Australia had a lot on its mind in 1914. The nation’s capital was still in its foetal form; drought strangled the wheat yield in the southern states; and World War I began to feed on the lives of our fit and able. Most of our troubles at that time could be traced back to a single deficit – we had no-one to show us how to slide along the ocean on a piece of flat wood.

Twenty-four short years earlier, Duke Paoa Kahinu Mokoe Hulikohola Kahanamoku was born in Hawaii to policeman Duke Halapu Kahanamoku and his wife Julia Paʻakonia Lonokahikina Paoa, who was very good at having children. At age three, Duke moved to Waikiki with his parents, where he was brought up alongside his eight siblings. He spent most of his childhood in the water, emerging occasionally for meals, schooling and haircuts.

It didn’t take long before Duke showed a particular aptitude for swimming and surfing (no doubt he also wondered if he’d be any good at acting, law enforcement and smiling gorgeously in the future). By the time he was 21 he could swim at world-record speeds, but when his times were submitted to swimming officials on the US mainland, they were assumed to be false or erroneous.

When Duke broke the world 200m record in his trial heat for the 1912 Olympic Games and went on to win gold in the 100m freestyle and silver in the 4x200m relay, people started to get the idea that he might be one of the best swimmers on the planet (and maybe also good at acting, law enforcement and being gorgeous). Duke didn’t stop at two medals. He won gold again in both the 100m freestyle and the 4x200m relay at the Antwerp Olympic Games in 1920, and silver in the 100m freestyle at the 1924 Paris Games, at the age of 33.

Ordinarily, people who win five Olympic swimming medals and break a bunch of world swimming records are best known for... you know… the swimming thing. But Duke Kahanamoku wasn’t interested in being ordinary. He is best known in most places – and certainly in Australia – for surfing.

The sport had been part of Hawaiian culture for centuries, but was only known in Australia from about 1911. In 1914, during one of his several international swimming tours, Duke gave a surfing demonstration at Freshwater Beach in Sydney. Given his Olympic fame and the aforementioned winning smile, Kahanamoku’s performance helped give the popularity of Australian surfing a good kick up its sandy bum. Who knows – perhaps some Australians will become quite good at it one day.

When Duke had finished riding the wave of swimming success*, he settled down in southern California to concentrate on his acting, law enforcement and gorgeousness. He appeared in films such as Mister Roberts (1955), in which he played a “Native Chief”; Hula (1927) as “Hawaiian Boy” and in The Black Camel (1931) as a surfing instructor. Either Duke didn’t have much of a range, or Hollywood casting directors in the early 20th century didn’t consider dark-skinned Polynesian surfers for any roles that weren’t miscellaneous dark-skinned foreigners and/or surfers. That sort of thing would never happen these days, of course.

From 1932 to 1961, Duke was the sheriff of Honolulu, with a stint as a military police officer during World War II. And if you were the kind of person who liked imagining very attractive people in a range of neatly-pressed uniforms, you might pause here for a little while for a spot of saucy daydreaming. But not me, obviously. That sort of… uniform… thing… doesn’t, um… oh goodness.

On January 22, 1968, Duke Kahanamoku took his final swim in the waters of existence**. He suffered a heart attack at age 77 and died at the Waikiki Yacht Club. At least, that’s what all his biographies say. But I don’t want to believe it. I want a man like Duke to live on forever. Like Elvis. Except a bit taller and with bigger hands and nicer-looking in a pair of togs.

I never really liked Elvis.

*This is possibly the worst metaphor-slash-segue I have ever written.

**No wait, THIS is the worst metaphor-slash-segue I have ever written.

Duke Kahanamoku

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By the time you’ve finished reading this (and please do – there might be teddy bears in it), you will be thoroughly convinced that I know precious little about physics. So it’s just as well women like Chien Shiung Wu knew a lot about physics, or we might never have learned about subatomic particles and the amazing things they’re capable of when we’re not paying attention.

Chien Shiung Wu was a great example of what happens when a top-notch brain is given the opportunity to learn and grow and go wherever it wants to, without paying too much attention to popular ideas about keeping quiet and doing the washing up. Born in May 1912 in the town of Liuhe near Shanghai, Wu was always encouraged to read and think and discover.

Wu’s brain (accompanied by her charming dimples) led her through teacher’s college and then to the National Central University in Nanjing, where she studied mathematics. Unlike the kind of people who grow up to write medium-length quasi-historical articles for a living, Wu found mathematics intriguing, but not quite complicated enough. So she transferred to physics, and something clicked.

1930s China had a lot going for it – a growing population, expanding opportunities for women and some exceptional cups of tea. But for a beautiful and well-educated twenty-four-year-old with an appetite for science, the United States beckoned. In 1936, Chien Shiung Wu jumped on a steamship and headed for Michigan State University, via California.

Shortly after arriving stateside, Wu met fellow physicist Luke Chia-Liu Yuan. Then, much like some people who grow up to write medium-length quasi-historical articles for a living even though they originally wanted to be a sound engineer, she changed her plans. She enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley, completed her PhD in physics in 1940, married Yuan in 1942 and bore a son, Vincent, in 1947.

Meanwhile, Wu’s brain was in demand. She taught at Smith College, Massachusetts and Princeton University before settling in for a long stint at Columbia University from 1944 until her retirement as in 1981 as a Professor of Physics. She continued to teach others after her retirement, speaking to audiences about science and the many achievements of women in it.

So what of her achievements, then? Wu contributed to the Manhattan Project* in 1944, by helping to separate uranium into particular isotopes to make it more blow-uppable. She helped to improve the way Geiger counters worked, so that people unlucky enough to have the job of measuring nuclear radiation levels could do so with relative ease. But Wu’s biggest contribution to science, for which she was awarded the Wolf Prize in Physics in 1978, was when she contradicted the Law of Conservation of Parity.

