Wednesday, 29 September 2021

Pioneer of Natural Selection: William Charles Wells

William Charles Wells is one of those historical figures who should be better known than he is. He was the first person to propose the theory of natural selection, decades before Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace. He was also the first to explain why dew forms on grass.

Wells was born in Charleston [then Charlestown], South Carolina in 1757 of Scottish immigrant parents. His father, Robert Wells, established a successful business as a printer, bookseller, and newspaper publisher in the town. [Image: Wells Shop, 71 Tradd Street]

When he was eleven, William's parents sent him to Scotland for education. Upon completion of his preparatory studies two years later, he attended Edinburgh University for a year. 

During his time in Scotland he made several lifelong friendships. One of his closest friends was David Hume, nephew of the famous philosopher of the same name. It is very likely he met the philosopher himself or at least became familiar with his ideas. 

Wells returned to Charleston in 1771 and started a medical apprenticeship under Dr. Alexander Garden, one of the most respected physicians in the town. Garden was also a respected naturalist for whom Linnaeus named the gardenia

In 1775, Wells left Charleston abruptly for London. The move was prompted by the beginning of the American War for Independence. He had refused to sign a document calling for armed resistance to the British government. His father, an ardent Loyalist, had already gone to London earlier that year.

The following year he enrolled again at the University of Edinburgh and studied medicine. In 1778 he returned to London and took a course of lectures under the famed anatomist William Hunter. He was also accepted as a surgeon's pupil at St. Bartholomew's Hospital. 

In 1779 he enlisted as a surgeon in a Scottish regiment in the Netherlands. According to his own account he resigned his commission due to ill-treatment by his commanding officer. He challenged the officer to a duel, but the officer refused to respond.

Wells then enrolled in the University of Leiden and prepared a dissertation, On Cold. He submitted it to Edinburgh in 1780 and received his M.D.

In May 1780, the British captured Charleston. Wells returned early in 1781 to manage his family's affairs there. For more than a year he wore many hats: he worked as a printer, bookseller, merchant, and a trustee for the properties of some of his father's friends. He also served in the Loyalist militia. 

When the British evacuated Charleston in December 1782, Wells removed to St. Augustine, where he established the first weekly newspaper in Florida, The East Florida Gazette. The paper did not last long, however. The British returned Florida to Spain in 1784 as part of the treaty ending the American War for Independence. [Image: one of the surviving issues of the The East Florida Gazette

From Florida, Wells returned to London and lived near or with his parents. His father Robert had prospered there initially as a printer on Fleet Street, but fell into heavy debt before his death in 1794.  

After returning to London, Wells devoted himself to medical and scientific pursuits. He became one of the physicians to the charitable Finsbury Dispensary in 1790 and joined the medical staff of St. Thomas's Hospital in 1798 as an Assistant Physician. 

Two years later, he was appointed Physician at St. Thomas. He never prospered particularly in medicine, however, a fact he attributed in part to his exclusion from the prestigious Royal College of Physicians. Membership was then effectively restricted to M.D.s from Oxford and Cambridge.

For several years in the early 1800s he campaigned unsuccessfully to open the membership of College to graduates of all recognized medical schools. 

In 1793 his intellectual reputation was sufficient to get him elected to the Royal Society of London, one of the world's most prestigious scientific associations. He was later elected to the Royal Society of Edinburgh. 

After his return to London, he lived for a time at Salisbury Square, Fleet Street. He later moved to Sergeants Inn, a short distance away on the same street. [Image: Sergeants Inn, Fleet Street, where Wells lived in his later years. It is currently a boutique hotel] 

Wells made several important contributions to medical and scientific research. In 1814 the Royal Society awarded Wells the Rumford Medal for his groundbreaking Essay on Dew. Through painstaking research on many a chilly morning, he was the first to establish that the cause of dew formation was condensation of water under specific conditions of temperature, temperature change, and the conductivity of materials.  

Later Victorian scientists, including Sir John Herschel and John Tyndall, praised Wells' Essay on Dew as a model of inductive method. Herschel used it as the main example of the method in his Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy, calling it "beautiful." 

In 1813 Wells presented a paper to the Royal Society entitled "Some observations on the causes of the differences of color and form between the white and negro races of men." His object was to try to explain the origins of the human "races," which he equated with "varieties." 

In the course of the presentation, he stated the principle of natural selection 45 years before Darwin and Wallace.  After discussing the artificial selection of domestic breeding of animals, he goes on to propose that the different varieties of humankind are the result of selection by nature: 

"[What was done for animals artificially] seems to be done with equal efficiency, though more slowly, by nature, in the formation of varieties of mankind, fitted for the country which they inhabit. Of the accidental varieties of man, which would occur among the first scattered inhabitants, some would be better fitted than the others to bear the diseases of the country. This race would multiply while the others would decrease, and as the darkest would be best fitted for the [African] climate, at length they would become the most prevalent, if not the only race."

The paper was published in 1818, but Darwin and Wallace were not aware of it when they presented their joint paper on natural selection in 1858. After Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859, an American clergyman alerted him to the existence of Wells' work.

In later editions, Darwin acknowledged that Wells was likely the first person to have hit upon the principle of natural selection, although he noted correctly that Wells had limited it to humans and "certain characters alone," not the entire spectrum of life. Ironically, Darwin himself did not directly apply natural selection to humans in The Origin of Species. That came later, in The Descent of Man (1871). 

Wells died of heart disease in 1817. He left behind a brief memoir of his life. It was published the following year, along with his Essay on Dew and the paper in which he proposed the idea of natural selection.

He is buried next to his parents at St. Bride's, Fleet Street, which was known as "The Printer's Church" because of the concentration of printing establishments on Fleet Street. A memorial his sister Louisa erected to Wells and their parents was destroyed by German bombs in World War II.

