September 23, 1858: DON’T wash your hands!

September 23, 2015

Ignaz Semmelweiss

Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis

This is one of the classic stories of public health, an issue that most U.S. history and world history texts tend to ignore, to the detriment of the students and the classroom outcomes.

This is the story as retold by Christopher Cerf and Victor Navasky in The Experts Speak:

In the 1850s a Hungarian doctor and professor of obstetrics named Ignaz Semmelweis [pictured at left] ordered his interns at the Viennese Lying-in Hospital to wash their hands after performing autopsies and before examining new mothers. The death rate plummeted from 22 out of 200 to 2 out of 200, prompting the following reception from one of Europe’s most respected medical practitioners:

“It may be that it [Semmelweis’ procedure] does contain a few good principles, but its scrupulous application has presented such difficulties that it would be necessary, in Paris for instance, to place in quarantine the personnel of a hospital during the great part of a year, and that, moreover, to obtain results that remain entirely problematical.”

Dr. Charles Dubois (Parisian obstetrician), memo to the French Academy
September 23, 1858

Semmelweiss’ superiors shared Dubois’ opinion; when the Hungarian physician insisted on defending his theories, they forced him to resign his post on the faculty.

Gotta wonder what Dr. Dubois would make of the suits and sanitation procedures required today for health professionals who treat Ebola victims.


Yes, this is mostly an encore post. Fighting ignorance requires patience.

Yes, this is mostly an encore post. Fighting ignorance requires patience.

Quote of the moment: John Adams, nation must have public schools, paid by the people

September 10, 2015

What would John Adams have said about charter schools?

Adams was quite clear, during his lifetime, that a nation should be known by the good people its good schools produce. No, not private schools: Adams insisted the schools must be open to the public, and funded by the people. Public schools, not private contractors brought in at public expense.

Do you think Adams changed his mind after his death?

Here’s the letter Adams sent to a regular correspondent, John Jebb, on September 10, 1785, 230 years ago today. Capitalization, spelling punctuation, insertions and grammar, as in the original; highlighting added:

John Adams' residence at Grosvenor Square, in London

John Adams’ residence at Grosvenor Square, in London; presumably, his letter to John Jebb took form in this house. Long in use by U.S. Ambassadors to England, it is in 2015 the office complex of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, envoy for The Quartet.  Image from London Cyberpunk Tourist Guide

the social science will never be much improved untill the People unanimously know and Consider themselvs as the fountain of Power and untill they shall  know how to manage it Wisely and honestly. reformation must begin with the \Body of the/ People which can be done only, to affect, in their Educations. the Whole People must take \upon/ themselvs the Education of the Whole People and must be willing to bear the expences of it. there should not be a district of one Mile square without a school in it, not founded by a Charitable individual but maintained at the expence of the People themselv[s] they must be taught to reverence themselvs instead of adoreing their servants their Generals Admirals Bishops and Statesmen — Instead of Admiring so extravegantly a Prince of Orange, we Should admire the Botavian Nation which produced him. Instead of Adoring a Washington, Mankind should applaud the Nation which Educated him. If Thebes owes its Liberty and Glory to Epaminandas, She will loose both when he dies, and it would have been as well if she had never enjoyed a taste for either: but if the Knowledge the Principles the Virtues and Capacities of the Theban Nation produced an Epaminandas, her Liberties and Glory will remain when he is no more: and if an analogous system of Education is Established and Enjoyed by the Whole Nation, it will produce a succession of Epaminandas’s, the Human Mind naturally exerts itself to form its Character according to the Ideas of those about it.

♦  Letter from John Adams to John Jebb, September 10, 1785, from Grosvenor Square, London

It’s a warning from the past: Do we like freedom? Then we must educate our children well, in public schools, to understand the public interest and their role in preserving and bettering the state. Can any presidential candidate expound on the issue, let alone the man, with any sing of erudition?

Tip of the old scrub brush to Diane Ravitch’s Blog.


John Adams High School, a public school in South Bend, Indiana.

John Adams High School, a public school in South Bend, Indiana. According to the Michiana Schools site, ” John Adams High School is a public school located in South Bend, Indiana right across the street from Indiana University South Bend. Adam’s mascot is the eagle and their school colors are scarlet, blue and white. Adams has a very successful mock trail team. The school was established in 1940. They have around 2,000 students every year, making it the second largest school in the Michiana area.”

Yes, this is mostly an encore post. Fighting ignorance requires patience.