If you already know about the Law of Conservation of Parity, you can stop here and skip to the end, where I usually make a tepid joke in an attempt to mitigate the anguish of death. If you don’t already know about the Law of Conservation of Parity and you’d like to learn about it in a slightly-inaccurate-but-surprisingly-fluffy way, stay with me.

Ok. In physics, every object or process has, theoretically, a corresponding mirror image. This can apply to elementary particles and their interactions, but let’s assume it also applies to teddy bears. When you hold up a teddy bear to a mirror and you wiggle its arm around, the corresponding mirror-arm also wiggles, right? The Law of Conservation of Parity says that every time you wiggle the teddy bear’s left arm, the mirror image will also wiggle its corresponding arm in the same-but-opposite way.

Additionally in physics, there are four fundamental interactions of nature. There’s the strong interaction (responsible for holding some parts of an atom together), electromagnetism (responsible for electricity and holding electricity bills on the fridge), gravitation (responsible for holding you on your chair) and the weak interaction (responsible for radioactivity).

Now imagine that the teddy bear is an elementary particle (a quark or electron or whatevs) and that you wiggling its arm around is one of the four fundamental interactions of nature. In Wu’s era, physicists had pretty much proven that in strong interactions and electromagnetism, the teddy bear’s mirror-arm always wiggled in the expected way. But the Law hadn’t been tested for weak interactions. And that’s where Wu came in.

Under the direction of theoretical physicists Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen Ning Yang, Wu designed, set up and performed an experiment that tested the Law of Conservation of Parity using the weak interaction. And there were surprising results. Wu proved that the Law did not apply in this case. In effect, one teddy bear was wiggling its arm around and the mirror-teddy was wearing a different coloured waistcoat and doing jazz hands.

This was a big thing. Wu’s experiment played a major role in the way particle physics was understood from that point forward. Thanks to her, humankind is closer to unravelling the mysteries of the physical universe. By my reckoning, there are probably only two or three more things we need to find out.

Chien Shiung Wu died from a stroke on February 16, 1997 at the age of 84. Even magnificent brains have their physical limits.

 

*Sure, the Manhattan Project was responsible for turning Hiroshima and Nagasaki into the charred remains of humanity, but keep in mind that the vast majority of people who worked on the project had no idea of its ultimate aims.

 wu chien shiung

 

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Here in my little corner of the internet, I like to put in a bit of effort. To go the extra mile. To over-deliver. Sure, my brief is simply ‘Hot Dead People’, but I think you deserve more. So I’ve always done my best to inject a little bit of substance into this thing – we’ve had philosophers, mystics, monarchs, doctors and poets.

But sometimes, you just want a bit of eye candy. So allow me to peel away the shiny wrapper of Georg Hackenschmidt.

Born in Estonia in 1877, it didn’t take young Georg Hackenschmidt long to discover he was really very good at sport. By the time he attended secondary school, he was training in cycling, track and field, swimming, gymnastics and weightlifting. He spent his school years becoming the best he could be – he broke records and won trophies and lifted lots of heavy things up and down until he had bigger shoulders than everyone else. This was no ordinary teenager. He could pick up a small horse.*

Shortly after finishing school, he got a job with a blacksmith in Tallinn, Estonia’s capital. The city’s Athletic and cycling Club provided Hackenschmidt with many opportunities for staying fit and increasing the number of lumps on his body. Then one day, an experienced strongman called Georg Lurich came into town, challenging young men to wrestling bouts for entertainment**. Hackenschmidt fought Lurich and lost, but was hooked on wrestling from that point forward. He moved to St Petersburg and began training in earnest.

The very strong and muscular Georg became even stronger and musclier. His coach, Vladislav von Krajewski, was certain he could become the strongest person in the world. At the age of 25, Georg was so fit and so strong that he could jump over a table 100 times with his feet tied together.***

Bout after bout after bout, Georg bettered his opponents. He wrestled in Moscow, Paris, Vienna and across England, where he was given the nickname The Russian Lion****. Wrestling was enjoying the peak of its popularity across Europe, and Europe was enjoying Georg Hackenschmidt. He would often fight several bouts in a single night, pleasing crowds in music halls, theatres and opera houses with the squishing of faces and the throwing of men. He began to tour further afield, wrestling in Australia, the USA and Canada, and becoming the freestyle heavyweight champion of the world.

Hackenschmidt wrestled professionally in 3,000 fights, give or take a few. He won all but two matches, and those were against the same man – Frank Gotch.

Gotch was an American man covered in oil. He faced Hackenschmidt in April 1908 in Chicago, fitter, leaner and much shinier than his opponent. Our Georg was harbouring a slight knee injury during the marathon match, which took more than two hours to finish. It was this injury and Hack’s inferior stamina that finally lost him the bout and his title.

Gotch and Hackenschmidt’s second meeting was three years later and an hour and forty minutes shorter. Again, the fitter and less-tired Gotch got the better of Georg, and shortly after his defeat, Hackenschmidt returned to England, his new home, and retired.

So what does a bit of beefcake eye candy do when his professional wrestling career is over? In this case, Georg, who dabbled in philosophy and writing and could speak seven languages, wrote several books about fitness, health and mental wellbeing, instructed several members of the House of Lords in the finer points of physical education and HEY WAIT A MINUTE. That doesn’t sound like some dumb muscle-head himbo – that sounds like substance. We’ve all been fooled! I hate it when eye candy does that.

