Articles & Essays

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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Four Top History Blogs

Since starting my own blog last month, I’ve gained a greater appreciation for the efforts of other history enthusiasts who have produced impressive blogs for a long time. How do you find these worthwhile history blogs?  A Google search turns up much bad with the good. The History News Network publishes a list of history blogs, but it hasn't been updated for a year, and it’s far too big to sample systematically.  

So, to advance the cause and reward the worthy, here’s my list of four top history blogs. I’m not saying these are the very best — please let me know your favorites in the comments section below or by contacting me directly. I’ll profile more history blogs in future posts. 

Four history blogs I find essential, enjoyable, and useful

Wonders and Marvels. Edited by the polymath professor and talented author Holly Tucker, this blog initially focused on the history of medicine and has expanded into wider explorations of historical storytelling. With such monthly contributors as Tracy Barrett, Stephanie Cowell, and Lindsey Fitzharris, the quality of the writing is high.  Posts have covered Roman toilet paper, the history of the barber’s pole, and early midwifery. I will soon join the blog’s roster of monthly contributors.

History in the Margins. This blog follows freelance writer Pamela Toler’s pursuit of historical stories, and she reports on some wonderful topics: history documentaries, the significance of the War of 1812, and the difference between pirates and privateers, along with frequent book reviews. Pamela is also a monthly contributor to Wonders and Marvels.

Past Imperfect. Much of my best recent reading in history has come from this blog from the Smithsonian, which is written by the formidable trio of Karen Abbott, Mike Dash, and Gilbert King. They can all spin tales. Abbott is the best-selling author of American Rose and Sin in the Second CityDash, a prodigiously productive and interesting writer of historical books that include volumes on the Mafia, corruption in the New York City police department, and the wreck of the Dutch ship Batavia, has been blogging on history for many years. And King is a skilled historical detective with intriguing interests. I’ve yet to find a dull or spiritless post in Past Imperfect — far from it.

HNN’s Breaking News. This is more of a news feed than a traditional blog.  Here the History News Network of George Mason University offers history-related stories culled from a variety of news sources.  Much of what I tweet in history news comes to my attention via this blog. (One shortcoming: the Breaking News blog seems to find it unnecessary to include any history stories from The New York Times. Hey, most people — including me — don’t read The Times every day!)

That’s a good start for any history reader, and I’ll publish a roundup of more history blogs soon. I’m especially on the lookout for top-notch blogs covering U.S. regional history (Midwest, West, and South), 20th century American and European history, the history of psychiatry and the neurosciences, and true crime and legal history.


U.S. Supreme Court Decides Whether the Tomato is Fruit or Vegetable

All of last week’s attention on the U.S. Supreme Court reminded me of an earlier decision that was downright pedestrian compared with the court’s judgment on healthcare law. The big legal question in Nix v. Hedden (1893) was whether federal law should view tomatoes as vegetables or fruits.Fruit or vegetable? The Supreme Court had an opinion.

How the tomato — that luscious outgrowth of the plant in the nightshade family known to botanists as Solanum lycopersicum — made it to the docket of the Supreme Court is a juicy saga that begins in the early decades of the 19th century.

Southern tomato growers had built a lucrative trade in shipping their produce to customers in the northern states. When the Civil War interrupted this commerce, Northerners began importing tomatoes, as well as other vegetables, from Bermuda and the Bahamas. After the war ended, Southern growers wanted their business back. They pressured the federal government to slap a tariff on imported vegetables, and in 1883 Congress at last complied.

The Tariff Act of 1883 imposed a tax on imported “vegetables in their natural state, or in salt or brine, not specially enumerated or provided for in this act, ten per centum ad valorem.” Specifically exempted from the 10 percent importation duty were “fruits, green, ripe or dried.” While the new law pleased the tomato cultivators, it upset importers. In 1886 prominent produce wholesalers John Nix and Company of New York City cooked up a plot to make pulp of the tariff law.

