There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Eighty One

Nettie Stevens (1861 – 1912)

How the sex of a child is determined at conception has puzzled many grey cells more powerful than mine over the centuries. Aristotle thought it was all about environmental heat and advised males who were looking to sire sons to copulate in the summer. A popular theory going the rounds in Europe during the 19th century was that it was all about nutrition. A good diet produced girls whilst a poor one resulted in males. That was one way of keeping down the food bill.

A more drastic course of action was promulgated by the 18th century French anatomist, Michel Procope-Couteau (1684 – 1753), who in The Art of Having Boys revived Parmenides and Anaxagoras’ theory that the testicles and ovaries were either male or female. Excision of the unwanted reproductive organ would ensure the birth of a child of the desired sex. I’m not sure too many followed his strictures and he did come up with a more practical alternative. The female should lie on the correct side and let gravity take care of the rest.

It was only at the turn of the 20th century that we had a clearer idea of how sex was determined and this is where some insects and our latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame, Vermont-born geneticist Nettie Stevens comes in. A late entrant into the groves of academe she was awarded a doctorate in cytology by Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania in 1900 and continued as a researcher, looking into the subject of sex determination.

Drosophila melanogaster, to give the fruit fly its Latin tag, is often used in research because they can be bred readily in laboratory conditions, breed quickly and lay a large quantity of eggs. Of particular interest to our Nettie was the fact that they only have four sets of chromosomes and it was these that she studied under her microscope in 1905. She quickly discovered that the chromosomes differed between the sexes.

Transferring her attentions to the mealworm, Stevens identified and isolated a chromosome she called Y, realising that it was linked to and the opposite of the X chromosome discovered by and so named by Hermann Henking in 1890. Extending her research to include egg tissue and the fertilisation process, Nettie realised that the X and Y chromosomes always existed in pairs and that it was the presence or absence of the Y that determined the gender of the result of the fertilisation process. The sex of a baby had nothing to environmental factors – it was down purely to genetics and the Y chromosome.

But Nettie was not working in a vacuum – Edmund Wilson was also carrying out researches into how sex was determined. His methods differed from Nettie’s – he concentrated on species where the male had one fewer chromosome than the female and concentrated on the testes as eggs were too fatty for his staining methodology. It is almost certain that Wilson had access to Nettie’s results and although he concluded that environmental factors also had a hand in sex selection and was less adamant in its conclusions, his paper was published first and being a chap, he was credited with discovering the chromosomal basis for sex determination.

The other villain of the piece is the prominent geneticist, Thomas Hunt Morgan. He wrote the first text book on genetics and there is evidence that he corresponded with Nettie, asking for more and more details of her experiments. When she died in 1912 of cancer, Morgan was dismissive of her contribution, inferring she was more of a researcher than a scientist.  There was no mention of Stevens in his magnum opus and to make matters worse in 1933 Morgan and Wilson were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine.

Although Stevens’ theory could not be proven at the time, it turned out to be right and it is only now that her contribution is beginning to be recognised. Her period in obscurity makes her a worthy inductee.

If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone which is now available on Amazon in Kindle format and paperback. For details follow the link

For more enquiring minds, try Fifty Curious Questions by Martin Fone




Quacks Pretend To Cure Other Men’s Disorders But Rarely Find A Cure For Their Own – Part Sixty Nine

Leslie Keeley’s Double Chloride of Gold Cure

We have seen cures for the evils of the demon drink before but one which took America by storm in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was Leslie Keeley’s Double Chloride of Gold Cure.

Keeley opened the first Keeley Institute in 1879 in the Illinois town of Dwight, south of Chicago, with the bold and ambitious claim; “drunkenness is a disease and I can cure it.” He claimed that he had devised a formula which, if injected four times a day, would lead to a miraculous recovery, although he was circumspect in revealing what it contained save that one of the ingredients was gold.

His advertising campaign fuelled by the desire of many to kick alcohol, together with his claim of a 95% success rate, saw business boom. Between 1892 and 1900 his company’s revenues almost topped $3m and there was even a Keeley Day at Chicago’s World Fair in 1893. Those who completed the course were called Keeley graduates and were given a pamphlet by way of a certificate which told the recipient; “You are now numbered among thousands of men and women who have broken the shackles of alcohol and drug addictions by the Keeley method of treatment. Your cure will be as permanent as your life, you will never have any craving for alcohol or other sedative drugs as long as you live, unless you create it by returning to their use, thus re-poisoning your nerve cells.”