Though retired, Georg never stopped jumping over furniture. In his eighties, he could still bench 68 kg and then run 11 kilometres in 45 minutes, only occasionally slowing down to shout angrily at teenagers about the stupid way they wore their pants.

Georg Hackenschmidt died in hospital on February 19, 1968 at the age of 89. He was a man of big dreams, bigger achievements and an astonishingly big neck.

 

 

* Imagine if everyone was strong enough to lift a small horse off the ground. We would no longer have to store them at ground level.

** This was a common pastime and test of strength for the youth of the day, before muscle cars and glassing strangers became popular.

*** Handy for when one has been tied up by bandits in a furniture store, restaurant or casino.

**** Georg wasn’t Russian, of course. And lions hadn’t been seen in Russia since the 10th century. But English people are ludicrous, and challenging them only makes them cross.

The Hot and the Dead – Georg Hackenschmidt

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Once upon a time at the very beginning of the 20th Century, in a big, comfortable house in Chicago, there lived a little girl called Alice.

Alice’s father, William Edward Silverthorne, was a giant of the textile industry and her mother, Julia Belle Chapin, was a princess of American meatpacking royalty, related to the Armour family who owned the biggest food company in all the land. Little Alice wanted for nothing. She had all the dolls, cakes and fancy clothes she could ever want, and everything was perfect.

One day, when Alice was eight years old, the snow lay thick on the ground outside the Silverthorne’s big, comfortable house. Nobody went outside into the freezing wind, except Alice’s mother, who had been locked out of the house by William the Giant. When she was allowed back inside, Alice’s mother had a little cough. Six months later she died of tuberculosis, leaving Alice at home with her father, and a big fat trust fund full of money.

Alice’s father was a very busy man. He moved the little family to New York and found a new wife for himself and a governess for Alice so he could occupy himself with Business and Making Money and Being An Alcoholic and other Grown Up Things.

Soon, young Alice had her thirteenth birthday, and at last she was old enough to go along on one of her father’s adventures. They would travel along the avenues of Chicago, where the young teen was introduced to sparkly nightclubs, sparkly society and sparkly drinks. William even took her to the faraway kingdoms of Europe, where there seemed no end of new potions, pastimes and possible suitors.

But all the while, lurking behind adolescent Alice’s newfound wanderlust and wanton indulgence, was the Big Bad Bleak, a dark and heavy monster of her mind, ready to jump out and ravage her thoughts every morning when the anaesthetic of absinthe and Armagnac had worn away. The Big Bad Bleak made Alice want to do big bad things.

Around 1913, Alice was removed from the custody of her father, who was surprised to learn that a young lady’s education was not usually undertaken on the fun side of a bar. She went to live with an aunt, who put her in a boarding school in Washington DC. The Big Bad Bleak went along, too.

At the age of 22, Alice moved to Paris and met a handsome count - Frédéric Jacques, Comte de Janzé, a rich and well-connected racing driver. Three weeks later, they were married and lived happily ever after, as long as “happily ever after” means “having two babies, handing them over to governesses and then getting bored with it all”.

To spice things up a little, the de Janzés accepted the invitation of their friends the Earl and Countess of Erroll to stay in their house in Kenya. Alice and Frédéric accepted, and joined a neighbourhood of rich, white, decadent socialites known as the Happy Valley set.

The Happy Valley set, notorious for drugs, drunkenness and the indiscriminate dipping of wicks, was tailor-made for Alice. If her teenage years had been her training, her time in Kenya was the Getting Off Your Tits And Sleeping With Everything Olympics.

Amongst Alice’s playthings was the very posh Englishman Raymond Vincent de Trafford. After a long and very indiscreet affair, she realised that she wanted to keep him, so she and Frédéric filed for divorce in 1926.

Alice and Raymond spoke of marriage, but Raymond’s firm intentions soon grew soft when his family threatened to cut him off. When he told Alice it was all over, the Big Bad Bleak stirred from its hiding place. And the Big Bad Bleak said, “Go and buy a pretty gun, Alice.”

Later that day, Alice and Raymond sat in a train carriage together in Paris. Alice pulled a gold-and-pearl revolver from her purse and shot first her lover, then herself, in the belly. Both survived – Raymond only just - and thanks to Alice’s wealth, connections and history of unstable emotions, she got off the charge of attempted murder with a fine and suspended sentence. Alice’s wealth and connections also ensured that the subsequent scandal was internationally enormous.

Raymond convinced everyone, probably including himself, that the shooting was an attempted suicide gone wrong, and the couple married in 1932. But unlike the fairytale weddings which are in fact a load of bollocks, they separated only three months later. By 1937, Alice had two divorces under her belt, and not much money in her purse.

Returning to Kenya, she found it impossible to recapture the days of compatriots and cocktails, so settled for melancholy and morphine. The Big Bad Bleak was her most loyal disciple, and was ever aware of the weapon Alice still had in her possession. So when her ex-lover Lord Erroll was found shot dead in his car near Nairobi in 1941, Alice became a suspect. The man eventually charged with the crime, Sir Henry John Delves Broughton, was acquitted in court.

When Alice was diagnosed with uterine cancer later that year, the Big Bad Bleak found some barbiturates to overdose on. She was discovered and rescued by her friend Patricia Bowles. A week after that, on 30th September 1941, the Big Bad Bleak wrote farewell notes to Alice’s daughters, her friends and the police, and then showed Alice her pretty gun for the last time.

Alice Janze

 

 

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Isn’t it nice, sitting there, reading things on the internet, maybe eating a biscuit, not being terribly concerned about somebody breaking down your front door and dragging you away because you’re not Catholic enough.