Seeds of dispute

That spring, Nix ordered a shipment of green tomatoes from Bermuda. The company paid the importation tax and began drawing up a lawsuit against the U.S. government official responsible for enforcing tariff duties at the Port of New York. When Nix filed its lawsuit in 1887, the case began its catsup-slow progress through the legal system that would culminate in the Supreme Court’s decision.

This was the same fruit of the vine formerly known as the “love apple,” was it not?

The lawsuit made an early stop in the court of Emile Lacombe, a judge of the U.S. Circuit Court for the Southern District of New York. The plaintiffs asserted that since tomatoes were fruits by botanical definition — the ovary, with seeds, of a flowering plant — the Tariff Act should not apply in this case. In support, the Nix attorneys read into the record a variety of dictionary definitions of “fruit” and “vegetable,” which established that vegetables were horticulturally considered the edible leaves, stems, and roots of plants. Next came testimony from New York City produce sellers — undoubtedly Nix friends and associates — who agreed with the dictionary definitions. “I understand that the term ‘fruit’ is applied in trade only to such plants or parts of plants as contain the seeds,” one swore. Concluding the plaintiff’s case, the Nix lawyers read to the court dictionary definitions of “tomato.” This was the same fruit of the vine formerly known as the “love apple,” was it not?

The U.S. attorneys representing Port Collector Hedden continued on a similar note. They read aloud dictionary definitions of “pea,” “eggplant,” “cucumber,” “squash,” and “pepper” — all examples of produce commonly regarded as vegetables even though botanists consider them fruit. Should the court then exempt them from the provisions of the Tariff Act of 1883?

The dictionary pages kept rustling. The plaintiffs counter-argued that no botanical confusion existed for the vast majority of vegetables, and proceeded to read out the definitions of “potato,” “turnip,” “parsnip,” “cauliflower,” “cabbage,” and “carrot.” By the end of these presentations, everyone in court must have wanted to break for salad.

After stewing over the testimony and evidence, Judge Lacombe issued his ruling on May 14, 1889. He cited earlier cases in which technical definitions of terms were determined to be different from commonly accepted meanings. He found that “the word ‘vegetable,’ in its popular and received meaning, is used to cover a class of articles which includes tomatoes, and the word ‘fruit,’ irrespective of what the dictionaries may lay down as to its botanical or technical meaning, is not in common speech used to cover tomatoes. For these reasons I shall direct a verdict in favor of the defendant.”

It was a serious setback for Nix, not to mention to the science of botany. The company vowed to appeal the decision. In doing so, it added fuel to a conflict that still rages today: the clash between botanical, horticultural, and cultural definitions of foods.

Overlapping categories

Fruits and vegetables, as it turns out, are not mutually exclusive categories. “The tomato is unquestionably a fruit botanically, but it is also considered a vegetable,” says Craig Andersen, extension horticulture specialist for vegetables at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. Tomatoes, as well as cucumbers, squash, peppers, and other produce botanically classified as fruits, are dual citizens — vegetables by custom and tradition. The fruit-vegetable divide, however, exists only in our minds, not in nature.

Which was exactly the point the U.S. Supreme Court focused upon after Nix appealed its case all the way to the highest court in the land. Nix v. Hedden reached the Supreme Court during the 1892-93 session. Citing a case from 1889, Robertson v. Salomon, Justice Horace Gray wearily noted that the Court had been down this road before. In that decision, Justice Joseph Bradley had written an opinion establishing that for the government’s purposes, beans were vegetables, not seeds.A stereoscopic view of the Old Senate Chamber — home of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1893

To resolve Nix v. Hedden, Gray believed, the botanical description of tomatoes was irrelevant. Furthermore, dictionary definitions offered no legal evidence. What mattered to Gray were the commonly understood meanings of “fruit” and “vegetable”: the definitions likely to be in the minds of the congressional representatives who passed the Tariff Act of 1883. “These [dictionary] definitions have no tendency to show that tomatoes are ‘fruit,’ as distinguished from ‘vegetables,’ in common speech, or within the meaning of the tariff act.” In other words, although tomatoes may scientifically be fruits, there is an alternative world of common perception in which they are more accurately considered vegetables. Thus the Supreme Court went on the record as a classifier of tomatoes, and it refused to overturn the decision of Circuit Court Judge Lacombe. The Nix scheme to sink the tariff failed.

