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  • feedwordpress 09:01:08 on 2017/11/08 Permalink
    Tags: , cremation, , expense, , , medicine, pathology, Samuel Wilks,   

    “I did not attend his funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it”*… 


    The cost of burying a loved one in America has risen faster than virtually everything else over the last 30 years.

    The Bureau of Labor Statistics just published a fascinating look at the cost of dying in the US…  The chart below shows that the price index for funerals has risen almost twice as fast as consumer prices for all other items.

    Producer prices for caskets rose 230% from December 1986 through September 2017, while prices for all commodities increased 95.1%. The data is not seasonally adjusted.

    As casket costs surged, the rate of cremations surpassed burials in 2015 for a second straight year, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. Its data showed that the median cost of a funeral with viewing and burial in 2014 was $7,181, and $6078 for a funeral with viewing and cremation.

    Dig in at: “It’s gotten a whole lot more expensive to die in America.”

    See also: “The 10 Companies That Control the Death Industry.”

    * Mark Twain


    As we memento mori, we might spare a thought for Sir Samuel Wilks; he died on this date in 1911.  Wilks, who served as President of the Royal College of Physicians in the UK., made his mark with the publication on his Lectures on Pathological Anatomy (1863)– for which he is remembered as a founding father of clinical science and modern pathology.  He identified the visceral lesions of syphilis and improved the understanding of Addison’s, Bright’s and Hodgkin’s diseases.  As Sir Thomas Barlow observed, “ [Wilks] started the systematic and practical teaching of morbid anatomy, and for nearly thirty years Wilks represented and embodied at Guy’s Hospital the important combination of a great morbid anatomist, and a great clinical physician and teacher.”



  • feedwordpress 08:01:07 on 2017/10/07 Permalink
    Tags: , , , If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox, , medicine, Oliver Wendell Holmes, The Atlantic Monthly, Thurber,   

    “We look at this as the best of all possible worlds; but the French know it isn’t, because most people speak English.”*… 


    “I was wrassling some general. Some general with a beard.” James Thurber’s drawing for “If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox.”

    At the end of 1930 Scribner’s Magazine began publishing what would prove to be a short-lived series of “alternative history” pieces. The first installment, in the November issue, was “If Booth Had Missed Lincoln.” This was followed by a contribution from none other than Winston Churchill, who turned the concept on its head. It was bafflingly titled “If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg”—but, as we all know, Lee didn’t win the Battle of Gettysburg. Instead, Churchill’s essay purported to be written by a historian in a world in which Lee had won not only the battle but also the entire war. This fictional historian, in turn, speculates what might have happened if Lee had not won the battle. This type of dizzying zaniness brought out the parodist in Thurber, who published “If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox” in The New Yorker in December. The next month Scribner’s published a third essay (“If Napoleon Had Escaped to America”) before bring the series to an end. All three pieces were soon forgotten, but Thurber’s parody became one of his most famous and beloved works…

    Enjoy it (online or in PDF or Google Doc form) at “If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox.” Find more of the Library of America’s “Story of the Week” offerings here (where you can also sign up for their nifty weekly email drop of stories from their archive).

    * Mark Olson at the “Histories: The Way We Weren’t” panel at Boskone 28.


    As we retreat to the High Castle, we might spare a thought for Oliver Wendell Holmes (Sr.); he died on this date in 1894.   A physician, poet, and polymath based in Boston, he was a member of the Fireside Poets, acclaimed by his peers (his friends included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and James Russell Lowell) as one of the best writers of the day.  His most famous prose works are the humorous “Breakfast-Table” series, which began with The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table (1858).  Many of his works were published in The Atlantic Monthly, a magazine that he named; he popularized several terms, including “Boston Brahmin” and “anesthesia.”

    Holmes was also an important medical reformer.  In addition to his work as an author and poet, Holmes also served as a physician, professor, lecturer, and inventor, and although he never practiced it, he received formal training in law… an enthusiasm he passed on to his eldest son, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who served as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from 1902 to 1932, and as Acting Chief Justice of the United States from January–February 1930.



