Historically Speaking: Anorexia’s Ancient Roots And Present Toll

The deadly affliction, once called self-starvation, has become much more common during the confinement of the pandemic.

The Wall Street Journal

February 18, 2022

Two years ago, when countries suspended the routines of daily life in an attempt to halt the spread of Covid-19, the mental health of children plunged precipitously.

Two years ago, when countries suspended the routines of daily life in an attempt to halt the spread of Covid-19, the mental health of children took a plunge. One worrying piece of evidence for this was an extraordinary spike in hospitalizations for anorexia and other eating disorders among adolescents, especially girls between the ages of 12 and 18, and not just in the U.S. but around the world. U.S. hospitalizations for eating disorders doubled between March and May 2020. England’s National Health Service recorded a 46% increase in eating disorder referrals by 2021 compared with 2019. Perth Children’s hospital in Australia saw a 104% increase in hospitalizations and in Canada, the rate tripled.

Anorexia nervosa has a higher death rate than any other mental illness. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, 75% of its sufferers are female. And while the affliction might seem relatively new, it has ancient antecedents.

As early as the sixth century B.C., adherents of Jainism in India regarded “santhara,” fasting to death, as a purifying religious ritual, particularly for men. Emperor Chandragupta, founder of the Mauryan dynasty, died in this way in 297 B.C. St. Jerome, who lived in the fourth and fifth centuries A.D., portrayed extreme asceticism as an expression of Christian piety. In 384, one of his disciples, a young Roman woman named Blaesilla, died of starvation. Perhaps because she fits the contemporary stereotype of the middle-class, female anorexic, Blaesilla rather than Chandragupta is commonly cited as the first known case.

The label given to spiritual and ascetic self-starvation is anorexia mirabilis, or “holy anorexia,” to differentiate it from the modern diagnosis of anorexia nervosa. There were two major outbreaks in history. The first began around 1300 and was concentrated among nuns and deeply religious women, some of whom were later elevated to sainthood. The second took off during the 19th century. So-called “fasting girls” or “miraculous maids” in Europe and America won acclaim for appearing to survive without food. Some were exposed as fakes; others, tragically, were allowed to waste away.

But, confusingly, there are other historical examples of anorexic-like behavior that didn’t involve religion or women. The first medical description of anorexia, written by Dr. Richard Morton in 1689, concerned two patients—an adolescent boy and a young woman—who simply wouldn’t eat. Unable to find a physical cause, Morton called the condition “nervous consumption.”

A subject under study in the Minnesota Starvation Experiment, 1945. WALLACE KIRKLAND/THE LIFE PICTURE COLLECTION/SHUTTERSTOCK

Almost two centuries passed before French and English doctors accepted Morton’s suspicion that the malady had a psychological component. In 1873, Queen Victoria’s physician, Sir William Gull, coined the term “Anorexia Nervosa.”

Naming the disease was a huge step forward. But its treatment was guided by an ever-changing understanding of anorexia’s causes, which has spanned the gamut from the biological to the psychosexual, from bad parenting to societal misogyny.

The first breakthrough in anorexia treatment, however, came from an experiment involving men. The Minnesota Starvation Experiment, a World War II –era study on how to treat starving prisoners, found that the 36 male volunteers exhibited many of the same behaviors as anorexics, including food obsessions, excessive chewing, bingeing and purging. The study showed that the malnourished brain reacts in predictable ways regardless of race, class or gender.

Recent research now suggests that a genetic predisposition could count for as many as 60% of the risk factors behind the disease. If this knowledge leads to new specialized treatments, it will do so at a desperate time: At the start of the year, the Lancet medical journal called on governments to take action before mass anorexia cases become mass deaths. The lockdown is over. Now save the children.

A shorter version appeared in The Wall Street Journal

Historically Speaking: A Mollusk With a Storied Past in Human Seduction

Long associated with Aphrodite, oysters graced the menus of Roman orgies, Gold Rush eateries and Manhattan brothels.