Louisa Wells Aikman was herself a music score collector and author. She was banished from South Carolina as a Loyalist in 1778. She recorded her experiences in A Voyage from South Carolina to London (London, 1779). Another of Wells' sisters, Helena, was the author of several books, including two novels. Wells never married and had no known children. 

Sources: The main source for Wells' life is his short memoir mentioned above.   

An overview of Well's life and a detailed analysis of his work can be found in N.J. Wade, Destined for Distinguished Oblivion: the Scientific Vision of William Charles Wells (New York: Springer, 2003)



Sunday, 19 September 2021

Isambard Kingdom Brunel: The Second Greatest Briton?

In 2002, the BBC aired a TV series called 100 Greatest Britons. The show was based on a TV poll designed to see who British people considered the greatest Britons in history. The series included ten episodes featuring the top ten vote getters. Viewers were invited to vote after each program. 

The original poll included some surprises, including Guy Fawkes, who was executed for his role in attempting to blow up Parliament in 1605. He didn't make the final ten, but I suspect he might if the poll were held now. 

Less of a surprise due to her recent demise, Princess Diana came in third, beating Darwin, Newton, and Shakespeare. It seems that the voters viewed her as a more significant historical figure than three of history's greatest geniuses. But, you know, royals.... 

Perhaps most surprising was that an engineer came in second of the the top ten. He led the polling for weeks only to be edged out in the end by a comedian, Winston Churchill.

Yes, Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859) was voted the second greatest Briton of all time! Never heard of him? Shame on you. He was surely one of the greatest engineers of all time.

One reason for Brunel's high rank in the poll was the fervent campaigning of the students of London's Brunel University -- which as you can guess, was named for I. K. Brunel.

Although few English folk in these Brexit days may like the fact, Brunel was half French. His father, Marc Brunel, was a refugee from Napoleonic France who married an English woman. Marc was also an engineer. 

Isambard followed in his father's footsteps. His first major project was assisting Marc in the construction of the first tunnel under the Thames (1825-43). The Thames Tunnel, connecting Rotherhithe and Wapping, continues to operate as a railway tunnel for the London Overground. [Images: Thames Tunnel in the 1840s, before it became a railway tunnel, and train exiting the tunnel at Wapping in 1870]

In 1831, Isambard designed one of the great landmarks of the West Country, the superb Clifton Suspension Bridge across the Avon Gorge in Bristol. He designed many other notable bridges, including the Royal Albert Bridge across the Tamar River in Plymouth, which opened in the year of his death, 1859. [Images: Bridges]

In 1833, Brunel became chief engineer of the Great Western Railway, an enormous project that ran from London, Paddington to Bristol and later, Exeter in Devon. Brunel designed nearly everything, including stations, tunnels, and viaducts, and the Royal Hotel in the spa town of Bath. The Box Hill Tunnel was the longest in the world when it opened at 1.41 miles. Brunel designed it so that the sun would rise at the entrance on his birthday! 

In conjunction with the railway, Brunel designed a system in which  passengers could buy a ticket in London that would take them all the way to New York by rail and steamship. For the purpose, he designed a new ocean-going steamship, The Great Western (1838). At 236 feet, it was the longest ship in the world when launched. Its maiden voyage proved the practicality of transatlantic commercial steamship travel. [Image: The Great Western on its maiden voyage]

This success led Brunel to design a larger (322 ft) steamship: The Great Britain (1843). It is considered the first modern ship because Brunel used propellers instead of paddle wheels to drive it, and built it of iron instead of wood. It has survived to this day and can be visited in Bristol harbor. [Image: Launch of the Great Britain]

In 1852, Brunel began work on a monster iron steamship, the Great Eastern. At almost 700 feet (210m) long, it was the largest ship built before the beginning of the 20th century. It was originally an d fittingly called the Leviathan. [Image: Great Eastern

The Great Eastern was designed to carry 4000 passengers, far more than any other ship of the time. Brunel intended it for service to India and Australia, but that was not to be. 

Construction was marred by cost overruns and technical problems, and it proved uneconomic as a passenger ship. It was simply too big for its time. There were just too few customers who could afford the price of filling its cabins. Brunel himself died before its first voyage. 

The Great Eastern was not a complete failure. It was used to lay the first transatlantic telegraph cable from London to New York in 1866, bringing about instant communication between Europe and America. It ended its life as a floating music hall and a floating billboard for Lewis's Department Store. 

To our great loss, The Great Eastern was sold and broken up for scrap in 1889-90. But Brunel had his revenge in 2002 by being named the second greatest Briton. 



Thursday, 16 September 2021

Imagine If You Will: The World Before Vaccination

Imagine if you will, a world in which 1 child in 3 or 4 does not survive infancy. A world in which one-half of children or more do not reach their 21st birthday. A world in which the average life span is in the 30s. 

That world was reality not so very long ago. In the late 19th century, when my grandparents were born, the average life span in the UK, then one of the most advanced countries in the world, was still only in the 40s. Both my grandmothers died at age 42. None of my grandparents lived to see me (not that that would have been the highlight of their lives). 

Human longevity began increasing slowly in the late 18th century, then increased rapidly during the 20th century, despite devastating world wars and the worst pandemic in modern times. 

The developments that made this increase possible were many: improvements in food production, sanitation, housing, personal hygiene, and medicine. In the world of medicine, antisepsis (from the 1840s) antibiotics (from 1940s), and numerous pharmaceutical and surgical advances all contributed to the increase in longevity. 

But I would argue that the most important medical breakthrough has been the development of vaccines. The first vaccine was that for smallpox, generally credited to Edward Jenner, an English physician, who announced his discovery to the world in 1796. 

At that time smallpox was perhaps the most feared disease plaguing the world. Mortality often exceeded 20 percent of those infected, compared to about 1 percent for Covid19. Survivors could suffer long-term impairment: often a pock-marked face, sometimes a loss of sight or hearing. 

