Thursday, January 18, 2007

11 February:

All essays (one for each day of the year) have been posted on this site.

The essay for the 11 February can be found in the February 2006 archives or by hitting this link:

11 February: Boreham on Thomas Edison

Geoff Pound

10 February: Boreham on Lord Lister

A Golden Tradition
In view of the sensational strides that surgery has taken in recent years, it is eminently fitting that we should offer our homage to the illustrious memory of Lord Lister, the anniversary of whose death we mark today. It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that the history of surgery divides itself into two epochs—before Lister, and after. In the old days, as Tyndall put it, "we were scourged by invisible thongs, attacked by impenetrable ambuscades, and it was only under the leadership of Lister that the light of science was thrown upon the murderous dominion of our foes." The brave story represents one of our classical romances.

With no traditions to suggest such a destiny or move him in that direction, Lister resolved, when quite a child, to be a surgeon. None of his relatives were attached to the medical profession, and it is doubtful if the boy had ever spoken to a doctor in his life. He was adamant, however, and never for a moment swerved from his early purpose. As soon as he entered his 'teens he began to macerate the bones and articulate the skeleton of every creature he could lay his hands upon. His parents, Quakers of the old school, viewed his grim propensities with feelings akin to horror. His father was proud of the boy's penchant for scientific research, but he shook his head gravely at the ideas of his son becoming a surgeon.

Surgery The Handmaid Of Nature
For what, after all, does the antiseptic doctrine amount to? If we forsake for the nonce the technical and academic terminology of the schools, and reduce the matter to the common parlance of the street and the fireside, it simply means that Pasteur in France and Lister in England aroused the medical fraternity to a recognition of the fact that, favourable conditions having been secured, Nature itself is the supreme healer. It is not the business of the surgeon to heal, but to obtain for Nature those conditions for which it imperatively stipulates. Any surgeon will confess that it is not in his power to heal a wound. The wound must heal itself. His duty consists in keeping it so immune from foreign substances, and so free from malignant bacteria, that the injured limb gets a fair chance of compassing its own restoration. Some vague hints of all this had been detected, and their significance suspected, away back in mediaeval times. But it was reserved for Lister to read the secret rightly and to transform our schools of surgery by giving it practical demonstration and effect. The work was slow, but he never lost heart and never looked back, and, in a way of which he never even dared to dream, he came into his own at the end.

Within the memory of men still living, Lister stood, with his back to the wall, fighting as a man fight for his life on behalf of that new conception of surgery with which his name will always be associated. He fought, not as a pugilist, but as a knight. There was a winsomeness and a chivalry about his engaging personality that completely disarmed his critics and opponents. He was absolutely sure of his ground, and he exhibited his confidence, not in noisy bluster, but in quiet strength. W. E. Henley, the poet and the friend of Robert Louis Stevenson, was once operated upon by Lister. Acknowledging his indebtedness to the distinguished surgeon who had thus saved his life, Henley said that "his rare, wise smile was sweet with certainties." The exquisite phrase reflects, as eloquently as mere words can do it, the calm and gracious poise of Lister's mind.

Laurels That Were Late, But Luxurious
At the time of Lister's advent, the situation was desperate. Doctors stood appalled at their own helplessness. The stars in their courses seemed to be fighting against them. Disease was spread by the very people who were seeking most assiduously to cure it. Surgeons carried contagion from patient to patient; nurses bore it from bed to bed on their aprons, bandages, and sponges. To sentence a patient to an operation was like signing his death warrant. Lister was worried to the point of distraction. He resolved to probe the problem to its very heart. As a result, he came to a sensational conclusion. The whole trouble, he announced, was—dirt! So, to the elimination of dirt, in every shape and form, he applied his stately powers. His new crusade awoke a storm of opposition. At the meetings of the British Association held at Leeds in 1869, Lister was roundly charged with arrant stupidity. Four years later, the "Lancet" warned the entire profession against him. At Edinburgh, Professor Caird, then a student, was solemnly adjured to have nothing whatever to do with him. The fierce campaign lasted until 1877, Lister being then 50. In that year the tide turned.