Now spare a thought for all those poor sods in the 16th Century Italy who weren’t so lucky. The people without internet. The people without biscuits. The people questioned, harassed and punished by the Roman Inquisition. Now concentrate your thoughts on the good-looking ones with lovely hands and beautifully starched ruffs. See the one with the ebony hair and soul-mining eyes? That’s Giacomo Castelvetro.

It’s fair to say that Catholicism was fairly popular in Italy when Castelvetro was born in Modena in 1546. Around that time, Protestantism was a bit like instant coffee – if people had it in their houses, they wouldn’t say so in public. So when Giacomo’s uncle Lodovico was declared a heretic in 1557 for translating Protestant texts, the Castelvetro family began entertaining the idea of moving somewhere else. The eighteen-year-old Giacomo and his brother were smuggled to their uncle’s home in Geneva in 1564.

After travelling around the more accommodating parts of northern Europe for a few years, the now decidedly-Protestant Giacomo returned to Italy in 1578 when his father died. By this time, the Holy See was even less tolerant of non-Catholics, and Giacomo knew he risked his life by hanging around in his homeland. He sold his stuff and moved to England.

Ever the traveller, Castelvetro spent the next couple of decades writing, translating and tutoring in English and Italian, befriending many European rulers and courtiers, marrying the much-older Isotta de Canonici (widow of physician and theologian Thomas Erastus) in Switzerland, teaching Italian language and culture to King James VI of Scotland, visiting Denmark and Sweden and then settling down in Venice in 1598. That’s when things started getting a little bit uncomfortable.

The Roman Inquisition was well and truly up-and-running by the beginning of the 17th century. Practising sorcery, witchcraft, blasphemy, Judaism or Protestantism would get you slapped with a heresy charge, which was a big deal. It was a bit like getting a big red frowny-face stamp from the Pope, but with a lot more dungeons and burning pants.

Giacomo’s brother was burned at the stake in 1609. Two years later, Giacomo himself was imprisoned by the Inquisition, but because he was officially in the service of King James I at the time, he was able to be rescued by the Ambassador to the Venetian Republic, Sir Dudley Carleton. He returned to England with his pants intact and had a nice cup of tea.

Now Giacomo turned to writing, and decided upon a topic that had troubled him greatly since he first set foot on England’s shores. It wasn’t the dreadful weather. It wasn’t the threat of the Spanish Armada. It wasn’t the smallpox. It was the vegetables. There were no salads.

Castelvetro noticed lots of meat and pudding on English plates, but not much else. Elsewhere in Europe, people were tucking into spinach and asaparagus, figs and truffles, and Giacomo wanted to bring the colours, flavours and digestive assistance of plants to the kitchens of his adopted home. So in 1614 he published The Fruit, Herbs and Vegetables of Italy, which gave descriptions of the garden-grown foods he had enjoyed on the continent, interspersed with anecdotes about country life. It’s just as well he’d been liberated from the clutches of the Inquisition, or the British might never have learned how to cook beans, or that northern Italian children learned to swim using old pumpkins as floaties.

Two years after the publication of his book, Giacomo Castelvetro died after a long illness, aged 69. Author, tutor, religious refugee and one of the reasons you know about broccoli.

Giacomo Castelvetro

 

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Any tedious old idiot can be a royal person. All one has to do is be born into a royal family, marry someone who is already in a royal family; or convincingly knock a royal person off their chair. But just because you’re royal, doesn’t mean you’re interesting.

For my money, there are some very specific requirements for being an interesting royal person. A little bit pretty. A little bit crazy. A little bit sad. A bitchface mother-in-law who hates your guts. People who want you dead. And here, ticking all the boxes, is Empress Elisabeth of Austria.

Born to Duke Maximilian Joseph and Princess Ludovika of Bavaria on Christmas Eve 1837, Her Royal Highness Duchess Elisabeth Amalie Eugenie in Bavaria was already royal before the midwife had even washed her hands. She was nicknamed ‘Sisi’, because by the time the household staff at Possenhofen Castle finished saying, “Your Royal Highness Duchess Elisabeth Amalie Eugenie in Bavaria, your dinner is on the table!”, her Leberknödel would go cold.

Sisi’s father didn’t seem to like being royal very much, and avoided the responsibilities that went with courtly life. He and his princess brought up their eight children in a fairly relaxed way, putting no particular emphasis on attending classes or curtseying properly.

One afternoon when Sisi was fifteen, she accompanied her mother and eldest sister Helene to visit her Aunt Sophie, Princess of Bavaria. The Princess had arranged for Helene to marry her eldest son, Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria. But the Emperor took one look at the tall, slender Elisabeth and declared that if he couldn’t marry her, he wouldn’t marry at all.

So, against the wishes of Princess Sophie, Elisabeth and the Emperor became engaged, and were married eight months later. It’s fair to say that the new Empress Elisabeth, who had barely enough time to acquaint herself with puberty, let alone a husband, was unprepared for marriage. In all the rush to set the date, make the frock, book the church and sugar the almonds, nobody bothered to tell Sisi what was expected of her on her wedding night. She was a little surprised. Shut-herself-in-her-room-for-three-days surprised.

Elisabeth was also unprepared for the very stringent ceremonies and etiquette of Austrian court. No more running around barefoot in the countryside and using whichever fork she liked. She was expected to turn up on time, do her royal duties and shut the hell up about it.

Sisi was born into royalty and married into royalty, but that’s not where the story ends. What about the stuff on my list of interestingness? Let’s have a look, shall we?

A little bit pretty: check.

Sisi was beautiful, and she knew it. While she shunned the marital bed and the constraints of the royal household, she concentrated a great deal on her looks.

