Monthly Archives: January 2014

Drake and the weather

engraving of Daniel DrakeI have been researching the life and times of Daniel Drake for a few years now. Originally I wanted to publish an article to help me get into grad school but that has been put on hold. That might be a good thing if it depends on me publishing an article. Studying a persons life turns out to be much easier when you understand the times they lived in, if you don’t understand their times you will miss most of the story.

In June of 1810 Drake published his first book, “Notices concerning Cincinnati”*. In this book he looks at the natural environment around his new home town. He examines the geology, botany, zoology, and climate, especially the climate, and publishes it all for the benefit of his new neighbors. I will come back to how it was going to benefit his neighbors later. For now I want to look at his focus on the climate. In addition to creating charts comparing the high and low temperatures in Cincinnati and Philadelphia he mentions a book by Constantin François de Chassebœuf, comte de Volney (Constantin Volney) titled “A view of the Climate and Soil of the United States of America: with supplementary remarks opon Florida: on the French Colonies on the Mississippi and Ohio, and in Canada; and on the Aboriginal Tribes of America” and disputes the claim that “Trees and herbs are found on the western side of the mountains, three degrees farther north than the same products are found spontaneously growing on the eastern side” (pg 122 {161 of the pdf}). Volney also claimed that cotton thrived near Cincinnati.

Almost a year later Drake wrote two letters, one to the science section of the Philadelphia “Port Folio”, and another published as an editorial in Cincinnati’s “Western Spy” pointing out the errors in Volney’s work. In February of 1816 Drake’s second book, “Natural and statistical view; or picture of Cincinnati and the Miami country, illustrated by maps. With an appendix, containing observations on the late earthquakes, the aurora borealis, and the south-west wind”, was published and he arranged through an acquaintance who worked for the government to send a copy to Thomas Jefferson. This book covered much of the same ground as the first but this one was the 19th century equivalent of 20th century boosterism and marketing designed to draw settlers to the area.

Why did Drake send a copy to Jefferson? A previous biographer of Drake claims there are letters that might shed some light on that question but so far I haven’t found them. I have a few theories, it could be that Jefferson was chosen because of his known interest in the sciences, after all he organized the Lewis and Clark expeditions to investigate the same natural phenomenon that Drake was writing about. Or it could relate to Jefferson’s relationship with Volney. Jefferson worked with Volney to translate Volney’s book “The Ruins, Or, a Survey of the Revolutions of Empires” into English and he admired Volney’s intellect. But what did Drake hope to gain by pointing out what he saw as errors made by a respected European scholar?

Maybe he was after the truth? If you look at today’s USDA Plant Hardiness Chart you will see that the zones rise as they go east, not west as Volney wrote, the climate is tougher as you travel west. It turns out that Drake and Volney were just early entries in a debate that raged during the the 19th century. Were settlers causing climate change by clearing vast areas of forest?

That is not as absurd as it might sound to us in the 21st century. At that time everyone knew that it was cooler in a forest than in an open field even if they did not understand the “swamp-cooler” effect of transpiration. I am less sure if they understood that deforestation can also lead to desertification. Thanks to James Rogers Fleming’s book “Meteorology in America, 1800-1870” I understand that a few decades earlier nobody would have asked the question. Climate, like its child weather, was totally dependent on God’s Will. When a thunderstorm came it was because people had offended God and he let loose demons on the world. People gathered to pray for God’s favor and rang church bells to frighten the demons away. Then Ben Franklin began investigating weather and demonstrated that lightning was just electricity their fear was slowly replaced by curiosity.

Drake and Volney were just two of the earliest to join the weather debate. Until dependable barometers and hydrometers were developed, approximately the 1830s, the discussion was mostly hypothetical, based on only a few years of spotty data on temperature and rainfall. The US Army Medical Department was one of the first institutions to encourage investigation into the nature of the weather. You see a few thousand years earlier some Greek physicians theorized that disease was caused by bad air and ever since physicians have been interested in weather and the local environment.

Drake’s first published writing, “Some Account of the Epidemic Disease Which Prevail at Mays-Lick in Kentucky”* an article for the Philadelphia Medical and Physical Journal published in 1808, two years after Drake spent a year in the Philadelphia Medical College. At the time writing such an essay examining the disease potential of a town’s climate and geology was one of the requirements for receiving a medical degree. Dr. Benjamin Dudley’s thesis, “A sketch of the medical topography of Lexington and its vicinity : being an inaugural dissertation, submitted to the examination of the Rev. John Andrews …, the Trustees, and medical faculty of the University of Pennsylvania, on the 21st day of April, 1806, for the degree of Doctor of Medicine” is online at the National Library of Medicine.

Achieving an understanding of the times someone lived in can be as time consuming as researching the details of their life. It can be also be very distracting. If you are curious about how the Army Medical Department became concerned with weather and disease I suggest you look at Elizabeth Anne Fenn’s book “Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82”.