Jenner (or a friend of his) also gave us the words "vaccine" and "vaccination." They derive from the Latin for "cow" -- vacca. Why "cow"? you may ask. His vaccine consisted of cowpox matter, a milder but related disease once common in cows.

Jenner's vaccine has a backstory. He was not the first to use cowpox matter to prevent smallpox. An English farmer, Benjamin Jesty, had used it about twenty years before. But Jesty did not publicize it. Jenner did, and reaped a fortune. 

A different method of smallpox prevention was widely used in parts of the world before Jenner's discovery. Inoculation, as it came to be known, involved purposely infecting healthy people with smallpox matter from the pustules. 

Ordinary folk in China, Africa, and the Ottoman Empire had used some variety of the procedure for some time before knowledge of it came to Western Europe and America in the early 18th century. (See Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and Smallpox Inoculation)

Inoculation was highly controversial. Some opponents rejected it on religious grounds, others from the fear that it could spread the disease. It could also kill. About 1 inoculated person in 100 died. 

In contrast, the natural disease often produced a case mortality rate of 20 percent or more. In some populations, mortality approached 80-90 percent. 

These facts help explain both the opposition to inoculation and the desire for it. In British North America, where it became common after the 1720s, some communities tried to ban it, but public demand for it was powerful, especially during epidemics, and in some towns general inoculations took place at public expense. 

Interestingly, as the American Revolution approached, many colonials demanded inoculation to give them "liberty" from a dread disease, not as an infringement of their freedom. 

During the American War for Independence, General Washington ordered the inoculation of all soldiers in the Continental Army, a move that helped secure victory over the British.  

The soldiers obeyed Washington's order. In fact, many of them were demanding it, even inoculating themselves when it was still prohibited. Compare that to the attitudes of today's anti-vaxxers.

Twenty years after Washington's directive, news of Jenner's vaccine began to spread around the world. In many countries it became mandatory and free. When my family emigrated to America from the UK in 1952, we had to provide proof of smallpox vaccination to be admitted. I still have a faint imprint of the scar on my left arm. 

Eventually, in 1979, the vaccine achieved something unique. The World Health Organization declared that smallpox had been eliminated from the world. 

No other vaccine has achieved this yet, although the polio vaccine has nearly eradicated a disease that terrified parents in the early 20th century. 

One reason why the smallpox vaccine was so successful is that the causative virus is highly stable. In some types of diseases, notably influenza, the causative organism mutates often. 

Vaccines do not always provide complete or lasting immunity. But the array of vaccines science has developed since Jenner has saved hundreds of millions of lives. 

Below is a list of some of the main ones, and the year in which each vaccine was first developed or approved (In some cases, more effective vaccines came later):

Cholera -- 1880

Rabies -- 1885

Tetanus -- 1890

Typhoid Fever -- 1896

Bubonic Plague -- 1897

Tuberculosis -- 1921

Diphtheria -- 1923

Scarlet Fever -- 1924

Pertussis (Whooping Cough) -- 1926

Yellow Fever -- 1932

Typhus -- 1937

Influenza -- 1937 (first of many)

Polio -- 1952

Measles -- 1963 

Mumps -- 1967

Rubella (German Measles) -- 1970

Pneumonia -- 1977

Meningitis -- 1978

Hepatitis B -- 1981

Chicken Pox -- 1984

Hepatitis A -- 1991

Lyme Disease -- 1998

Human Papillomavirus  (Causes Cervical Cancer) -- 2006

Malaria and Dengue Fever -- 2015

Ebola -- 2019

Covid-19 -- 2020

PS. I contracted several of these diseases in my youth because no vaccines yet existed. They included measles, rubella, and chicken pox. I recently had the chicken pox vaccine to prevent shingles, a painful disorder that often attacks older people who contracted chicken pox as a child. 

Saturday, 11 September 2021

The Elephant in the Environmental Room: Global Population

Nearly every day we hear news about the coming climate disaster, which is about much more than climate change. It is about environmental destruction, air, soil, and water pollution, food and water shortages, species extinctions, unprecedented floods, fires, storms, and more. They are all related.

We hear about these things, but do our seemingly overworked minds really comprehend it all? Media coverage of the looming catastrophe is too limited to have the required impact. Besides, most people have more important things to attend to, like the lives of celebrities and the everyday struggle to survive  -- or making a fortune exploiting the environment.  

Even if the reporting on climate change was increased considerably, discussion of the problem largely ignores one of its main causes: the pressure of human population.  This is my "elephant in the room." Too many people ignore its relevance to many global problems. For many reasons, some of them good, it is a highly controversial subject. A media dependent upon advertising revenue tiptoes around it at best, ignores it at worst. The rest of us do so at our peril.

For many millennia, the human population of this globe we inhabit could have been counted in the thousands or millions -- if  anyone had the tools to count them, which they didn't until quite recently. 

Around 1750, the world entered a period of sustained population rise. By 1800 it approached a billion for the first time. Few people noticed. In fact, many people believed the human population was declining.

One who disagreed was Thomas Malthus, an Anglican parson who published  An Essay on Population in 1796. Malthus warned of the tendency of population to outstrip resources, leading to famine, disease, and war. Malthus called these disasters "natural checks" to population growth.

These natural -- and horrible -- checks, he wrote, bring populations back into line for a time. But human beings are forgetful. They soon procreate themselves into a renewed cycle of suffering. Would it not be better, Malthus wrote, to avoid this vicious circle by limiting our numbers by "artificial" checks? 

Malthus received abundant criticism. Some observers proclaimed him a Cassandra, a prophet of doom. Others denounced his suggested method of reducing population. He called it "self-restraint." By this he meant, in effect, sexual abstinence. Many critics viewed that as laughable, given the power of human sexual drives.