Her hair reached the floor, and was brushed, braided, pinned and perfected for more than two hours every day. She slept on a metal bed (for her posture) wearing a leather face mask lined with veal or strawberries (for her skin) and a cloth belt soaked in vinegar (for a slender waist). She had leather corsets made in Paris and tight-laced her waist to a circumference of 40cm. She exercised rigorously, frequently and for long periods, keeping her 172-cm frame to a weight of 50 kg or under throughout her life.

Elisabeth sat for no portraits after the age of 32, in an effort to preserve a youthful impression. But there was no shortage of portraits made before her remarkably vain deadline. Search for her image on the internet and you’ll find almost as many pictures of the Empress as there are of Miley Cyrus’ tastebuds.

A little bit crazy: check.

Just in case the beauty regime left any doubt that Sisi had a few eccentricities, allow me to outline a few more of her curious little ways.

Shortly after her marriage, Empress Elisabeth developed a bad cough, which persisted for many years. The coughing would disappear whenever she travelled away from her husband, only to reappear when she returned to him. She was frightened of staircases and fat people. She was concerned that her mind could escape through her hair onto her hairdresser’s fingers. She asked her husband for a tiger and a fully-equipped insane asylum for a present.

A little bit sad: check.

To be fair, Sisi’s quirks were partly the result of frequent and substantial sadness. Aside from her obvious displeasure with married life, she was often surrounded by tragedy. Her youngest daughter, Sophie, died of typhus at age 2. In the late 1880s, both Elisabeth’s parents died, shortly followed by the suicide of her only son Rudolf, who gave up his claim to the Austrian throne in a spectacularly horrible way by also murdering his mistress, Baroness Mary Vetsera. Sisi spent the remainder of her life in mourning dress.

A bitchface mother-in-law: check.

The haughty and domineering Princess Sophie of Bavaria didn’t like Elisabeth from the moment her son made his marriage ultimatum. So she did what any meddling rich lady would do – she stole Sisi’s children. Despite Elisabeth’s wedding-night trauma and sexual reluctance, she managed to bear four children in total. Princess Sophie removed the first three (two girls and then a boy) from Sisi’s care almost before the stirrups were packed away. Until Sisi’s first son, Rudolf was born in 1858, Sophie berated her daughter-in-law for failing to provide an heir, leaving notes around the house describing the ‘proper’ role of a Queen. Sisi’s fourth child, Marie-Valerie, escaped the clutches of her grandmother by being born ten years after her previous sibling. Sophie, then 63, seemed to have lost interest in baby-pilfering.

People who wanted her dead: check.

Elisabeth’s beauty and flouting of protocol made her popular with the people of Austria and Hungary (which she helped to unite in 1867). But no matter how pretty and popular and royal you might be, there’s always some nutjob wanting to stick you with the pointy end of something. Unfortunately for the Empress, that someone was Italian anarchist Luigi Lucheni on the 10th of September 1898.

Elisabeth, who had taken to travelling in the later, freer years of her life, was about to board a steamer in Geneva for a trip to Montreaux. While walking to the ship with her lady-in-waiting, Lucheni sauntered past, stumbled and surreptitiously stabbed the Empress with a sharpened needle-file. His motivation was flimsy - the assassin had originally come to Geneva to kill the Duke of Orléans, but being unable to find him, settled for the next aristocrat to cross his path.

Elisabeth’s tight corset managed to slow the bleeding that would eventually end her life. She had enough time to return with her companion to their hotel before she died, aged 60. She had been Empress of Austria for 44 years.

Elizabeth of Austria

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Heartbroken? Feeling blue? Trying to learn how to redirect subclavian arterial blood to the pulmonary artery? Then you need a Vivien Thomas!

If you’re unfamiliar with Dr Vivien Thomas, stereotype-smashing surgical technician and champion of paediatric cardiology, you’re not alone. Also, keep reading, because I’m about to write quite a bit about him, and if you read it you’ll learn things, save yourself a trip to the library and help pad out my résumé.

It took the world a long time to understand and acknowledge the contributions Dr Thomas made to the development of life-saving techniques and the acceptance of cardiac surgery as a viable treatment for heart defects. A large part of his obscurity was due to the widely accepted notion at the time that young African Americans should “know their place”. And their place was not generally considered to be “standing in an operating theatre being a frikkin’ genius”.

So what did he do, exactly?

First, he was born in Louisiana in 1910, son of a carpenter and grandson of a slave. But that’s not the best bit.

Next, he was educated at Pearl High School in Nashville, where he dreamed of going to medical school. After graduating, he spent the summer working as a carpenter to help fund his tertiary education. Then the stock market crashed all over his plans.

Along came the Great Depression, sitting on Thomas’ educational future with its great bony bum and wriggling around a bit. His carpentry work dried up and Vivien, like so many others, took to scrounging for whatever work he could find to feed himself, much less pay for college. This is definitely not the best bit.

Eventually, though a friend he knew at Vanderbilt University, he scored a job as a surgical research technician in a medical lab there. A surgical research technician is the person who prepares surgical research subjects (usually animals)* for operations, with drips and equipment and sterilisation and such. Thomas was assistant to Dr Alfred Blalock, a surgical resident investigating the causes and treatment of shock. Not the oh-no-I-drove-off-with-my-coffee-on-the-roof kind of shock; the other one.

Most 20-year-olds might spend their first week of work learning the filing system or where the sticky-tape is. Vivien Thomas spent his first week anaesthetising dogs. Within the first month, he was assisting with surgery and playing an instrumental role in determining the cause and effect of traumatic shock and haemorrhagic shock. Blalock’s research, facilitated by Thomas, proved that shock could be effectively treated with fluid replacement, advanced the understanding of crush injuries, saved many lives during World War II and made Dr Alfred Blalock famous.