* reprinted in full in Drake, Daniel, Henry D. Shapiro, and Zane L. Miller. Physician to the West: selected writings of Daniel Drake on science & society. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1970.

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The second most segregated place in America

Thanks to Katie (somehooser) on Flicker

Thanks to Katie (somehooser) on Flicker

Christmas has come and gone and once again I received a bookworm’s most coveted gift, a gift certificate to Half-Price Books. I have a long list of history books, old and new, that I am looking for so I went straight to the American History section and started browsing. I searched for some titles about two labor leaders I am interested in, A. Phillip Randolph and Bayard Rustin. This year is the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer, the reunion will again be in my hometown, Oxford Ohio, where the students were trained on the Western University campus. Nothing. Not even titles I already have.
“Twelve Years a Slave”, a new movie is also an old book that I have not yet read. No copy of it either. I felt really stupid when I realized what the problem was. You see for book stores there are two, no, three, American histories and they cannot mix. I was in “American History” and someone in some marketing department somewhere decided long ago that “American History” was straight, white, wealthy (for the most part), Protestant, male history. All the books I was looking for were in exile off the the side in a section called “African American Studies” which is a little easier to find that “Gender Studies” where women’s (except maybe First Ladies and Betsey Ross) and LGTB history are hidden.
I get a little angry every time I think about this. What were they thinking when they started segregating our history? The first African born man, a Muslim to explore what is now the United States came with an expedition from Catholic Spain in 1527, the first English WASP did not show up until 1585. Since 1619 there have been African and European descended Americans working side by side. Not always as equals, but definitely working side by side. The fact is they were equals at first, indentured servants who would regain their freedom once their debt was paid. Unfortunately lawyers, politicians, and capitalists got together and soon the indentured servants who did not have political clout in mother England were chattel property.
We have been side by side since the beginning of the Colonies and certainly since the beginning of the nation, the first man killed in the Revolution was of African ancestry. How is that not “American History”? Pentecostal Churches date to the Great Awakening and their practices are a blend of European and African worship. The banjo, the staple of Bluegrass music originated in Africa. Blues and Jazz are blends of African and European music styles. Rock is just “white” Americans adopting “Black” American music. America has an Afro-European culture.
I would dare say that African and European genes run through most of us and that if your grandparents were born here it is very likely that you have ancestors from at least two continents. Shouldn’t all of our history share the same shelves?

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Review: The Monuments Men

The theft of art and gold by Hitler’s Nazis is still, sixty plus years after the war. a stock plot line in movies and on television. The Monuments Men: Allied heroes, Nazi thieves and the greatest treasure hunt in history, is the first book I know of to take a look at the actual history of Allied efforts to protect and preserve the cultural treasures of Europe. This well researched book is brought alive by the use of letters the Monuments Men wrote to friends and family while on duty in the war zone. The story is so interesting and so well told that I could not believe how quickly I read the book.Book cover

The book has plenty of photographs, many that you could have seen before. In fact while reading the book I saw one of the included photos used in a recent episode of the television program “Bones”. This story has seeped into our culture. However in this book the men are identified, the captions tell you more than “US soldiers with recovered art”. In spite of having a good supply of photos in the book it was nice to access to the internet to find color images of locations and art work mentioned in the text.

I need to confess that part of my enthusiasm for this book could be my personal biases. I enjoy visiting art museums and historic buildings, for most of the 1980s almost all of my reading was WWII history, and I hope to someday work in a museum, paid or volunteer, I don’t really care. I loved this book and I think everyone will, but like I said, I am biased. There is one bit of criticism I have for the authors. Creating sentences for the subjects to say, conversations that may have happened but are not documented, hurts the historical value of the work much more that it helps the story move along.

As impressed as I was by the work done by the these men (and women) during the war, learning about their accomplishments after was a surprising bonus. I envy their commitment to their life’s work. Edsel and Witter produced a book I am very happy to have read, even if it was disappointing to learn just how much the Burt Lancaster’s movie “The Train” was fictionalized.

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Review: American Heritics

Book Cover

American Heretics: Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and the History of Religious Intolerance

