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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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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.

Thursday
Sep292016

The Nazi Brain Removal Caper

After the end of World War II, a Nazi leader dies in Allied custody under strange circumstances. An American military psychiatrist longs to prove his pet theory by having the Nazi’s brain removed from the body and examined. With help from a friend, the psychiatrist succeeds in extracting the organ and smuggling it out of Europe. A pathologist studies the brain to determine the correctness of the psychiatrist’s theory, and the result is. . .well, complicated.

The brain of Robert Ley

This happened, not in a bad movie of the 1960s, but in real life, in Nuremberg, Germany; Washington, D.C.; and beyond.

I first came across the story while researching my book The Nazi and the Psychiatrist: Hermann Göring, Dr. Douglas M. Kelley, and a Fatal Meeting of Minds at the End of WWII. One of the first artifacts I encountered among the records of Douglas Kelley, M.D., a psychiatrist who had exclusive access to the top captured German leaders awaiting trial in Nuremberg for war crimes, was a set of glass slides. The slides showed different views of a dissected human brain. The label on the slides said the brain came from a man named Robert Ley.

I knew Ley as the emotionally unstable and hard-drinking head of the German Labor Front, a Nazi government agency that replaced trade unions and took charge of the affairs of German workers. Under Ley’s direction, the organization played a role in the gathering and mobilization of slave laborers, many of whom suffered and died in criminally brutal conditions.

Kelley met Ley during the summer of 1945, when the German was imprisoned and awaiting trial with 21 of the most culpable of his colleagues from the Nazi government and German military. The psychiatrist had assigned himself the task of determining whether a common mental disease or disorder afflicted the captured Germans and could explain their crimes against humanity. Ley, with his spells of shouting, crying, and proclaiming his allegiance to Adolf Hitler, was a subject of interest to Kelley.

Through the use of Rorschach inkblot testing and other psychological assessments, Kelley theorized that Ley — alone among the top German defendants — suffered from a behavioral disorder originating in the brain, the result of an airplane crash Ley had experienced World War I. Kelley’s tentative diagnosis of organic brain injury was bold, given the psychiatrist’s lack of access to any kind of brain imaging when examining Ley.

Ley became his Allied captors’ nightmare when he managed to strangle himself in his Nuremberg cell in October 1945. Kelley called Ley’s suicide a blessing, because it offered hope that the dead man’s brain could testify to the truth of Kelley’s brain-damage diagnosis. Kelley convinced a friend, U.S. Army pathologist Najeeb Klan, to secretly remove Ley’s brain in the Nuremberg morgue. Kelley then sent the brain, enclosed in a wooden crate marked “Spices,” on a transatlantic journey. It soon reached another of Kelley’s colleagues, neuropathologist Webb Haymaker, at the Army Institute of Pathology in Washington , D.C. In the process, it became the only brain of a Nazi leader given post-mortem scrutiny. Kelley asked Haymaker to examine the brain for signs of frontal-lobe damage.

Haymaker wrote back to Kelley that Ley’s brain evidenced “a long-standing degenerative process of the frontal lobes.” He couldn’t tell if a head injury caused the degeneration. Nevertheless Kelley felt exhilarated by the supposed prescience of his chancy diagnosis.

Joel E. Dimsdale, distinguished professor emeritus and research professor in the department of psychology at the University of California, San Diego, has unearthed more about the silent testimony of Ley’s brain. In his research, he quotes Nathan Melamud of the Langley Porter Neuropsychiatric Institute, who in 1947 took his own look at Ley’s brain tissue at Haymaker’s request. “I am not impressed with any definite pathology in this case,” Melamud wrote, “at least such as would lead one to suspect a clinical organic condition…. [I]f real, the changes are not too significant.”

Kelley’s reaction to this less affirming second opinion is unknown. He had other things to ponder. By 1947, Kelley was deeply into the writing of a book that laid out his proposition that the German leaders had been infected by no psychiatrically active “Nazi virus” that accounted for their behavior. That declaration — and its implication that the German leaders were psychiatrically normal — did not go down well with the American public.

Further reading

Dimsdale, Joel E. Anatomy of Malice: The Enigma of the Nazi War Criminals. Yale University Press, 2016.

Smelser, Ronald. Robert Ley: Hitler’s Labor Leader. Berg, 1988.