The Wall Street Journal

February 4, 2021

The oyster is one of nature’s great survivors—or it was. Today it is menaced by the European green crab, which has been taking over Washington’s Lummi Sea Pond and outer coastal areas. Last month’s emergency order by Gov. Jay Inslee, backed up by almost $9 million in funds, speaks to the threat facing the Pacific Northwest shellfish industry if the invaders take over.

As any oyster lover knows, the true oyster, or oyster ostreidae, is the edible kind—not to be confused with the pearl-making oysters of the pteriidae family. But both are bivalves, meaning they have hinged shells, and they have been around for at least 200 million years.

King James I of England is alleged to have remarked, “He was a very valiant man, who first adventured on eating of oysters.” That man may also have lived as many as 164,000 years ago, when evidence from Africa suggests that humans were already eating shellfish.

The ancient Greeks were the first to make an explicit connection between oysters and, ahem, sex. Aphrodite, the goddess of love, was said by the 8th-century B.C. poet Hesiod to have risen from the sea foam when the Titan god Kronos cut off the genitals of his father Ouranos and hurled them into the sea. Thereafter, Greek artists frequently depicted her emerging from a flat shell, making a visual pun on the notion that oysters resemble female genitalia.

By Roman times it had become a truism that oysters were an aphrodisiac, and they graced the menus of orgies. The Roman engineer Sergius Orata, who is credited with being the father of underfloor heating, also designed the first oyster farms.

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

Many skills and practices were lost during the Dark Ages, but not the eating of oysters. In his medical treatise, “A Golden Practice of Physick,” the 16th-century Swiss physician Felix Platter recommended eating oysters for restoring a lost libido. The great Italian seducer Giacomo Casanova clearly didn’t suffer from that problem, but he did make oysters a part of his seductive arsenal: “Voluptuous reader, try it,” he urged in his memoirs.

In the 19th century, oysters were so large and plentiful in New York and San Francisco that they were a staple food. A dish from the Gold Rush, called the Hangtown Fry, was an omelet made with deep fried oysters and bacon and is often cited as the start of Californian cuisine. In New York there were oyster restaurants for every class of clientele, from oyster cellars-cum-brothels to luxury oyster houses that catered to the aristocracy. The most sought-after was Thomas Downing’s Oyster House on 5 Broad Street. In addition to making Downing, the son of freed slaves, an extremely wealthy man, his oyster restaurant provided refuge for escaped slaves on the Underground Railroad to Canada.

At least since the 20th century, it has been well known that oysters play a vital role in filtering pollution out of our waters. And it turns out that their association with Aphrodite contains an element of truth as well. A 2009 study published in the Journal of Human Reproductive Sciences found a link between zinc deficiency and sexual dysfunction in rats. Per serving, the oyster contains more zinc than any other food. Nature has provided a cure, if the green crab doesn’t eat it first.

Historically Speaking: Water Has Long Eluded Human Mastery

From ancient Mesopotamia to the California desert, people have struggled to bend earth’s most plentiful resource to their will

The Wall Street Journal

January 21, 2022

In “Chinatown,” Roman Polanski’s classic 1974 film noir, loosely based on the events surrounding the diversion of water from the Owens Valley to Los Angeles in 1913, an ex-politician warns: “Beneath this building, beneath every street, there’s a desert. Without water the dust will rise up and cover us as though we’d never existed!”

The words resonate as California, indeed the entire American West, now enters the third decade of what scientists are terming a “mega-drought.” Water levels at Lake Mead in Nevada, the nation’s largest reservoir, and Lake Powell in Arizona, the second-largest, have dropped to historic lows. Earlier this month, the first ever federal water restrictions on the Colorado River system came into effect.

Since the earliest civilizations emerged in the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East, humankind has tried to master water resources, only to be brought low by its own hubris and nature’s resistance to control.

