Tooth Of The Week

Phawan Bhavsar, a 20-year-old engineering student from Madhya Pradesh in India visited his dentist, complaining of a constant jaw ache, swollen gums and blisters in his mouth. The root of the problem, Dr Saurabh Srivastava decided, was a couple of teeth which he decided to extract.

One, though, was a whopper, measuring 3.89 centimetres long, the average front tooth measures between 1.64 and 2.26 centimetres in length. It came out and this is thought to be the longest human tooth extracted, comfortably beating the Guinness World Record set by Dr Max Lucas in 2018 who removed a tooth 3.72 centimetres long from the mouth of Croatian, Mijo Vodopija.

This all happened on February 29th. I bet Phawan is glad it only comes around every four years. I wonder if he said “pull the other one” of “fangs”.

Disease Of The Week

No, not that one but urinary auto-brewery syndrome. I’m indebted to that wonderful organ, Annals of Internal Medicine, for this story.

I’ve always taken the view that when medics ask you how many units of alcohol you drink a week, honesty is not the best policy as they mentally double whatever figure they give you. If you claim that not a drop of drink has ever passed your lips and your urine is persistently showing positive for the presence of alcohol, your doctor is likely to think that you are in denial. Indeed, this is what happened to a 61-year-old woman, suffering from diabetes and liver cirrhosis and on a waiting list for a liver transplant. She was taken off the waiting list and referred for alcohol abuse treatment.  

What gave doctors at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Centre pause for thought is that blood tests for the presence of alcohol in her blood stream proved negative. Further digging showed that when she ingested sugar, a yeast, Candida glabrata, similar to brewer’s yeast, was accumulating in her bladder and converting her urine into alcohol.

Apparently, this is the first case in the world to be diagnosed. Worth bearing in mind, if your quack suggests you are drinking too much.

I wonder if the woman will be sponsored by a lager company!

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part One Hundred And Two

Paul Otlet (1868 – 1944)

There was a time, not so long ago, when you couldn’t get an answer with varying degrees of veracity to any question by the press of a switch. In the days before the internet, we had to resort to books, a time-consuming practice. The breadth of our knowledge was much more restricted but, perhaps, the likelihood of it being correct is greater. Some, though, before the age of the computer, imagined a repository of all the world’s knowledge sitting in one place where anybody’s query could be answered in a relatively short space of time. One such was Belgian, Paul Otlet.

In 1895, along with a lawyer friend, Henri La Fontaine, Otlet established what they called the International Institute of Bibliography, an attempt to bring order to and categorise the sum of human knowledge, at least in printed form. It was an ambitious and audacious task.

The adoption of the Dewey Decimal System, devised in 1876 by the American librarian, Melvil Dewey, had brought some order to the contents of a library by dividing all knowledge into ten discrete groups. Building upon this, the duo published in 1904 what they called the Universal Decimal Classification (UDC) system, which broke knowledge down into nine categories, leaving a tenth free for future expansion, and 70,000 sub-divisions. UDC is still used today in over 130 countries.

In 1910 Otlet and La Fontaine proposed the next stage of their vision, a repository of the world’s accumulated information, held in an organised and accessible format. This city of knowledge, a successor to the great library of Alexandria, was to be called the Mundaneum and was to be located in Brussels. The cornerstone of the venture, as well as their UDC system, was to be the paper index card, whose size had been standardised to its now recognisable three by five-inch format by Dewey.

Over time the Mundaneum was crammed with drawers, stuffed full of index cards holding bibliographic information of some 15 million books. Otlet’s institute, staffed by an army of women, offered a research system where, for a fee, a user could telegraph a question and, eventually receive, an answer. The constraints of a paper-based system, even one well organised, meant that it was a time-consuming job to thumb through the cards, copy out the information and send it on to the customer. It also proved difficult to copy and transmit bulky documents.

Naturally, Otlet pondered over the problem and in 1906 proposed a form of microphotography as a way of storing information, documents, and even complete books compactly on microfiche. In 1937 this way of storing data was lauded as the way to create a “World Brain” by an international documentation congress but Otlet was never able to implement this stage of his idea.

Otlet was an idealist, an apostle for internationalism, envisaging that the harnessing of new industrial technologies and man’s growing intellectual output was a way to foster greater world harmony and understanding. What put a spoke in his wheel, as well as the limitations of the then available technology, was the looming spectre of Nazism. When Belgium was occupied, Otlet desperately tried to save his life’s work from their clutches.

The Nazi censors duly made an inspection and were rather non-plussed by what they saw. “The institute and its goals cannot be clearly defined. It is some sort of … ‘museum for the whole world,’ displayed through the most embarrassing and cheap and primitive methods… The library is cobbled together and contains, besides a lot of waste, some things we can use. The card catalogue might prove rather useful”, a report stated.

