Archive for January, 2010
In ancient Greek mythology, the goddess Athena (known as Minerva in Latin) was the patroness of the city of Athens, as well as the goddess of wisdom, war, strategy, industry, justice and skill. The daughter of Zeus and the Titan Metis, Athena was believed to be her father’s favorite child, an impressive distinction considering her heroic siblings, which included Hermes, Persephone, Apollo, Artemis, Dionysus, Perseus, Heracles, Helen, Minos, and the Muses, to name a few…
In keeping with her role as enforcer of rules of sexual modesty and chastity, Athena never married or had a lover, thus earning her the name of “Athena Parthenos” (Virgin Athena). It is from this title that her most famous temple, the Parthenon on the Acropolis in Athens, took its name. The largest temple on the Acropolis and constructed out of columns of white marble, it is considered the most important surviving building of Classical Greece.
Athena’s cult as the patroness of Athens seems to have existed from very early in the history of ancient Greece, and was adapted over time to reflect cultural changes in Greek society. For example, many Greek historians claim that Athena became the goddess of wisdom as philosophy took on greater cultural prominence.
According to myth of the founding of Athens, Athena competed with the god Poseidon for the title of patron deity of the then-unnamed city. The Athenians asked each god to bequeath a gift to the city, after which they would decide which gift (and patron) they preferred.
Poseidon decided to grant the Athenians the gift of trade and water by striking the ground with his trident and creating a spring. While this gift proved very useful to the Athenians in the forthcoming years, Poseidon had not accounted for the fact that a saltwater spring is not fit for human consumption. Athena sagely chose to give the city a domesticated olive tree-which provided food, wood and oil-and the citizens of Athens resoundingly granted her patronage of the city. She was often portrayed helmeted and wearing a breastplate, holding a shield bearing a Gorgon head with an owl by her side.
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When I look back upon the past, I can only dispel the sadness which falls upon me by gazing into that happy future when the infection will be banished . . . The conviction that such a time must inevitably sooner or later arrive will cheer my dying hour.
Dr. Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis, Aetiology
Commonly referred to as the “savior of mothers,” Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis was a Hungarian physician who tirelessly championed the use of prophylactic hand disinfection (chlorinated lime solution) in obstetrical clinics as a means of preventing puerperal fever (or childbed fever), the scourge of 19th century birthing wards. Puerperal fever was extremely common in mid-19th century hospitals, and claimed the lives of a whopping 25-30 percent of new mothers in birthing wards.
While most women at the time gave birth at home, many unlucky women were forced to give birth in hospitals due to poverty, illegitimacy or birth complications. Not only did these unfortunate women have to endure the agony of childbirth, but had to face the very real possibility that they would die of puerperal fever after the delivery.
While we take it for granted today that hand disinfection is crucial to the prevention of disease, Dr. Semmelweis postulated his theory in the pre-bacteriological era (1847), when people still believed that diseases were ‘spontaneously’ generated, instead of being the result of invading microorganisms that are able to reproduce themselves (germ theory).
Before Dr. Semmelweis’ discovery, physicians had posited a number of theories about the potential cause of the fever, including crowdedness, poor ventilation, beginning lactation or miasma (pollution), none of which satisfactorily accounted for the widespread prevalence of the fever.
Dr. Semmelweis discovered the preventative powers of hand washing while working at Vienna General Hospital’s First Obstetrical Clinic. His curiosity was piqued when he learned that the doctors’ wards had three times the mortality rate of midwifes’ wards, and he immediately commenced his work on discovering the cause. Dr. Semmelweis’ theory came to him in to form of an epiphany, when he made the crucial connection between cadaveric contamination and puerperal fever; he realized that medical students (who were responsible for most of the deliveries in the hospital) were constantly going back and forth between the autopsy room and the patients they examined during labor. This genius moment led the good doctor to devise his ‘novel’ system of hand washing in May 1847.
Sadly, despite his countless publications that demonstrated that hand-washing reduced mortality below 1%, Dr, Semmelweis’ theory fell on deaf ears during his lifetime, and he did not live to see the widespread acceptance and adoption of his practices. Instead, driven mad by the stubborn opposition of the medical community, Dr. Semmelweis suffered a nervous breakdown in 1865, and died shortly afterwards in a mental asylum.
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The helots (Greek for the verb ‘capture’) were an unfree population group that constituted almost 80% of the population of the ancient Greek city-state Sparta. While their exact standing in Spartan society is disputed, historians believe that their status was roughly analogous to that of European serfs in the High Middle Ages. Thus, they probably occupied a place somewhere between free men and slaves.