Ardent supporters of the Keeley method formed Bi-Chloride of Gold Clubs, later known as Keeley Leagues, which were sort of alcohol support groups. Centres sprang up around the country, the last closing down as recently as 1965, and some half a million alcoholics and addicts are said to have taken the Keeley Cure. Often Keeley would employ doctors who were cured alcoholics and the staff to patient ratio at each centre was reassuringly high.

If you signed up for a course of treatment, as well as the injections four times a day, you would drink a liquid cordial every two hours. The rest of your day was spent in a variety of ways, designed to improve your physical and psychological well-being through rest, controlled diets and group discussions. The atmosphere was described as warm and friendly, far removed from the austere asylums to which alcoholics were normally consigned.

Keeley’s apparent success provoked two reactions – imitation and investigation. Dr Haines’ Golden Remedy, the Geneva Gold Cure, and the Boston Biochloride of Gold Company were among the many imitators who sought to cash in on the craze for golden remedies to alcoholism. More worryingly for Keeley, his success provoked the medical profession to take a closer look into what was in the cure. They used a variety of methods to get hold of the samples, using the handy mail order service or checking into the centres masquerading as alcoholics.

What was surprising is that the constituents of Keeley’s miracle cure seemed to vary – sometimes traces of alcohol, sometimes coca extract and sometimes a combination of strychnine, willow bark, ammonia and aloe. What wasn’t present was gold – indeed, one director was reported to say that the only time they used gold, the patient nearly died.

But the main ingredient was probably atropine, an active ingredient found in deadly nightshade and possessing hallucinogenic properties, which in ancient times was used as an ersatz anaesthetic. It is also poisonous. It may be that drug acted as some form of sedative in the majority of cases but in certain circumstances could induce psychological reactions that would force the patient to see the errors of their ways. It is unlikely to have been the major contributor to the success that Keely claimed.

What was more likely to have helped is the serene atmosphere of the centres, the ability of the patients to get rest, to talk about their problems and share their experiences with others. This is a feature of the treatment of alcoholics today and Keeley in this respect was ahead of his time.

It was just a pity he focused on filling them up with an unproven drug.

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Eighty

Lise Meitner (1878 – 1968)

Being Jewish, a woman in academia and living in Austria in the 1930s weren’t the best cards to be dealt with in life and so it proved for the latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame, nuclear scientist, Lise Meitner.

Born in Vienna, Lise was only the second woman to be awarded a degree in Austria. To further her studies she moved to Berlin where she met Otto Hahn and found a position – a cupboard next to a lab and working as a guest without remuneration – at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry. It was only when she was offered a paid position elsewhere that her position at the Institute was regularised. In 1917 she and Hahn discovered a new element, protactinium.

In the 1920s and 30s the race was on to find an element heavier than uranium and it was to this problem that Meitner and Hahn applied their not inconsiderable grey cells. They noticed that whenever they put a neutron on to a heavy Uranium neutron, as you do, they ended up with something lighter. Whilst Hahn carried out the experiments it was Lise who came up with the explanation for this phenomenon and realised the import of what they had discovered. The answer was what we now term nuclear fission. What was happening was the neutron was splitting into two parts, unleashing a phenomenal amount of energy in the process. It was this energy which was harnessed to produce nuclear bombs.

By this time, 1938, the Anschluss had occurred and, sensibly, Lise had made good her escape to Sweden. Now that he had the rational explanation to the phenomenon that they had observed, Hahn wrote up the findings and published a paper, ignoring the contributions that Lise had made and, in fact omitting her altogether. Some kindly souls argue that the omission was due to political pressure exerted because of the race and gender of Hahn’s accomplice. Whether this was the case or whether Hahn just grabbed the glory for himself, we will never know. To add salt to the wound, in 1944 the Nobel Prize for Chemistry was awarded to Hahn alone for the discovery of nuclear fission.

Not unsurprisingly, Lise was royally pissed off. She wrote, “I have no self confidence… Hahn has just published absolutely wonderful things based on our work together … much as these results make me happy for Hahn, both personally and scientifically, many people here must think I contributed absolutely nothing to it — and now I am so discouraged.”  Worse still, she was horrified to find that the first use of nuclear fission was to make an atomic bomb and was devastated when the Enola Gay dropped its load on to Hiroshima.

