz Semmelweis was committed to a mental asylum.

The sad end to the story is that Semmelweis was probably beaten in the asylum and eventually died of sepsis, a potentially fatal complication of an infection in the bloodstream — basically, it’s the same disease Semmelweis fought so hard to prevent in those women who died from childbed fever.”

An ignoble and cruelly ironic end to a man whose findings are now the bedrock of public health and sanitation worldwide. Semmelweis was ridiculed, marginalized, and ultimately forgotten because his observations conflicted with the established scientific and medical opinions of the time; indeed, many doctors took offense at the idea that they should wash their hands — at the cost of their patients’ lives.

It was only two decades after his sad death that Semmelweis’s recommendations gained widespread acceptance: Louis Pasteur’s confirmation of the germ theory of disease, followed by Joseph Lister’s use of hygienic methods during surgery both validated the Hungarian doctor, who lacked the scientific means to explain his findings.

But given his dedication to the well being of patients, I would like to imagine Semmelweis would be pleased to see his ideas become conventional wisdom. He might also be amused that his name is used for the eponymous “Semmelweis reflex” or “Semmelweis effect”, which describes a tendency for new evidence or knowledge to be viscerally rejected because it contradicts established norms, beliefs, or paradigms.

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The Kalliu Relay System

One of the earliest and most effective mass communications system ever developed was the “kalliu” relay system of the Neo Assyrian Empire in the Middle East. The Assyrians formed one of history’s first empires in the 10th millennium B.C.E., perfecting many strategies and institutional of imperial rule that set the standard for other empires. Chief among these was their mass relay system, which allowed the empire to span 540,000 square miles and last over 300 years.

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Rather than have one trusted envoy to deliver a message through a direct route, Assyrian rulers relied on multiple riders to stop at purpose-built stations where they would pass the message to another rider who was ready with a fresh mount. The stations were carefully positioned at regular intervals along the imperial highway system. Mules were used for their sturdiness and speed in rough terrain and climates. The system was maintained by the military and used only by the state: about 150 officials known as “Great Ones” held a copy of the Assyrian royal seal — depicting the king fighting a lion — which they stamped on messages to identify their authority, since it was recognized throughout the empire. Only letters with this seal could be mailed.

Because messages did not require one rider who would need to rest, the kalliu system offered unprecedented communication speed at the time. One estimate suggests that a message traversing 430 miles through rough terrain would take less than five days. Little wonder that later empires like the Persians adopted this technique for their massive territory. Even the United States used it as the basis for the famed Pony Express in the 19th century. Indeed, the use of a series of anonymous messages along different relay systems remain the basis of modern postal systems worldwide — to think it all began with an Iron Age Mesopotamian state nearly 3,000 years ago.

Americans Have Less Free Time Than Medieval Peasants

It probably goes without saying that we Americans have a lot more going for us nowadays than our ancestors did several centuries ago: public health and sanitation, plentiful food and water (for the most part), democracy and free press (of a sort). But this article from Business Insider points out one big area in which we resoundingly (and perhaps surprisingly) lose out: vacation time. Continue reading

The Golden Law

On this day in 1888, Princess Isabel of the Empire of Brazil enacted the Lei Áurea (Golden Law), formally abolishing slavery in Brazil, which had the largest number of slaves and was the last Western country to abolish slavery. Both Isabel and her father, Emperor Dom Pedro II, were opponents to slavery (she signed as his regent because he was in Europe).

The law was very short, stating only that “From this date, slavery is declared abolished in Brazil. All dispositions to the contrary are revoked.” This was intended to make clear that there were no conditions or qualifications to abolition — slaves were to be totally freed, full stop. (Previous laws had freed the children of slaves, or freed slaves when they turned sixty; this time, slavery was stamped out for good, at least formally.)

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