Blalock and Thomas turned their attention to heart surgery, which in the late 1930s was still considered a bit of a risk. And by “bit of a risk” I mean “sure, give it a crack if you want all your patients to die and mess up your floor”. But Blalock was game, and Thomas was gorgeous. I mean capable.

When Blalock accepted Johns Hopkins University’s invitation to be Chief of Surgery, he brought Thomas with him. There, Blalock collaborated with Helen Taussig, an acclaimed paediatric cardiologist, who was interested in a surgical solution to a particular heart condition, and had heard that he and Thomas had the skills, experience and gigantic balls to try it

Taussig’s particular interest was in Tetralogy of Fallot, which is either a congenital heart defect involving four anatomical features or a character in a Tolkien novel. This defect prevents the heart from sending blood to the lungs, resulting in “blue baby syndrome”. If you were born with Tetralogy of Fallot in the 1930s, your prognosis was quite purple and not very good. Blalock and Thomas were able to figure out a technique, based on their tinkering at Vanderbilt, which would divert blood from the subclavian artery to the pulmonary artery, effectively increasing the blood flow to the lungs and improving oxygenation. Or, in layperson’s terms: Turn sad blue baby happy pink** YAY.

Before Dr Blalock could try his technique on baby humans, it had to be tested. And that job was Thomas’. Over the next two years, Thomas tested the technique on around 200 dogs. Because of Thomas’ hard work, dedication, beautiful hands and incredible mind, the technique was eventually refined to the point at which it could be safely attempted on humans. Thomas was not allowed to perform surgery, so he stood by Dr Blalock’s shoulder and instructed him through the technique, step by step. Blalock performed the procedure several times successfully, each with Thomas by his side, coaching and advising his senior. And that, my friends, is the good bit.

News of the new technique spread far and wide, and families came from across the US to benefit from Thomas’ brilliance. Naturally, Thomas was rewarded with an enormous pay rise, his own bathroom, a Nobel prize and a new suit made of gold and rubies. At least he would have been, if all this hadn’t happened in Baltimore in 1944, where segregation was in effect and politicians campaigned for the “white man’s city”. Thomas got very little recognition, and even less coin.

As a black man in a white coat, Thomas was considered quite an anomaly. He was paid a wage roughly equivalent to that of a cleaner. To make ends meet, he would sometimes work as a bartender at Blalock’s cocktail parties, serving drinks to doctors he had instructed in surgery earlier that day. And despite years of work on hundreds of patients, he was given no credit for the procedure he helped to develop – it was named the Blalock-Taussig shunt.

The 1940s rolled on, and Thomas trained many students in surgical techniques, and even scored a pay-rise at the suggestion of Blalock. His boss and mentor died in 1964, and Thomas continued at Johns Hopkins for nearly two decades, becoming director of surgical research laboratories and later receiving an honorary doctorate in 1976.

After a long, stellar and belatedly recognised career finding better ways to save lives, Dr Vivien Thomas died in November 1985 of pancreatic cancer.

I have one more, rather soppy, thing to say about Dr Thomas. I’m not dead. I didn’t die. I was born blue and struggling for oxygen, and if it wasn’t for the Dr Thomases of the world, I wouldn’t be here to write soppy things like this.

I would also like to thank all the dogs.

*All people wishing to launch into a long and complicated debate about whether or not performing surgical research on animals is a good thing to do: please form an orderly queue on the left.

**All people wishing to point out that not all babies are pink: noted. In a 1930s private university hospital in Baltimore, however, most babies were.

Vivien Thomas

 

 

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Poet, scholar and church-defying nun Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz suffered terribly from an affliction only too common in 17th-century Mexico. This debilitating condition affected roughly half the population at the time, severely limiting the ability of sufferers to read, speak in public or contribute positively to society. It wasn’t the pox. It wasn’t the plague.

Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz had no penis.

Born in San Miguel Nepantla in 1651 to a reasonably poor Mexican mother and an absent Spanish father, Juana was unaware of her condition during the early years of her life, which she spent chiefly in her grandfather’s hacienda.

Ensconced in her childhood home, Juana found two things: God and a massive library. Into the first, she plunged herself, becoming passionately devout and eagerly committing herself to the role of Good Catholic. Into the second, she hid herself, consuming books and learning as if they were pedagogical marshmallows. By the age of three, she could write. By the age of five, she could handle arithmetic. By the time she hit the peak of moody adolescence, she could pop off a few poems in Spanish, Latin and an Aztec language or two. Unbeknownst to the young and beautiful Juana, such achievements were usually reserved for members of the I-Have-A-Member club.

In 1664, an opportunity presented itself for Juana to become a lady-in-waiting to Vicereine Leonor Carreto, a noblewoman in Mexico City who also, according to rumour, had no pecker to speak of. Juana saw a chance to score a proper education in Mexico City, and hatched a plan to disguise herself as a young man so she could attend the university and surreptitiously learn stuff. But, like an idiot, she told her mother about it. Silly girl. Everyone knows you don’t tell your mother stuff like that when you’re sixteen! You need a cunningly fabricated cover story.*

Unsurprisingly, Juana was forbidden from attending university or receiving any formal education. It was around this time she felt the first pangs of penislessness. All was not lost, however. The Vicereine allowed her companion to continue satisfying her thirst for knowledge in private, when she wasn’t attending to her court duties. She read, she wrote, she studied and generally set a fabulous example for brainy women of the future.

“I don’t study to know more, but to ignore less”, she wrote. It sounds nicer in Spanish.

Juana’s swottiness did not go unnoticed. Philosophers, poets, theologians and important people with fancy hats were called to the viceregal court to quiz her on all manner of topics. Imagine, if you will, a sort of Baroque Millionaire Hot Seat, only with more Spanish and puffy sleeves with ribbons on, and not quite as much electricity.