Recent tomato controversies

The provisions of the Tariff Act of 1883 long ago faded from practice and memory. Yet the decision of the Supreme Court justices in Nix v. Hedden, as well as Justice Gray’s written opinion, still resonates — even though botanists continue to regard tomatoes as fruits. In 2003, the New Jersey Legislature convulsed in controversy when a representative proposed to make the Jersey tomato the state fruit. A better-organized contingent rallied around the high-bush blueberry, which eventually won the designation. Two years later, tomato advocates tried again, this time advancing the tomato as the state vegetable. Supporters of Assembly Bill No. 3766 specifically cited Nix v. Hedden in their assertion that it was no mistake to call the tomato a vegetable. (Arkansas avoided this horticultural row by designating the tomato the state fruit and vegetable.)

So by legislative act and the opinions of some of America’s distinguished legal minds, it is safe to call the tomato a vegetable. Botanists still remember this slight. “They took and applied the culinary usage and totally ignored the science purely to get more tax money,” horticulture specialist Andersen complains. “Somebody did not grease the right palms.”

[Much of this essay previously appeared in an article I wrote for The History Channel Magazine.]


Godfather of the Lobotomy: Egas Moniz

In 2010 we saw no big celebrations marking the 75th anniversary of the development of psychiatric surgery — not even in Portugal, where the first brain operations to treat psychiatric disorders, eventually leading to lobotomies, were performed. But the passing of the anniversary offers a good reason to wonder: How would someone come up with the idea to cut into the brain to alleviate mental illnesses, and what kind of physician would rely upon the medical technology and knowledge of the human brain of the 1930s to act on such a notion?

While researching my book The Lobotomist: A Maverick Medical Genius and His Tragic Quest to Rid the World of Mental Illness (published by Wiley), I grew intrigued by the wild ups and downs in the career of Egas Moniz, the neurologist who led the first modern surgical incursions into the brain to treat the soul. Moniz was no quack or crank, and his intellectual gifts were undeniable. Born in 1874 in Avanca, Portugal, he indulged his first passion, leftist politics, as a university student. Egas MonizAfter completing medical school, he studied and wrote about the physiology of human sexuality — long preceding Masters and Johnson — and taught medicine in Lisbon. In 1910, however, the fall of the Portuguese monarchy reignited his political interests, and Moniz won election to the national parliament. He quickly rose to the government’s upper ranks, serving as minister to Spain, minister of foreign affairs, and Portugal’s representative at the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I. Suddenly and unexpectedly, Moniz had become the most politically powerful physician in the world.

Moniz leaves politics

Then, just as abruptly, his political influence ended in 1920 with the ascent of a rightist regime and a military coup that followed. Moniz returned to medicine, where he soon became just as prominent as he had been in politics. He developed cerebral angiography, the world’s first procedure for imaging the brain, in which he injected sodium iodide into the carotid artery to allow the brain’s circulatory system to appear under x-ray photography. Never before could physicians see brain tumors, cysts, aneurysms, and other problems without opening the skull. The invention earned Moniz a Nobel Prize nomination in 1928 and in succeeding years. 

Moniz was on a roll. Although cerebral angiography had required years of experimentation and soon influenced medical specialties beyond neurology, its boldness faded in comparison with Moniz’s next major investigation, the development of psychiatric surgery, which began in 1935.  