To complete her air-brushing from history, the apparatus that was used to carry out the experiments that led to the discovery of nuclear fission was displayed in Germany’s leading science museum for 35 years without mentioning Lise’s name and role in the experiment.

Lise continued with her researches after the war and helped produce one of the first peacetime nuclear reactors and during the course of her career published some 128 articles. It was only in the mid-1960s that the enormity of her contribution to the discovery of nuclear fission was recognised. Posthumously, in 1992, she had an extremely radioactive synthetic element named after her, Meitnerium (atomic number 109) named after her and at least the Periodic Table bears testament to her brilliance.

Lise, for your contribution to the discovery of nuclear fission being air-brushed out of history, you are a worthy inductee.

If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone which is now available on Amazon in Kindle format and paperback. For details follow the link

For more enquiring minds, try Fifty Curious Questions by Martin Fone

Stunt Of The Week (3)

I’m just sorry that my busy schedule does not allow me to make a visit to Detroit Zoo next Saturday.

The Detroit Zoological Society are holding a GreenFest celebration, something I would ordinarily avoid like the plague, but for the lucky first thousand visitors who visit their anaerobic digester display, I discovered this week, they are giving a bucket with 5lbs of  animal manure. I suppose they have to attract visitors somehow.

The deregister converts 500 tons of animal manure and other organic stuff each year into a methane-rich gas which is used to power its hospital. The poo, dubbed Detroit Zoo Poo (natch), is a by-product of the process and is supposed to be good for your roses.

It might have caused me a bit of trouble getting it back home on the plane, though.

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Seventy Nine

Cecilia Payne (1900 – 1979)

The stars I see twinkling at night on the few occasions they are not hidden by clouds are a constant source of wonderment to me. Those of a more enquiring mind might wonder what they are made of and a few, a very few, would take the trouble to find out. One such is the latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame, the British-born astronomer and astrophysicist, Cecilia Payne.

But her contribution to our understanding of stars which should have assured her a stellar career was for decades hidden under the penumbra of male chauvinism that pertained in the groves of academe at the time. Cecilia was a bit of a brain-box and read botany, physics and chemistry at Newnham College in Cambridge in the early 1920s but she did not get a degree as the University only started awarding them to the fairer sex in 1948. She did, however, listen to a lecture by Arthur Eddington which sparked her nascent interest in astronomy.

Winning a scholarship, Cecilia moved to the United States in 1923 and enrolled in the graduate programme run by Harvard College Observatory, specifically established to encourage women to study there. She was encouraged to write a doctoral dissertation and in 1925 Cecilia became the first woman to receive a PhD from Radcliffe College, which is now part of Harvard, for her dissertation, entitled A Contribution to the Observational Study of High Temperature in the Reversing Layers of Stars.

And some contribution, it was too.

I will not bore you with the details – the precise findings and analytical processes that she used go way above my head – but in essence Cecilia concluded that whilst the stars shared the same elements to be found in the Earth, hydrogen, by a factor of one million, and to a degree helium was the most abundant element in stars and by extension the Universe. Later astronomers were to call her work “undoubtedly the most brilliant Ph.D. thesis ever written in astronomy”.  But Cecilia’s problem was that she had made her discovery in 1925 and it flew against the then received wisdom that the composition of sun and the stars was no different from that of the Earth.

The villain of the piece, Henry Norris Russell of Princeton University, now enters our story. He was assigned the task of reviewing Cecilia’s dissertation. Because the findings were contrary to the commonly accepted theories he declared them “clearly impossible” and Cecilia, bowing to the pressure exerted by the eminent professor, amended her conclusions and stated that the calculated abundances of hydrogen and helium were “almost certainly not real.

But something about Payne’s conclusions intrigued Russell and he conducted his own investigations, concluding four years later in 1929, in a short paper, that the principal constituent of the sun and starts was hydrogen. Russell magnanimously acknowledged Payne’s contribution but in popular and academic circles he was recognised as the person who established this ground-breaking fact.

Cecilia spent most of her career studying stars but was forced by the conventions of the time to accept low paid, low grade academic positions. It was only in 1956 that she was able to break through the glass ceiling when she was appointed a professor at Harvard.

To add to the irony, Cecilia was awarded the Henry Norris Russell Prize for her contributions to astronomy in 1976. She was typically phlegmatic, commenting at the time, “the reward of the young scientist is the emotional thrill of being the first person in the history of the world to see something or to understand something.

For discovering the composition of the sun and stars and being ignored, Cecilia, you are a worthy inductee into our Hall of Fame.

