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Jack has written more than 500 articles and essays for The Atlantic, Scientific American Mind, Wired, American Heritage, The History Channel Magazine, The Washington Post Magazine, Minnesota Monthly, and many other publications.

Read his articles and essays here.

Jack El-Hai's Books
  • The Lobotomist: A Maverick Medical Genius and His Tragic Quest to Rid the World of Mental Illness
    The Lobotomist: A Maverick Medical Genius and His Tragic Quest to Rid the World of Mental Illness
  • Non-Stop: A Turbulent History of Northwest Airlines
    Non-Stop: A Turbulent History of Northwest Airlines
  • Lost Minnesota: Stories of Vanished Places
    Lost Minnesota: Stories of Vanished Places
  • The Nazi and the Psychiatrist: Hermann Göring, Dr. Douglas M. Kelley, and a Fatal Meeting of Minds at the End of WWII
    The Nazi and the Psychiatrist: Hermann Göring, Dr. Douglas M. Kelley, and a Fatal Meeting of Minds at the End of WWII
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Wednesday
Dec132017

The Short and Wondrous Career of Harry Glicken

When I knew Harry Glicken during the mid-1970s at Venice High School in Los Angeles, I could not imagine my classmate as a history-maker of the future. He was disheveled, wore unstylish clothing over his gaunt frame, and had trouble keeping his glasses straight. He spoke in a rush and loved to argue. But to anyone paying attention, which I wasn’t, there was more to Harry than his appearance let on.

Harry Glicken in the field, 1980s

 

Harry was wickedly smart, a true brainiac in a school with quite a few bright kids. He had an off-balance sense of humor, often spiking his jokes with time-release punch lines that took a while to ignite. Harry loved science, and in its interest he could behave with unpredictable enthusiasm: he once brought in fresh human semen to biology lab. He didn’t explain where it came from, and he didn’t have to. That was a memorably awkward moment.

After Harry and I parted ways to go to college, I assumed he’d end up in the sciences and that he’d not likely again come to my attention. I was right on one count and wrong on the other.

Around 1993, I was astonished to hear from a friend that Harry, by this time a volcanologist, had been killed while studying the eruption of Mount Unzen in Japan. I then found out that he had narrowly avoided death eleven years earlier during the eruption of Mount St. Helens. That’s when I realized that I had not really known Harry Glicken at all.

I caught up on his career. Harry earned his undergraduate degree at Stanford University and went on to graduate school at the University of California-Santa Barbara. As a Ph.D. student in the spring of 1980, he began working for the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to help keep an eye on the volatile situation at Mount St. Helens in Washington. Harry was the sole person manning the Coldwater II observation post just north of the volcano throughout much of May. But he had to leave on May 17 to meet with his faculty advisor. His mentor and USGS supervisor, David Johnston, then temporarily took Harry’s place at Coldwater II.

The next day, Harry heard the news that an earthquake at 8:32 a.m. had triggered an avalanche and an enormous explosion of rocks, hot ash, and molten lava at Mount St. Helens. Coldwater II was obliterated within minutes, and Johnston’s body was never found. Harry, however, did not yet know his friend’s fate, and he found a helicopter pilot willing to take a look. Thick clouds of ash kept the pilot from getting as close to Coldwater II as Harry wanted, so he found another pilot willing to give it a try.

The eruption of Mount St. Helens, May 18, 1980

Everything on the ground was desolate. “One wouldn’t know a forest existed here,” Harry wrote. The destruction deeply shook him; he had seen burned people and a dead elk, covered with ashes but still standing. In addition, Harry felt responsible for Johnston’s death. He threw himself into contributing to the USGS survey of the avalanche and became an expert on volcanic debris avalanches.

Harry recovered from the loss of his friend and in 1990 travelled to Japan as a visiting postdoctoral fellow at Tokyo Metropolitan University. Within months, he was close to the scene of yet another eruption, on the island of Kyushu at Mount Unzen, a volcano that had been dormant since 1792. He, along with the French volcanology and photography team of Katia and Maurice Krafft and a group of journalists, was observing the volcano at 4 p.m. on June 3, 1991, when a gigantic explosion collapsed the volcano’s lava dome, started a flow of molten rock, and launched a high-temperature cloud of ash that engulfed the observers. Harry, 33, and his colleagues died instantly along with 39 other people.

Harry and David Johnston are still the only American volcano scientists ever to die during volcanic eruptions. I wish they had no such distinction. If things had somehow gone differently, I would enjoy hearing my rumpled and eccentric classmate, glasses askew, rush through the story of how he survived.

Further reading:

Fisher, Richard Virgil. Out of the Crater: Chronicles of a Volcanologist. Princeton University Press, 2000.