By 1935, Moniz was 61 years old, prematurely wrinkled, coldly withdrawn, and painfully afflicted with gout. That year he attended a medical conference in London, where he sat in on a presentation by the American experimental psychologist Carlyle Jacobsen. It detailed the removal of the frontal lobes of two chimpanzees in a laboratory at Yale. One of the chimps became less prone to frustration and anxiety when confronted with difficult tasks. According to others in attendance, Moniz rose and asked whether surgery on the frontal lobes of people might diminish the anxiety that often accompanies psychiatric disorders. The question struck many people as shocking and rash, because nobody had previously voiced the notion of intentionally damaging the frontal lobes of humans for any therapeutic purpose. 

Moniz received no support for his idea at the conference, but he returned to Portugal and quickly began a series of brain operations on mentally ill patients in partnership with the neurosurgeon Almeida Lima. Years later, he wrote that since the early 1930s he had been ruminating over ways to improve the symptoms of psychiatric patients by disrupting neural pathways in the brain and that he had no memory of the question he had supposedly raised at the London conference. 

A new kind of surgery

Regardless of the origins of this new surgery, which he called leucotomy (he also coined the term "psychosurgery"), Moniz hypothesized that it would help patients because their illnesses were caused by rigid neurological circuitry in the brain, which led to the fixed delusions and obsessions of such diseases as schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and depression. Disrupting the circuitry might diminish the symptoms, he speculated. During a leucotomy, Moniz did not remove portions of the frontal lobes, but he opened the skull to damage or cut the neural pathways that connected the frontal lobes with other regions of the brain.

Of his initial twenty leucotomy patients operated on during 1935, Moniz determined that 70 percent were improved or cured when he followed up on them a few weeks later. He rushed to publish these results in several European medical journals. Immediately Moniz faced a firestorm of criticism, including skepticism over his hypothesis for the causes of psychiatric disorders, but he remained undeterred. Walter Freeman, an American neurologist who Moniz had met in London, read these articles and worked with the neurosurgeon James Watts to launch a series of similar surgeries in the US during 1936. Eventually Freeman would have a hand in 3,400 of such operations through 1967, which he called lobotomy. Between 40,000 to 50,000 lobotomies were performed in the US over many decades, and as many as 100,000 worldwide.

Moniz was on a roll.

Moniz finally won the Nobel Prize in medicine and physiology in 1949 for his development of psychosurgery, an award that helped move lobotomy into the medical mainstream. (He energetically lobbied Walter Freeman, with whom he carried on a long correspondence, to nominate him for the prize.) But tragedy marred his life as well. In 1939 a patient suffering from hormonal disorders (and not a leucotomy recipient) appeared in his office with a gun. “I knew at the fifth shot that I was being attacked,” Moniz later wrote. “I arose as well as I could and he shot me twice more. Realizing that my right hand was severely injured, I tried to hit him in the head with the inkstand…. That crazy man plugged me with bullets.” 

The beginning of the end

Moniz emerged from this ordeal partly paralyzed and stopped performing leucotomies soon after. In 1955 another raging patient — again, not one who had been leucotomized — attacked him, and Moniz died at the end of the year. “Neurologists, neurological surgeons and psychiatrists in the United States of America may well look back upon the period before the discoveries of Egas Moniz as equivalent to the Dark Ages,” Freeman eulogized. A writer for the British medical journal The Lancet noted, “Humanity has reason to pay its last respects and express its gratitude to another great Portuguese explorer.”

Since the 1950s, though, Moniz’s reputation has dimmed considerably as new drugs and other psychiatric treatments replaced leucotomy and lobotomy and the ethics of the operations came under scrutiny. A few years ago the Nobel Committee rebuffed a campaign by the families of psychosurgery patients to posthumously strip him of his Prize. A statue of Moniz at the University of Lisbon by Ivendrell (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

Today Moniz remains notable mainly as an early soldier in the battle to establish the brain as the biological focus of treatments for mental disorder. The year he won the Nobel Prize, he wrote to Freeman of the age-old conflict between those who sought answers for patients in biology and those who instead probed experience and the psyche. “For us the progress of psychiatry will be the anatomical study of the brain and the operative trials,” he observed. “It will be the only way to [make] a medical specialty of psychiatry.” Looking at psychiatry 77 years after Moniz’s first psychosurgeries, it’s clear that his point of view has emerged on top, at least for now.




