Reviews

Tuesday, July 01, 2003

Museums

New Orleans Pharmacy Museum
514 Chartres Street French Quarter (Vieux Carré), New Orleans, La.
www.pharmacy museum.org

A large white porcelain vase, labeled "LEECHES," sits by the door of the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum, a four-story iron-balconied Creole town house tucked away in the narrow streets of the city's French Quarter. The vase is one of the clues to the museum's eclectic contents: early American tinctures and cure-alls, voodoo gris-gris potions, curious herbs of questionable provenance, and amputation saws. Think bric-a-brac in a great-aunt's attic. Then think of the city's seductive blend of Mardi Gras revelry and morbid appetite for ghostly lore. In its own creepy way, the museum is a testament to the city's contradictions, which sprang from the extreme fragility of life for its early inhabitants.

Opened in 1950, the museum has been faithfully restored to look much as it did when Louis J. Dufilho Jr., the nation's first licensed pharmacist, set up his apothecary shop here in 1823 and began peddling patent remedies. Glass-fronted rosewood cabinets line the walls of the cavernous ground-floor hall, filled with menacing surgical tools and endless shelves of tonics and potions, their yellowed labels proclaiming the curative benefits of various concoctions of alcohol, narcotics, and mercury. The extensive collection, which includes such creative quackery as "magic Oriental oils" or "miraculous snake root," has been culled from all over the country, but it could well have originated here, since New Orleans in the early 19th century was a veritable cesspool of sickness. Ships carrying African slaves and goods to the antebellum trading city also brought mosquitoes that flourished in the swampy bayous, spreading plagues of yellow fever and malaria. In 1853 one in 10 New Orleanians died of yellow fever, an epidemic still considered the worst ever to hit an American city. In better years, the semitropical heat and aboveground sewage system led to outbreaks of cholera and typhoid so severe that gravediggers, unable to keep up, left hundreds of corpses to rot in the streets.

A 19th-century pharmacy's over-the-counter wares, right, included Bayer's new wonder drug, Heroin, as well as a less toxic elixir, aspirin. Below, a tool for excising the tonsils.
Photographs by Jeff Wilson



Given that during its glory days New Orleans had one of the highest death rates in the nation, it seems inevitable that it would nurture both jazz—which has its roots in the musical processions that followed a seemingly endless stream of funerals—and a robust sense of joie de vivre epitomized in the city's motto: "Laissez les bon temps rouler" or "Let the good times roll." The ever-present specter of death also fed an eagerness to experiment with both voodoo and the outrageous medicaments and devices found in the Pharmacy Museum. Wandering about among the knifelike bloodletting fleams and the scissorslike six-inch-long urethral dilators, a museum visitor begins to understand why someone might choose, say, a witch doctor's spells over Civil War-era trephination drills—six-inch brass-and-silver tools for boring holes in the skull to relieve pressure. The city's fixation on pincushion dolls also seems reasonable if the alternatives were tonsil guillotines—razorlike instruments for excising these organs—and eye scalpels for cataract removal.

Gruesome as the museum's artifacts are, though, they are also an ironic reminder of a more broad-minded age. An 18-inch-long, spear-tipped Naegele perforator, "for perforating the fetal skull and crushing the cranium, facilitating extraction," is an indication that late abortion was legal in early 19th-century New Orleans. Then again, there are a lot of items in this museum that would be outlawed today. Until the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act banned them, almost any medicine or tonic, incorporating the most noxious ingredients, could be sold over the counter. Most people are aware that Coca-Cola once contained cocaine, but who knew that 7-Up, née Bib-Label Lemon Lime Lithiated Soda, was once heavily laced with lithium, now prescribed for manic depression? Or that St. Joseph, the familiar brand of baby aspirin, started out with a similarly packaged infant soother containing heavy doses of alcohol and cocaine?