Glicken, Harry. “Rockslide-debris avalanche of May 18, 1980, Mount St. Helens volcano, Washington.” U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey, Open File Report 96–667, 1996.

Lopes, Rosaly M.C. The Volcano Adventure Guide. Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Monday
Mar202017

The U.S. Vice President Who Wrote a Pop Music Hit

Barry Manilow, Van Morrison, the Four Tops, Cass Elliot, Isaac Hayes, Bing Crosby and Nat “King” Cole all owe a lot to a now obscure United States vice president and Nobel Peace Prize winner named Charles Dawes. Those musical artists, as well as dozens of others, recorded a song that the American statesman dashed off in a single sitting decades earlier. Dawes, who had a background in banking and law with no formal music training, never suspected that his tune would someday reach the very top of the pop charts in the U.S. and U.K.

Charles G. Dawes

The tale of that hit song, “It’s All in the Game,” begins in Marietta, Ohio, where Dawes was born in 1865. Long interested in music but discouraged by his parents from pursuing it as a profession, he taught himself passable skills in playing the piano and flute. He passionately attended concerts of visiting artists in Marietta and kept a diary of his impressions of their performances. Dawes eventually established himself as a banker in Illinois, but he never lost his love of music, helped form the Chicago Grand Opera company, and frequently sat at the keyboard to pass his idle minutes.

During one of those interludes at the piano in 1911, Dawes sketched out a tune that he liked very much. He soon returned to the piece and gave it a solo part for violin. His friend, the violinist and fellow Mariettan Francis MacMillan, heard the melody and fell in love. “It’s just a tune that I got in my head, so I set it down,” Dawes explained to MacMillan. “I never gave the thing a name. If you want it you can have it. It has served its purpose as a diversion for me.”

MacMillan made the most of that invitation. He sold it to a publisher, and before long Dawes’ piece, now titled Melody in A Major, was a light-classical hit. “I was walking down State Street and came to a music shop,” Dawes wrote of his discovery of the fame of his creation. “I saw a poster size picture of myself, my name plastered all over the window in large letters and the window space entirely filled with the sheet music.” Phonograph recordings by such artists as the violinist Fritz Kreisler sold by the tens of thousand.

Dawes’s Melody in A Major, in an arrangement for pipe organ

In the years that followed, as Dawes became the first director of the U.S. Bureau of the Budget, formulated a plan for Germany’s payment of reparations to the Allies, was elected vice president on the Republican ticket with Calvin Coolidge in 1924, and shared a Nobel Peace Prize in 1925 for his work enabling Germany to handle its weighty war reparations, the Melody in A tailed its creator in performances by marching bands, string quartets, and a variety of often ill-fitting musical ensembles. Dawes grew weary of it. “If it had not been fairly good music I should have been subjected to unlimited ridicule,” he lamented.

The cacophony had quieted by the time Dawes died in 1951. Later that year, however, Melody in A began a new life as a hit pop song. Songwriter Carl Sigman — who would later write lyrics for “What Now My Love,” “A Day in the Life of a Fool,” and “Ebb Tide,” — got the tune stuck in his head and adapted it for “It’s All in the Game,” a song about the vicissitudes of love. When crooner Tommy Edwards recorded it first, the song climbed to eighteen on the pop charts. Edwards covered the song again in 1958, and this doo-wop version hit number one and became one of the defining songs of the 1950s. Recordings by a slew of popsouljazzR & B, and easy-listening artists followed and have continued unabated.

Dawes is the only U.S. vice president and Nobel prize winner to earn a credit for a hit song. At the end of his life he had at last given up on music. “Not long ago I tried to play ‘Tea for Two,’ which I used to play a lot,” he wrote, “but I won’t try it again.” He could no longer hear the musical overtones.

Further reading:

Timmons, Bascom N. Portrait of an American: Charles G. Dawes. Henry Holt and Company, 1953.

Was, David. “Tracing the History of a Song: ‘It’s All in the Game.’” Day to Day program transcript, April 5, 2006.

Monday
Feb272017

The Black Stork: A physician’s cinematic argument for eugenics

by Jack El-Hai

A scene from The Black Stork (1917)

This year marks the centennial of one of the most infamous movies of the silent era, which made a case for allowing disabled infants to die and sparked a national debate between 1917 and the late 1920s before sinking into obscurity. Along the way, The Black Stork rocketed a physician to fame and symbolized America’s conflicted attitude toward eugenics and the value of human life.

The story of The Black Stork begins with the involvement of Chicago surgeon Harry J. Haiselden in the treatment of a severely disabled newborn, a boy apparently never given a first name but surnamed Bollinger, in 1915. The baby’s deformities, Haiselden warned the parents, would lead to a life of imbecility, misery, and crime if the child survived. The parents accepted Haiselden’s recommendation to withhold medical care and allow the infant to die.

