Thursday, August 24, 2006

Pooze the Prodigy

On a farm southwest of my hometown, Milford, Indiana, on July 30, 1880, Arthur F. Griffith was born. Somewhere along the line, for unknown reasons, he acquired the nickname of Pooze. I tried to find a definition of this word, and all I could find was in an online urban dictionary, which defined pooze as either the anus or the female genitalia. I doubt that those meanings applied in the late 19th century. Like most of us from Milford, Arthur might have lived in relative obscurity except for one inexplicable trait. He was a mathematical prodigy. He was able to count to 25,000 at age five, and memorized the multiplication tables through 130. He developed 47 methods of multiplication, 6 methods each for division and addition, and one for subtraction. He could tell you the date of Easter Sunday for any year in the 20th century. He was able to extract cube roots from numbers of 6 figures in seconds. He could watch a train of 100 cars go by on the Big Four tracks in Milford, and memorize the numbers painted on the sides. Arthur had no talent for nonmathematical subjects and didn't go to school beyond the eighth grade. So amazing were his abilities that he was studied by scientists at universities including Indiana University and Yale. His case was presented to the International Psychological Congress in Paris in 1900.

His head was so large, he had to have his hats custom made.

At one point, he said he would publish a book of this methods, but never did. He toured as a vaudeville act, and in 1902 was sentenced to 30 days in the Osceola County, Michigan jail, for failure to pay a boarding house bill. In 1907, he was working as a blacksmith's helper in St. Louis. He became so upset when he wasn't paid for the work he did, he was declared insane and put in the city hospital. He recovered, and was released after a period of observation. He never married, and when he wasn't touring or being studied at a university, he lived with his parents on the same farm where he was born.

Arthur had a history of epilepsy. Were some of his strange behaviors due to a brain lesion? For that matter, was there some structural "defect" of his brain that gave him his incredible mathematical abilities? We'll never know. He died in 1911, at age 31, in Springfield, Massachusetts, presumably on tour. The cause of death was apoplexy, which nowadays would be called a stroke. Perhaps he had a vascular malformation of the brain which ruptured. Again, I can only speculate. Thirty-one was pretty young to have a stroke, even in 1911.

One reason I'm posting this is that there is virtually nothing about dear old Pooze online, and I don't want to see such an amazing character forgotten. So now my vast audience knows his story.

ADDENDUM - 9/11/06:

I have found some more source material and need to correct a couple things in the original post: First, Arthur did publish a book of his methods, entitled The Easy and Speedy Reckoner in 1901. Copies still exist in the Library of Congress and in the Math Library at the University of Illinois. BTW, http://www.worldcat.orgis a great web site that tells you where books are located beginning with libraries closest to your zip code. Second, although Arthur had epilepsy, his seizures started after an unspecified illness at age 7, after he had started to display his calculating abilities, so the two weren't related. Third, he should be called a mental calculator rather than a math prodigy, as he didn't understand or have an interest in learning algebra. He was blessed with a fantastic memory and developed many calculating shortcuts.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

You'll Feel Better About Smoking . . .

Boston Celtic star Bob Cousy advertising Kent cigarettes

While I'm on the subject of asbestos (see previous post "Asbestos, the Magic Mineral"), the makers of Kent cigarettes came up with an exceptionally bad idea in the 1950's. Filter cigarettes were becoming more popular as a means of assuaging smokers' health concerns. In 1957, Kent was recognized by Reader's Digest as having the lowest levels of tar and nicotine among filter cigarettes. Kent's advertising claimed their micronite filters were "developed by researchers in atomic energy plants." Unfortunately, these geniuses used crocidolite asbestos as a component of the filter. The combination of asbestos inhalation and smoking increases the risk of lung cancer about 100 times over the risk of smoking alone. On top of that, there was an epidemic of asbestos-related diseases among workers in the Kent factory.

Remember when tobacco companies advertised on TV? Winston even used the Flintstones in their commercials.


Finally, here's a transcript of a Kent TV commercial:

SCENE: MAN AND WOMAN RIDING BICYCLES. THEY STOP TO LIGHT UP KENT CIGARETTES.

ANNOUNCER (VOICE OVER):
It's a wonderful feeling to be alive and active – to enjoy a beautiful day with a congenial companion and feel that all your senses are alert – including your sense of taste. And with Kent, your taste buds become clear and alive.
. . .
CHORUS (SINGING): You'll feel better about smoking with the taste of Kent – Kent, with the micronite filter. Refines away harsh flavor, refines away hot taste. It makes the taste of a cigarette mild. It’s a wonderful feeling.
(Circa 1960)

