The Ghost Girls

From its discovery in 1898, radium was considered a wonder of science.  It glowed with an unearthly beauty.  It delighted its discoverers, Marie Sklodowska Curie and her husband Pierre, who called it “My beautiful radium”.  It was used in spas and clinics as a cure for everything from cancer to constipation.   It was used in makeup, jewelry and paints.  

At the height of World War I, it was used to make the hands and dials of wristwatches glow in the dark.  Girls all over the country flocked to make these watches as they paid up to three times what they could have been paid at any other wartime factory.  Plus the watches were going to adorn the arms of soldiers, so it was patriotic and profitable.  To paint the tiny watch faces, the girls were taught to put their small brushes in their mouth to draw it into a fine point then dip it into the radium.  This was totally fine as the girls were told radium “will put rosy cheeks on you.”  They were called the Ghost Girls because they glowed in the dark after work.  Some girls painted radium on their teeth and faces for dates.

However, everything wasn’t rosy.  Curie herself died of radium poisoning, and her notebooks are still too radioactive to handle. Men in radium companies handled the chemical wearing thick leather aprons, gloves and heavy metal tongs to prevent burns.  It was believed the small doses of radium the girls were getting were benign.  They weren’t.

The girls began to get sick.  In 1922, Mollie Maggia developed tooth problems.  It progressed to her losing all her teeth in a shower of pus and blood.  Her mouth was a giant abscess and when a dr treating her touched her jawbone, it disintegrated in his hands.  She was dead in less than a year.  And she wasn’t the only one.  Grace Fryer began developing the same problems in her jaw and in her feet.  Marguerite Carlough and Hazel Vincent suffered chronic exhaustion and skin so thin a fingernail would cut it.  Albina Larice had stillbirth after stillbirth.

The first lawsuit was filed against the parent company, USRC, in September 1925.  They lost.  There were no appeals as what little money the girls had went to doctors not lawyers.  The factory held all the cards.  Finally, one woman, Catherine Donohue, was willing to fight to the death.  She hired lawyer, Leonard Grossman, who worked pro bono.  After eight appeals, the won their suit on October 23, 1932.  This victory led to more stringent safety standards for dial painters as well as for later workers on the atomic bomb.

But the Ghost Girls were still dead.  In 1927, Mollie Maggia’s body was exhumed.  Her cause of death had been recorded as syphilis, and her family was protesting to have it changed.  Even five years later, her body glowed with a “soft luminescence”.  The radium took its toll.


Eclipses- Historical Harbingers

Total solar eclipse Photo Credit- By I, Luc Viatour

If you’ve been anywhere near the news, you would have seen that a solar eclipse happened in the continental United States yesterday.  I have to admit it was a pretty amazing experience as I was lucky enough to be in the path of totality.  As the sky went dark and the crickets started chirping, I thought about what it must have been like for those in the past.  They didn’t have the benefit of NASA and other scientists telling us that this was normal, the Sun would come back and to wear protective glasses.  How did people through the ages deal with eclipses?

One of the first references we have of an eclipse is from a series of circular and spiral shaped petroglyphs at the Loughcrew Megalithic Monument in County Meath, Ireland.  This is near the passage tomb of New Grange, which is also from around the same time.  (For more on New Grange, please see this post )  These date back to around 3340 BCE, and scientists have calculated that a solar eclipse occurred on November 30, 3340 BCE.  According to Irish archaeoastronomer Paul Griffin, the monument was in the path of totality, meaning the entire solar disc was obscured.  Decoding the carvings on the rock, Griffin was able to deduce they were recording the eclipse, making it one of the first records of such an event.  Inside the monument, the charred remains of 48 humans were found.  It has been hypothesized this was a human sacrifice to “bring back” the Sun from the underworld.  