Lister was made Professor of Clinical Surgery at King's College Hospital. Almost immediately, his former enemies rallied to his side. Sir James Paget recanted and frankly withdrew earlier strictures. "I look back with shame," Sir James declared, "on that part of my life." In 1883, Lister was made a baronet, and, in 1897 was raised to the peerage. It was the first occasion on which a member of the medical fraternity had been so honoured. At the Coronation of King Edward the Seventh, Lister was made a Privy Councillor. "What pleased me far more than the honour," he said, "was the fact that the King shook hands with me, and said that, but for me, he could not have lived to wear the crown." Lister died in 1912. A grave in Westminster Abbey was offered, and declined, but a noble monument perpetuates his memory there. Men of such a mould are the glory, not only of a nation, but of all mankind; and it is fitting that, on every suitable occasion, we should recall their heroic achievements and acknowledge the incalculable debt under which they have placed us.

F W Boreham

Image: Lord Lister

9 February: Boreham on Thomas Coram

A Sailor's Philanthropy
Nothing in the nature of romance appears to underlie the announcement contained in the latest English newspapers to the effect that the children of the Foundling Hospital have now taken possession of their new home at Ashlyns, Berhampstead.[1] In point of fact, however, one of the most affecting stories in the annals of the Empire—a story that may almost be classified as an epic—is revived by that apparently prosaic item of intelligence. It is nearly 200 years since the Foundling Hospital was founded, and the record of its establishment is one that history—too intent on the clash of armies, the amours of kings and the squabbles of statesmen—cannot afford to forget.

One of the adornments of the new institutions at Berkhampstead is the noble statue of Capt. Thomas Coram which, standing beside the old hospital at Bloomsbury, was for many years one of the landmarks of London. Having been born in the days in which Sir Christopher Wren was laying his plans for repairing the havoc wrought by the Great Fire, and possessing no social or educational advantages of any kind, Thomas Coram became an ordinary seaman. He rose to the rank of a merchant captain, and afterwards did a work for England, and for humanity with which the achievements of few men, much more highly gifted, can for a moment compare. In his plain, blunt way, he set himself, in the course of his roving life, to confer upon his fellows every benefit that he had in his power to give them. He contrived to touch life at an extraordinary number of vital points. To this day his name is honoured in Georgia and in Nova Scotia as one of the prime movers in the establishment of those important settlements. For a few years he made his home at Taunton, Massachusetts, labouring there as a shipwright, and before he left, although his business was a particularly modest one, he presented the local authorities with 60 acres of land on which to erect a church and a schoolhouse, while the first library that the town ever possessed was also the captain's gift. All through his long and adventurous life, he showed remarkable ingenuity in discovering avenues of useful service to mankind; but all these earlier and preparatory ventures were eventually put to shame by the historic enterprise to which he applied his powers in his later days.

When Life Was Cheap
When the old captain felt that the time had come to leave a seafaring life to younger men, he settled down quietly at Rotherhithe on the Thames-side. It is a favourite haunt of old sailors; they are under the shadow of St. Paul's, in touch with the hub of the universe on the one hand and with ships and seamen on the other. In taking his morning stroll in this riverside resort however, the retired mariner made a discovery that sickened and appalled him. He seldom returned to his rooms for his midday meal without having seen lying in the gutter, one or more babies that, unwanted and unwelcome, had been disposed of in this crude and heartless way. Some of them were alive and in excellent condition; some of them were emaciated and at their last gasp; some of them were already dead. He deplored the inhumanity of this common-place spectacle and he realised the pitiful waste that it represented. Others, thousands of them, had grieved over the evil, even as he did. Some of them had upraised their voices in protest; but nothing had been done to remedy it. The sorrow of Thomas Coram differed from the sorrow that had so often been expressed inasmuch as, with hard sailor-sense, he decided that the abominable practice must be stopped and its ravages overtaken. He at first attempted to heal, as far as possible, this open sore by taking one or two of the most promising of the children into his own care and by inducing other men and women to follow his excellent example. But it soon became obvious that so immense a malady could not be cured by so meagre remedy, and Capt. Coram decided that the time had come to awaken a public conscience. The matter was of national importance; he would endeavour to stir the nation to solicitude and activity. He petitioned Parliament to prevent the frequent murders of poor, miserable children at their birth, and to suppress the human custom of exposing new-born infants to perish in the streets. It is to the credit of British people that, when a need is brought under their notice, sympathies are swiftly stirred and practical assistance is cheerfully given. In 1739, to Capt. Coram's delight, the Foundling Hospital of London was incorporated by Royal Charter "for the maintenance and education of exposed and deserted young children." But if the good captain imagined that, with this important step, all his problems had been solved, he was doomed to a bitter and violent disillusionment.