Some methods of contraception existed, but these were associated with prostitution, libertinism, and sin. As a clergyman, Malthus could not or would not suggest those. In fact, he denounced them as "vice." 

Malthus did gain a following. But many of those who accepted his diagnosis of the problem rejected his solution as impractical. These "Neo-Malthusians" argued that the only practical way to limit population was by spreading knowledge of, and improving, methods of contraception. 

Disseminating such knowledge was illegal in most countries, however, and sometimes led to fines and/or imprisonment. In any case, the efforts of the Neo-Malthusians did little to curb the growth of the human population.

By 1900, it had reached around close to 2 billion. During the next century, despite two devastating world wars and the worst pandemic in modern history, it soared to over 6 billion. It is currently (2021), close to 8 billion. Projections vary, but experts estimate that it could reach twice that number by 2100. 

Some experts claim that the earth can support far more people than it currently does. That may be true, but at what level of existence for the masses? And with what consequences for the rest of the natural world?

Even in prosperous, "peaceful" countries untold millions struggle merely to survive. In the less prosperous nations, a couple billion are living in conditions no better than those of the preindustrial world. Often worse, because these unlucky people are packed into festering, fetid slums with inadequate supplies of clean water and sanitation. 

A common and humane answer to this is the need to raise their standard of living through education, women's rights, social security, improved housing, health care and the like. No friend of mankind can oppose such improvements. But a few billion new consumers will put additional pressure on an already distressed natural environment. 

Perhaps Malthus's "natural checks" will eventually reduce population to environmentally sustainable levels. But "eventually" may be too late for the health of the planet. 

Besides, why let those horrors loose upon ourselves when we have the means to curb population in our hands? Humans must learn to limit their numbers themselves. Please note that I am not advocating eugenics or any of its more horrific solutions.  

Be assured: the affluent will always find a way to maintain a high standard of life -- at least until there is no longer a way to be found. I suppose they will go off to Mars at that point. I wish them the joy of it. We can do better here on earth, if we will it.

Thursday, 2 September 2021

Sweet William, Stinking Billy, and the Battle of Culloden

William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, is unique in history in that he had two flowers named after him. One is called "Sweet William," the other, "Stinking Billy." The names reflect a sharp division of opinion about his actions in suppressing the last and most dangerous Jacobite Rebellion in 1746. [Image: Cumberland, by Joshua Reynolds, 1750s]

The Rebellion began the previous year when his cousin Charles Edward Stuart landed on the West Coast of Scotland with a small band of supporters. He had come from France to claim the British throne for his father, James, also known as the Old Pretender, or James "III". 

Charles' grandfather, James II, had been deposed by the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Afterwards, the Catholic Stuarts had been banned from the royal succession and supplanted by their Protestant relatives, the German Hanoverians. In 1745, the second of this line, George II, occupied the throne. [Image: Charles Edward Stuart, by Ramsay, 1745)

It was a bold move. Britain and France were at war, but the French government had given him little support beyond good luck. Charles landed at and raised the Stuart standard at Glenfinnan, at the head of Loch Shiel. 

The iconic Glenfinnan viaduct nearby carries the trains of the West Highland Railway, including a steam excursion train called the Jacobite Express. Fans of Harry Potter will be familiar with the scene.

Charles sent out a call to the Highland Clans to join him in restoring his family to power. Thousands of Highlanders, many of them Catholic, but not all, rallied to his cause. After all, the Stuarts were a Scots dynasty. Charles's makeshift army quickly seized Edinburgh and defeated the Hanoverian army of King George II. 

The Jacobites marched on into England meeting little resistance. They reached Derby, less than 150 miles from London. Panic gripped the capital. 

Derby turned out to be the high tide of the Jacobite advance. Although the Hanoverians were unpopular, few Englishmen (or Lowland Scots) had joined Charles' army. He wavered, then ordered a retreat to Scotland. 

George II sent an army in pursuit. He selected his younger brother William to command it. In April 1746 the Hanoverian army caught up with the Jacobites at Culloden Moor, near Inverness. The ranks of William's army contained many Scots, mostly Lowlanders. For Scots, this was a civil war. 

The mostly Highland army Charles led had been thinned by desertion and losses. His men were hungry, exhausted, and greatly outnumbered. Their artillery was useless. Nevertheless, he ordered an attack. What followed was more of a massacre than a battle, with waves of Highlanders cut to pieces by artillery, musket fire, and bayonets.  

Basking in victory, William made a move that brought him infamy, and not only in Scotland. Asked by his officers what they should do with the remnants of the enemy army, he wrote on the back of a playing card, "No Quarter." 

The victorious English and Lowland soldiers butchered hundreds of surrendering and fleeing clansmen. Others were hunted down over the following weeks and months and killed, often along with family members. More were captured and taken to Edinburgh or London, many to be executed for treason. 

When news of the victory reached London, a flower was named for him. It is called "Sweet William" (Dianthus). 

Political opponents of the government in England had a different reaction. Learning of the widespread massacres, they began to call William "Butcher Cumberland."

Scottish Jacobites also named a flower after Duke William. They relabeled the common ragwort "Stinking Billy." Generally regarded as a weed, it has a strong smell and is poisonous to horses. 

Culloden was the only success of William's otherwise undistinguished military career. From the late 1750s, he devoted himself to horse racing and politics. In 1765 he became Prime Minister, but died a few months later, aged 44. 

Charles Edward Stuart fled after the battle and spent months in hiding before returning to France. After his father died in 1766, he became known as the "Young Pretender." He died in Rome in 1788 having engaged in numerous affairs and succumbing to alcohol. He had no legitimate children, and his wife left him, claiming that he had abused her. 

Romantics dubbed Charles "Bonnie Prince Charlie."  He is the subject of several songs, including the "Skye Boat Song" and "The Bonnie Moorhen." Inexplicably, some Scots continue to revere him, although he led the country into disaster and then abandoned it to a life of wining and dining on the Continent. 