The Chinese and Babylonian cultures began to predict eclipses with high accuracy.  The Babylonians believed an eclipse was an evil omen for the ruler.  The Chinese believed the Sun was being eaten by a large dragon during an eclipse.  An ancient book of documents called the Shu Ching, described the eclipse in October 22, 2134 BCE.  The emperor charged two astronomers, Hsi and Ho, to predict the eclipse so archers could be stationed to defend the Sun from the dragon.  Unfortunately for Hsi and Ho, they got massively drunk and failed to alert the warriors and were beheaded for dereliction of duty.  Similar mythology describing the Sun as being stolen is found around the world, but it was not always a dragon to blame.  The Vietnamese people believed the Sun was being eaten by a giant frog, and the Norse people blamed a wolf.  In Korea, they believed dogs were stealing the Sun.  Because of this, many cultures gathered together to bang drums or even pots and pans to scare away whatever was trying to steal or eat the Sun.

On the other side of the world, the Inuits believed the Sun goddess Malina walked away after a fight with her brother Anningan, the Moon god.  An eclipse happened when Annigan caught up with his sister.  The Pomo, another Native American tribe, believed a bear got into a fight with the Sun and took a bite out of it. The bear was apparently hungry and went on to take a bite out of the moon two weeks later, explaining why there is a lunar eclipse usually two weeks after a solar one.  In the Africa, the Batammaliba tribe in Benin and Togo, believed the Sun and the moon were at war and the only way to keep them from permanently damaging each other was to end human conflicts.

Eclipse Icon at Loughcrew 3340 BCE Photo Credit-

The ancient Greeks also believed that an eclipse was an omen of evil tidings.  Historian Herodotus tells of an eclipse on May 28, 585 BCE that prompted a cease fire between the Lydians and the Medes.   In the middle of the Battle of Halys, the sky turned dark and the battling armies took this as a sign the gods wanted them to stop.  A truce was negotiated and the battle was renamed the Battle of the Eclipse.  Another eclipse changed the course of Greek history.  At the height of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, and eclipse occurred on August 27, 413 BCE.  At that time, the Athenians were attempting to dislodge the Syracusans from Sicily.  Their commander, Nicias, was extremely superstitious and postponed the fleet’s departure because of the eclipse.  This gave the Syracusans enough time to stage another attack in which the Athenians were defeated.  This marks the beginning of the decline of Athenian dominance in the region.

The Christian gospels tell of the sky darkening during the day at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion.  Some archaeoastronomers believe that Jesus’ death coincided with a solar eclipse and have tried to use this to pinpoint the exact date.  There are historical records of solar eclipses in the year 29 and 32, but no one has proof of which date is correct.  Following along with the bad omen belief, another solar eclipse affected the life of Louis the Pious.  He was the third son of Charlemagne and inherited the Holy Roman Empire.  It is reported he witnessed the eclipse on May 5, 840 and was convinced it was a warning of impending punishment from God and died of fright soon after.  This plunged the kingdom into civil war for three years.  There was also said to be an eclipse right before the death of Henry I of England on August 2, 1133, which reinforced the superstition that eclipses were bad omens for rulers.  The solar eclipses on January 8, 1777 and again on June 24, 1778 was bad news for George III.  The one in 1777 proceeded the American victories at Trenton and Princeton, and the one in 1778 proceeded the victory of the Americans at the Battle of Monmouth.

Despite the beliefs and myths, the ancients were able to use information about eclipses to further scientific knowledge.  Aristotle observed the shadow of the Earth on the moon was curved and hypothesized the Earth was round.  Another Greek astronomer named Aristarchus used a lunar eclipse to estimate the distance of the Moon and Sun from the Earth.  Yet other astronomers observed the existence of the Sun’s corona during a total solar eclipse.  Astronomers Liu Hsiang, Plutarch and Leo Diaconus were pioneers in eclipse data.  However, it was not until 1605 that Johannes Kepler gave a scientific description of a total solar eclipse.  The first In modern times, Sir Arthur Eddington tested Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity.  During the May 29, 19191 solar eclipse he confirmed that starlight bent around the Sun by measuring the position of certain stars.  This was predicted by Einstein’s theory that massive objects caused distortions in space and time.

We no longer have the same superstitions about eclipses, but it is thought to be a time of change.  A nice way to put it is ending patterns that do not serve and beginning new healthy ones.  Enjoy the skies in good health and good spirits!