Battalions Of Babies
He soon discovered, to his dismay, that he had only abolished one evil to make room for another. In his "Eighteenth Century Vignettes," Mr. Austin Dobson has tellingly depicted the embarrassment of the founder of the hospital as soon as its doors were for the first time opened. As soon as the existence of the institution became known, babies poured in from every corner of the kingdom. It became a lucrative trade, Mr. Dobson says, for carriers to convey infants from remote villages and hamlets to Capt. Coram's hospital. Once a waggon brought eight to town on one trip, seven of whom were dead when they reached their destination. On another occasion a man with five babies in baskets got drunk on the road and three of his little charges were suffocated. Many of the babies were sent anonymously; on some of them distinguishing marks had been placed by the parent. These marks often consisted of coins, trinkets, pieces of cotton or ribbon, or doggerel verses scrawled on scraps of paper. In a register kept at the hospital, a description of the clothes—if any—was carefully entered. One of these records reads: "Paper on the breast: clout on the head." The inevitable outcome of all this was that the governors of the hospital found themselves utterly unable to maintain the battalions of babies that swooped down upon them from all points of the compass. They accordingly applied to Parliament for help, and Parliament voted them 10,000 pounds, but in making the grant Parliament still further disconcerted them by stipulating that they must receive all-comers. A basket was hung at the gateway in Guilford St., on the spot that was afterwards occupied by the famous statue of Capt. Coram, and, on the very first day of the appearance of this basket 117 babies were placed in it! In less than four years 15,000 children were forwarded to the hospital, and the record grimly adds that "a vile trade grew up among vagrants of undertaking to carry children from the country to the hospital, an undertaking which was seldom performed, or performed only with great cruelty." In the early years of the hospital’s existence, it was only possible to coax one child in every four into surviving the injuries and handicaps that had marked its condition when admitted.

Golden Links
In addition to the celebrated statue of its founder, the hospital carries into its new environment at Berkhampstead many interesting links with these early days. It still possesses, for example, the organ presented to the institution by Handel in 1750, an instrument on which the great composer himself often played. Handel was very much in love with the work that Capt. Coram was doing. In the beautiful chapel which Jacobson added to the hospital in 1747, Handel formed a choir of blind inmates who frequently rendered "The Messiah" under the composer's personal direction. And when, in 1759, Handel died, he bequeathed to the hospital a manuscript copy of his greatest oratorio. The other day, as the children assembled for the first time in their new home at Berkhampstead, selections were played from Handel's "Messiah" on Handel's organ.

The new buildings also contain Hogarth's fine painting of Capt. Coram—a canvas from which, as Mr. Dobson says, "the ruddy, kindly face of the brave old mariner, with its curling white hair, still beams on us." Hogarth, like many of the most eminent painters of his time, was lost in admiration of the unselfish and constructive work of Capt. Coram. For some years the nation's most brilliant artists arranged an annual exhibition of their pictures at the hospital; and this exhibition led, in 1768, to the formation of the Royal Academy.

At so many points does the sturdy personality of the old sea-captain weave itself into our national story! In the middle of the Eighteenth Century, men and women of all ranks of society vied with each other in acknowledging the incalculable debt that the nation owed to Capt. Coram, and the transfer of the hospital from Bloomsbury to Berkhampstead provides the present generation with a fitting opportunity of recognising the perennial value of the heroic work that he inaugurated exactly two centuries ago.

F W Boreham

Image: Thomas Coram

[1] This editorial appears in the Hobart Mercury on February 19, 1938. The 9th of February marks the anniversary of Coram's death.

8 February: Boreham on Jules Verne

Imagination and Science
At the age of 20, Jules Verne, whose birthday we mark today, burst upon Paris. For years he had cherished romantic dreams of tasting the bohemian life of the capital. He arrived to find the city in the throes of revolution. Blood was flowing in the streets; paving stones were being torn up to build barricades; the king was being bundled off the throne.