13 Weeks Eating Nothing But White Castle Hamburgers, in the Name of Science

What happens when you take a healthy young man and feed him nothing but hamburgers and water for three months? It sounds like the genesis of an edgy film — and in fact Super Size Me, a 2004 documentary, followed one man's 30-day immersion in McDonald's cuisine — but a real-life version of this experiment took place in the early 1930s. This tale of experimental hamburger gluttony had its genesis in the 1920s in the mind of Edgar Waldo "Billy" Ingram, owner of the White Castle fast food chain.A White Castle restaurant, Minneapolis Then headquartered in Wichita, Kansas, White Castle was growing quickly, but widely held skepticism about the cleanliness and healthfulness of hamburgers concerned Ingram.

"The hamburger habit is just about as safe as walking in a garden while the arsenic spray is being applied," wrote the authors of a cautionary book of that era about nutrition, "and about as safe as getting your meat out of a garbage can standing in the hot sun. For beyond all doubt, the garbage can is where the chopped meat sold by most butchers belongs, as well as a large percentage of all the hamburger that goes into sandwiches."

Ingram resolved to convince a university researcher to put the healthfulness of hamburgers to a test. He found a taker in Jesse McClendon, Ph.D., a 49-year-old native of Alabama who had accepted a position in the University of Minnesota's Department of Physiological Chemistry after teaching at Cornell University and Randolph Macon College. Considered one of the most important figures in American biochemistry, McClendon was a talented researcher who had made his name studying the composition of hemoglobin, the mechanics of human digestion, the connection between dietary fluoride and reductions in tooth decay, and the effects of iodine deficiency. Experimentation on humans did not frighten him: He once had swallowed a bulky electrical device to measure the acidity of his own duodenum.

The White Castle project allowed the biochemist to devise a study that would influence public thought (as well as hamburger sales) for years to come. McClendon knew that earlier studies had shown that adult dogs fed for a month on only lean meat appeared to fare well, and that humans on temporary all-meat diets lost calcium and phosphorus but didn't develop deficiency diseases. By ben britten from Melbourne, Australia (A Study in White Castle (6 of 7)) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia CommonsHe planned to feed a single experimental subject only White Castle hamburgers--including the bun, onions, and pickles--and water for 13 weeks.

A willing subject presented himself: Bernard Flesche, a medical student working his way through school. Flesche kept a diary during the ordeal. "He started out very enthusiastic about eating 10 burgers at a sitting," notes his daughter, Deirdre Flesche, "but a couple of weeks into it, he was losing his enthusiasm." His sister frequently tried to tempt him with fresh vegetables, but Flesche allowed nothing but White Castle Slyders to pass his lips.

Flesche lasted through all 13 weeks of his White Castle hamburger binge. "The student maintained good health throughout the three-month period and was eating 20 to 24 hamburgers a day during the last few weeks," fast-food mogul Ingram stated, adding that the research proved that customers "could eat nothing but our sandwiches and water, and fully develop all [their] physical and mental faculties."

McClendon's study became a prominent part of White Castle's advertising. Flesche went on to practice medicine in Lake City, Minnesota. He died from heart problems at the age of 54. One immediate and chronic effect of his participation in the study: "He never willingly ate hamburgers again," says his daughter. 


[I previously wrote portions of this essay for the University of Minnesota's Minnesota Medical Foundation and for Minnesota Monthly magazine.]


What's Wrong with the Crazy Horse Monument?

Four years ago, I took my family on a road trip to the Black Hills of South Dakota. Along the way, we toured the Corn Palace in Mitchell, sipped water and shopped the trinkets at Wall Drug Store, took in the splendor of the Badlands, and camped in the woods on the mountains sacred to Lakota Indians. The head of the Crazy Horse MonumentWhat I remember most, unfortunately, is the bad vibe I felt at the Crazy Horse Monument, just a short drive from Mount Rushmore.