Yes, this is mostly an encore post. Fighting ignorance requires patience.

“Damn the torpedoes” Day: Battle of Mobile Bay, August 5, 1864

August 5, 2015

Julius O. Davidson's painting (published by Louis Prang) of the Battle of Mobile Bay, August 5, 1864.

Julius O. Davidson’s painting (published by Louis Prang) of the Battle of Mobile Bay, August 5, 1864.

It was 151 years ago today:  Especially with the excellent help of Tom Petty, whose 1979 album “Damn the Torpedoes” propelled him to stardom, the phrase “Damn the torpedoes!” remains one of the most used phrases out of history.

Just try to find someone who can tell you who first said it, and what the circumstances were. It’s a sign that history instruction is not what it should be on some matters.

August 5 marks the 151st anniversary of the Battle of Mobile Bay in 1864, when the Union Navy under the command of Admiral David Farragut took Mobile from Confederate forces.

U.S. Heritage Protection Services — a division of the National Park Service — gives a straight up, unemotional description of the fight, which was a key victory for the Union, shutting down much of the Confederacy’s ability to trade with foreign nations and supply its army:

Photograph from circa 1855-1865 of then-Rear Admiral David Glasgow Farragut, the commander of the Union forces at the Battle of Mobile Bay, and the man to who is attributed the famous line,

Photograph from circa 1855-1865 of then-Rear Admiral David Glasgow Farragut, the commander of the Union forces at the Battle of Mobile Bay, and the man to who is attributed the famous line, “Damn the Torpedoes!”

Other Names: Passing of Forts Morgan and Gaines

Location: Mobile County and Baldwin County

Campaign: Operations in Mobile Bay (1864)

Date(s): August 2-23, 1864

Principal Commanders: Adm. David G. Farragut and Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger [US]; Adm. Franklin Buchanan and Brig. Gen. Richard L. Page [CS]

Forces Engaged: Farragut’s Fleet (14 wooden ships and 4 monitors) and U.S. army forces near Mobile [US]; Buchanan’s Flotilla (3 gunboats and an ironclad), Fort Morgan Garrison, Fort Gaines Garrison, and Fort Powell Garrison [CS]

Estimated Casualties: 1,822 (US 322; CS 1,500)

Description: A combined Union force initiated operations to close Mobile Bay to blockade running. Some Union forces landed on Dauphin Island and laid siege to Fort Gaines. On August 5, Farragut’s Union fleet of eighteen ships entered Mobile Bay and received a devastating fire from Forts Gaines and Morgan and other points.  After passing the forts, Farragut forced the Confederate naval forces, under Adm. Franklin Buchanan, to surrender, which effectively closed Mobile Bay. By August 23, Fort Morgan, the last big holdout, fell, shutting down the port. The city, however, remained uncaptured.

Results(s): Union victory

World War I recruiting poster showing Admiral David Farragut lashed to the mast of his ship, and offering the quote for which Farragut is famous.

World War I recruiting poster showing Admiral David Farragut lashed to the mast of his ship, and offering the quote for which Farragut is famous. Image from the collection of the Library of Congress, via Wikipedia

Nota bene:

  • Was Farragut lashed to the rigging? Wikipedia’s listing:An anecdote of the battle that has some dramatic interest has it that Farragut was lashed to the mast during the passage of Fort Morgan. The image it brings to mind is of absolute resolve: if his ship were to be sunk in the battle, he would go down with her. The truth is more prosaic; while he was indeed lashed to the rigging of the mainmast, it was a precautionary move rather than an act of defiance. It came about after the battle had opened and smoke from the guns had clouded the air. In order to get a better view of the action, Farragut climbed into Hartford‘s rigging, and soon was high enough that a fall would certainly incapacitate him and could have killed him. Seeing this, Captain Drayton sent a seaman aloft with a piece of line to secure the admiral. He demurred, saying, “Never mind, I am all right,” but the sailor obeyed his captain’s orders, tying one end of the line to a forward shroud, then around the admiral and to the after shroud.[50]Later, when CSS Tennessee made her unsupported attack on the Federal fleet, Farragut climbed into the mizzen rigging. Still concerned for his safety, Captain Drayton had Flag-Lieutenant J. Crittenden Watson tie him to the rigging again.[51] Thus, the admiral had been tied to the rigging twice in the course of the battle.
  • Did Farragut actually say, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead?  Mobile Bay had been mined by the Confederates, to hold off exactly the sort of Union attack Farragut mounted. Mines, in that time, were known as “torpedoes,” not the underwater-missiles made famous by World War II movies.  Farragut had an iron-clad ship, Tecumseh, under his command leading the attack; legend holds that other ships slowed to allow Tecumseh to cross them and move ahead.  Farragut asked why the attack was slowing, and upon hearing that they feared torpedoes (mines), he later was reputed to have said “Damn the torpedoes,” and urged moving at all speed.  Did he say, “full speed ahead?”  Accounts differ on that, even in legend.  In one version he shouted to the ship Brooklyn, “Go ahead!”  That’s unlikely in the din of sailing, coupled with the din of battle.  Another account has him shouting (vainly) to the Hartford, “Four bells, Captain Drayton.”  Yet another version, that almost makes sense, has him shouting to the Metacomet, which was lashed to the Hartford’s side, “Go ahead, Jouett, full speed.”  The entire quote must be listed as attributed, and the only part most versions agree on is “Damn the torpedoes.”  A World War I recruiting poster probably inscribed the quote into history (see the poster in this post).  Alas, Tecumseh hit a torpedo early in the battle, and sank, killing most of its crew.
  • Political importance:  Coupled with Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman‘s March Across Georgia, and the Fall of Atlanta, the Battle of Mobile Bay gave credence to the idea that the fortunes of the Civil War had turned in the Union’s favor.  This victory probably contributed greatly to the re-election of President Abraham Lincoln against opponents who urged simply ending the war without victory.
  • Mobile Bay was an important port? Mobile Bay stands as a monument to poor soil conservation practices, today.  Maps of the battle show a much larger bay than exists today; since 1864, silting from the river has filled in the bay, making it much less useful, and much less important to shipping.
H. H. Lloyd & Co's 1861 map of Mobile Bay, Alabama

1861 map of Mobile Bay: “H.H. Lloyd & Co’s Campaign Military Charts Showing The Principal Strategic Places Of Interest. Engraved Expressly To Meet A Public Want During The Present War. Compiled From Official Data By Egbert L. Viele, Military and Civil Engineer; and Charles Haskins. Published Under The Auspices Of The American Geographical And Statistical Society. Entered … 1861 by H.H. Lloyd & Co. H.H. Lloyd & Co’s Military Charts. Sixteen Maps On One Sheet.”

LandSat image of Mobile Bay, from NASA, 2003 (via Wikipedia)

LandSat image of Mobile Bay, from NASA, 2003 (via Wikipedia).  The Northern Bay is almost completely silted in by the Mobile River and others.

Whether Admiral David G. Farragut actually said, “Damn the torpedoes!” the phrase remains an often-used quotation to urge action in the face of uncertainty, hopefully, to victory.  Farragut’s forces won the Battle of Mobile Bay on August 5, 1864, a key maritime battle of the Civil War.  Whatever he said, it must have been inspiring.

What torpedoes are you damning today?


This is an encore post.

This is an annual event. Much of this is an encore post.

How could John Adams be so wrong about the Fourth of July?

July 2, 2015

“The Second Day of July 1776 will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. . . . It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires, and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”
John Adams to Abigail Adams, July 3, 1776

Surely John Adams knew that July 4 would be Independence Day, didn’t he?

In writing to his wife Abigail on July 3, John Adams committed one of those grand errors even he would laugh at afterward. We’ll forgive him when the fireworks start firing.

1776 filled the calendar with dates deserving of remembrance and even celebration. John Adams, delegate from Massachusetts to the Second Continental Congress, wrote home to his wife Abigail that future generations would celebrate July 2, the date the Congress voted to approve Richard Henry Lee’s resolution declaring independence from Britain for 13 of the British colonies in America.

Continental congress DSC_0607

Scene of the crime — Independence Hall in Philadelphia, where the Second Continental congress approved the resolution to declare the colonies independent from Britain – (Photo credit: diablodale)

Two days later, that same Congress approved the wording of the document Thomas Jefferson had drafted to announce Lee’s resolution to the world.

Today, we celebrate the date of the document Jefferson wrote, and Richard Henry Lee is often a reduced to a footnote, if not erased from history altogether.

Who can predict the future?

(You know, of course, that Adams and Jefferson both died 50 years to the day after the Declaration of Independence, on July 4, 1826. In the 50 intervening years, Adams and Jefferson were comrades in arms and diplomacy in Europe, officers of the new government in America, opposing candidates for the presidency, President and Vice President, ex-President and President, bitter enemies, then long-distance friends writing almost daily about how to make a great new nation. Read David McCullough‘s version of the story, if you can find it.)