The Sumerians of Mesopotamia, builders of the first cities, created canals and irrigation systems to ensure that their crops could withstand the region’s frequent droughts. Competition between cities resulted in wars and conflicts—leading, around 2550 B.C., to history’s first recorded treaty: an agreement between the cities of Lagash and Umma to respect each other’s access to the water supply. Unfortunately, the Sumerians didn’t know that irrigation must be carefully managed to avoid pollution and excessive salinization of the land. They literally sowed their earth with salt, ruining the soil and ultimately contributing to their civilization’s demise.

Water became a potent weapon in the ancient world. Invaders and defenders regularly poisoned water or blocked it from reaching their foes. When Julius Caesar was under siege in Alexandria in 47 B.C., Ptolemy XIII contaminated the local water supply in an effort to force the Romans to withdraw. But the Romans managed to dig two deep wells for fresh water within the territory they held.

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

Desiccated ruins of once-great cities can be found on almost every continent. The last emperors of the Classic Maya civilization on the Yucatán Peninsula, 250-950 A.D., couldn’t overcome a crippling drought that started around 750 and continued intermittently until 1025. As the water dried up, Mayan society entered a death spiral of wars, famine and internal conflicts. Their cities in the southern lowlands were eventually reclaimed by the jungle.

In Southeast Asia during the 14th and 15th centuries, one of the most sophisticated hydraulic systems of its time couldn’t save Angkor Wat, capital of the Khmer Empire, from the double onslaught of droughts and floods. The city is now a haunting ruin in the Cambodian jungle.

Modern technology, from desalination plants to hydroelectric dams, have enabled humans to stay one step ahead of nature’s vagaries, until now. According U.N. and World Bank experts in 2018, some 40% of the world’s population struggles with water scarcity. Water conflicts are proliferating, including in the U.S. In California, Chinatown-type skullduggery may be a thing of the past, but tensions remain. Extreme drought in the Klamath Basin along the California-Oregon border has pitted communities against one another for decades, with no solution in sight.

In 1962, President John F Kennedy declared: “Anyone who can solve the problems of water will be worthy of two Nobel Prizes—one for peace and one for science.” We are still waiting for that person.

Historically Speaking: How the Waistband Got Its Stretch

Once upon a time, human girth was bound by hooks and buttons, and corsets had metal stays. Along came rubber and a whole new technology of flexible cloth.

The Wall Street Journal

January 7, 2021

The New Year has arrived, and if you’re like me, you’ve promised yourself a slimmer, fitter and healthier you in 2022. But in the meantime there is the old you to deal with—the you who overindulged at Thanksgiving and didn’t stop for the next 37 days. No miracle diet or resolution can instantaneously eradicate five weeks of wild excess. Fortunately, modern science has provided the next best thing to a miracle: the elasticated waistband.

Before the invention of elastic, adjustable clothing was dependent on technology that had hardly changed since ancient times. The Indus Valley Civilization made buttons from seashells as early as 2000 BC.

The first inkling that there might be an alternative to buttons, belts, hooks and other adjustable paraphernalia came in the late 18th century, with the discovery that rubber wasn’t only good for toys. It also had immensely practical applications for things such as pencil erasers and lid sealants. Rubber’s stretchable nature offered further possibilities in the clothing department. But there was no word for its special property until the poet William Cowper borrowed the 17th-century term “elastic,” used to describe the expansion and contraction of gases, for his translation of the Iliad in 1791: “At once he bent Against Tydides his elastic bow.”

PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

By 1820, an enterprising English engineer named Thomas Hancock was making elastic straps and suspenders out of rubber. He also invented the “masticator,” a machine that rolled shredded rubber into sheets for industrial use. Elastic seemed poised to make a breakthrough: In the 1840s, Queen Victoria’s shoemaker, Joseph Sparkes Hall, popularized his invention of the elastic-gusset ankle boot, still known today as the Chelsea Boot.