Typhoid Mary

Typhoid Mary in a 1909 newspaper illustration
Photo Credit

There were many ways to die in the overcrowded disease ridden cities of the late 19th century and early 20th century.  Typhoid was one the most terrifying ones simply because of the speed it could spread through a household.   It’s initial symptoms could be anything- fever and some abdominal cramping.  Then the fever got higher and blood clots formed under the skin.  The patient becomes delirious and the brain and the intestines hemorrhage.  The death rate was recorded anywhere from one in ten to three in ten.  It was frightening.  Doctors were building on the advances in the young science of epidemiology led by pioneers like Dr. John Snow.  (For more on him, please see this post: ) By the 1900s, they had found the cause of the disease was much like cholera in that it was cause by bacteria found in infected feces.  They were able to trace the cause of outbreaks more accurately, however, outbreaks still happened.

Typhoid broke out in the quiet community of Oyster Bay, Long Island.  One of the families affected was the Warren family where six of the eleven people in the rented vacation home became ill.  The patriarch, Charles Henry Warren, hired civil engineer, George Soper, to determine the cause of the outbreak.  Soper checked out the usual suspects- the food and water supply- and came up empty.  Then he began interviewing the servants.  His suspicions fell on Mary Mallon, a cook for the family who had arrived at the vacation home shortly before the outbreak began.  It was strange though because Mary wasn’t sick.  She was an immigrant in her thirties from Ireland who took pride in her cooking.  When asked if she washed her hands before she cooked, she indignantly replied “Of course not.”  When Soper asked her for samples of her blood, urine and feces, she brandished a meat fork at him and called him indecent.  However, Mary was his best lead.

Soper did more research and found that typhoid seemed to follow Mary wherever she went.  Between 1900 and 1907, Mallon worked as a cook in the New York City area for seven families.  In all of these families, someone became ill with typhoid.  He tried again to get her tested, this time visiting her in the hospital when she was ill with an unrelated ailment.  She locked herself in the bathroom until he left.  Mary was convinced she was being persecuted unjustly.  Finally, Sara Josephine Baker from the New York City Health Department went to Mary’s place of employment with five police officers and she was taken into custody.  The samples were forcibly taken, and it was found Mary had a gallbladder teaming with typhoid bacteria.  They suggested she get her gallbladder removed.  Mary refused.  They told her she could not work as a cook.  Mary refused that as well.  She was put into quarantine on North Brother Island in the East River.  There she stayed for three years.  Mary paid a private lab to run tests and they found she was not a typhoid carrier and sued for her freedom.  She lost.

In 1910, a new health inspector deemed the Mary was no longer a danger to the public.  He released her from quarantine as long as she promised not to be a cook.  Mary duly promised and then promptly disappeared.  Then a new outbreak of typhoid broke out at the Sloane Maternity Hospital in 1915.  It was mostly found in the staff, and there were twenty-three people who became ill and two who died.  They found that a Mary Brown was working in the kitchen.  This Mary Brown soon disappeared when people became sick and matched the description of Mary Mallon.  The authorities soon caught up with her in her Queens apartment, sneaking in through a second story window.  Mary was once again sent to the hospital on North Brother Island.

The public had become fascinated with the case, dubbing her “Typhoid Mary.”  The New York Times reported, she was “a veritable peripatetic breeding ground for the bacilli”.  Any public support she had dwindled once it came out that she went back to cooking and endangered people.  However, Mary did not have many options once she was out in the world.  Cooking was the only skill she had.  Plus, she never truly believed she was a carrier of typhoid so didn’t believe she was putting anyone in danger.  

Scientists from Stanford figured out only recently how Mary could be a carrier and not get sick.  Part of the immune system are macrophages, which “eat” foreign bodies.  When someone becomes sick, the macrophages go into high gear to fight the infection.  However, after a few days the macrophages become less aggressive and the typhoid bacteria actually penetrate and live in the cells meant to kill them.  Even now, that is difficult to treat let alone a hundred years ago.  