While most of these antique elixirs are reassuringly relegated to oblivion, a six-inch-tall brown glass bottle sits high on a shelf, a disturbing reminder of the past's ability to haunt. The bottle's intact liquid content, diacetylmorphine, was aggressively introduced to the United States in 1898 as a powerful "nonaddictive" cough suppressant under the brand name Heroin by the German company Bayer. Spiraling drug-related deaths led the company to pull it from the market 15 years later, but luckily for Bayer's profit margin, it had already patented a second blockbuster drug, aspirin. Sadly, neither the 1914 Harrison Act, which forbade any sale of heroin without a prescription, nor the 1924 Heroin Act, which outlawed completely any possession of the stuff, was able to stem the devastating social and health consequences that have followed it into the present.


 
Gizmos

MM-5 Stirling Engine Kit
$99
www.stirlingengine.com


Photograph by Jens Mortensen.

The Stirling engine has been the next big thing since 1816, when the Scottish clergyman Robert Stirling built an energy-producing contraption that he hoped in vain would supplant the steam engine, the industrial workhorse of his era. The Stirling is an air-compression engine that emits no exhaust and will happily crank out energy from virtually any external heat source.

When placed on top of a steaming beverage, the easy-to-assemble MM-5 Coffee Cup Engine Kit will harness enough waste heat to spin a fan for about 10 minutes. The engineering principle is simple. Heat from the cup of coffee causes the air in a compression shaft to expand, pushing a piston that turns a crankshaft, which in turn spins a propeller. The process can be reversed by placing the engine on, say, a bag of frozen peas. The relatively hot air in the top of the compression shaft will push the piston down, turning the crankshaft and propeller in the opposite direction.

While watching the MM-5 engine's fan whir, you can contemplate the coming Stirling revolution. New friction-reducing seals and materials that contain light gases at high pressures could transform this relic into a modern powerhouse. Last fall, inventor Dean Kamen announced that the next generation of the Segway, a two-wheeled personal transporter that mimics the body's balancing ability, will be powered by a Stirling engine.

— William Jacobs


 
Books

A Pioneer With Panache
He motored above the Parisian streets in his own private powered balloon

By Robert Wilson

Wings of Madness
Alberto Santos-Dumont and the Invention of Flight
By Paul Hoffman Theia, $24.95

As the December 17 centennial of the Wright brothers' first powered plane flight approaches, perhaps it will come as news to you, too, that at least one country disputes the aerial precedence of the two dull boys from Dayton. In Brazil, the distinction goes to native son Alberto Santos-Dumont (1873-1932), who flew his own engine-driven balloon before the Wright brothers rose off the ground. He was also the first to fly an airplane in public, superseding Orville and Wilbur, whose first flights went off largely in secret until 1908. On September 13, 1906, Santos-Dumont competed outside Paris for a prize for a heavier-than-air flight of 25 meters. He managed only 11 meters and almost mowed down the judges, but as the Paris Herald noted, "Although he had to return with a broken instrument, he had the satisfaction of knowing that he had accomplished before witnesses a feat never achieved in Europe by anyone but himself."

Paul Hoffman, a former editor in chief of Discover, does not himself side with the Brazilians on their claim. He suggests that Santos-Dumont was merely the most interesting of the early aerialists, with the right combination of élan, courage, and persistence to make flight seem both dramatic and possible. Unlike the reclusive Wrights, Santos-Dumont deeply engaged the public, which followed his every ascent as well as his frequent crashes. He had already become so famous by 1901 that the London Times predicted "when the names of those who have occupied outstanding positions in the world have been forgotten, there will be a name which will remain in our memory, that of Santos-Dumont."

Alberto grew up outside São Paulo on one of the largest coffee plantations in the country. His father, a former railway engineer, built 60 miles of track and used seven locomotives to carry the berries to his mechanized processing plant. Alberto had a mechanical bent and, as a boy, could fix the complex machinery in the plant. He was also an avid reader of science fiction, including all of Jules Verne. In 1891, when he was 18, he traveled with his parents to Paris and, at the Palais des Machines, a "cathedral to technology" built for the 1889 Paris Exposition, fell hard for an internal-combustion engine on display.