But rubber had drawbacks. Not only was it a rare and expensive luxury that tended to wear out quickly, it was also sticky, sweaty and smelly. Elasticized textiles became popular only after World War I, helped by the demand for steel—and female workers—that led women to forego corsets with metal stays. Improved production techniques at last made elasticated girdles a viable alternative: In 1924, the Madame X rubber girdle promised to help women achieve a thinner form in “perfect comfort while you sit, work or play.”

The promise of comfort became real with the invention of Lastex, essentially rubber yarn, in 1930. Four years later, in 1934, Alexander Simpson, a London tailor, removed the need for belts or suspenders by introducing the adjustable rubber waistband in men’s trousers.

The constant threat of rubber shortages sparked a global race to devise synthetic alternatives. The winner was the DuPont Company, which invented neoprene in 1930. That research led to an even more exciting invention: the nylon stocking. Sales were halted during World War II, creating such pent-up demand that in 1946 there were “nylon riots” throughout the U.S., including in Pittsburgh, where 40,000 people tried to buy 13,000 pairs of stockings.

DuPont scored another win in 1958 with spandex, also known under the brand name Lycra, which is not only more durable than nylon but also stretchier. Spandex made dreams possible by making fabrics more flexible and forgiving: It helped the astronaut Neil Armstrong to walk on the moon and Simone Biles to become the most decorated female gymnast in history. And it will help me to breathe a little easier until I can fit into my jeans again.

Historically Speaking: Boycotts that Brought Change

Modern rights movements have often used the threat of lost business to press for progress

The Wall Street Journal

November 12, 2021

Sixty-five years ago, on Nov. 13, 1956, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Browder v. Gayle, putting an end to racial segregation on buses. The organizers of the Montgomery bus boycott, which had begun shortly after Rosa Park s’s arrest on Dec. 1, 1955, declared victory and called off the campaign as soon as the ruling came into effect. But that was only the beginning. As the Civil Rights Movement progressed, boycotts of businesses that supported segregation became a regular—and successful—feature of Black protests.

Boycotts are often confused with other forms of protest. At least four times between 494 and 287 B.C., Rome’s plebeian class marched out of the city en masse, withholding their labor in an effort to win more political rights. Some historians describe this as a boycott, but it more closely resembled a general strike. A better historical precedent is the West’s reaction to Sultan Mehmed II’s imposition of punitive taxes on Silk Road users in 1453. European traders simply avoided the overland networks via Constantinople in favor of new sea routes, initiating the so-called Age of Discovery.

The first modern boycotts began in the 18th century. Britain increased taxes on its colonial subjects following the Seven Years War in 1756-1763, inciting a wave of civil disobedience. Merchants in Philadelphia, New York and Boston united to boycott British imports. Together with intense political lobbying by Benjamin Franklin among others, the boycott resulted in the levies’ repeal in 1766. Several years later, London again tried to raise revenue through taxes, touching off a more famous boycott, during which the self-styled Sons of Liberty dumped the contents of 342 tea chests into Boston Harbor on Dec. 16, 1773.

In 1791 the British abolitionist movement instigated a national boycott of products made by enslaved people. As many as 300,000 British families stopped buying West Indian sugar, causing sales to drop by a third to half in some areas. Although the French Revolutionary Wars stymied this campaign, its early successes demonstrated the power of consumer protest.

Despite the growing popularity of the action, the term “boycott” wasn’t used until 1880. It was coined in Ireland as part of a campaign of civil disobedience against absentee landowners. Locals turned Captain Charles Cunningham Boycott, an unpopular land agent in County Mayo for the Earl of Erne, into a pariah. His isolation was so complete that the Boycott family relocated to England. The “boycott” of Boycott not only garnered international attention but inspired imitators.