Mary was not always well treated in quarantine, and it was not an easy life.  She suffered a stroke and died from its effects six years later. She was still living on North Brother Island, and her New York Times obituary attributed 41 cases of typhoid and 3 deaths to her.


The Current Wars

Thomas Edison

AC/DC-  It’s not just a band.  It was the culmination of the struggle between two geniuses.  In the late 19th century, electricity was the hot new technology.  Thomas Edison had begun work with this field and in the 1870’s invented the first practical light bulb.  Arc lamps were used in cities on larger scales, but were not suitable for a business or a home.  Edison’s light bulb filled that niche.  To power all these new electric light bulbs, Edison created the investor-owned Edison Illuminating Company.  One problem.  These all used direct current or DC, which had a major drawback of a very short transmission range.  Customers had to be less than a mile from the power plan to get electricity.

Edison had a brilliant employee- Serbian immigrant Nikola Tesla.  He worked with Edison to improve the DC generators, but also worked on his ideas about alternating current, or AC, on the side.  Edison completely discounted Tesla’s ideas as impractical and put himself firmly on the DC train.  He was convinced that since DC maintained current at a lower voltage it was much safer than AC, which could change directions and voltages by using a transformer.  It didn’t hurt that most of Edison’s patents were on machines using DC, and the switch to AC would cost him significant money.  The two made a bet that Tesla could improve the efficiency of Edison’s dynamos.  If Tesla succeeded, he claimed Edison promised him $50,000, a goodly sum of money both then and now.  Tesla worked twenty four-seven for months, and finally presented his ideas to Edison.  However, Edison claimed the offer was a joke saying “When you become a full-fledged American, you will appreciate an American joke.”  This did not go over well with Tesla, who quit on the spot.  The rivalry was born.

Nicola Tesla

Tesla, despite his genius, had to take whatever job he could get after quitting Edison’s company.  After a few years of digging ditches, he finally had enough money to found the Tesla Electric Light Company in 1884.  In the next three years, Tesla researched and eventually filed for seven US patents in the field of AC motors and power transmission.  These patents included the plans for AC generators, wires, transformers, lights and a 100 horsepower AC motor.  Seeing the practicality of AC, George Westinghouse approached Tesla for a deal.  Westinghouse was an inventor in his own right, having developed the air brake.  Westinghouse also had a history of feuding with Edison, which made he and Tesla natural allies.  He bought all of Tesla’s patents for $5,000 in cash and 150 shares of stock in the Westinghouse corporation.  This was the equivalent of about a million dollars in today’s money.  Tesla took the deal and immediately built himself a new laboratory.  What he didn’t realize was he got short changed.  Those patents were priceless as Westinghouse set out to revolutionize the business of electricity.  The current wars were in full swing.

George Westinghouse Photo Credit- Joseph G. Gessford – Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

As cities across America began to build power stations, the fight between Edison and Westinghouse was on.  Edison was convinced AC would kill people and was determined to make the public see it too.  He embarked on a full scale propaganda campaign, which included euthanizing stray dogs with AC current during lectures before an audience.  Westinghouse wrote,

“I remember Tom [Edison] telling them that direct current was like a river flowing peacefully to the sea, while alternating current was like a torrent rushing violently over a precipice. Imagine that! Why they even had a professor named Harold Brown who went around talking to audiences… and electrocuting dogs and old horses right on stage, to show how dangerous alternating current was.”

Professor Brown also had a hand in replacing the form of capital punishment from hanging to the “electrical chair”.  Edison was sure to let everyone know the electric chairs were “’alternating machines,’ manufactured principally in this country by Geo. Westinghouse”.  He also quipped that criminals should be used as linesmen because the AC lines were so dangerous.  The first prisoner executed by electric chair was William Kemmler at New York’s Auburn State Prison.  The execution was described as “an awful spectacle, far worse than hanging.”  The entire process became known as “Westinghousing”.  It eventually came out that Brown was on Edison’s payroll, but the damage had been done.  Deaths of linemen in 1889 kicked off the “electric Wire Panic”, and Westinghouse was blamed.  Newspapers who had condemned Brown for double dealing, quoted him in stories as an expert on how dangerous AC was.