Friday, August 18, 2006

Asbestos, the Magic Mineral

The title of this post comes from the sign on the Johns Manville Pavilion at the 1939 World's Fair. No kidding. Asbestos has gotten a bad rap in more recent years, to the point of being banned in most consumer products, but how bad is it? Well, it depends. Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral, and comes in two forms: serpentine, of which the only subtype is chrysotile (white asbestos), and amphibole, of which there are several subtypes. The most common subtypes are amosite (from the acronym AMOSA--Asbestos Mines of South Africa), and crocidolite. Chrysotile fibers are curly, while amphibole fibers are straight. The amphiboles are the bad actors, more likely to cause asbestosis (scarring of the lungs), lung cancer, and malignant mesothelioma, a rare cancer of the lining of the chest or abdominal cavity, seen almost exclusively in patients with asbestos exposure. Asbestos alone doesn't increase risk of lung cancer much, but the combination of cigarette smoking and asbestos exposure increases the risk about a hundred fold. Fortunately, most of the asbestos in commercial use in years past--about 95%--was chrysotile, which is less likely to have adverse health effects. The EPA doesn't distinguish between the chrysotile and more dangerous types, nor is there any such distinction in asbestos litigation. I don't mean this as an apologia for the asbestos industry. There's no question many, many people who worked in mines, mills, and shipyards have had their lives cut short by asbestos-related disease. The reaction may be a bit overdone, though. Was it necessary to give up completely on a naturally fireproof, durable material (chrysotile) in favor of synthetic substitutes? I don't know.

Well, what I really wanted to talk about is misinformation. If you Google asbestos, you'll see a lot of web sites that refer to the Greek geographer Strabo and the Roman historian Pliny the Elder (and sometimes Pliny the Younger) as the first people to recognize the adverse health effects of asbestos in the first century A.D. They are variously credited with observing that slaves working in asbestos mines or who wove cloth out of asbestos didn't live long, or that they developed breathing problems. At none of these sites have I seen credible documentation backing up these assertions. I found one well-researched paper, "History of asbestos discovery and use and asbestos-related disease in context with the occurrence of asbestos within ophiolite complexes," by Malcolm Ross and Robert P. Nolan(www.rpnolan.com/html/HistoryAsb.pdf). This article contains about everything you'd want to know about asbestos, and more. The authors knock down the idea that ancient writers understood the health effects of asbestos, and they cite a letter to Lancet in 1990, which my friendly local medical librarian retrieved for me. The authors of that letter, entitled "Asbestos and the Romans," make a succinct and convincing argument that people who say the ancient Romans knew the health effects of asbestos are talking through their hats.

Veritas!

Thursday, August 10, 2006

I am not an English major

I once heard a piece of an interview on NPR (seems I hear lots of pieces of shows on NPR since I only listen to it in the truck) with Billy Collins, former U.S. Poet Laureate, and now Poet Laureate of New York. He said, "If you're majoring in English, you're majoring in death." Reading over the last few posts, I can see I'm going to have to lighten up or people are going to think I'm an English major.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Pathos

The patient's name has been changed in the following post.

I dialed 0 on the phone. It's quicker than looking up a number, and in the hospital, you know you'll hear a human voice immediately and not a recorded menu.

"Hospital operator."

"ICU please."

"One moment."

The phone rings and the ward secretary answers, "ICU."

"This is Dr. Cory in radiology. May I speak to Andrew Johnson's nurse?"

"They're on the way back from radiology." The patient had come down on his ICU bed accompanied by his nurse. The tech had brought me the films before they got back upstairs.

"Could you take the report on Andrew's brain scan, and tell the nurse when she gets back?" I asked the secretary.

"OK."

"Tell her the brain scan confirms that he is brain dead."

"All right. I'll tell her."

And so an eighteen-year-old patient was one step closer to being an organ donor. The kid had come into the ER a week ago, unresponsive. He had had a fairly minor operation ten days before that, and had developed the unexpected and catastrophic complication of meningitis. When I saw the CT scan of his head obtained in the ER, the ventricles of his brain had already started to dilate as the infection blocked the normal flow of cerebrospinal fluid, causing increased pressure in his head. I alerted the ER physician to that fact and a neurosurgeon was immediately called. Unfortunatley, Andrew was already too far gone by the time the surgeon put a tube into his brain to drain the fluid. He deteriorated over the next week, suffering several strokes.

Before the plug can be pulled, brain death has to be established by clinical exam, EEG and nuclear medicine brain scan. My job is to read the brain scan, and in Andrew's case it was clear there was no blood flow to the brain. Of all the possible bad news that medical images can convey, this is among the worst, and in a young person it's even worse. This type of case is one reason I chose a so-called non-patient-care specialty. I'm removed from the burden of having to face a family losing their loved one.

I'll close with these words from A.E. Houseman's "To An Athlete Dying Young:"

To-day, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

@

In my never-ending crusade against misinformation promulgated by anyone but myself, I refer to an article in the May 2006 issue of The Writer magazine. In a review of a book called What in the Word? Wordplay, Word Lore, and Answers to Your Peskiest Questions about Language, the statement is made that the author says the symbol @ "may be called a logogram or a grammalogue." Actually, the @ symbol is called the "commercial at" under the ANSI/CCITT/Unicode character systems. Logogram is a generic term for a symbol that represents a word or another meaningful unit of language called a morpheme--think Egyptian hieroglyphics or the written Chinese language. A grammalogue is basically the same thing--a shorthand symbol for a word. So technically, yes, the @ symbol may be called a logogram or a grammalogue, as it is one of many, many logograms and grammalogues, but those aren't specific names for the symbol.

There, I feel so much better now that I got that off my chest.

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