Peter Gottschalk is a professor of religion at Wesleyan University, his book American heretics : Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and the history of religious intolerance reflects that bias. It seems that he has never met a “religion” that he didn’t like. Gottschalk does examine several of America’s prejudices, past and present. He looks at the oppression suffered by Quakers, Catholics, American Indians, Jews, Mormons, Muslims, and Branch Davidians. In the last chapter he tries tie together the factors that inspired this prejudice but uses examples that the never mentioned in the text, objections to Catholic’s mixed gender beer gardens, for one example. I understand the need for a conclusion but it should be supported in the text, not by evidence introduced only to support the conclusion. After all, his chapter is about Irish Catholics and the biergartens were the providence of German Catholics.
Gottschalk strongly objects to the word “Cult”. He prefers “New Religious Movement”. It is telling that he first uses the term to describe the Branch Davidians and not for the Ghost Dance movement which really was a new speciality that went beyond individual tribes traditional beliefs. He also seems to fully accept the later addition of polygamy to the tenets of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints and David Koresh’s instance on having sex with the wives and daughters of parishioners as normal parts of religious life. A religious leader having sex with a minor, David Koresh or a modern LDS polygamist, is still a criminal. They are also perverting their religion for personal advantages. Only male’s with the wealth to support multiple families were permitted multiple wives. Only Koresh had license to sexually sample all the woman in his church. In both cases church members objected that this practice was not part of their faith but the overwhelming power of the charismatic leaders stifled resistance.
Isn’t there some point where “religion” becomes and has must be recognized as an evil influence, a cult? If there is such a line, you will not find it in this book. I think that Gottschalk’s intention is to argue that Islam is being misrepresented, the violence that some factions preach is not true Islam and the actions of those few are being used for political and economic advantage by many vocal Americans, that conservative fear, not Islam, is at the root of the recent waves of hate crimes and publicity stunts aimed at Muslims. His thesis is true but his argument lacks persuasion. Reading the book it seems that he is saying that promiscuity and violence are simply normal advances in religious thought. That Koresh and the latter-day revelation endorsing polygamy were valid advances of their faith and not just, as my wife would say, male pigs behaving like pigs. How can he point out that violence is not part of Islam if he refuses to notice that sexual promiscuity is not part of Seventh Day Adventism or part of the original tenets of the Church of Latter-Day Saints?
Read Joseph Gaer’s “What the Great Religions Believe” if you are curious about Islam or Tyler G. Anbinder’s “Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know Nothings and the Politics of the 1850s” to understand the political motivations behind anti-Catholicism thought. Gottschalk’s work here is well written but not well reasoned.

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The wisdom of old books

Full bookshelves

Nancy Pearl, NPR’s favorite librarian, talked last week about five older, but still in print books that she still enjoys reading. I was hard at work reorganizing my bookshelves, culling the fiction I have no intention to read or read again to make room for my growing collection of non-fiction, when I heard her recommendations. Naturally I began to work on my own list.

Since 2007 I have been reading only non-fiction, Nancy Pearl’s recommendations are all for works of fiction and she stressed that they were all in print, making her books easy to find if someone cared to do so. The only restrictions I am putting on my list is that to be eligible the book needs be sitting on my shelves today and I have to really feel that I benefited from reading it.

1: Nightmare in Manhattan (Fingerprint Books) by Thomas Walsh won the 1951 Edgar Award for the best mystery by a first time author. It has a good plot, the author’s writing style is current enough to still be readable unlike the winner from the year before (What a Body! by Alan Green) but what I really like about it is the way it captures the era. This is the book that proved to me that the past is a foreign country. Even just fifty years later it is a different world.

2: How to Lie with Statistics by Darrell Huff, illustrated by Irving Geis was first published in 1954 and I don’t think it has been out of print since. I never thought of the 1950s as a time of cynicism but this book indicates otherwise. It is a short but powerful, and humorous, lesson on how not to be lied to with statistics. Do 9 out of 10 dentists recommend Crest? Was the survey done at a Proctor & Gamble stockholders meeting or a dental convention?

3:  What the Great Religions Believe by Joseph Gaer was written in 1970, long before religion became a political weapon. I was lucky enough to read it a few years later and feel this book helped insulate me from the political / media nonsense of the last few decades.

4: Historians’ Fallacies : Toward a Logic of Historical Thought by David Hackett Fischer was the now well known historian’s first book. It is an amazing look at the logical failings of, then, recently published works by established scholars. Remember I mentioned this was Fischer’s first book? I am amazed at the critical thinking skill Fischer demonstrates while autopsying the work of literally dozens of established scholars but I am more overwhelmed by the cast-iron balls this newly minted PhD must have had to publicly air the logical shortcomings of dozens established professors who he would be working with for decades to come.

5:  Pioneer Life in Kentucky by Daniel Drake. Drake is the medical doctor / professor that I have been researching since I earned my BA in 2011. This is a collection of letters that he wrote to his children in the winter of 1845 while teaching at the Louisville Medical Institute. His daughters, grown and married, lived upriver in Cincinnati. In the letters he tells them of his early life in the Kentucky wilderness from about 1788 to 1799. His son assembled the letters into book form and published them after Dr. Drakes death. Dr. Horne, one of Drakes biographers, re-edited the book in the mid twentieth century and Albert Nathaniel Drake, perhaps a descendant of Dr. Drake, re-edited it again late last century. I read Horne’s version. Horne venerated Dr. Drake and although I don’t give him high marks for avoiding bias I believe he restored the Dr’s original words as much as he possibly could from the changes the less talented son made. You will not find a better description of pioneer life than in this book.

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