A little while later, Nazi troops seized 63 tons of books and much of Otlet’s card index system. He soldiered on with his dream but died four months after the occupation ended.

Still, he had sown the seed for what ultimately became the world-wide web. Otlet may, though, have been horrified by what it has become. What remains of the Mundaneum was moved to Mons in 1998 and is still open to visitors.

If you enjoyed this, check out the stories of other inventors who have been consigned to the footnotes of history in Martin Fone’s new book, The Fickle Finger, out now

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

Ian Shanks (1948 – present)

Whilst a laudable idea in principle, patents, which give the inventor some time to exploit the fruits of their inventive streak without giving them an everlasting monopoly, can be fraught with difficulties and often the only winners seem to be the legal profession. One area of difficulty is who owns the patent when an employee invents something during the course of their employment and, even if they concede ownership of the patent, are they entitled to a share of the profits made by the invention, over and above their normal employment benefits? The case of Ian Shanks has done much to clarify this grey area, in the UK at least.

I am a bit of an aichmophobe and so I have the greatest admiration for diabetics who regularly puncture their skin with a needle to get their shot of insulin or to test their glucose levels. If it was a matter of life or death, I am sure I would overcome my fear, it is only a state of mind, after all. Undeniably, though, what has helped diabetics immeasurably is the nifty little glucose testing kit which has simplified the process and improved the accuracy of the readings. This was the brainwave of Scottish scientist, Ian Shanks.   

Shanks was already a leading scientific pioneer, publishing the first paper on 3D televisions and being at the forefront of the development of liquid crystal display (LCD) technology. Around the summer of 1982 he wondered whether he could deploy LCD technology to make some form of biosensor. If you could suck a liquid, blood, for instance, between two glass plates and coat one of the plates with a material that broke up the molecules you wanted to measure, say glucose, then you should be able to measure its concentration.

Using the glass slides from his daughter’s toy microscope, Shanks played around with his idea until he had developed a working model. Excited by his discovery, he had the prototype for a cheap, pain-free device to test glucose levels, he took it to his employers at the time, Unilever. As Shanks was their employee, Unilever took ownership of the idea and filed for a patent, which was granted. And then they did nothing.

Grudgingly, in the 1990s Unilever began to sell off licences relatively cheaply to other companies to manufacture and sell the glucose sensors. They revolutionised the lives of diabetics but, for reasons best known to themselves, Unilever had missed the boat, earning around £24 million from the licences rather than a billion or so they would have amassed if they had taken the trouble to market and distribute the device themselves. As for Shand, apart from his salary and employment benefits, he got nothing and he wasn’t happen.

Now Section 40 of the Patents Act 1977 enters our story. Under this piece of legislation an employee, who invents something from which their employer derives an “outstanding benefit”, is entitled to a “fair share”. Suitably vague wording, a clause described by an Appeals judge as drafted “on Friday night and after closing time”, it nonetheless offered Shand some hope. He sued his employers and after many a knockback, it took him thirteen years to get justice, in October 2019 the Supreme Court found in his favour.

Lord Kitchin, in his judgment, opined that the rewards Unilever enjoyed “were substantial and significant, were generated at no significant risk, reflected a very high rate of return and stood out in comparison with the benefit Unilever derived from other patents”. Their lordships awarded Shand £2 million. He had got there in the end. The first award made under section 40 was not made until 2010.

Millions of diabetics around the world owe a great debt of gratitude to the genius of Shand.

If you enjoyed this, check out Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone

And look out for The Fickle Finger, now available in e-book format.

You’re Having A Laugh – Part Thirty Three

William Mumler and the Spirit Photographs

There is a thin line between a hoax, a fraud and an innocent mistake that gets out of hand. Into which category the curious case of William Mumler and his spirit photographs falls, I will leave you to decide.

William was working as a jeweller in Boston, dabbling in photography as a hobby. In 1861, after printing off a portrait of himself, he noticed what seemed to be the shadowy figure of a young girl behind him. He thought it must have been an accident, the vestiges of an image of an earlier photo that was still on the plate, but friends, when he showed them the picture, identified the wraith as Mumler’s dead cousin.

Word of the remarkable photograph soon got around and was pounced upon by the spiritualist community. The tragic death toll of the Civil War meant that interest in the paranormal was never greater, grieving relatives wanting to get in touch with their lost loved ones. Spiritualists in the Boston area quickly proclaimed Mumler’s photograph as the first ever taken of a spirit.

Not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, Mumler set up shop as the world’s first spirit photographer and did a roaring trade. During the course of the 1860s he took thousands of photographs, all with a characteristic grainy wraith in the background. The greatest showman, PT Barnum, never one to miss a trick, displayed several of Mumler’s photographs in his American Museum.

