Have a drink with: Your Local Mountebank
Healthcare! Fireworks! Toads!
Ask him about: What ails you
We’re all getting a lot of weird healthcare advice lately, and I admit that it’s hard to stomach the idea that our country, which vanquished polio and smallpox with scientific elbow grease, is entertaining the medical expertise of a presidential toady who thinks endometriosis happens when you have a demon boyfriend. But history has long tolerated – and even encouraged – the side hustle of non-traditional medical practitioners, and we continue to use some of their lingo even today.
Have a drink with: The 1919 Anti-Mask League
NO BARS, okay? NO.
Ask them about: Coughing in large groups
Since COVID-19 became a public health emergency in March, different cities and states have responded with protective measures, many of them including a recommendation or a requirement to wear a mask when in proximity to other people. These mandates have drawn protest from opponents, many of whom feel that masks are unnecessary, ineffective or a violation of individual rights. We can take a lesson from the influenza epidemic of 1918-1919, during which relaxed mask requirements may well have contributed to a resurgence of the virus in the San Francisco area after an initially successful lockdown period.
During the 1918-1919 flu, many Americans were big fans of masks – Red Cross workers made sure they were making and distributing tons, the Levi Strauss company went from making jeans to mask production, and as Atlas Obscura has pointed out, some people even masked their pets. But the flu roared back after an initial lull in illness, and a portion of Bay Area residents were not at all eager to mask back up. In language that could well have come from modern news reports, anti-maskers complained about masks being useless, about “political doctors,” and about “an infringement of our personal liberty.” In January 1919, a crowd of more than four thousand people gathered at a local rink to protest the passage of the city’s mask ordinance.
Have a drink of: ANYTHING BUT BLEACH.
Disinfectants are not medicine.
Ask about: No. Don’t. Just DON’T.
I can’t believe I have to say this, much less marshal the historical evidence to prove it, but, please: don’t drink bleach. Don’t inhale bleach. Don’t inject bleach. DON’T USE BLEACH TO DO ANYTHING BUT CLEAN UP AROUND THE HOUSE.
For more on the dark history of what has happened every time people have tried to do this in the past (and, oh yes, they most certainly have) – click through to my essay at Medium.
Have a drink with: Astronaut Snoopy
Houston? How about Petaluma?
Ask him about: Getting NASA to the moon
Tomorrow will mark fifty years since the splashdown of the Apollo 11 lunar mission (it’s easy to focus on the July 20th landing and next-day lunar walk, forgetting that the astronauts had to go through the equally perilous process of getting home a few days later before everyone could really and truly celebrate). This is an ideal time to revisit a post from a few years ago, talking about NASA and how the space agency used its partnerships with Charles Schulz’ comic Peanuts as a way to buoy up the space program during its darkest times. After the disastrous January 1967 Apollo 1 fire, which killed three astronauts during a “plugs-out” test of the space vehicle, NASA was in need of a mascot to lift spirits, continue momentum towards the goal of landing a man on the moon, and emphasize safety in the process.
Have a drink with: Joseph Priestley
Chemist, radical theologian, likes bubbles.
Ask him about: favorite La Croix flavor?
Part of social life for well-to-do Europeans in the eighteenth century was to visit a spa town – someplace like Bath in England, or the town of Spa in Belgium – and “take the waters.” Not unlike a modern wellness retreat, at which you can sneak in some pool time or an Instagrammable view in addition to your yoga class or cleanse, these getaways generally rationalized a desire to rest up and relax with a regimen of health-focused activities centered on the various mineral springs. Not only did visitors bathe in springs and baths at popular wellness destinations, they also drank the water, which on account of its geothermal properties and mineral content was often sharply flavored and sometimes effervescent.
Put another way: seltzer may be super in right now, but don’t forget that it was the on-trend drink of summer 1767, too.
Facial recognition technology is fun: particularly when you can log into your phone as an Animoji lion. But is it reliable, particularly when entrusted with decisions about security – and when profiling is a likely outcome? Suggestions that facial recognition technology can identify bad actors echoes the 19th century belief that phrenology could help identify criminals, and is woven through with the same social anxieties and pseudoscience. I’m over at the Washington Post’s Made by History site today digging into biometrics, phrenology and the problems with using biology to make decisions about criminal guilt, innocence or predisposition.
Have a drink with: James Marsh
Maybe pass on the coffee, though…
Ask him about: Arsenic and old cases
In case you missed, it, I recently wrote at Atlas Obscura about 19th century efforts to take the threat and mystery out of arsenic poisoning, until then one of the most frequent and stealthy means of getting rid of that one person in your life who really can’t take a friggin’ hint. The development of the Marsh Test in the early 1800s meant that suddenly there was a precise, scientific means of figuring out whether someone had been knocked off with history’s own real-life version of iocane powder. Read on:
One of the words that most often comes up in this space: encryption. One of the cornerstones of modern information security is the ability to protect information in an algorithmic shield. But if you ask Revolutionary War spies about their information security program, they’d have one thing to tell you: scrambling is good, but hiding is better.
Have a drink with: David Bushnell
Damn the torpedoes.
Ask him about: The one that got away
Folks in Warrenton, Georgia were understandably sad when Doctor David Bush passed away in 1826. Single and in his eighties at the time of his death, the old man was a local institution: in more than thirty years in town Bush had practiced medicine, been active in local politics and even set up an area school. Folks knew the local doctor was quiet, civic-minded and accomplished.
Have a drink of: Nice Cold 17th Century Beer
Less filling; tastes great.
Ask your friends: to buy you a round.
In 1662 Charles II gave his charter to the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge (the “Royal Society,” for short). A hybrid of a gentleman’s club, an entrepreneurial incubator, a maker faire and a science journal, the Royal Society was prolifically dedicated to the idea – famously explained by Adam Savage – that the only difference between screwing around and science is writing it down.
In their own justifiably proud words: “We published Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica, and Benjamin Franklin’s kite experiment demonstrating the electrical nature of lightning. We backed James Cook’s journey to Tahiti, reaching Australia and New Zealand, to track the Transit of Venus. We published the first report in English of inoculation against disease, approved Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine, documented the eruption of Krakatoa and published Chadwick’s detection of the neutron that would lead to the unleashing of the atom.”
And let’s not forget: they made sure 17th century England could have cold beer in summertime.