Boycotts enabled oppressed people around the world to make their voices heard. But the same tool could also be a powerful weapon in the hands of oppressors. During the late 19th century in the American west, Chinese workers and the businesses that hired them were often subject to nativist boycotts. In 1933, German Nazi party leaders organized a nationwide boycott of Jewish-owned business in the lead-up to the passage of a law barring Jews from public sector employment.

Despite the potential for misuse, the popularity of economic and political boycotts increased after World War II. In January 1957, shortly after the successful conclusion of the Montgomery bus boycott, black South Africans in Johannesburg started their own bus boycott. From this local protest grew a national and then international boycott movement that continued until South Africa ended apartheid in 1991. Sometimes the penny, as well as the pen, is more powerful than the sword.

Historically Speaking: When Masquerade Was All the Rage

Before there was Halloween, there were costume balls and Carnival, among other occasions for the liberation of dressing up

The Wall Street Journal

October 28, 2021

Costume parades and Halloween parties are back after being canceled last year. Donning a costume and mask to go prancing around might seem like the height of frivolity, but the act of dressing-up has deep roots in the human psyche.

During the early classical era, worshipers at the annual festivals of Dionysus—the god of wine, ritual madness and impersonation, among other things—expanded mask-wearing from religious use to personal celebrations and plays performed in his honor. Masks symbolized the suspension of real world rules: A human could become a god, an ordinary citizen could become a king, a man could be a woman. Anthropologists call such practices “rituals of inversion.”

In Christianized Europe, despite official disapproval of paganism, rituals of inversion not only survived but flourished. Carnival—possibly a corruption of the Latin phrase “carne vale,” farewell to meat, because the festival took place before Lent—included the Feast of Fools, where junior clergymen are alleged to have dressed as nuns and bishops and danced in the streets.

By the 13th century, the Venetians had taken to dressing up and wearing masks with such gusto that the Venice Carnival became an occasion for ever more elaborate masquerade. The city’s Great Council passed special laws to keep the practice within bounds, such as banning masks while gambling or visiting convents.

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

The liberation granted by a costume could be dangerous. In January of 1393, King Charles VI of France and his wife, Isabeau of Bavaria, held the Bal des Sauvages, or Wild Men’s Ball, to celebrate the wedding of one of her ladies-in-waiting. The king had already suffered his first bout of insanity, and it was hoped that the costume ball would be an emotional outlet for his disordered mind. But the farce became a tragedy. The king and his entourage, dressed as hairy wild men, were meant to perform a “crazy” dance. Horrifically, the costumes caught fire, and only Charles and one other knight survived.

The masked ball became a staple of royal entertainments, offering delicious opportunities for sexual subterfuge and social subversion. At a masquerade in 1745, Louis XV of France disguised himself as a yew tree so he could pursue his latest love, the future Madame de Pompadour. Meanwhile, the Dauphine danced the night away with a charming Spanish knight, not realizing he was a lowly cook who had tricked his way in. More ominously, a group of disaffected nobles in Sweden infiltrated a masquerade to assassinate King Gustav III of Sweden in 1792. Five years later, the new ruler of Venice, Francis II of Austria, banned Carnival and forbade the city’s residents to wear masks.

Queen Victoria helped to return dress-up parties to respectability with historically-themed balls that celebrated creativity rather than debauchery. By 1893, American Vogue could run articles about fabulous Halloween costumes without fear of offense. The first Halloween parade took place not in cosmopolitan New York but in rural Hiawatha, Kansas, in 1914.

In the modern era, the taint of anarchy and licentiousness associated with dressing-up has been replaced by complaints about cultural appropriation, a concern that would have baffled our ancestors. Becoming what we are not, however briefly, is part of being who we are.

Historically Speaking: How Malaria Brought Down Great Empires

A mosquito-borne parasite has impoverished nations and stopped armies in their tracks

The Wall Street Journal

October 15, 2021

Last week brought very welcome news from the World Health Organization, which approved the first-ever childhood vaccine for malaria, a disease that has been one of nature’s grim reapers for millennia.