When his father died the next year, leaving him a half-million-dollar bequest, Alberto returned to Paris. He now had the money for automobiles, a foppish wardrobe, and an increasing interest in the expensive hobby of ballooning. He had his own hydrogen-filled balloon built in 1898 and made more than 100 ascents in it before ordering the first in a series of custom-built, motor-powered, gas-filled balloons. One of those ships, called Baladeuse, was so small and maneuverable that by the summer of 1903 it had become his personal mode of transportation. Hoffman calls it the world's first, and quite possibly only, flying car: "He went shopping in Baladeuse, visited friends, and regularly flew to restaurants where he would hand the doorman the reins to his aerial steed."

By 1905 it became clear, though, that the future of flight lay not with plodding airships but with speedier airplanes. An engineer named Gabriel Voisin helped Santos-Dumont design an airplane that "relied for power on an automobile engine and for lift on a long biplane wing made of box kites cobbled together with pine struts and piano wire." This was the one he flew on September 13, 1906, and on three other occasions. His longest flight went just over 20 seconds and 220 meters.

For the next few years Santos-Dumont worked on other airplane designs, but his only success was with Demoiselle, a lightweight plane with which he set a speed record in 1909 of nearly 60 miles an hour. But the next year a particularly hairy crash in Demoiselle, followed by a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, put an end to Santos-Dumont's flying days. He lived for two more decades in increasing seclusion, defending his claim of making the first flight, denouncing the use of airplanes in the First World War, and eventually descending into madness before committing suicide in a hotel room at a beach resort in Brazil.

The familiar story of the Wright brothers is all about doggedness and getting the little things right. Alberto Santos-Dumont and this graceful chronicle of his derring-do remind us that flight was also, in its early days, a reckless act of imagination.


 
Film

Winged Migration
Sony Pictures Classics
Directed by Jacques Perrin


Photograph courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Watching birds in flight can evoke a sense of longing in anyone blessed with a restless spirit. This stirring documentary provides fast satisfaction for that longing. One early scene places the viewer inches away from a greylag goose traveling with its flock high above the Brière marsh in western France. The only sounds breaking the silence are the bird's soft breathing and the distant, rasping calls of the other geese. Breast muscles ripple as the wings pump against the air, a sign of the hard labor that goes into seemingly effortless soaring.

To obtain this remarkable footage, director Jacques Perrin and his 450-person crew spent three years tracking dozens of migratory birds with the aid of remote-control gliders, balloons, and a custom-designed ultralight motorized aircraft. Perrin also engaged in some behavioral trickery. Some of the cranes, storks, and geese in the movie were raised in captivity and trained to bond with the ultralight as if it were a parent. These living decoys were then released into the wild to attract others of their kind. Many of the resulting shots are so intimate that it is easy to imagine being a member of the flock.

Perrin stays out of the picture, largely avoiding voice-overs and allowing the images to provide their own narrative of the glory and peril of migration. Arctic terns, the long-distance champs, can cover 20,000 miles in their circuit between the north and south polar regions. Those that survive the trip often encounter other threats: predatory crabs, industrial muck. Although the movie implicitly critiques the ways we taint the planet, it also puts us firmly in our place. From a bird's-eye view, all our cities and factories are little more than blips in a grand journey over nature's vast expanses.

— Corey S. Powell


 
Books

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: Seasons of Life and Land
Subhankar Banerjee,
The Mountaineers Books, $35


Photograph courtesy of The Mountaineers Books.

The half-shed coat of this Dall sheep testifies to the harsh winter conditions in the Romanzof Mountains of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a 19.5-million-acre expanse of pristine mountains, glaciers, rivers, and forests. Physicist-turned-photographer Subhankar Banerjee spent two years living in the wilderness documenting in word and picture the beauty and fragility of the landscape and its plant, animal, and indigenous Gwich'in and Inupiat Eskimo inhabitants. Barbara Boxer, a Democratic senator from California, later held up the book during an acrimonious debate in March over a Bush administration proposal to open the refuge to oil drilling, a prospect that many biologists believe would drive out or eradicate animals like polar bears, caribou, and buff-breasted sandpipers. The Senate narrowly defeated the drilling bill.