This was the only tourist attraction that charged admission by the carload. The $27 fee gives access to a museum of Indian artifacts — a confusing collection of objects from many tribes, yoked together with no unifying theme — as well as a movie about Korczak Ziolkowski’s obsessive quest to sculpt the monument from the side of a mountain. You also get a distant view of the unfinished monument itself and a look at what remains of Ziolkowski’s art studio. For an additional fee, we could have taken a bus to a spot closer to the monument for a better view. After 65 years of blasting and excavation, the monument so far shows only Crazy Horse’s face and the top of his outstretched arm, with much, much more still to sculpt. At its current rate of progress, the monument will not be completed for about another 200 years.

As I walked through the small museum, I began wondering. Was this place really intended to honor Crazy Horse, the iconic Lakota leader who defeated Custer at Little Big Horn and was murdered by a U.S. Army private a year later, or did it stand as a monument to Ziolkowski? The sculptor’s story is interesting: brief work with Gutzon Borglum on the carving of Mount Rushmore, recognition at the 1939 World’s Fair for his bust of the pianist Ignacy Jan Paderewski, an invitation from the Lakota chief Standing Bear to carve the memorial to Crazy Horse in 1947, and Ziolkowski’s single-minded dedication to the project until his death in 1982.

Gradually, from examining the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation’s tax filings, I’ve come to understand another of Ziolkowski’s achievements.  His monument has provided lucrative employment to his family, and could continue to do so for many generations.  The foundation is a family operation that represents itself as a charity.

Korczak Ziolkowski with Lakota Chief Standing Bear, circa 1947.

According to the foundation’s 2010 tax return (the most recent one available through widow Ruth Ziolkowski, who is 85, earns compensation totaling $159,000 a year. (The foundation also states on the tax form that this octogenarian works an average of 80 hours per week.) Executive VP Jadwiga Ziolkowski makes $89,000, operations VP Anne Ziolkowski-Christensen brings in $69,000, resident artist Monique Ziolkowski-Howe takes home $53,000, and independent contractor Mark Ziolkowski makes $154,000 for forestry and rock-crushing work. Other family members hold jobs there, as well.

In 2011, the foundation — which has a net worth of $51.4 million — earned $6.9 million in revenue and ended the year with an excess of $1.6 million after expenses. I tried to glean how much the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation actually invests in bringing its sculpture of Crazy Horse to completion. There’s no clue in the tax filings, except a line that lists $371,000 for “other” expenses. If that’s truly what the foundation spends to work on the monument, it represents only 5 percent of the organization’s revenues.

Most nonprofit organizations do not operate with so much nepotism and so little apparent investment in the most visible part of their mission. (And few of the best nonprofits ignore or refuse to cooperate with the Better Business Bureau's efforts to evaluate charities, as the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation has.) Ziolkowski often proclaimed his aversion to government support because he feared federal bureaucrats would slow things down and dilute the message of the monument. Something else government involvement would bring, of course, is oversight. As things now stand, with the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation receiving no government funds and operating on money that comes from admission revenue and charitable donations, its highest-paid officers have no incentive to complete the sculpture. The longer it takes, the more money in salaries and income Ziolkowski family members will receive. Why not let it take 200 years?

The foundation does sponsor some worthwhile programs, including college scholarships for Native American students, which totaled $250,000 in 2010. That same year, however, the compensation of its officers, directors, and key employees, most of them Ziolkowski family members, ran to $446,000. Something is out of balance.

Staff at the Crazy Horse Memorial museum say the completed monument will be the world’s biggest sculpture, a carving equivalent in height to a 56-story building and more massive than the Great Pyramid in Egypt. That’s impressive, but none of us will live to see it. As the nation waits, the Ziolkowskis keep enriching themselves from their unconventional charity.