Originating in Africa, the mosquito-borne parasitic infection left its mark on nearly every ancient society, contributing to the collapse of Bronze-Age civilizations in Greece, Mesopotamia and Egypt. The boy pharaoh Tutankhamen, who died around 1324 BC, suffered from a host of conditions including a club foot and cleft palate, but malaria was likely what killed him.

Malaria could stop an army in its tracks. In 413 BC, at the height of the disastrous Sicilian Expedition, malaria sucked the life out of the Athenian army as it lay siege to Syracuse. Athens never recovered from its losses and fell to the Spartans in 404 BC.

But while malaria helped to destroy the Athenians, it provided the Roman Republic with a natural barrier against invaders. The infested Pontine Marshes south of Rome enabled successive generations of Romans to conquer North Africa, the Middle East and Europe with some assurance they wouldn’t lose their own homeland. Thus, the spread of classical civilization was carried on the wings of the mosquito. In the 5th century, though, the blessing became a curse as the disease robbed the Roman Empire of its manpower.

Throughout the medieval era, malaria checked the territorial ambitions of kings and emperors. The greatest beneficiary was Africa, where endemic malaria was deadly to would-be colonizers. The conquistadors suffered no such handicap in the New World.

ILLUSTRATION: JAMES STEINBERG

The first medical breakthrough came in 1623 after malaria killed Pope Gregory XV and at least six of the cardinals who gathered to elect his successor. Urged on by this catastrophe to find a cure, Jesuit missionaries in Peru realized that the indigenous Quechua people successfully treated fevers with the bark of the cinchona tree. This led to the invention of quinine, which kills malarial parasites.

For a time, quinine was as powerful as gunpowder. George Washington secured almost all the available supplies of it for his Continental Army during the War of Independence. When Lord Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown in 1781, less than half his army was fit to fight: Malaria had incapacitated the rest.

During the 19th century, quinine helped to turn Africa, India and Southeast Asia into a constellation of European colonies. It also fueled the growth of global trade. Malaria had defeated all attempts to build the Panama Canal until a combination of quinine and better mosquito control methods led to its completion in 1914. But the drug had its limits, as both Allied and Axis forces discovered in the two World Wars. While fighting in the Pacific Theatre in 1943, General Douglas MacArthur reckoned that for every fighting division at his disposal, two were laid low by malaria.

A raging infection rate during the Vietnam War was malaria’s parting gift to the U.S. in the waning years of the 20th century. Between 1964 and 1973, the U.S. Army suffered an estimated 391,965 sick-days from malaria cases alone. The disease didn’t decide the war, but it stacked the odds.

Throughout history, malaria hasn’t had to wipe out entire populations to be devastating. It has left them poor and enfeebled instead. With the advent of the new vaccine, the hardest hit countries can envisage a future no longer shaped by the disease.

Historically Speaking: Dante’s Enduring Vision of Hell

The “Inferno” brought human complexity to the medieval conception of the afterlife

The Wall Street Journal

September 30, 2021

What is hell? For Plato, it was Tartarus, the lowest level of Hades where those who had sinned against the gods suffered eternal punishment. For Jean-Paul Sartre, the father of existentialism, hell was other people. For many travelers today, it is airport security.

No depiction of hell, however, has been more enduring than the “Inferno,” part one of the “Divine Comedy” by Dante Alighieri, the 700th anniversary of whose death is commemorated this year. Dante’s hell is divided into nine concentric circles, each one more terrifying and brutal than the last until the frozen center, where Satan resides alongside Judas, Brutus and Cassius. With Virgil as his guide, Dante’s spiritually bereft and depressed alter ego enters via a gate bearing the motto “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here”—a phrase so ubiquitous in modern times that it greets visitors to Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride.

The inscription was a Dantean invention, but the idea of a physical gate separating the land of the living from a desolate one of the dead was already at least 3,000 years old: In the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, written around 2150 B.C., two scorpionlike figures guard the gateway to an underworld filled with darkness and dust.