Like serfs, helots were tied to the land that they tilled and economically supported the minority Spartan population. The helots were essential to the militaristic city-state, as Spartan men were full-time soldiers and therefore unavailable to perform manual labor. Many ancient writers, including the Roman historian Plutarch, wrote at length about the cruel treatment inflicted on the helots by their Spartan masters, including ritual mistreatment, humiliation and even sanctioned slaughter.
It is generally believed that the origin of helotism dated back to the Spartans’ victory over Messenia, after which the native population became helots. While the Spartans allowed the Messenian communities to remain intact, the fruits of their labor henceforth belonged to the Spartan elite. Relations between the helots and their Spartan oppressors was characterized by mutual antipathy; the Greek philosopher Xenophon famously stated that, “helots would gladly eat their masters raw.” In fact, many historians believe that the creation of so many helots facilitated the rise of the Spartan military state in two ways: Spartan men were no longer needed for agricultural work, and a disciplined army was needed to quell potential helot uprisings.
Every Autumn, young Spartan males who had completed their military training participated in the brutal ‘right of passage’ tradition called crypteia. The Spartan elders would pro forma declare war on the helot population, so that these young cadets could kill helots with impunity. They were then sent into the countryside with only a dagger, and instructed to kill any helot they encountered at night and to steal food as they saw fit. This tradition served the dual purposes of maintaining ‘order’ by instilling terror in the helot population while preparing Spartan males for the brutality of the battlefield.
The wretched helot system finally came to an end in the fourth century, when the Thebans defeated the Spartans and liberated the helots of Messenia.
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One of the most enduring documents in history, the Hippocratic Oath has historically required a newly minted physician to swear to uphold a list of professional ethical standards and practices of medicine. This pledge includes the promise to treat the sick to the best of one’s abilities and to respect a patient’s right to privacy. Most classical historians believe that the Greek physician Hippocrates, universally acknowledged as the “father of Western medicine,” wrote the oath in the last 5th century B.C. The most commonly known phrase attributed to the oath, “first, do no harm,” is actually a misquote from the text. Instead, the Oath requires a physician to promise to “abstain from doing harm,” (a not insignificant distinction).
Moreover, contrary to popular belief, most modern medical schools do not require new graduates to take the Hippocratic Oath. However, despite countless rewrites and updates over the centuries, the basic precepts of the Hippocratic Oath still stand as the fundamental commandments of modern medical ethics, and continues to be an important right of passage for rookie doctors in many parts of the world.
A direct translation of the classic Oath reads as follows:
“I swear by Apollo the physician, and Asclepius, and Hygieia and Panacea and all the gods and goddesses as my witnesses, that, according to my ability and judgment, I will keep this Oath and this contract:
To hold him who taught me this art equally dear to me as my parents, to be a partner in life with him, and to fulfill his needs when required; to look upon his offspring as equals to my own siblings, and to teach them this art, if they shall wish to learn it, without fee or contract; and that by the set rules, lectures, and every other mode of instruction, I will impart a knowledge of the art to my own sons, and those of my teachers, and to students bound by this contract and having sworn this Oath to the law of medicine, but to no others.
I will use those dietary regimens which will benefit my patients according to my greatest ability and judgment, and I will do no harm or injustice to them.
I will not give a lethal drug to anyone if I am asked, nor will I advise such a plan; and similarly I will not give a woman a pessary to cause an abortion.
In purity and according to divine law will I carry out my life and my art.
I will not use the knife, even upon those suffering from stones, but I will leave this to those who are trained in this craft.
Into whatever homes I go, I will enter them for the benefit of the sick, avoiding any voluntary act of impropriety or corruption, including the seduction of women or men, whether they are free men or slaves.
Whatever I see or hear in the lives of my patients, whether in connection with my professional practice or not, which ought not to be spoken of outside, I will keep secret, as considering all such things to be private.
So long as I maintain this Oath faithfully and without corruption, may it be granted to me to partake of life fully and the practice of my art, gaining the respect of all men for all time. However, should I transgress this Oath and violate it, may the opposite be my fate.”
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Conium maculatum, commonly referred to as ‘Hemlock,” is a poisonous biennial plant which grows between 5-8 ft. tall. The plant can be identified by its’ smooth green stem and the telltale reddish purple spots or streaks found on the lower half of the stem. Hemlock is the black sheep of the Umbelliferae family, whose better behaved siblings include parsley, fennel, parsnips and carrots.