The surgeon, a graduate of the University of Illinois College of Medicine, then took the unusual step of calling a press conference to announce his holding back of treatment to the baby Bollinger and his intent to campaign for the deaths of similarly disabled infants in the future. These children, he believed, endangered the genetic well-being of the nation, and if allowed to live they would bring despair to themselves and their families. Haiselden’s declaration sat well with devotees of eugenics and theories of the hereditary passage of criminal and antisocial traits, and he received support from the famed social activist Helen Keller. The doctor determined to extend the resulting firestorm of discussion and criticism by promoting his cause in the production of a feature-length motion picture.

Haiselden himself took the starring role in The Black Stork, which tells a story similar to that of the Bollingers. A mother gives birth to a child with congenital syphilis, contracted from the father’s “tainted blood.” The baby is mentally and physically disabled, and the parents follow the advice of their doctor (played by Haiselden) to let it die out of mercy and to protect society from having to tolerate an unhappy misfit in its midst. Promoters advertised the film as a “eugenic love story.”

The movie boasted impressive credits. Leopold and Theodore Wharton, who managed the famed melodramatic 1914 serial The Perils of Pauline, handled production, and Jack Lait, a celebrated muckraking reporter for the Chicago Herald, wrote the photoplay. 

Starting with early screenings for the Ohio state legislature and at movie palaces in Chicago and New York, The Black Stork was shown across the nation, often in tandem with lectures by Haiselden. Local censors frequently demanded cuts or changes.

Haiselden eventually participated in the deaths of at least three more disabled infants, sometimes accelerating the fatal result, before he suddenly expired from a cerebral hemorrhage in 1919. But The Black Stork lived on. In 1927, it was reedited into a new film with an even stronger eugenics message, titled Are You Fit to Marry? Eventually the film descended into distribution through touring road shows that specialized in presenting sensationalized entertainment. After the 1940s it vanished from view for decades until University of Michigan researcher and professor Martin Pernick tracked down the last viewable print of Are You Fit to Marry? and wrote a fascinating book that chronicles Haiselden’s career and influence.

Further reading:

Cheyfitz, Kirk. “Who Decides? The Connecting Thread of Euthanasia, Eugenics, and Doctor-Assisted Suicide.” Omega, Vol. 40(1) 5-16, 1999-2000.

Pernick, Martin S. The Black Stork: Eugenics and the Death of “Defective” Babies in American Medicine and Motion Pictures. Oxford University Press, 1999.

“Surgeon Lets Baby, Born to Idiocy, Die.” The New York Times, July 25, 1917.

Thursday
Dec152016

America's First Pop Psychologist

When Joseph Jastrow died in 1944 at age 80, he was almost a forgotten figure in American psychology and certainly an irrelevant one to many minds. Decades earlier he had given up full-time work in academe, and his most recent writing, an analysis of the psychology of Adolf Hitler, had been ignored.

Joseph JastrowYet for many years he had been America’s preeminent pop psychologist, finding ways to explain and interpret psychological ideas to lay audiences interested in bringing the wisdom of this new science into their daily lives. Drawn away from experimental psychology by personal tragedies, he wrote popular books and contributed to Harper’s Monthly and other consumer magazines. The Polish-born Jastrow was thus a predecessor of such recent pop psychologists as Joyce Brothers, M. Scott Peck, Wayne Dyer, and “Dr. Phil” McGraw.

Short and bespectacled, Jastrow was the first American to receive a doctorate in psychology, in 1883. He joined the faculty of the psychology department at the University of Wisconsin. There he built the first psychology laboratory that specialized in investigations of the senses. He examined involuntary movement, stereoscopic vision, deception, hypnosis, the mental acuity of conjurers, reasoning processes, and the formation of judgments. His studies of optical and psychological illusions carried his name around the world, and several of his illusions — still known as Jastrow Objects — continue to appear in psychology textbooks.

By 1900, his passion for experimental psychology had run dry and the stresses of his career brought him a mental breakdown and the need to seek medical care. (A newspaper headlined a story on Jastrow’s troubles as “Famous Mind Doctor Loses His Own.”) After a year away from academics, he focused his attention on popularizing psychology rather than continuing to labor in the laboratory. Later, the death of his son in World War I and his wife’s death added to Jastrow’s depression. He now tapped his talent for presenting psychology to the public, a skill he had cultivated years earlier at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. At that public gathering — the same one at which the serial killer H.H. Holmes found his victims — Jastrow created an exhibit that included participatory activities, including psychological tests that visitors could take on the spot. One of his test-takers was the teenaged Helen Keller, who received from Jastrow the first thorough examination of her sensory faculties.