As Mumler amassed his fortune, more conventional photographers poured scorn on his work, accusing him of blackening the reputation of the nascent profession. Even the spiritualist community was divided, some claiming that the photographs were frauds, even suggesting that some of the so-called spirits were not only still alive but also bore a remarkable similarity to some of the subjects of Mumler’s earlier photographs. Nevertheless, there were still enough people desperate enough to try to contact loved ones from beyond the grave to give him a healthy income.

Mumler’s troubles, though, began in 1869 when he moved to New York. Despite moving he couldn’t shake off the allegations of fraud and after the local Police Department sent an undercover agent to have his portrait taken. Sure enough, a wraith appeared in the background. The Police launched a case against Mumler for fraud.

The trial pitted supporters of spiritualism and sceptics against each other and caused a minor sensation. Some photographers testified that what Mumler was doing using a technique called double exposure, superimposing one image on top of another. The photographer, Abraham Bogardus even produced an example, a portrait of PT Barnum with the gjostly image of Abraham Lincoln behind him.              

But for every naysayer, there was a believer prepared to speak out on behalf of Mumler. In a rather touching testimony Paul Bremond, who lost his daughter in August 1863, told the court that “she told me when she died that if I were permitted she would return to me from the spirit land. By this photograph I see that she has returned”. The court were prepared to give Mumler the benefit of the doubt and acquitted him. He continued his business, producing perhaps his most famous photograph, in 1871, of Mary Todd Lincoln with the ghostly image of her dead husband, Abraham, embracing her. It is claimed that she introduced herself to the photographer as Mrs Lindall.

Mumler’s business never really recovered from the court case and he gave up spirit photography in 1879. He did, however, invent the Mumler process which allowed the first photographs to be printed on newsprint, revolutionising the look and feel of journalism for ever. But by the time he took his own place in the spirit world in 1884 he was penniless.

If you enjoyed this, try Fifty Scams and Hoaxes by Martin Fone

You’re Having A Laugh – Part Thirty Two

Paul Kammerer and the Midwife Toad

We tend to think that Charles Darwin was single-handedly responsible for developing the theory of evolution but he was not working in a vacuum. An important and controversial contribution was made by the French naturalist, Jean Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829), who posited a theory that acquired characteristics were passed down through the generations. He thought that giraffes originally had short necks and legs but, in order to get to the succulent upper leaves, had to develop the long legs and necks they have today. Lamarck though that if a parent had a limp, their child would also inherit one.

Lamarckism fell out of fashion but the Austrian scientist, Paul Kammerer (1880-1926), spent part of his career trying to establish whether there was anything in it. He chose to concentrate on the Midwife Toad which, unlike most toads, does not mate in water and so lacks the black, scaly bumps on their back feet, known as nuptial pads, which allows other male toads to hang on to their partners as they mate. If he forced Midwife Toads to mate underwater, he wondered, would they too grow those bumps? If they did, Lamarck might have been on to something.

After getting his toads to mate underwater, Kammerer discovered, after a few generations, that the males were beginning to develop black nuptial pads, which were then inherited by their offspring. If his findings stacked up, there may have been something in Lemarckism after all. In 1923 and 1924 Kammerer travelled extensively across the United States and Britain, giving lectures and writing about his experiments. In 1924, he published The Inheritance of Acquired Characteristics, claiming that his experiments and results showed that Lemarck was right.

Kammerer split the scientific community. His findings were enthusiastically embraced by Soviet Russia, the theory of the inheritance of acquired characteristics fitting into the prevailing Marxist philosophy, so much so that Kammerer was appointed as director of a laboratory in Moscow’s Communist Academy in 1926. Other scientists, though, were not so sure.

In 1926 an American scientist, Gladwyn K Noble, curator of Reptiles at the Museum of Natural History in New York, travelled over to Vienna to see for himself. By this time Kammerer was in Moscow and so a colleague showed him the one preserved toad that was left from the experiments and photographs taken while the research was ongoing. Noble claimed that the specimen was a fake, the nuptial pads being nothing more than swellings caused by the injection of black Indian ink.    

Noble published a letter in the journal, Nature, on August 7 1926, claiming that Kammerer had faked the results of his experiments. In a letter to the Soviet Academy of Science written in September 1926, Kammerer admitted the hoax, but claimed that he was not responsible for faking the exhibit Noble had seen and had no idea who had done it or why. With his academic and professional career ruined, Kammerer’s body was found, on September 23, 1926, at the top of an Austrian mountain in Puchberg am Schneeberg with a gun shot wound to his head and a pistol by his side.