(Yes, this is mostly an encore post.)

More, and Related articles:

The Lee Resolution.

The Lee Resolution, passed by the Second Continental Congress on July 2, 1776 – Wikipedia image (Wait a minute: Are those numbers added correctly? What are they?)

Yes, this is mostly an encore post. Fighting ignorance requires patience.

Yes, this is mostly an encore post. Fighting ignorance requires patience.

Leader to the bone: Eisenhower’s astonishing D-Day leadership example, “Blame . . . is mine alone”

June 6, 2015

It is a model of leadership, an example more leaders should follow — though few do. It’s one more example of the high caliber leadership Dwight Eisenhower demonstrated throughout his life. In it’s imperfections, handwritten, it should take your breath away.  Eisenhower was a leader down to the bone.

So again, today, on the 71st anniversary of the D-Day invasion, we remember.

Eisenhower's unused statement on the failure of D-Day

Eisenhower’s contingency statement, in case D-Day failed – image from the National Archives

This quote actually isn’t a quote. It was never said by the man who wrote it down to say it. It carries a powerful lesson because of what it is.

In preparing for the D-Day invasion, Supreme Allied Commander Dwight Eisenhower carefully contemplated what would happen if the invasion failed.  What if the Germans repulsed the Allies, and no foothold was established to re-take the main body of Europe from the Germans?

Ike’s answer is a model of leadership:  He would take the blame.  Regardless what happened, Ike took full responsibility for the failure, giving credit to the soldiers who would have sacrificed in vain, perhaps their lives.

The Bathtub recently posted Gen. Dwight Eisenhower’s “order of the day” to the troops about to conduct the Allied invasion of Normandy — D-Day — to establish the toehold in Europe the Allies needed to march to Berlin, and to end World War II in Europe. As a charge to the troops, it was okay — Eisenhower-style words, not Churchill-style, but effective enough. One measure of its effectiveness was the success of the invasion, which established the toe-hold from which the assaults on the Third Reich were made.


Photo shows Eisenhower meeting with troops of the 101st Airborne Division, 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment, on the eve of the invasion. It was these men whose courage he lauded.

When Eisenhower wrote his words of encouragement to the troops, and especially after he visited with some of the troops, he worried about the success of the operation. It was a great gamble. Many of the things the Allies needed to go right — like weather — had gone wrong. Victory was not assured. Defeat strode the beaches of Normandy waiting to drive the Allies back into the water, to die.

Eisenhower wrote a second statement, a shorter one. This one was directed to the world. It assumed the assault had failed. In a few short sentences, Eisenhower commended the courage and commitment of the troops who, he wrote, had done all they could. The invasion was a chance, a good chance based on the best intelligence the Allies had, Eisenhower wrote. But it had failed.

The failure, Eisenhower wrote, was not the fault of the troops, but was entirely Eisenhower’s.

He didn’t blame the weather, though he could have. He didn’t blame fatigue of the troops, though they were tired, some simply from drilling, many from war. He didn’t blame the superior field position of the Germans, though the Germans clearly had the upper hand. He didn’t blame the almost-bizarre attempts to use technology that look almost clownish in retrospect — the gliders that carried troops behind the lines, sometimes too far, sometimes killing the pilots when the gliders’ cargo shifted on landing;  the flotation devices that were supposed to float tanks to the beaches to provide cover for the troops (but which failed, drowning the tank crews and leaving the foot soldiers on their own); the bombing of the forts and pillboxes on the beaches, which failed because the bombers could not see their targets through the clouds.

There may have been a plan B, but in the event of failure, Eisenhower was prepared to establish who was accountable, whose head should roll if anyone’s should.

Eisenhower took full responsibility.

Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troop, the air [force] and the navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone.

Who in the U.S. command would write such a thing today?  Who else in history would have written such a thing?  Is there any indication that Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan, or any other commander of a great army in  a world-turning invasion, considered how to save and perhaps salve the reputation of his troops, though they had failed?

Leadership is more than just positive thinking.

  • The message may also be viewed here. Yes, it’s incorrectly dated July 5 — should have been June 5.  In history, little is perfect.  We can excuse his slip of the pen, considering what else he had on his mind.



General Eisenhower speaks with members of the ...