Juana floored her audience with her intellect. “¡Qué mujer!” they would exclaim, irritating their editor slightly with the use of unusual punctuation, “What a brainiac! Also she is pretty and I would like to see her bosoms”. In the courts of New Spain, having a keen mind in the absence of a trouser-bulge was quite the novelty. It earned Juana widespread renown and a handful of marriage proposals, which she turned down. In her mind, God and learning were still life’s only worthwhile pursuits.

To those ends, Juana entered the Convent of the Order of St. Jerome in 1669, officially becoming Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz. She found the order a very comfortable place for a woman unburdened by a desire for marriage or the weight of a todger. There she had the time and freedom to indulge herself completely in her own education, and churned out poems, plays and essays like a champion. She would sometimes cut her hair, and set herself a learning task to achieve by the time it grew back again.**

“…There seemed to be no cause for a head to be adorned with hair and naked of learning.” she wrote.

As a layperson at court, Juana’s book learnin’ had been a spectacle. As a nun, it was a no-no. Her insistence on being female, religious and educated was considered not only unladylike, but sinful and rebellious. Juana incorporated the criticism and her response to it into her writing.

“One can perfectly well philosophise while cooking supper***”, she wrote, inadvertently authoring Latin America’s first feminist manifesto.

Though her writing continued, the Church effectively won. I hate it when that happens. Evidence suggests she agreed to undergo penance; she sold her books, music and scientific equipment; and she referred to herself as “la peor de todas” - the worst of all women.

What little survives of her literary output was probably preserved by the Vicereine Carreto. These writings helped cement Juana’s reputation as a bit of a sub-par nun but a cracker of a Baroque poet, long after the plague took her life in 1695, aged 43.

“May these clumsy scribblings represent black tears my pen has shed to ease its pain”, she wrote. A bit heavy, sure. But this is the sad bit at the end.

Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz

* Mum, if you’re reading this I really did sleep over at Fiona’s house that time and we didn’t go anywhere near a nightclub in the city. Also, you are very beautiful.

** I do a similar thing myself, but it looks a bit more like I’m pouring myself a gin every time I get to the end of a paragraph.

***If by “philosophise” you mean “chop parsley and recite smutty limericks”, then I’m totally with you, nun-lady.

 

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Joanie Cunningham. Jan Brady. Doug Pitt. Brendan Minogue. The also-rans of the entertainment world. If you could pop them into a time machine and whisk them back to 19th-century Arizona, they’d probably find a friend in Morgan Earp.

Who?

Exactly.

I’m sure at least some of you will recognise the name ‘Earp’. It’s usually preceded by ‘Wyatt’ or by the rapid consumption of beer. Wyatt Earp was a famous lawman in the Wild West, immortalised in movies such as 1994’s Wyatt Earp and its predecessors Tombstone and the classic My Darling Clementine. But unless you were paying very close attention to the Hollywood versions of Wyatt’s life (and let’s face it, who was?), the name Morgan Earp probably won’t ring any bells. Because Like Joanie, Jan, Doug and Brendan, Morgan Earp suffered the fate of being Someone Famous’s Younger Sibling (He also suffered the fate of being shot in the kidney, but we’ll get to that later).

Born in Iowa on April 24, 1851, Morgan Earp had no shortage of brothers and sisters. He was younger brother to Newton, James, Virgil, Martha and Wyatt, and older to Warren, Virginia and Adelia. The queue for the bathroom in the Earp house was longer than the Earp house itself.

If there’s one thing the Earp family liked to do besides growing spectacularly boisterous moustaches, it was stick together. Where one Earp travelled, the others would generally follow. Morgan followed his brothers from Montana to Kansas to Arizona and a few stops in between, working as a security guard on coaches and trains, staking claims in silver mines and dabbling in law enforcement.

By the time 1881 rocked around, Morgan had joined his brothers Wyatt and Virgil Tombstone, Arizona, where they policed the town and had enough facial hair between them to strangle a medium-sized pony*.

The lawmaker brothers had their work cut out for them, trying to keep a local saunter of outlaw cowboys** from terrorising Cochise County. The Earps didn’t like the Cowboys because they rustled cattle and held up stagecoaches and smelt funny. The Cowboys didn’t like the Earps because they came from the poshlands up north and didn’t know much about livestock and wouldn’t let them shoot people at random. Tensions between the goodies and the baddies increased until something had to give. Then, surprising everybody, something gave.

Three pm. Wednesday, October 26, 1881. The gunfight at the OK Corral***. Earps on one side, Cowboys on the other. BANG! BANG! BANG! PECHUNGGGG! Thirty seconds later, it was all over. Morgan and his brother Virgil sustained minor injuries; three Cowboys lay dead. The remaining bandits fled unhurt but annoyed. No moustaches were harmed.

This is where, usually, the movie credits would roll, leaving the audience to wonder what became of the Earps (particularly that handsome one) and of the bad guys who escaped, and whether there would be a sequel, and whether Val Kilmer would be in it. But this was not a movie. This was real life, about which several movies were made.

The angry Cowboys returned to Tombstone five months later to find Morgan Earp playing billiards in a local parlour which, conveniently for the Cowboys, had a glass door. Two shots were fired through the door from the alley outside. One bullet hit Morgan on his left side, passed through the bit known in medical circles as “his middle” and emerged on the right side near his gall bladder. The fourth-youngest and most-hunkiest Earp was done for, and he knew it, exclaiming, “This is the last game of pool I’ll ever play”.**** An hour later he was dead, aged 30.