Bewildered and dumbfounded, Jules Verne felt as a man might feel who, having accepted an invitation to stay with a relative, reaches the house just as his host, in a fit of drunken fury, is smashing the windows and setting fire to the furniture.

Five years later, Paris having regained her sanity, one might meet, on the Champs Elysses, a young dandy of striking, open face, with curly hair falling about his massive forehead. He wears an immaculate velvet jacket and an elaborate bow tie. As a law student, he has become fond of Paris and has written a sheaf of trifles, including daring flights of fancy, modelled partly on Alexandre Dumas and partly on Edgar Allan Poe. For Jules Verne has not yet found Jules Verne.

Various Professions As Stepping Stones To Fame
Three years later, to the consternation of his father, he relinquished his legal studies and became a stockbroker. Two considerations dictated the change. Desperately anxious to marry, he needed money, and he thought that he could achieve wealth more swiftly on the Stock Exchange than in chambers. And he fancies that the new vocation will give him more time for literary enterprise.

As a matter of fact, his application to the law and his devotion to the Stock Exchange were, both of them, harmless flirtations. At heart he was neither barrister nor stockbroker. He aimed at authorship, and, the moment that he had attained that elevation, he was resolved to throw down the ladder by which he had climbed.

He had to wait six long years. After a few months as a stockbroker he had realised the first of his dreams; he married his beloved Honorine. And then he set to work to attain his second goal. He rose at five every morning, snatched something from the pantry, rushed to his desk, and wrote frantically for five hours. Then, at ten o'clock, Jules Verne the Visionary became magically transformed into Jules Verne the Stockbroker, and, a city person to the last bootlace, he set off for the office.

An Eager Prospector Strikes Gold At Last
It was in 1863, at the age of 35, that he found his metier. It was the age of the balloon. Fugitive ascents had often been made in the course of the centuries; but, at that time, Glaisher was experimenting on behalf of the British Association, reaching on one occasion an altitude of 37,000ft.

Giving rein to his fancy, Jules Verne exploited the passion of the period. He published his "Five Weeks in a Balloon" and felt in his very bones that he had pegged his claim to world-wide renown.

When his publisher congratulated him on his triumph, the young author startled him by reeling off the plots of a dozen highly imaginative novels stacked away amidst the grey matter of his fertile brain. He was as excited as a schoolboy. Whilst the mood was upon him, he called together his friends on the Bourse. "I am leaving you," he cried to the astonished stockbrokers. "I have written a novel of an entirely new kind. If it succeeds, it will be a gold mine. I shall go on writing without a break, while you continue to buy shares the day before they slump, and sell them the day before they soar! Goodbye!" That speech marked the birth of Jules Verne as the world knows him.

He travelled in order that his oceans of fancy might be studded with picturesque islands of fact. By introducing into his weird narratives actual descriptions of real places, he provided, as Pooh Bah would say, some corroborative detail, designed to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise unconvincing narrative. But the excursions of his body were mere evening strolls compared with the excursions of his brain. He liked to set his plots in places that no human eye had ever beheld; amidst such scenes he was immune from contradiction. In graphically portraying the centre of the earth, the bed of the ocean, and the surface of the moon he could let himself go; he had invaded a realm that was exclusively his own.

Keeping himself abreast of the science of his time, he allowed his vivid imagination to go just one step ahead. He regarded each sensational invention as embryonic; it foretold a still greater wonder. For this reason, there was something prophetic about him; many of his wildest imaginings were but the shadows of things to come. Nursed by his faithful Honorine, he died in the early morning of a perfect Spring day in 1905. He was then 77. Four days later, 5,000 people, including troops of school children who had devoured every line that he had written, followed him to his grave.

F W Boreham

Image: Jules Verne

7 February: Boreham on William Huggins

A Celestial Alchemist
Sir William Huggins, whose birthday this is, was essentially one of the pick-and-shovel men of science. He was known as the Chemist of the Stars. He had his own ideas; he worked along his own line without thought of fame or fortune; but he eventually compelled the world to pay rapt attention to his discoveries. Approaching the normal span of human existence, he was elected to the presidency of the British Association, and his address from the chair on "The History of the Development of Prismatic Astronomy" is still cherished as one of the most notable contributions to modern science. For five successive years he was president of the Royal Society; and when, in 1902, King Edward instituted the Order of Merit as a special recognition of distinguished services rendered to mankind, Sir William Huggins, then nearly eighty, was one of the very first to receive the coveted honour. During the closing years of his long and useful life, the learned societies and prominent universities of almost all nations showered upon him brilliant decorations. Every department of investigation and research sought his counsel.