  • feedwordpress 08:01:41 on 2017/07/27 Permalink
    Tags: Armour, diabetes, Frederick Banting, , insulin, , meat packing, medicine, , Swift,   

    “It was all so very businesslike that one watched it fascinated. It was pork-making by machinery, pork-making by applied mathematics.”*… 


    In the mid-to-late 1800s, the meat industry — from the cowboys and cattle drives to the Chicago slaughterhouses to the refrigerated railcars delivering steaks to New York’s finest restaurants — was the largest industry in America. At the heart of this industry were entrepreneurs like Philip Danforth Armour and Gustavus Franklin Swift, who pioneered business practices later adopted by the automobile industry and whose company names survive to this day:

    “[In the meat industry in the mid-1800s], automation was the secret ingredient. Overhead wheels were introduced to carry the hog or the steer from one fixed worksta­tion to the next. Before long, this approach evolved into an over­head trolley system driven by steam engines and industrial belts. Specific repetitive tasks were assigned to each worker along what became, in effect, the first assembly line, although the actual work was disassembly. It was from studying this process in the Chicago slaughterhouses that Henry Ford came up with his own method for assembling automobiles — a development that would revolutionize mass manufacturing…

    More at “The American Meat Colossus,” an excerpt from Cattle Kingdom: The Hidden History of the Cowboy West, by Christopher Knowlton.

    * “It was all so very businesslike that one watched it fascinated. It was pork-making by machinery, pork-making by applied mathematics. And yet somehow the most matter-of-fact person could not help thinking of the hogs; they were so innocent, they came so very trustingly; and they were so very human in their protests – and so perfectly within their rights! They had done nothing to deserve it; and it was adding insult to injury, as the thing was done here, swinging them up in this cold-blooded, impersonal way, without pretence at apology, without the homage of a tear.”  – Upton Sinclair (author of The Jungle)


    As we ponder protein, we might recall that it was on this date in 1921 that Canadians Sir Frederick Banting and his assistant Charles Best isolated insulin (from canine subjects).  Later that year, working with a University of Toronto colleague,  J.J.R. MacLeod, Banting developed a diabetes treatment for humans– for which he and MacLeod shared the Nobel Prize in Medicine.  Banting and Best (with whom he shared his Nobel Prize money) later improved both the sourcing process for insulin (discovering how to extract it from an intact pancreas) and the diabetes detection process.

    Best (left) and Bantling with with one of the diabetic dogs used in their experiments with insulin



  • feedwordpress 08:01:51 on 2017/07/13 Permalink
    Tags: David Ingram, , , , medicine, naval hygiene, , ,   

    “There is no easy walk to freedom”*… 


    Detail showing the span of Ingram’s walk, from a map of America by Diego Gutiérrez dating from 1562, just 6 years before Ingram claimed to have made his journey

    In the autumn of 1569 the Gargaryne, a French trader, was moored off Cape Breton in present day Nova Scotia when its captain M. Champaign was alerted to a commotion outside. Three English men sitting in a native canoe were asking to be let on board. Their names were David Ingram, Richard Brown, and Richard Twyde, and they told him a story that began in Mexico the year before.

    In September 1568, they’d been involved in the battle of San Juan de Ulúa (present day Veracruz, Mexico), between a fleet of English privateers, led by John Hawkins and Francis Drake, and Spanish forces under Francisco Luján. After Hawkins’ ship, the Minion, was damaged, he sailed across the Gulf of Mexico where he put the crew on shore. European settlements along the Atlantic coast were sparse and some of the men decided to walk back to San Juan while others including Ingram, Brown, and Twyde intended to follow the coast north in search of English communities. After some died and others returned south, the three remaining sailors, after more than a year wandering up the eastern coast of North America, reached the fishing village at Cape Breton, Canada, unintentionally becoming, if the story is to be believed, the first Europeans to cross North America…

    If three shipwrecked English sailors really did travel by foot from Florida to Nova Scotia in 1569 then it would certainly count as one of the most remarkable walks undertaken in recorded history.  Although the account’s more fantastical elements, such as the sighting of elephants, have spurred many to consign it to the fiction department, John Toohey argues for a second look: “The Long, Forgotten Walk of David Ingram.”

    * Nelson Mandela


    As we take a hike, we might spare a thought for James Lind; he died on this date in 1794.  A Scottish physician, he discovered, as a product of the first ever clinical trial, that adding citrus to the diet of English sailors would curb the incidence of scurvy.  When made a requirement by Sir Gilbert Blane, this resulted in the prompt eradication of the disease from the British Navy. (The Dutch had implemented this practice almost two centuries earlier, though with less scientific justification.)  Lind also recommended shipboard delousing procedures, suggested the use of hospital ships for sick sailors in tropical ports, and arranged for the shipboard distillation of seawater for drinking water– for all of which he is remembered as “The Father of Naval Hygiene.”