An inquest into the death of Morgan Earp produced inadequate evidence to convict the culprits. After this disappointment, big brother Wyatt (who by this time employed a manservant to carry the weight of his lip-whiskers) swore revenge, and raised a posse of vigilantes to hunt down the murderers. They managed to find and kill four suspects, but never returned to Tombstone.

Fade out.

Roll credits.

**DO NOT STRANGLE PONIES.

**The collective noun for cowboys is a ‘saunter’. I looked it up. Why not use it in a sentence today? Just slip it in casually the next time the topic of cowboys comes up at work or playgroup or whatever.

***”The gunfight at the OK Corral” actually happened in an empty lot a few doors down from the OK Corral’s back fence. Hence, it is referred to by historical pedants as “The gunfight quite near the OK Corral but down a bit and to the left”.

**** I must have uttered this sentence 100 times during my “attendance” at university. I never meant it.

Morgan Erp

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When I was 16, I would spend many school lunch-times on the Science steps, huddled over the latest Cosmo magazine with my girlfriends, flicking over pages of supermodels, movie stars and sparkly celebrities who all seemed impossibly beautiful, capable, exotic and successful.

This one’s just lost 10 kilos!” Renee would gush.

“BITCH!” we’d all gasp, insane with jealousy and unreachable standards.

This one’s wearing Stuart Membery!” Penny would squeak.

“BITCH!” we’d shout.

This one tongue-pashed Christopher Atkins!” Sharon would wail.

“BIIIITCH!!!”

It’s a good thing Noor-un-Nisa Inayat Khan had never graced any of those full-colour, spittle-flecked pages. We would have “BITCH!”-ed our lips off, cheap gloss and all.

Noor Inayat Khan was beautiful and demure, brave and cunning, determined and accomplished.

But who Khan was, and what she did, weren’t for splashing across the pages of a magazine. What Khan did was a secret.

Born in Moscow in January 1914 to an Indian father and American mother, Noor and her family moved from Russia to London just before World War I was declared. When she was 6 the family relocated again to France, where Noor grew up and studied music and psychology, becoming a proficient composer. Later she carved out a career writing poems and stories, and was published and broadcast in France and England. Noor also looked after her mother and three younger siblings from an early age, after her father’s death in 1927.

Noor Inayat Khan wasn’t just a dish. She was a multicultural talent-salad with compassionate croutons.

Now we know how the story goes. Just when your career hits its straps, along comes Hitler and spoils everything. When World War II spilled its sausage-stuffed guts all over Western Europe, The Inayat Khans made their way hurriedly to England, arriving in June 1940 with some fairly irksome feelings toward the Third Reich. Before the year was out, irk turned to determination, and Noor signed up for the British Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, in which she was trained as a wireless operator.

By 1943, the then 29-year-old had been promoted to Assistant Section Officer and was recruited to the Special Operations Executive (SOE), a secret British espionage organisation that provided assistance to local resistance movements in Europe. There, Noor undertook a crash course in spy training, which included skills like sabotage, reconnaissance, cryptology and being very quiet. Of course, nobody’s SOE training is complete without being given an alias or two, so Noor Inayat Khan became known as “Nora Baker”.

The intelligent good-looking girl from a fancy family was now an undercover agent for the British Government.

Nora’s fluent French and mad radio skills made her perfect for a mission in occupied France, transmitting information from the French Resistance back to England. Before she could say “Oui, je porte des culottes propre!” she was plopped down in the middle of Northern France to join a resistance network of radio operators. Given the code-name ‘Nurse’, Nora worked her radio-magic along with three others known as ‘Teacher’, ‘Chaplain’ and ‘Monk’ in a covert operation with the rather clever title of ‘Teacher/Nurse/Chaplain/Monk’. Due to its secrecy, there was never a rousing wartime ditty written about ‘Teacher/Nurse/Chaplain/Monk’, but it would have gone something like this:

Teacher, Nurse, Chaplain, Monk;
Won’t give up ‘til Hitler’s sunk;
Packed an extra pair of pants
And parachuted into France.

Teacher, Nurse, Chaplain and Monk were part of a broader group of sneaky people called the Physician network. There were probably no jaunty songs written about them either, but I can’t be expected to do everything, can I?

The radio operators working in the Physician network were very proficient in two significant areas:

1. Operating radios with a view to undermining and overcoming the Nazis; and

2. Being arrested by the Nazis.

In the space of six weeks, all but one of the network had been caught by the Sicherheitsdienst – the Nazi intelligence agency. The lone agent left to continue the important work of the underground soon became the most wanted Brit in Paris, forced to move constantly, knowing that a transmission could be detected within minutes if the enemy came close enough. And who was that brave, resourceful and crafty agent? Who was the only one canny enough to evade capture where others had failed? Why, the lovely Noor Inayat Khan.

Eventually, Noor (slash Nora slash Nurse) was betrayed to the Germans, probably by a double agent. Immediately upon capture, she admitted defeat and blabbed her mouth off about everything. Or at least she would have, if she hadn’t been an absolute blumming hero. She resisted arrest, tried to escape twice and was interrogated for more than a month without breaking her silence. Unfortunately her notebooks, which contained enough information to betray her mission, were discovered by the Germans, who continued to transmit false information to the Allies. Hence, by the time England learned of her capture, things had taken a depressing turn.

After a final attempt at escape, Noor was taken to Germany in November 1943 and shackled in prison. There she stayed for ten months, still defiant in her refusal to talk.

On 13 September 1944, Noor was executed at the Dachau concentration camp near Munich. For her exemplary service and gallantry, she was posthumously awarded a George Cross by the British and a Croix de Guerre by the French. She is remembered in film, poetry, art and monument as one of the bravest women to serve in WWII.

PS. The Nazis lost.

Noor Inayat Khan

 

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