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

The underworld of the ancient Egyptians was only marginally less bleak. Seven gates blocked the way to the Hall of Judgment, according to the Book of the Dead. Getting through them was arduous and fraught with failure. The successful then had to submit to having their hearts weighed against the Feather of Truth. Those found wanting were thrown into the fire of oblivion.

Zoroastrianism, the official religion of the ancient Persians, was possibly the first to divide the afterlife into two physically separate places, one for good souls and the other for bad. This vision contrasted with the Greek view of Hades as the catchall for the human soul and the early Hebrew Bible’s description of Sheol as a shadowy pit of nothingness. In the 4th century B.C., Alexander the Great’s Macedonian empire swallowed both Persia and Judea, and the three visions of the afterlife commingled. “hell” would then appear frequently in Greek versions of the New Testament. But the word, scholars point out, was a single translation for several distinct Hebrew terms.

Early Christianity offered more than one vision of hell, but all contained the essential elements of Satan, sinners and fire. The “Apocalypse of Peter,” a 2nd century text, helped start the trend of listing every sadistic torture that awaited the wicked.

Dante was thus following a well-trod path with his imaginatively crafted punishments of boiling pitch for the dishonest and downpours of icy rain on the gluttonous. But he deviated from tradition by describing Hell’s occupants with psychological depth and insight. Dante’s narrator rediscovers the meaning of Christian truth and love through his encounters. In this way the Inferno speaks to the complexities of the human condition rather than serving merely as a literary zoo of the dammed.

The “Divine Comedy” changed the medieval world’s conception of hell, and with it, man’s understanding of himself. Boccaccio, Chaucer, Milton, Balzac —the list of writers directly inspired by Dante’s vision goes on. “Dante and Shakespeare divide the world between them,” wrote T.S. Eliot. “There is no third.”

Historically Speaking: For Punishment or Penitence?

Fifty years ago, the Attica uprising laid bare the conflicting ideas at the heart of the U.S. prison system.

The Wall Street Journal

September 17, 2021

Fifty years ago this past week, inmates in Attica, New York, staged America’s deadliest prison uprising. The organizers held prison employees hostage while demanding better conditions. One officer and three inmates were killed during the rioting, and the revolt’s suppression left another 39 dead and at least 89 seriously wounded. The episode raised serious questions about prison conditions and ultimately led to some reforms.

Nearly two centuries earlier, the founders of the U.S. penal system had intended it as a humane alternative to those that relied on such physical punishments as mutilation and whipping. After the War of Independence, Benjamin Franklin and leading members of Philadelphia’s Quaker community argued that prison should be a place of correction and penitence. Their vision was behind the construction of the country’s first “penitentiary house” at the Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia in 1790. The old facility threw all prisoners together; its new addition contained individual cells meant to prevent moral contagion and to encourage prisoners to spend time reflecting on their crimes.

Inmates protest prison conditions in Attica, New York, Sept. 10, 1971

Walnut Street inspired the construction of the first purpose-built prison, Eastern State Penitentiary, which opened outside of Philadelphia in 1829. Prisoners were kept in solitary confinement and slept, worked and ate in their cells—a model that became known as the Pennsylvania system. Neighboring New York adopted the Auburn system, which also enforced total silence but required prisoners to work in communal workshops and instilled discipline through surveillance, humiliation and corporal punishment. Although both systems were designed to prevent recidivism, the former stressed prisoner reform while the latter carried more than a hint of retribution.

Europeans were fascinated to see which system worked best. In 1831, the French government sent Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont to investigate. Having inspected facilities in several states, they concluded that although the “penitentiary system in America is severe,” its combination of isolation and work offered hope of rehabilitation. But the novelist Charles Dickens reached the opposite conclusion. After touring Eastern State Penitentiary in 1842, he wrote that the intentions behind solitary confinement were “kind, humane and meant for reformation.” In practice, however, total isolation was “worse than any torture of the body”: It broke rather than reformed people.