Culloden was the last battle to be fought on British soil. 


Tuesday, 24 August 2021

MAGA: Make America Good Already

In the last two American presidential elections, a near majority of voters voted for MAGA MAN, who promised to Make America Great Again. A cynic might ask, when exactly was it great and in what sense? 


Being "great" in the traditional geopolitical sense is not great in the more common sense of "isn't this book/film/medical discovery great?" Or, "isn't this a great advance for humanity/the world?" Being great in the geopolitical sense simply means "powerful." It does not imply any moral or cultural greatness or any sense of what great power will be used for. Like freedom, greatness is subjective.

The US has possessed immense global power for decades but has wasted much of it on ill-advised foreign interventions. It has not won a war since 1945, unless you count the invasion of Grenada in President Reagan's day. 

The immense "power greatness" of the US was largely a result of the World Wars, especially WWII. After the Second World War, the European "Great Powers" and Japan were reduced to pawns in the Superpower Game in which the major players were reduced to two: The US and the USSR. The US had the strongest, most productive economy in the world thanks to rapid industrialization, immense resources, and the economic prostration of Europe and Japan. 

The "Cold War" ensued. The Soviet Union tried to compete with the US for several decades, but in the end it failed. It had also suffered enormously from WWII, with many cities and industries demolished and 25 million dead. It's claim to power was its army, the largest in the world. The Soviets also led the Space Race for a while but the US got to the moon first. With that and ten bucks you can buy yourself a coffee. 

In 1979, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. In 1990, they suddenly left, mission unaccomplished, country bankrupt. They were defeated by scruffy insurgents armed and funded by the US, many of whom later became Taliban. The collapse of the USSR soon followed the Afghan withdrawal. That should have been a lesson for the US, along with all the other failed foreign interventions in Afghanistan.

The collapse of the USSR in 1990 left the US at the top of the "greasy pole": the only Superpower. The US, as mindless minions proclaimed at every chance, was "Number 1". 

Those days are over. And it was inevitable. All empires lose supremacy in time and the American Imperium is no exception. The meteoric rise of China, the revival of Putin's Russia, the fanatic movements of perverted Islamism, all present overwhelming challenges to the US's self-appointed role as world policeman. 

In a similar way, the "greatness" of the British Empire was the result a particularly favorable moment in history. The defeat of Napoleonic France, combined with its immense lead in industrialization, and the largest navy and merchant marine in the world, left the UK unrivaled in the world -- for a few decades. Britannia, briefly, did rule the waves. 

British politicians continued to look on France as the enemy to watch, and discovered a new danger in expansionist Imperial Russia. Fears that Russia had intentions of taking India away led to what has been called the Great Game, with the UK and Tsarist Russia competing to control Central Asia, especially Afghanistan. That led the British to invade Afghanistan on several occasions with little to show for it. The most disastrous incursion was in 1839-42. That led to the virtual annihilation of the British (and Indian) invading forces. (Image: William B. Wollen, "The Last Stand of the Survivors of Her Majesty's 44th Foot at Gandamak")

Meanwhile, British leaders overlooked the greatest danger to their supremacy. In the late 19th century, Germany unified and became a top industrial power. By 1900, Germany and the US were outproducing Britain economically. 

A shrewd observer could have seen that the UK was greatly weakened by WWI, even though its empire had then reached its zenith. WWII weakened it much more, largely bankrupting the country. The empire shrank quickly with the loss of the Indian subcontinent in 1947, and most other colonies by the 1960s. 

Some British politicians and people continue to wallow in the mud of imperial nostalgia, although they can do it only by hanging on to American coattails. Those coattails may soon no longer be there. 

The US has spent untold trillions on "defense" (read: imperial adventures) in recent decades, but politicians insist that it can't afford a decent health care system or properly fund education. It can't even control the domestic bandits its absurd gun laws have enabled. I, for one, would not miss that sort of "greatness."

Wednesday, 21 July 2021

The Disease that Caused Slaves to Run Away: Drapetomania and other Delusions

In 1851, Dr. Samuel Cartwright of New Orleans claimed to have discovered mental or behavioral disorders "peculiar" to the enslaved black population. Cartwright, a strong advocate of slavery and a distinctive southern or "states rights" medicine, argued that blacks exhibited diseases and conditions that only a properly trained southern physician could detect and treat. 

He named one of these diseases "drapetomania" -- the disease that caused slaves to run away. the chief diagnostic sign of the disorder, "absconding from service," was familiar to planters and overseers. 

Unfortunately, many medical men, mostly from the North, had not paid enough attention to the peculiar diseases of blacks. They refused to see drapetomania for what it was: a type of insanity. Enslaved blacks suffering from drapetomania had become so mad that they tried to escape from a position God had designed them to fill and in which they were "normally" happy. 

Cartwright recommended a type of psychological treatment for drapetomania. To prevent or cure it, it was essential to elicit "awe and reverence" from the enslaved toward white men, their natural superiors. 

Masters and overseers had to make them understand that their intended lot, decreed in the Bible, was submission. They should treat the slaves graciously, supply their physical needs, and protect them from abuse. But they should never treat a slave as an equal or allow him to be anything but a "submissive knee bender." [Below: Cartwright and a submissive knee bender.]

Slaves who exhibited restlessness in their position, who became "sulky and dissatisfied," Cartwright warned, were showing signs of developing drapetomania. The causes of dissatisfaction should be investigated and removed. If no cause could be detected, the best remedy was the traditional one of "whipping them out of it." I suspect many masters and overseers did not need this advice.  [Below: Abolitionist Image]

Cartwright "discovered" another type of mental illness peculiar to blacks. He called it "Dyaethesia Aethiopica, or Hebetude of Mind and Obtuse Sensibility of Body." Overseers, he said, knew it as "Rascality." I'll call it "DA" for short.