If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone which is now available on Amazon in Kindle format and paperback. For details follow the link

For more enquiring minds, try Fifty Curious Questions by Martin Fone


Innovation Of The Week (5)

A soggy burger is a first world problem if there ever was one.

But it may soon become a thing of the past, if an innovation I came across this week takes off.

American based Emily Williams, co-founder of Bo’s Fine Foods, has come up with a dry version of the condiment that is tomato ketchup that people will insist on slapping on their food.

She stumbled across the idea when she eschewed the normal method of making ketchups and condiments which entails braising vegetables and then throwing them away. Appalled at the amount of waste the traditional method entails, she chose to mix, grind and dry the vegetables into flat slices, not unlike those horrible slices of processed cheese that are readily available.

Instead of using preservatives and high fructose corn syrup that go into the traditional ketchup, she has used healthier ingredients. This seems to me to be counter-intuitive. No one chooses to eat a burger for its health benefits.

Anyway, the ketchup slices come in a sachet of eight and can be carried around conveniently and don’t need to be kept in the fridge.

Whether it will take off is anyone’s guess but the resourceful Emily is trying to raise some dosh via Kickstarter.

Ketchup in a sachet is messy, for sure, and there seems to be an inexhaustible appetite for the stuff. I had a pre-packed breakfast picnic provided for me in India recently which consisted of a cucumber sandwich, two muffins and a bowl of fruit together with two sachets of liquid tomato ketchup. I couldn’t work out which of the three dishes it was supposed to go with but, in any case, splashing it around in a moving car would have proved problematic. If I only I had had a dry version.

Emily’s idea may be a solution looking for a problem but more power to her elbow, I say.

Motivated By Curiosity And A Desire For The Truth – Part Thirty Three

Do woodpeckers suffer brain damage?

One of the distinctive sounds to be heard in the garden of Blogger Towers is the drilling of a woodpecker as it tries to dislodge insects from within the bark of one of the nearby trees. It has always struck me that there must be easier ways for them to get their food. After all, each time they strike the tree their beaks and head undergo forces of between 1,200 and 1,400 G, over fourteen times the force that would give a human concussion.

According to the ever popular journal Plos One, a team of scientists, led by Peter Cummings, from Boston University School of Medicine, carried out some research into the brains of woodpeckers, using exhibits from the Field Museum and Harvard Museum of Natural History. The tell-tale sign for brain damage, in human brains at least, is the build-up of tau protein around our axons. Normally, tau protein wraps around the axons, giving them protection and stability while preserving their flexibility. Too much of it, though, disrupts the ability of the neurons to communicate, causing no end of problems with some of the brain’s functions relating to our emotions, cognitive powers and our ability to move.

In what is thought to have been the first detailed examination of woodpecker brains, the little grey cells were removed from a number of exhibits and the amount of tau protein was compared with that to be found in the brains of Red-winged Blackbirds. Now, of course, the woodpeckers in question may have been particularly stupid, having allowed themselves to be caught and end up in a museum’s glass case, but the researchers found that there was considerably more tau protein in their brains than in the blackbirds.

Is this indicative of brain damage?

Frustratingly, the researchers are not prepared to commit; all Cummings was prepared to say was “We can’t say that these woodpeckers definitely sustained brain injuries, but there is extra tau present in the woodpecker brain.” It is dangerous to assume that what is good for humans must also be the case for other forms of animal life so a bit more research is needed, I guess.

Empirically, though, as woodpeckers have been around for 25 million years and nature evolves – a controversial contention, I know – you would think that they would have developed mechanisms to prevent injurious damage to their bodies. And it seems they have. Researchers have previously established that woodpeckers have particularly thick neck muscles which serve to diffuse the blow when their beak strikes the wood. They also have a third inner eyelid which prevents their eyeballs from popping out.

In 2012 scientists from Beijing’s Beihang University and the Wuhan University of Technology carried out a more detailed examination of the thick bone that surrounds and cushions the woodpecker’s brain, details of which were reported in Science China Life Sciences. It appears that their brains are surrounded by a spongy bone plate made of tiny beams or rods called trabeculae. This provides a protective layer around the brain. Similarly, their beaks contain these same trabeculae. It is thought that the beak deforms during impact, absorbing the impact rather than sending it onwards towards the brain.

So the answer is probably no. Makes sense, I suppose.

If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Curious Questions by Martin Fone which is now available via