Severe overcrowding—there was no parole in the 19th century—eventually undermined both systems. Prisoner violence became endemic, and regimes of control grew harsher. Sing Sing prison in New York meted out 36,000 lashes in 1843 alone. In 1870, the National Congress on Penitentiary and Reformatory Discipline proposed reforms, including education and work-release initiatives. Despite such efforts, recidivism rates remained high, physical punishment remained the norm and almost 200 serious prison riots were recorded between 1855 and 1955.

That year, Harry Manuel Shulman, a deputy commissioner in New York City’s Department of Correction, wrote an essay arguing that the country’s early failure to decide on the purpose of prison had immobilized the system, leaving it “with one foot in the road of rehabilitation and the other in the road of punishment.” Which would it choose? Sixteen years later, Attica demonstrated the consequences of ignoring the question.

Historically Speaking: The Long Haul of Distance Running

How the marathon became the world’s top endurance race

The Wall Street Journal

September 2, 2021

The New York City Marathon, the world’s largest, will hold its 50th race this autumn, after missing last year’s due to the pandemic. A podiatrist once told me that he always knows when there has been a marathon because of the sudden uptick in patients with stress fractures and missing toenails. Nevertheless, humans are uniquely suited to long-distance running.

Some 2-3 million years ago, our hominid ancestors began to develop sweat glands that enabled their bodies to stay cool while chasing after prey. Other mammals, by contrast, overheat unless they stop and rest. Thus, slow but sweaty humans won out over fleet but panting animals.

The marathon, at 26.2 miles, isn’t the oldest known long-distance race. Egyptian Pharaoh Taharqa liked to organize runs to keep his soldiers fit. A monument inscribed around 685 B.C. records a two-day, 62-mile race from Memphis to Fayum and back. The unnamed winner of the first leg (31 miles) completed it in about four hours.

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

The considerably shorter marathon derives from the story of a Greek messenger, Pheidippides, who allegedly ran from Marathon to Athens in 490 B.C. to deliver news of victory over the Persians—only to drop dead of exhaustion at the end. But while it is true that the Greeks used long-distance runners, called hemerodromoi, or day runners, to convey messages, this story is probably a myth or a conflation of different events.

Still, foot-bound messengers ran impressive distances in their day. Within 24 hours of Herman Cortes’s landing in Mexico in 1519, messenger relays had carried news of his arrival over 260 miles to King Montezuma II in Tenochtitlan.

As a competitive sport, the marathon has a shorter history. The longest race at the ancient Olympic Games was about 3 miles. This didn’t stop the French philologist Michel Bréal from persuading the organizers of the inaugural modern Olympics in 1896 to recreate Pheidippides’s epic run as a way of adding a little classical flavor to the Games. The event exceeded his expectations: The Greek team trained so hard that it won 8 of the first 9 places. John Graham, manager of the U.S. Olympic team, was inspired to organize the first Boston Marathon in 1897.

Marathon runners became fitter and faster with each Olympics. But at the 1908 London Games the first runner to reach the stadium, the Italian Dorando Pietri, arrived delirious with exhaustion. He staggered and fell five times before concerned officials eventually helped him over the line. This, unfortunately, disqualified his time of 2:54:46.

Pietri’s collapse added fuel to the arguments of those who thought that a woman’s body could not possibly stand up to a marathon’s demands. Women were banned from the sport until 1964, when Britain’s Isle of Wight Marathon allowed the Scotswoman Dale Greig to run, with an ambulance on standby just in case. Organizers of the Boston Marathon proved more intransigent: Roberta Gibb and Katherine Switzer tried to force their way into the race in 1966 and ’67, but Boston’s gender bar stayed in place until 1972. The Olympics held out until 1984.

Since that time, marathons have become a great equalizer, with men and women on the same course: For 26.2 miles, the only label that counts is “runner.”