DA, Cartwright claimed, was more common among free blacks than slaves. Among slaves it was restricted to those whose masters allowed them too much liberty. Black freedom was the cause of the disorder and curtailing it was the cure. 

The signs of DA included mental lethargy and a partial loss of sensibility in the skin. The sufferers tended to do a lot of mischief that seemed intentional but was due mainly "to the stupidity of mind and insensibility of the nerves induced by the disease." 

Victims were liable "to break, waste and destroy everything they handle." They "tear, burn, and rend their own clothing, and paying no attention to the rights of property, steal others, to replace what they have destroyed. They slight their work.... They raise disturbances with their overseers and fellow servants without cause or motive, and seem to be insensible to pain when subjected to punishment."

Cartwright conceded that northern physicians had observed the signs and symptoms of DA but had incorrectly attributed them to slavery. They ignored their greater prevalence among blacks who had been free for generations. DA was "the natural offspring of negro liberty -- the liberty to be idle, wallow in filth, and to indulge in improper food and drinks."

DA could also be easily cured "if treated on sound psychological principles." The main requirement was to stimulate the skin, which was "dry, thick. and harsh to the touch," and the liver, which was inactive. The "patient" should be scrubbed with warm water and soap, then covered in oil, which should be slapped in with "a broad leather strap." Slapped here looks like euphemism for "whipped."

Next,  the "patient" should be required to do some hard work in the fresh air and sunshine, to force him to expand his lungs. After resting from labor, he should be fed "some good wholesome food, well-seasoned with spices and mixed with vegetables." After more work, rest, and lots of liquids, he should be washed and sent to a clean bed in a warm room. Repeating this treatment each day would quickly bring about a cure "in all cases that are not complicated by chronic visceral derangement."   

Cartwright's descriptions shared the views of contemporary asylum doctors that many antisocial behaviors were the result of mental illness. As such, they should be treated, not punished. For Cartwright, whipping was not punishment but a necessary means of restoring the proper order of things and thus good for the slave as well as the master. It was in fact, "humane." 

Similarly, Cartwright's therapies for DA did not differ in some respects from those experienced by patients in contemporary lunatic asylums. They also emphasized work in the fresh air, good diet, bathing, and rest. (Note: asylum doctors no longer considered whipping to be therapeutic or acceptable by the 19th century). 

The difference is that Cartwright's descriptions and prescriptions were embedded in a world view that accepted slavery as a natural, God-given institution, however "peculiar." They were part of what historians have called The Proslavery Argument and what today is often called "scientific racism." In short, they were a delusional, perverse reaction to a natural human desire.

Sources: Samuel Cartwright, "Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race," De Bow's Review 11 (1851) 331-36, 643-52.

Peter McCandless, Moonlight, Magnolias, and Madness: Insanity in South Carolina from the Colonial Period to the Progressive Era (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

Thursday, 15 July 2021

England is a Foreign Country

Everyone knows that the pro-Brexit vote was fueled in part by a desire to "get back control" of Britain's borders. "Border control!" is of course a euphemism for "there's too many damn foreigners here!"


The desire for Brexit was and is mainly an English one. 
Wales voted Leave but by a slim margin. Northern Ireland voted Remain, but also by a slim margin. 

A large majority of Scots (61 per cent) voted Remain. Many of them wanted to keep an open border with the EU. Scotland has been bleeding people for centuries. Most Scots want immigrants to come. 

Because England is much more populous than the so-called "Celtic Fringe" of the UK, its pro-Brexit majority dragged the others out of the EU. Now the UK (i.e. English Tory) government can "control the borders" -- except perhaps in Northern Ireland. They can put up the "No Entry" sign for undesirable foreigners. 

That would seem a victory except for one problem: England has  always been full of foreigners. Nearly everybody on the island of Britain is descended from people "from off" as they like to say in the American South. 

Leaving aside the prehistoric migrations of pre-Celtic and Celtic peoples, the first recorded foreign invasion is that of the Romans. Under Claudius, they arrived to stay in AD 43, having surveyed the place a century before. [Image: Emperor Claudius]

The Roman Army pulled out shortly after 400, as their empire crumbled in the face of Germanic incursions. Some of the Germans opted to go to Britannia, as the Romans called England and Lowland Scotland.  

The Germans came in large numbers in the 5th and 6th centuries and pushed the Romanized Britons to the west and northwest. Moderns usually call the Germanic invaders Anglo-Saxons, but there were other Germanic "tribes" in the mix. The name "England" derives from the Angles (Angle-Land). [Image: Sutton Hoo Helmet, Reconstructed]

In the modern era, England has often been referred to as an "Anglo-Saxon country" but this is a gross oversimplification. Besides the Britons who were already here, new migrants/invaders soon appeared: the Vikings. [Image: Vikings. From Minnesota, sorry, but the best image of Vikings I found]

The Scandy hordes first came to England in 793 with a raid on Lindisfarne Monastery in Northumberland. In the following century raids gave way to settlement and conquest. 

The Vikings who came to the British Isles hailed from Denmark and Norway. The Norwegians focused mainly on Scotland and Ireland. The Danes concentrated on England. Before they were stopped by Alfred the Great, King of Wessex, they had gained control of the eastern half of the country: what became known as the Danelaw. 

Alfred's successors gradually reconquered the Danelaw and created an English kingdom roughly as it is today by the late 10th century. But the Danes were not through. In 1013, Danish King Sweyn conquered England. He died soon after, but his successors ruled it as part of a Danish Empire until 1042, when a half-English, half-Norman king, Edward the Confessor, ascended the throne. 