What sets hemlock apart from the rest of its family is that fact that every part of the plant, especially the leaves and fruit, contain a volatile alkaloid which is so toxic that even just a few drop will fell an unlucky small animal. The most powerful toxin produced by hemlock is the neurotoxin Coniine, which interferes with the central nervous system and eventually leads to death if enough is ingested.
The juice of hemlock was frequently used to execute prisoners in ancient Greece, and its most famous victim was the Athenian philosopher Socrates in 399 B.C. Socrates was charged, tried and sentenced to death on the basis of two notoriously weak charges: ‘corrupting the youth’ and ‘impiety’. His accusers claimed that he ‘failed to acknowledge the gods” that were widely worshipped in Athens, and had ‘introduced new deities” to his students and followers. Despite the flimsy case brought against the learned philosopher, a majority of the 501 jurors voted to convict him, and he was sentenced to death by drinking a potent hemlock elixir.
While Socrates may have died before his time, his life, teachings and last days have lived on through the writings of his loyal student Plato (despite the fact that Socrates never wrote any of his own works during his lifetime). In fact, Plato’s account of the trial and execution of “the wisest and most just of men” has exercised an enduring influence over countless writers, artists and philosophers, and has ensured his teacher’s eternal place in posterity.
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While there is no such thing as a “female sperm,” this term is often used to refer to sperm that contains an X chromosome, which produces a female child if it gets lucky enough to successfully fertilize an egg. However, if researchers at the University of Newcastle have it their way, women might soon be able to produce their own sperm, turning “female sperm” into a reality.
Research on “female-only” conception has been conducted for over 20 years; in the 1990s, Japanese scientists were able to develop chicken “female sperm” by injecting bone marrow stem cells from a female chicken into a rooster’s testicles. However, this technique has thus far proved to be unsuccessful with humans.
Biologist Karim Nayernia at Newcastle has discovered a way to create partially developed sperm cells (“spermatogonial stem cells”) from bone marrow tissue, and she and her research team hope that they can determine how to coax the female tissue to develop into “female sperm” cells. If successful, only female children could be conceived by this method, because a Y chromosome is necessary to produce sons.
If successfully produced, “female sperm” cells could enable female same-sex couples to have a child that would be the biological offspring of both mothers. However, there is no telling how critics of new reproductive technologies, not to mention opponents of same-sex marriage, will respond to this and other scientific advances which have the potential to facilitate the formation of “alternative” families. Thus, whether these scientists will ever be able to help real patients will depend on both the sentiment of the public and future legislation.
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The only time that bedding has doubled as fashionable outerwear....
D.W. Griffith’s epic silent film, The Birth of a Nation (1915) was set during the American Civil War and Reconstruction, and was based on Thomas Dixon’s infamous Ku Klux Klan (KKK) propaganda piece, The Clansman. D.W. Griffith, himself a Southerner and the son of an embittered Confederate War cavalry officer who was ‘broken’ by the civil war, blamed Reconstructionists and Southern blacks for the personal misfortunes experienced by his family. This sentiment is reflected in his film, which depicts Southern blacks as rapacious, violent and sexually insatiable, while portraying members of the Ku Klux Klan as Southern heroes.
When Birth of the Nation was released, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) published a 47-page pamphlet titled, “Fighting a Vicious Film: Protest Against The Birth of A Nation” and many prominent African-Americans publicly denounced the movie as racist and inaccurate. President Woodrow Wilson was close friends with Thomas Dixon (author of The Clansman), and felt that the movie reflected a truthful and accurate portrayal of history and racial politics. After attending a private screening of the film, Wilson reportedly said, “It is like writing history with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”
Sadly, Birth of A Nation was a box office sensation, and provoked race riots in major cities across the country, peaking in the North in 1919. Many cities refused to screen the film for fear of violence, including Chicago, Denver, Pittsburgh, St. Louis and Minneapolis. The film was so influential, in fact, that it single-handedly resurrected the ailing KKK, which had seen its membership gradually decline in the years following reconstruction.
D.W. Griffith later regretted his role in promoting racial prejudice through his film, and even tried to make amends by making the film Intolerance, a pointed attack against racial prejudice. Unfortunately, this film never approached the success or influence of Griffith’s earlier work, and his legacy will forever be haunted by his role in the rise of the KKK in the 1920s.
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