Jastrow's Rabbit-Duck illusion

In 1901 Jastrow wrote Fact and Fable, the first of his many popular books on psychology. One of his favorite topics was the deceptive performances of mediums and psychics, and he joined with the stage entertainer Harry Houdini in jousting with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and others who believed in the supposed talents of spiritualists. Meanwhile, although Jastrow came off as boring and incomprehensible in the classroom, he developed into an entertaining speaker on the popular lecture circuit. He gained fame for his lectures on “the will to believe,” his phrase for our tendency to let authority and sensationalism persuade us even when scientific evidence suggests we shouldn’t.

Toward the end of his life, Jastrow became a well known media personality. Soon after resigning from his teaching position at the University of Wisconsin, from which he had grown distant, Jastrow began writing a syndicated newspaper column, “Keeping Mentally Fit,” in 1927, and during the 1930s he refashioned his topics for radio audiences. His final books bore such titles as Piloting Your LifeEffective Thinking, and Sanity First — early entries in today’s self-help category. His last volume, Hitler: Mask and Myth, never found a publisher. By the end, audiences viewed his style as old-fashioned and formal, but he introduced countless people to the illuminating potential of the study of human behavior. “There was no exploiting just for the sake of sales or publicity,” one of his eulogists concluded. “Jastrow always left a dignified impression of psychology and did nothing to bring the science into disrepute.” Not all of today’s pop psychologists can claim the same.

 Sources:

 Behrens, Peter J. “War, Sanity, and the Nazi Mind: The Last Passion of Joseph Jastrow.” History of Psychology, Vol. 12, No. 4, pp. 266-284.

Blum, Deborah. “Mind Tricks for the Masses.” On Wisconsin Magazine, Summer 2010.

Pettit, Michael. “Joseph Jastrow, the Psychology of Deception, and the Racial Economy of Observation.” Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, Vol. 43(2), pp. 159-175.

Pillsbury, W.B. “Joseph Jastrow, 1863-1944.” The Psychological Review, Vol. 51, No. 5, pp. 261-265.

Friday
Dec092016

Is There Any Truth to Truth Serum?

Remember the routine from black and white espionage dramas of the 1940s and ‘50s? The bad guys detain a suspected spy, who won’t talk even after a rough interrogation. Soon, after receiving an injection of a colorless liquid, he’s muttering uncontrollably, spilling the details of an entire network of agents. The truth serum has done its job.

No drug has ever really worked this way. In 1916 Robert House, a Texas obstetrician, chanced upon the first pharmacological agent that appeared to put people in an unusual trance. He noticed that some of his patients who received the anesthetic scopolamine during delivery fell into a half-sleep in which they could sometimes answer questions without remembering having done so afterward. House grew convinced that their mental state under scopolamine’s influence was one in which it was impossible to lie — therefore, the drug could compel anyone to speak the truth.

Like alcohol, scopolamine and the truth serum substitutes that would soon follow it depressed the central nervous system and diminished inhibitions. There was no greater guarantee of reliable truthfulness in House’s patients than in any soused person.

Undeterred by his lack of knowledge of psychology, pharmacology, or criminology, House spent the 1920s touring America’s jailhouses and police departments in demonstrations of administering scopolamine in the questioning of criminal suspects. He believed the drug would prove useful in the justice system not as a tool to make tight-lipped crooks talk, but as part of an interrogation technique that would give police investigators no excuse to use violence to extract confessions.

After House’s death in 1929, the use of scopolamine and later truth serums — sodium amytal and sodium pentothal — changed course. In an era of rising organized crime, the police wanted confessions. But the drugs made people suggestible and prone to giving fanciful and wrong answers. Over the years, some interrogators who continued using these drugs, despite numerous cases of false confession, crossed a line into abuse of suspects and miscarriage of justice. “The criminal who is likely to confess under sodium amytal is likely to confess anyway if skillfully interrogated,” the psychiatrist John M. MacDonald concluded in 1955. “The criminal who is able to withstand skillful interrogation is usually able to withstand examination while under the influence of drugs. The temptation to request a truth serum test as a short cut to the solution of a crime should be avoided.”

In its Townsend v. Sain decision of 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that confessions obtained using a truth serum were inadmissible. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, some law-enforcers called for a return to truth-serum interrogation. So far, nobody has publicly announced the development of a drug formulation proven to work.

Sources:

MacDonald, John M. “Truth Serum.” Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology, and Police Science, Vol. 46, 1955-1956, pp. 259-263.

Winter, Alison. “The Making of ‘Truth Serum.'” Bulletin of the History of Medicine, Vol. 79, No. 3, Fall 2005, pp. 500-533.