  • feedwordpress 08:01:50 on 2017/05/24 Permalink
    Tags: cannabis, coinage, , marijuana, medicine, , , W. B. O’Shaughnessy, William Whewell, wordsmith   

    “When I was a kid I inhaled frequently. That was the point.”*… 


    Drawing of Cannabis Indica featured in O’Shaughnessy article on the plant in Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal (1839)

    Cataleptic trances, enormous appetites, and giggling fits aside, W. B. O’Shaughnessy’s investigations at a Calcutta hospital into the potential of medical marijuana — the first such trials in modern medicine — were largely positive.

    Sujaan Mukherjee explores the intricacies of this pioneering research and what it can tell us more generally about the production of knowledge in colonial science: “W. B. O’Shaughnessy and the Introduction of Cannabis to Modern Western Medicine.”

    * Barak Obama


    As we choose the natural path, we might send wonderfully worded birthday greetings to William Whewell; he was born on this date in 1794.  One of the 19th Century’s most remarkable polymaths, Whewell, Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, was a scientist (crystallographer, meteorologist), philosopher, theologian, and historian of science,  But he is best remembered for his wordsmithing:  He created the words scientist and physicist by analogy with the word artist; they soon replaced the older term natural philosopher. He coined other useful words to help his friends: biometry for John Lubbock; Eocine, Miocene and Pliocene for Charles Lyell; and for Michael Faraday, anode, cathode, diamagnetic, paramagnetic, and ion (whence the sundry other particle names ending -ion).


  • feedwordpress 08:01:36 on 2017/05/21 Permalink
    Tags: EKG, electrocardiograph, , , medicine, , , , , Willem Einthoven   

    Life expectancy is a statistical phenomenon. You could still be hit by the proverbial bus tomorrow.”*… 



    Life expectancy has risen across the U.S. steadily over the last few decades; but the gains are not equally distributed.  Flowing Data illustrates why one might prefer Minnesota to Mississippi: “Life expectancy by state, against the US average.”

    * Ray Kurzweil


    As we muse on moving, we might send heart-felt birthday greetings to Willem Einthoven; he was born on this date in 1860.  A physician and physiologist, he introduced a new era in the diagnosis and treatment of diseases of the heart with his invention of the electrocardiograph, for which he was awarded the 1924 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine.  His creation became an essential clinical instrument for displaying the electrical properties of the heart– especially useful, of course, in the diagnosis of heart disease.



  • feedwordpress 08:01:09 on 2017/03/15 Permalink
    Tags: , , , John Snow, lies, lying with statistics, medicine, , ,   

    “Without data, you’re just another person with an opinion”*… 


    It used to be that we’d see a poorly made graph or a data design goof, laugh it up a bit, and then carry on. At some point though — during this past year especially — it grew more difficult to distinguish a visualization snafu from bias and deliberate misinformation.

    Of course, lying with statistics has been a thing for a long time, but charts tend to spread far and wide these days. There’s a lot of them. Some don’t tell the truth. Maybe you glance at it and that’s it, but a simple message sticks and builds. Before you know it, Leonardo DiCaprio spins a top on a table and no one cares if it falls or continues to rotate.

    So it’s all the more important now to quickly decide if a graph is telling the truth…

    Nathan Yau (Flowing Data) provides a very helpful (and very amusing) guide: “How to Spot Visualization Lies.”

    * W. Edwards Deming


    As we key our eyes open, we might send healthy birthday greetings to John Snow; he was born on this date in 1813.  A physician and a leader in the adoption of anaesthesia and medical hygiene, he is considered the father of modern epidemiology, in large measure because of his work in tracing the source of a cholera outbreak in Soho, London, in 1854.  His On the Mode of Communication of Cholera (1849) suggested that cholera was a contagious disease easily transmitted by contaminated water. But the widely-held theory was that diseases are caused by bad air led to his idea being ignored.  Then, in London’s 1854 cholera emergency, he painstakingly correlated individual cholera casualties to the water supply they had used in each case.  He then communicated his results with a map that underlined his point, and ended the deadly epidemic by removing the pump handle of the community water pump that he found to be the culprit.