Edward had no children and his death in 1066 ended the line of Alfred the Great. A disputed succession produced several claimants to the throne. The ultimate winner was another foreigner, William of Normandy, better known as the Conqueror. [image: A near likeness of William the Conqueror from the Bayeux Tapestry]

Normandy got its name from Vikings -- "Northmen" -- who took over that part of what is now France in the 10th century. The Norman invasion army of 1066 also included French knights William bribed with promises of English land. 

For the next two centuries and more England was ruled by a Norman-French aristocracy which gave us the term "robber barons." By the 14th century, however, the foreign elite began to merge with the locals culturally and linguistically. The England of today began to take visible shape, heralded by Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and the Hundred Years War with France. 

During the Middle Ages one group of "foreigners" was deported from England. In 1290, Edward I (Longshanks) formally expelled the Jews. That edict was not overturned until 1656, by Oliver Cromwell, who was tolerant of most folks except the Irish. Jews began to return -- at first in small numbers -- then in much greater numbers in the late 19th and 20th centuries. At that time, they were fleeing pogroms in Tsarist Russia and a general rise in anti-Semitism in Continental Europe.

The mongrelisation of England continued during the Middle Ages and beyond. England was part of a trading world that included merchants and artisans from Italy, France, Scandinavia, the Low Countries, and the Hanseatic League. Many people from those places settled in England and made it their home.

When Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685, renewed persecution of the Protestants (Huguenots) population led many of them to emigrate. Large numbers of merchants and artisans fled to England. Among them were the famous Spitalfields silk weavers. London. 

The Glorious Revolution of 1688-89 brought another influx of foreigners, the Dutch who came in the train of William of Orange (William III). Daniel Defoe pilloried xenophobic attacks on the new arrivals in his brilliant poem, "The True Born Englishman." [Image: William III, of Orange]

Scots poured into England after the Act of Union (1707) established the Kingdom of Great Britain. They also aroused resentment, and were often portrayed in popular journals and images as impoverished, barbaric, and avaricious. (See "A Vile Country": Dr Johnson on Scotland and Scots

The Irish and Welsh also came in large numbers from the 18th century on. Irish navvies virtually built the canal and rail network of Britain, doing backbreaking, dangerous work that would be done by heavy machinery today. 

Many Italians came from the late 19th century bringing good food and ice cream. In the 20th century people from all over the far-flung British Empire began to arrive, first a trickle, then a flood. Africans, Asians, West Indians, Eastern Europeans. 

England is truly a nation of foreigners. That is part of its strength and greatness. Many different peoples, from Roman times on, have merged to create the England of today. If, like the USA, it hasn't always been welcoming to new arrivals, it has always accepted them in time. And for the most part, they have accepted if not glorified English culture, institutions, and customs. 

In 1953, the English writer L. P. Hartley published The Go Between. He opened the novel with the now famous line "the past is a foreign country." As a historian, I completely agree with that statement. I hope you will agree with me that England, too, is a foreign country. I mean that as a compliment.



Thursday, 8 July 2021

The NHS: Britain's Greatest Asset


It seems almost banal to write that the National Health Service of the UK is a national treasure. But that's what it is. I have written as much before, several years ago. (See The NHS: The Best Present Britain Ever Gave Itself). 

Since then, the country has battled and continues to battle a once in century-- we hope -- pandemic. Its response to Covid-19 in all its variants has demonstrated the tremendous asset the NHS represents to the people of the four nations. 

Yes, there have been mistakes. Some mistakes are inevitable in such an unprecedented situation. In any case, the worst "mistakes" -- I'm being kind here -- have been those committed by high ranking government officials. What shines through this dark period is the everyday dedication and outright heroism of NHS staff at all levels.

I and my family have benefited personally from their work on numerous occasions. My wife has survived two life threatening conditions thanks to prompt and effective treatment. She continues to heap accolades on those who cared for her.

A few weeks ago I had a heart attack while playing tennis. A friend kindly drove me to the local hospital. I was taken in immediately, and given an ECG and other checks within minutes. 

Within half an hour I was in an ambulance on my way to another hospital not far away that has a top cardiac unit. The ambulance crew were on top of their job and good fun to boot. About 20 minutes after arrival I was wheeled into the operating room to receive a stent. It wasn't a fun hour, but the results were marvelous.

Three days later I was discharged, feeling fit as a fiddle, but told to "take it easy" for a while. No tennis for a few weeks at least. I also brought home a big bag of meds, which I'm told will help fend off a repeat performance. Cardiac rehab coming up.

I have nothing but the highest praise for the care and treatment the doctors, nurses, and other staff provided me. I'm especially impressed because they have been under so much pressure and overworked during the past year and a half due to the pandemic. 

In return for all that effort the Tory government has offered NHS staff a one per cent raise, well below inflation. Staff are now demanding a 15% raise. They deserve it. We should support them in any way we can. 

For my American readers: the total cost to me was £0.00. I won't be having another heart attack when the bills arrive. 

Monday, 7 June 2021

Gretna Green: Scotland's Las Vegas

Just across the Scottish border with England lies the village of Gretna Green (hereafter, GG). Despite its small size, it is notable for several reasons. 

The worst railway crash in British history occurred near the village in 1915, worse than the Tay Bridge Disaster of 1879. The Quintinshill Rail Disaster, involving several trains, led to the deaths of more than 220 people. More than 200 of them were Scottish soldiers on their way to Gallipoli, in Ottoman Turkey.

In the same year, the environs of Gretna Green became the site of the largest cordite factory built in the UK during World War I. The Ministry of Munitions had it built in response to the "Shell Crisis" of 1915. The British Army, fighting the Germans in France and Belgium, was running out of artillery shells. 

By the time the Gretna munitions complex was complete, it extended twelve miles along the border and employed more than 16,000 people, more than half of them women. At its peak it produced more cordite than all the other munitions factories in the UK combined.

But GG is best known today for another industry -- the wedding business. For more than a century it had a mixed reputation as a place where where young English folk could get married quickly, without a fuss -- for a fee of course. 