Richard Anthony Proctor, the eminent astronomer, used to speak of Huggins as the Herschel of the spectroscope. He was no more the inventor of the spectroscope, that is to say, than Herschel was the inventor of the telescope. But just as Herschel opened up new worlds to the conquest of the one instrument, so Huggins extended almost indefinitely the triumphs of the other. In the year that witnessed the Great Fire of London, Isaac Newton, then a youth of twenty-four, had amused himself by taking a ray of light to pieces. Shutting himself up in a dark room, he bored a hole in the shutter, caught on a prism the spear of light that shot in, and admired on a screen the rainbow-tinted hues into which that one white ray was thus divided. Acting upon this hint, other thinkers elaborated the procedure until Kirchhoff of Heidelberg set himself to analyse, not only the sunlight, but the sun itself. He talked of his experiments as if he had laid the sun on the table of his laboratory and had carved and probed it at his pleasure. It was the work of Kirchhoff that suggested that of Huggins, but it was Huggins who, lifting the spectroscope from the backwash of stagnation, gave it standing and recognition in the scientific world.

Opening Door That Had Been Closed For Ages
In his early days Huggins felt painfully dissatisfied with astronomical research as it was then conducted. But, as soon as he heard of Kirchhoff's exploits, he saw his own course with dramatic clearness. A feeling as of inspiration seized him. He felt, he said, as if he had it now in his power to lift a veil which had never before been raised, as if a key had been placed in his hands which would unlock a door that had been closed from the foundation of the world. He would apply the principles of chemistry to the phenomena of astronomy and solve the inscrutable mystery as to the true nature of the heavenly bodies. Nothing could have been more modest or unpretentious than the equipment with which he started. His telescope was a grotesquely primitive affair, whilst his spectroscope, constructed entirely to his own design, was a tiny instrument with a total length of less than five inches. His one stroke of luck was the invention, just in time to be of use to him, of dry-plate photography.

Huggins had only been four years at work when he was able to demonstrate, more clearly and convincingly than it had ever been demonstrated before, the essential and fundamental unity of the universe. In a lecture delivered before the British Association in 1866—exactly two centuries after Newton had bored the hole in the shutter—Sir William Huggins completed in the most conclusive way six valuable and epoch-making demonstrations. He proved that all the brighter stars have a structure analogous to that of the sun; he proved that the stars contain material elements common to the sun and the earth; he proved that the colours of the stars have their origin in the chemical constitution of the atmosphere which surrounds them; he proved that, the changes in brightness of some of the variable stars are attended by charges in the lines of absorption of their spectra; he proved that, in the construction of the stars great physical changes are in constant operation; and he proved that there exist in the heavens true nebulae, composed entirely of luminous gas.

Giving The Observatories A New Outlook
From that hour, our knowledge of the skies entered upon an entirely fresh phase. There is a sense in which astronomy is the oldest of all the sciences: it was the playground of antiquity: the first man sat on the first log that he felled and, gazing into infinity, speculated as to the principles of light that twinkled tantalisingly above them. But there is also a sense in which Sir William Huggins made it the youngest of the sciences: he brought the stars into the laboratories of the chemists. Subsequent generations, as they come and go, owe it to themselves to rescue the brave records of such men from the oblivion into which they have fallen, and to weave about their names their full meed of admiration and appreciation.

Sir William Huggins lived to be eighty-six, loved and honoured by all within his own immediate circle, and held in proud veneration by the most trusted academicians of his time. As an old man he took the greatest delight in his lifework, as he had every right to do. To the end, he was never tired of acknowledging his heavy obligations to those whose novel experiments and preparatory researches had suggested to him his own initial ventures. "We found the new astronomy," he used to say, "a newborn child. We take leave of her, in the full beauty of a vigorous youth, receiving homage in all the observatories of the world." It will speak poorly for the discernment and the gratitude of the race if one who did so much for science, and by the repercussions of whose salutory influence every branch of civilisation has been incalculably enriched, should ever be forgotten or ignored.

F W Boreham

Image: William Huggins