Despite this bad press, the Westinghouse Corporation was awarded the honor of illuminating the Columbian Exposition, or Chicago World’s Fair over the newly founded General Electric Company, which had taken over Edison’s company.  They won because the price of copper was soaring and DC power stations need more heavy copper lines than AC.  On May 1, 1893, President Grover Cleveland pushed a button and a hundred thousand electric lights illuminated all the buildings on the fairgrounds.  The Fair was a triumph of Tesla’s AC system, and the Westinghouse Corporation was awarded the contract to construct generators for a hydroelectric power plant at Niagara Falls.  In 1896, the plant was completed and the AC generators were delivering power to Buffalo, New York twenty-six miles away.  A feat that would have been impossible for the DC generators.

By this time, Edison had left his electric company for other pursuits.  With his dogmatic prejudice against AC gone, General Electric began researching AC based equipment.  Edison publicly bragged on how well his stock was doing, but was privately bitter about it.  From that point on, 80 percent of the electrical devices in the US were made to use AC.


Eva Ekeblad

Eva de la Gardie (1724-1786), Swedish scientist

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I could use a nice cold drink.  We’ve talked about the origins of beer (Please see this post:, but sometimes something a bit stronger is necessary.  So we move on to vodka.  In fairness, the lady who is the subject of this post did not only pave the way for vodka but many other things.  However, as I sip a Moscow Mule, vodka seems the most important.

Eva Ekeblad was born July 10, 1724 to statesman Count Magnus Julius De La Gardie and his wife Hedvig Catharina Lilja.  Interestingly, her brother was married to Catherine Charlotte De La Gardie, who also a scientist.  Catherine invented a smallpox vaccine and was instrumental in stopping Sweden’s last witch trial in 1758.  Perhaps Eva took inspiration from her sister in law.

As was customary for the nobility, Eva was married at the young age of sixteen to Count Claes Caesson Ekeblad.  It was considered a good match and the two eventually had a son and six daughters, and the family spent time in their two castles-  Mariedal Castle and Lindholmen Castle, Västergötland.  Nice work if you can get it.  Eva was quite active in management of the family lands, and her mind had a definite scientific bend.  At that time in Sweden, there was a shortage of oats and barley.  If someone could find a substitute, they would be not only helping the country but rich to boot.  In an effort to exploit a new cash crop, Eva began experimenting on potatoes.  At that time, potatoes were not considered fit for human consumption and used only for animal fodder.  Eva grew her own patch of potatoes and began to study them.  Her experiments discovered a way to cook and powder the potatoes to form a form of flour.  From there, it was a short step to distilling them to make a clear alcoholic beverage- our old friend vodka.  

In 1784, Eva submitted her findings to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and at twenty-four became the first female member.  Her work promoting the use of potatoes in place of other cereal grains, alleviated the food shortages in Sweden.  The potato wasn’t used for general food consumption in Sweden until the 19th century, but the popularity of vodka swept Northern Europe.  With potatoes being used for vodka, the oats, rye and barley it freed up was used to feed the poor.  Despite these achievements, her membership in the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences was downgraded to “honorary” in 1751 because she was a woman.  Nice.  I wonder if they were sipping some nice vodka when they did it.  She was the only female to make the academy’s list until nuclear physicist Lise Meiner was admitted in 1941.

What Eva thought of the downgrade we don’t know.  She continued her scientific work, researching a way to bleach cotton and yarn without using toxic dyes.  She also continued her experimentation with potatoes and found that potato flour could be used as a substitute in cosmetics for more dangerous materials such as lead.  All of this while raising her seven children, running her family’s estates and later being a lady in waiting to Queen Sophia Magdalena, as Mistress of the Robes and governess to Crown Prince Gustav IV Adolf.  This extraordinary woman passed at age 61 at her home in Mariedal.

So let’s raise a glass to Eva Ekeblad, without whom we could not enjoy delicious cocktails.