Kammerer’s case has become a notorious example of academic hoaxing but more recent developments in genetic research suggest that he might not be the villain he has been made out to be. In 1942 scientists began to understand a phenomenon called epigenetics whereby circumstances or the environment can make changes to the way gene information expresses itself without changing the genetic code itself. Those changes can be passed on to offspring.

A famous example of epigenetics in practice was to be seen during the famine that hit occupied Netherlands in the winter of 1944/5. Malnourished, pregnant women gave birth to children with a higher incidence of mental problems and a tendency to become obese than normal. Some of these traits were passed on to the women’s grandchildren. And a midwife toad has been found in the wild with nuptial pads.

Perhaps the remaining specimen had been faked but the results of Kammerer’s experiments were as he portrayed them. If so, he will have the last laugh.        

If you enjoyed this, try Fifty Scams and Hoaxes by Martin Fone

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

The story behind DNA

Rosalind Franklin (1920 – 1958)

I am a great fan of crime stories from the period between the two World Wars, known as the golden age of detective fiction. Policemen and amateur sleuths had to rely on their wits and their powers of analysis, reason and deduction to solve many a fiendish crime which, at first blush, seemed both impossible to have been committed and to crack. They invariably did, though, usually because the felon left some tell-tale sign that led to their undoing.

Life has moved on and these days the police have a more powerful array of tools at their disposal, at least if you believe the police dramas which are the staple fare of our TV screens, not least DNA testing. If I had even the faintest inkling to commit a crime, the threat of being unmasked by my DNA would be enough to put me off.  Interestingly, the tale of the discovery of DNA is a murky one with elements that would not have been out of place in a good whodunnit.

Rosalind Franklin always wanted to be a scientist, even though her father tried to steer her away from a career path that was nigh-on impossible for women to make much progress in. She was fortunate enough to attend St Paul’s Girls’ School, one of the few schools at the time that taught physics and chemistry to girls, and then graduated from Newnham College, Cambridge.

During the Second World War, Rosalind studied the structure and uses of coal and graphite, publishing several papers and contributing to the development of more effective gas masks. She was awarded a PhD in Physical Chemistry by Cambridge University in 1945.

After the war, Rosalind went to Paris to work under Jacques Mering, from whom she learned about the use of x-ray diffraction techniques to explore and understand the molecular and atomic structures of crystals. Then, in 1951, she made the fateful decision to accept a three-year research scholarship at King’s College, London.

Maurice Wilkins was trying to understand DNA by using X-ray crystallography and so Rosalind was perfectly equipped to contribute to the project. But Wilkins, who was away when Rosalind arrived, assumed that she was hired help rather than be someone who could more than contribute to the project.

Their relationship never recovered from this rocky start.   

Working with a student, Raymond Gosling, Rosalind continued to refine her X-ray images of DNA fibres, using ever finer strands. Wilkins, in somewhat of a huff, spent increasingly more time with his friend, Francis Crick, at the Cavendish Laboratory, where Crick and James Watson were attempting to understand the structure of DNA by using a model-based approach.

Around this time Rosalind made a dramatic discovery when looking at what later became known as Photo 51. The DNA in the image had a distinct helical structure with two strands attached at the middle. She gave details of her findings in a lecture but no one seemed to pay any notice.

However, at a conference, at which Crick and Watson rolled out their theories about the structure of DNA, Rosalind challenged them, pointing out that she was working with empirical data not highfalutin ideas. This open criticism of his friends worsened relationships between Wilkins and the woman he now called the Dark Lady. Sensibly, Rosalind decided to move on and took a position at Birkbeck College in 1953.

But during the move, Wilkins came into possession of the famous Photo 51, certainly without Rosalind’s permission, and showed it to Crick and Watson. It was an earth-shattering moment. Here was the missing piece of information, which Crick and Watson needed to complete their accurate model and proof positive that DNA’s helical structure had two strands attached in the middle by phosphate bases.

The duo rushed to print, publishing an article on the structure of DNA in a 1953 edition of the scientific journal, Nature. Ironically, the same edition carried articles by Wilkins and Franklin on the X-ray data they had compiled about DNA but it gave the impression that their contribution was supplementary to rather than one that had informed Crick and Watson’s discovery.

Rosalind continued her researches at Birkbeck, now turning her attention to the structure of tobacco mosaic virus before succumbing to cancer, which she may well have contracted through her work with X-rays.

In 1962, Crick, Watson, and Wilkins were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. There was no mention of Rosalind and it is only recently that her contribution to the understanding of DNA has been acknowledged. The Nobel Prize, of course, cannot be awarded posthumously.

Did Crick steal the photograph? Perhaps we should run a DNA test.    

If you enjoyed this, look out for Martin Fone’s new book, The Fickle Finger, which will be published in April 2020. For details follow this link

In the meantime, to get your fix of unfortunate inventors, try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone, details of which are here