    Snow’s map of cholera cases


    His findings inspired fundamental changes in the water and waste systems of London, which led to similar changes in other cities, and a significant improvement in general public health around the world.  His mode of communicating them contributed to the rise of data visualization.



  • feedwordpress 09:01:41 on 2017/01/15 Permalink
    Tags: , Anna O, flap illustrations, , , Josef Breuer, medicine, , ,   

    “Anatomy is destiny”*… 


    For much of recorded history the human body was a black box—a highly capable yet mysterious assemblage of organs, muscles and bones. Even Hippocrates, a man who declared anatomy to be the foundation of medicine, had some interesting ideas about our insides.

    By the early Renaissance, scientists and artists were chipping away at this anatomical inscrutability, and illustration was proving a particularly effective way to spread what was being learned via human dissection. There remained one nagging issue, however: accurately representing the body’s three-dimensional structure on a flat, two-dimensional piece of paper. Some artists relied on creative uses of perspective to solve the problem. Others began using flaps…

    See 16th century scholars peel away anatomical ignorance one layer at a time at “How Flap Illustrations Helped Reveal the Body’s Inner Secrets.”

    * Sigmund Freud


    As we peek inside, we might send verbose birthday greetings to Josef Breuer; he was born on this date in 1842.  A physician, he made key discoveries in neurophysiology.  His work in the 1880s with his patient Bertha Pappenheim, known as Anna O., developed the talking cure (cathartic method) and laid the foundation to psychoanalysis as developed by his protégé, Sigmund Freud.

    (Though Breuer’s treatment of Anna O. was not nearly as successful as he and Freud claimed, she eventually overcame her symptoms to become an innovative social worker and a leader of the women’s movement in Germany.)



  • feedwordpress 09:01:01 on 2016/11/27 Permalink
    Tags: Bill Ye, clinic, , health care, medicine, , Science Guy, , uninsured   

    “We are healthy only to the extent that our ideas are humane”*… 


    For three days, thousands of uninsured Americans converge on the Wise County [Virginia] Fairgrounds for the largest pop-up clinic in the country. Most are poor, many are in pain, but all have faith in a level of care that neither the government nor private industry can provide…

    A story both heart-warming and horrifying: “Tent Revival.”

    * Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions


    As we tend to the needy, we might send instructive birthday greetings to William Sanford “Bill” Nye; he was born on this date in 1955.  A mechanical engineer turned actor, science educator, and television presenter, he is best known as the host of the PBS children’s science show Bill Nye the Science Guy (1993–1998), and for his many subsequent appearances in popular media.

    Nye was greatly influenced by Carl Sagan, with whom he studied astronomy at Cornell University. He began his career with Boeing, in Seattle, designing hydraulic systems, from the early to mid 1980s. From 1986-91, he created and developed the Science Guy persona for local radio and TV, while eking out a spartan existence as a stand-up comedian.  But in 1992. he made a pilot program for the local PBS station, attracted underwriters, and launched what became a five-year national PBS series, Bill Nye the Science Guy.  Since then he has appeared in other TV science programs and as a guest expert on TV shows, continuing his quest to make science accessible to the public.  He currently serves as CEO of The Planetary Society.




  • feedwordpress 08:01:12 on 2016/10/12 Permalink
    Tags: , , healthcare, , medicine, , raincoat, , , waterproof   

    “Cura te ipsum”*… 


    Americans are increasingly sorting themselves by political affiliation into friendships, even into neighborhoods. Something similar seems to be happening with doctors and their various specialties.

    New data show that, in certain medical fields, large majorities of physicians tend to share the political leanings of their colleagues, and a study suggests ideology could affect some treatment recommendations. In surgery, anesthesiology and urology, for example, around two-thirds of doctors who have registered a political affiliation are Republicans. In infectious disease medicine, psychiatry and pediatrics, more than two-thirds are Democrats.

    The conclusions are drawn from data compiled by researchers at Yale. They joined two large public data sets, one listing every doctor in the United States and another containing the party registration of every voter in 29 states…

    It would be tempting to conclude that it’s all about the Benjamins…  and data does support that:

    But age and gender play roles too.  One can examine for oneself at “Your Surgeon Is Probably a Republican, Your Psychiatrist Probably a Democrat.”

    * (Physician) heal thyself, from the Vulgate, Luke 4:23


    As we turn our heads and cough, we might recall that it was on this date in 1823 that Scottish chemist and waterproof fabric pioneer Charles Macintosh sold the first “raincoat.”


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