— Maia Weinstock


 


Science Best-sellers

1.Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded
By Simon Winchester, HarperCollins
2.The Universe in a Nutshell/The Illustrated a Brief History of Time (boxed set)
By Stephen Hawking, Bantam
3.Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers
By Mary Roach, W. W. Norton
4.The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister's Pox: Mending the Gap Between Science and the Humanities
By Stephen Jay Gould, Crown Publishing Group
5.DNA: The Secret of Life
By James D. Watson with Andrew Berry, Knopf
6.Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain
By Antonio Damasio, Harcourt
7.The Riemann Hypothesis: The Greatest Unsolved Problem in Mathematics
By Karl Sabbagh, Farrar Straus & Girouxv
8.In the Blink of an Eye
By Andrew Parker, Perseus
9.The Art of the Infinite: The Pleasures of Mathematics
By Robert Kaplan and Ellen Kaplan, Oxford University Press
10.Faster than the Speed of Light: The Story of a Scientific Speculation
By João Magueijo, Perseus
Exclusive to Discover from Barnes & Noble Booksellers


 

We also like... Books

The Music of the Primes: Searching to Solve the Greatest Mystery in Mathematics
Marcus du Sautoy,
HarperCollins, $24.95

Prime Obsession: Bernhard Riemann and the Greatest Unsolved Problem in Mathematics
John Derbyshire,
Joseph Henry Press, $27.95

In 2000 the Clay Mathematics Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, offered $1 million to anyone who could crack an enduring conundrum: devising an equation to predict how many prime numbers occur within any given range of integers. The Music of the Primes chronicles the quest by dozens of mathematicians, including Alan Turing and John Nash, to discover the elusive pattern. Prime Obsession tells the life story of the mid-19th-century German mathematician Bernhard Riemann, who declared the prime number problem utterly solvable and then died before completing his proof.

On the Nature of Human Romantic Interaction
Karl Iagnemma,
The Dial Press, $22.95

A computer technician who thinks he's found the mathematical equation for romance and a botanist who secretly yearns for the author of her field's most trusted text are two of the protagonists in a spellbinding collection of short stories from Iagnemma, a roboticist and fiction writer at MIT. Iagnemma evokes raw emotion as his characters reconcile their reliance on scientific facts with their need for the intangible, transient qualities of love.

Echo of the Big Bang
Michael D. Lemonick
Princeton University Press, $24.95

Lemonick, a science writer for Time, traces the creation of the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP), which measures microwave radiation left over from the Big Bang. His gripping account culminates with WMAP's finding in February that the universe is 13.7 billion years old.
Maia Weinstock


 




Visit www.pharmacymuseum.org to learn more about the history of the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum and to enjoy a brief tour of some of the museum's highlights. You may even want to check out the gift shop, where turn-of-the-century ointment jars and drug bottles are offered for sale, along with the official museum T-shirt, which carries the slogan "I'm a sucker for leeches."

Learn how Stirling engines work, complete with animated diagrams and a discussion about why the Stirling engine is in only limited use today: www.howstuffworks.com/stirling-engine.htm.

DEKA, the company founded by Dean Kamen, is re-envisioning the Stirling engine. Read about it at www.dekaresearch.com/coreTech.html.

The American Stirling Store is the place to go for Stirling aficionados. Buy a coffee-cup Stirling engine, learn more about the technology, or join a discussion group of like-minded Stirling fans: www.americanstirling.com.

The official Winged Migration Web site has some nifty features, including a map showing the migration patterns of 14 species of bird and some links to informative bird-watching sites: www.sonyclassics.com/wingedmigration/ index_flash.html.

Hear the call of the greylag goose: www.kwacs.freeserve.co.uk/Greylag.htm.

For more information on Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, check out arctic.fws.gov.

The Smithsonian exhibition of photos from Subhankar Banerjee's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: Seasons of Life and Land runs through September 2 at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. For more information, visit www.si.edu/exhibitions.

The Web site for ANWR, an organization committed to restricting oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, gives some background information on the environmental damage that drilling would cause: www.anwr.org.

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