The making of GG's marriage industry (and the village itself) was Hardwicke's Marriage Act of 1754. The act was designed to prevent persons under 21 from marrying without their parents' consent. The persons in questions were mainly young girls from wealthy families.

The Marriage Act, however, applied only to England and Wales. In Scotland, which retained its own legal system after the Act of Union in 1707, the law continued to allow persons under 21 to marry without parental permission, from age 14 for males and 12 for females. 

Scottish law also allowed for "irregular marriages." If the declaration of marriage was made before two witnesses, almost anybody could officiate at the wedding. One did not need to be a licensed clergyman. 

Some canny Scots soon realized the opportunity these differences presented. And Young English folk desperate to marry as quickly as possible soon learned that their salvation lay on the high road to Scotland. (Image: Carriage Arriving at Gretna Green, c. 1800)

Situated directly across the border from England, here a small river, GG was providentially placed to profit from the new marriage business. In the 1770s, the construction of a new toll road that passed by the village made it the most easily reachable in Scotland. 

Marriages in GG were often performed by local blacksmiths, who became known as "anvil priests." One of them presided at more than 5,000 weddings.  

GG's role as a magnet for runaway couples is mentioned in many works of literature and in films. In Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, George Wickham convinces Lydia Bennet to elope with a promise of taking her to GG to marry. Instead he takes her to London where Mr. Darcy finds her and returns her to her family.   

Changes in the law on both sides of the border eventually ended the  quickie marriage industry, though not the wedding business itself. In 1856, a new law in Scotland required a minimum of 21 days residence in the country before being married. That restriction was abolished in 1977. 

In 1929, another act raised the age of legal marriage in Scotland to 16 for both men and women. The parties can still marry without parental consent. In England and Wales, they can now marry at 16 with parental consent, and at 18 without it. 

GG was not the only Scottish border town where quickie marriages for English customers were performed, but it was unquestionably the most famous. Today that kind of fame is largely confined to Las Vegas, Nevada where anything goes and allegedly stays. Vegas also offers quickie divorces. 

Because of its history GG remains a popular place for weddings, with several venues and hotels available. Services are always performed over the town's marriage icon, a blacksmith's anvil. One ad urges you to stay, marry, and dine for £545, a smashing wee bargain for the matrimonially inclined. You take the high road and I'll take the low road.

Tuesday, 25 May 2021

Naming and Shaming: Nicknames for Police, From Peelers to Pigs

Police have been in the news much of late, mostly for negative reasons: racism, corruption, and brutality to name three. In other words, they are much like the rest of humanity, armed with truncheons, tasers, tear gas, and guns.

Of all the professions on earth, perhaps none has generated more nicknames than the police. Prostitutes and lawyers are probably close behind. I make no claim for scientific accuracy in this post. The origins of these police nicknames is often obscure at best. 

Some police nicknames are, however, closely connected with their history. In the UK, for example, two of them came from the name of the man who established the London Metropolitan Police in 1829, Home Secretary Sir Robert Peel. [Image: Peel]

The nickname "Bobbies" comes from Peel's first name. Anyone the least familiar with British culture is likely to know that. Fewer know that at first, "Peeler" was the more common name. "Peeler" eventually went out of fashion, but "Bobby" is still in common use.

[Image: Sydenham Police, London, c. 1860]

Most nicknames for police come from street or criminal slang. "Bobby" and "Peeler" sound pretty neutral or even positive now, but probably were not at first. Many people viewed the creation of the Metropolitan Police with suspicion, as a threat to individual freedom. 

The term "police" conjured up images of Continental despotism -- the France of Louis XIV and Napoleon or Tsarist Russia. Police were looked on as little better than government spies and enforcers propping up the ruling elite. 

A more common and international nickname for police is "cop" or "copper." According to the Oxford English Dictionary these words have an old pedigree, going back to at least the early 18th century, 1704. They derived from the French caper, meaning "to capture." 

Because England had no professional police at that time, the term may have referred to a "thief taker." These were essentially like the later bounty hunters who captured criminals for rewards. 

So says the OED. Other explanations of "cop" and "copper" exist. One was that "copper" came from the copper buttons on the uniforms of Peel's new police force. Another, familiar to me since childhood, was that "cop" was an acronym for "Constable on Patrol."

Since medieval times towns and parishes were required to appoint constables responsible for enforcing the law and catching criminals. But these constables were elected, ordinary citizens who had no training and often tried to get out of doing an unpleasant and often time consuming job. Better to leave it to the thief takers, who were themselves often criminals. 

The most famous thief taker of the early 18th century was Jonathan Wild, who styled himself as "Thief Taker General." He turned some of his own gang members in for rewards and eventually got his own, being hanged at Tyburn in 1725. [Image: Wild]

Wild provided the inspiration for Peachum in John Gay's Beggar's Opera (1728) and later the subject of a Henry Fielding novel (1743). 

Whatever the true origins of "cop" and "copper," the names have proved enduring. Other nicknames for police are more recent, including "fuzz" and "pigs." 

"The Fuzz," which has been used much since the 1960s, is of unknown origin. One view is that it is a corruption of "the force. "  Another is that it is a reference to static on police radios or the short haircuts of police. The name was famously used in the 2007 comedy, "Hot Fuzz." 

"Pigs" first came into use in the 19th century. It declined in usage afterwards, but became common again in the 1960s and 1970s. In the latter period, "pigs" was widely employed by people in the counter culture and anti-Vietnam War protestors. It remains widely used in the English-speaking world and beyond.

In 1971, "pig" became the focus of a short-lived controversy in an English town (I forget which). A new police station was being built on a street called Pig Lane. The local police wanted to change the name. Local residents protested, arguing that it had been Pig Lane since the 18th century. I don't recall who won. I suspect the residents. Tradition and ALL THAT.