Another  angle of the meeting with the troops:  General Eisenhower speaks with members of the 101st Airborne Division on the evening of 5 June 1944.  Wikipedia image

This is mostly an encore post.

Quote of the moment: FDR on government shutdowns

February 24, 2015

One wag, who didn’t want to discuss things after all, referred me to President Franklin Roosevelt’s message to the National Federal of Federal Employees (NFFE), of August 16, 1937 (from the American Presidency Project at the University of California – Santa Barbara (UCSB)).  The wag asked me to confess that FDR was anti-union, and that Wisconsin Gov. Scott “Ahab” Walker had acted in Roosevelt’s path in Walker’s assaults on the unions of policemen, firefighters and teachers in Wisconsin.

I demurred, and pointed out instead that Walker went after the unions despite their having NOT struck, that Walker refused to bargain in good faith, or bargain at all.  I pointed out that Walker had failed in his duty, in the view of FDR.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in 1936 (Checking to see whether, when and where FDR said that; Robert Reich says he did.)

It’s a good way to send wags packing on Twitter, I’ve learned.  They don’t like to read or think, and they certainly don’t want anyone pointing out that they may have misinterpreted something. Anything.

NFFE had invited Roosevelt to speak at their Twentieth Jubilee Convention; Roosevelt sent a letter declining the invitation. In declining, Roosevelt noted he opposed strikes by government employees.  No doubt there is more history there that deserves our attention.  We can get to it later.

Here’s the meat of FDR’s letter:

Particularly, I want to emphasize my conviction that militant tactics have no place in the functions of any organization of Government employees. Upon employees in the Federal service rests the obligation to serve the whole people, whose interests and welfare require orderliness and continuity in the conduct of Government activities. This obligation is paramount. Since their own services have to do with the functioning of the Government, a strike of public employees manifests nothing less than an intent on their part to prevent or obstruct the operations of Government until their demands are satisfied. Such action, looking toward the paralysis of Government by those who have sworn to support it, is unthinkable and intolerable. It is, therefore, with a feeling of gratification that I have noted in the constitution of the National Federation of Federal Employees the provision that “under no circumstances shall this Federation engage in or support strikes against the United States Government.”

What do you think Roosevelt would have made of the current and last “do nothing” GOP blocs in Congress?  (Or should we say “blocks?”)

Doesn’t this describe Republicans in Congress today?

” . . . intent on their part to prevent or obstruct the operations of government until their demands are satisfied. Such action, looking toward the paralysis of Government by those who have sworn to support it, is unthinkable and intolerable.”

Is it too much to ask Republicans in Congress to be at least as loyal to the U.S. as the unionized government employees who pledged not to shut down the government?


Misquote of the moment: Magellan didn’t say it, but it’s still brilliant, “shadow on the Moon”

February 21, 2015

An anonymous portrait of Ferdinand Magellan, 16th or 17th century (The Mariner's Museum Collection, Newport News, VA) Legend:

An anonymous portrait of Ferdinand Magellan, 16th or 17th century (The Mariner’s Museum Collection, Newport News, VA) Legend: “Ferdinan[dus] Magellanus superatis antarctici freti angustiis clariss.” (Fedinand Magellan, you overcame the famous, narrow, southern straits.)

From Wikiquote:

  • The Church says that the Earth is flat, but I know that it is round. For I have seen the shadow of the earth on the moon and I have more faith in the Shadow than in the Church.

    • This quotation is often found on the internet attributed to Magellan, but never with a source, and no English occurrence prior to its use by Robert Green Ingersoll in his essay “Individuality” (1873) has been located. Thus, it it most likely spurious. In that essay Ingersoll states:

It is a blessed thing that in every age some one has had individuality enough and courage enough to stand by his own convictions, — some one who had the grandeur to say his say. I believe it was Magellan who said, “The church says the earth is flat; but I have seen its shadow on the moon, and I have more confidence even in a shadow than in the church.” On the prow of his ship were disobedience, defiance, scorn, and success.

Where did Ingersoll get that thought? Wouldn’t he claim it as his own, had he invented it?

And, is it true? Can we tell anything by the Earth’s shadow on the Moon? discusses the reality, when can we really see the Earth’s shadow?  Turns out, we don’t have to wait for a lunar eclipse. More, is this false attributing perhaps the source of the old, incorrect claim that many in the days of Columbus thought the Earth to be flat, and not spherical?

Wikiquote, and the rest of us, need more sleuthing on this one.



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,882 other followers

%d bloggers like this: