DATE August 13, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Hannah Holmes talks about her new book, "The Secret
Life of Dust: From the Cosmos to the Kitchen Counter, the Big
Consequences of Little Things"
NEAL CONAN, host:
This is FRESH AIR. Terry Gross is on vacation. I'm Neal Conan.
Dust is the inconsequential substance you shake off your heels on the way out
of town, it's the stuff of the elusive bunnies beneath our couches and the
accusatory material that gathers atop the stationary bikes we bought with the
best of intentions. Let's be honest, most of us don't think about dust a lot.
Now a new book argues that dust is the alpha and the omega, the origin of life
and our inevitable fate. The book is called "The Secret Life of Dust: From
the Cosmos to the Kitchen Counter, the Big Consequences of Little Things."
Author Hannah Holmes joins us from Portland, Maine.
Welcome to FRESH AIR.
Ms. HANNAH HOLMES (Author, "The Secret Life of Dust: From the Cosmos to the
Kitchen Counter, the Big Consequences of Little Things"): Thank you very
CONAN: Well, everything in your book comes back to dust, including the
origins of our planet.
Ms. HOLMES: It's pretty wonderful, isn't it? I had no idea when I started
that, well, it all did begin with dust. And billions of years ago, really the
first dust coalesced to form our solar system. Without dust-forming clumps in
space, there would be no circumstance under which a solar system could form.
Space is just too violent. But dust acts as a little womb, and it protects
the things in its innards from the violent radiation in space and allows dust
and gas to slow down and cool down and compress itself into things like stars
and planets. And that's where we came from.
CONAN: Is that stardust the same as the dust that's hiding beneath my bed
Ms. HOLMES: There is some of that stardust beneath your bed right now, which
is one of the things I find most endearing about house dust is there's all
kinds of really cool stuff in it, including dinosaur bones and bits of dead
people from thousands of years ago and, yes, space dust. Space dust is still
floating around in our solar system and throughout the cosmos. It comes to
Earth in huge quantities. Every day, there is space dust fluttering down onto
the Earth, and it certainly does get into your house. One astronomy professor
told me we eat it.
CONAN: Hmm. And I have to say I was astounded by the volume of dust that
your scientists that you talked to found floating in the air, indeed rivers of
dust that circle the planet.
Ms. HOLMES: That is a rather recent revelation, in part brought to us by
NASA satellites, which have allowed scientists to really see from space the
huge scale of these dust storms that come out of the world's big deserts.
When an enormous dust storm comes out of the Sahara or the Gobi Desert, it
blows a river of dust that is pale gold, and it swirls across the ocean. It
looks like a yellow river flowing over a blue background. It's astonishing
how thick it is and how long these rivers can go. They can flow for thousands
of miles across the ocean.
CONAN: Tell us the story of how bauxite, this stuff from which we get
aluminum--how bauxite got to Jamaica.
Ms. HOLMES: There were some scientists who noticed a little mismatch in the
soils of some Caribbean islands a few years ago. The actual rocks there tend
to be gray coral stone, the skeletons of old coral. But the soil...
CONAN: That's how the islands built up.
Ms. HOLMES: Right. But on top of that sort of dead gray stone, there are
beautiful red soils, and people began to wonder: How do you get a red soil
from a gray rock? When they looked more closely, they found the geochemical
signature of Saharan dust in this red soil and were forced to conclude that
this soil blew across the Atlantic Ocean and fell on these islands; not in one
big flight, mind you, but over millions of years. And when they got thinking
about it, they found that the bauxite mines on Jamaica bear a bit of
resemblance to that same dust. They haven't done the same conclusive testing
that they've done in Barbados, but it stands to reason you have enormous
concentrations of aluminum in the bauxite mines, and the Saharan dust is
enriched in aluminum and there's no real good source of aluminum on Jamaica
itself. So that aluminum did come from somewhere else, and the only logical
explanation is it came from the Sahara.
CONAN: And that is an awful lot of aluminum dust that's blowing over there.
Ms. HOLMES: You have to really stop and think about how many tons of dust
we're talking about. One estimate is that the Sahara throws up one billion
tons of dust a year, a billion tons. That would actually fill boxcars that
would wrap around the equator something like eight times. It's a huge amount
of dust, and that's one year. You can multiply that by millions of years and,
yeah, you can start to get some aluminum cans building up there.
CONAN: With all that dust in the atmosphere, is there any such thing as fresh
Ms. HOLMES: There is absolutely not. The cleanest air on the planet, as the
book mentions, might put about 25,000 pieces of dust inside a juice glass
sitting on the railing of a porch. There is no clean air. Fortunately, some
of those clean places have more or less clean dust, meaning it's more natural
CONAN: Now you live in Portland, Maine. Describe for us the kind of dust
that you would typically experience if you went down to the beach there in
Ms. HOLMES: There's an enormous amount of salt dust that comes off the
oceans. It blows up when whitecaps break. So there would be a lot of salt
dust hanging in the air and blowing around. It gives that wonderful smell.
Ms. HOLMES: There might be some little blobs of pinene. That's a chemical
shed by pine trees that tends to form little balls that float around in the
air. You might also encounter some bits of dried-up otter dung, perhaps.
Ms. HOLMES: It's a sad fact that every single thing on Earth is falling
apart, and you are breathing it.
CONAN: And these engines, these rivers of dust that you talked about before,
they're manipulated by weather systems and other things. But a dust storm out
of the Gobi Desert you describe reaching the West Coast of the United
States--What?--four days later.
Ms. HOLMES: Yeah. When dust gets up high in the atmosphere, there are very
strong winds up there and they can transport the dust very fast. And, yeah,
trans-Pacific crossing in four days--pretty impressive--and it means that you
get a very high concentration of dust arriving in Seattle. Quite a surprise
to scientists there to find thick Gobi Desert dust hanging around the
CONAN: Have scientists yet figured out--with all of this dust in the
atmosphere that they hadn't really thought about before, have they figured out
what it's contributing to the arguments over global warming, for example?
Ms. HOLMES: One thing that they're perhaps starting to understand is that
they way underestimated this little character. And in truth, there are a
variety of characters, because dust is a bit of everything. So desert
dust--they're starting to draw some conclusions. Because it's pale colored,
it can reflect some sunlight, which should give you a cooling effect.
Ms. HOLMES: But because it is a little rock, it absorbs some heat from the
sun and actually heats up the atmosphere. Now the net effect of those things,
who knows at this point?
Another kind of dust that's getting an awful lot of study right now is soot,
because, again, scientists, A, didn't know how much was up there--still
working on that as well--and, B, don't know what it does up there.
Increasingly, they're realizing it's a terrific absorber of heat. Just as
black tarmac is down on the surface of the Earth, you have hundreds of
thousands of little black rocks up there in the sky and they also absorb an
enormous amount of heat. What happens as a result of that? One effect is
that it can foil the formation of clouds. Because it changes the temperature
in the atmosphere, it can halt the circulation of moisture from the surface of
the Earth up into the atmosphere. If you don't have moisture in the
atmosphere, you don't have clouds, and clouds are a very powerful cooling
force in our planetary system. So...
CONAN: Because they block the sunlight.
Ms. HOLMES: Right. They reflect a huge amount of sunlight. So kill off the
clouds and you end up with a warmer planet.
CONAN: I was fascinated by the idea that each dust, each desert, for example,
has its own unique signature.
Ms. HOLMES: Yes. And when scientists find dust in some strange place like
trapped in a Greenland glacier, they can isolate that dust that has fallen
over thousands of years. They can take its chemical fingerprints, so to
speak, and then they can go looking around the world to see where it came
from. They can compare it to dusts from the Sahara, from the Taklimakan
Desert, from the Kizilcoon Desert(ph), from the Gobi and they can find another
fingerprint that matches and conclude that the wind goes from point A to point
B and drops that dust.
CONAN: And so it tells you a lot about the wind patterns that were evident
whenever that dust fell, and there are other ways to measure that.
Ms. HOLMES: Yes. They can also get information about ancient winds from the
size of the dust. Because if the wind is stronger, it's going to pick up
bigger dust. And the dust you see in a glacier will vary in size with time.
And the reason scientists care about this is that it helps them to reconstruct
the climate during the last Ice Age, which was a rather dusty period. So they
can use dust trapped in glaciers to paint a picture of how strong the winds
were, where they blew from long, long ago.
CONAN: Several times in several different places in your book on issues
ranging from the climate to medicine, you write that, you know, scientists
didn't take dust seriously until very recently and because--and the reasons
vary. Why do think it was that science seemingly ignored this stuff?
Ms. HOLMES: I think different reasons in different cases. It was hard to
conceive of how much dust was in the air until scientists could look down on
it from above, in some senses, and satellite photography has blown that
picture up large. It's impossible to ignore the huge quantities of dust that
are in the air. And once you've realized that's the case, then you have to
ask: How is that affecting the climate? How does it affect the weather?
Those are enormously important questions in science right now.
More recently, human life has gotten very complicated from a chemical
standpoint. And we add all sorts of things to our house dust, including all
the stuff that we cook. That stuff flies up into the air in enormous
quantities. Before you can see smoke from what you're cooking, you're already
breathing a huge amount of whatever it is.
CONAN: There was one example you gave of--I think it was women in China who
apparently suffer, I think, lung cancer at the same rate as American women,
but women in China don't typically smoke.
Ms. HOLMES: Yeah. They seem to typically--well, the high-risk population
seems to typically fry their food and they fry in a particularly dangerous
kind of oil that we don't use here, and that burning oil enters their lungs
and gives them lung cancer. That's how it appears.
CONAN: In our Western houses, part of the problem, your scientists say, is
that our houses are also too tight.
Ms. HOLMES: Yes. We're really stewing ourselves in our dust these days. I
think when we lived in caves, we had a lot more air exchange on a given day,
and we had less sophisticated dusts. Now we have all manner of dusts.
Everything that we introduce to our lives and our houses ends up in our house
dust, and then we keep it locked it there for hours and hours.
CONAN: And as we walk around our houses, I mean, you describe that each of us
carries with us a personal cloud, a personal cloud of dust.
Ms. HOLMES: That's sweet, isn't it?
Ms. HOLMES: It's your own personal cloud, and anyone who gets near you
breathes your personal cloud. It's got a lot of skin flakes in it, because we
shed millions of those--a lot of skin flakes that one scientist described to
me as floating around you in a chimney effect going off the top of your head
in a little fountain--lots of skin flakes, lots of bits of your clothing.
Every time you move, tiny, microscopic shreds of your clothing are rubbed off
your clothes and those hang around you. But a lot of the personal cloud is
still a bit of a mystery to scientists who do actually study this. It seems
to be that everything you do in your day collects on your clothing or it
collects on your clothing when it's hanging in the closet, and then as you
walk around, there's sort of a Pigpen effect where you're just followed by the
dusts of your entire life.
CONAN: The skin that erupts off our heads in these fountains falls to our
carpets where it is devoured by some of the most truly frightening creatures
on the planet, the dust mites.
Ms. HOLMES: Oh, what could be frightening about a creature that doesn't even
have a head? What could be less threatening than an animal with no head?
This is like a little deflated balloon with little, pointy legs and it exists
just to clean up after us.
CONAN: I have to say that I'm terrified of dust mites, particularly the idea
that they're on the bed with me.
Ms. HOLMES: But you can't see them. I've actually looked, since I know
they're there. I thought maybe I could see them, but they're a little too
small. If you had super shiny black sheets, then there's a possibility you
could see the tiny, creme-colored things moving around. But the other problem
here with this sort of wildlife viewing is that they're shy and they tend to
hide on the other side of the sheet from the one that you are on.
Ms. HOLMES: They're still there.
CONAN: They are hunted, however, by predators, including the rather nasty
Ms. HOLMES: Yeah. There's a wild Serengeti in your house dust. No kidding.
The dust mites eat the skin, and they are in turn stocked and killed by the
predatory mites that leap out from the carpet and kill them and suck them dry.
CONAN: This unseen battle that goes on in our carpets, what's the effect of
Ms. HOLMES: One of the effects is that they do an awful lot of pooping, and
an awful lot of people are terribly allergic to that particular protein that's
found in the dust mite manure. This tends to get very concentrated in houses,
especially if they're not vacuumed regularly. It tends to be concentrated in
the sofa cushions, actually most of all, and beside the bed. So that's one
result of having this little zoo in our houses.
But another result is just that nature comes in with us. There's no shutting
nature out, and we live in an ecosystem and we produce an ecosystem. These
animals are just an extension of the outdoor world.
CONAN: Now that we know of all of these creatures--whether they're lovable or
terrifying depends on your point of view, I guess. But now that we know about
them, what can you do about them? Is there a way to get your house clean?
Ms. HOLMES: Well, the experts would say three things. Number one, take your
shoes off when you come indoors. That brings in a huge amount of dirt and all
sorts of other unpleasant things, too, like pesticides and lead. As much as
half the lead dust in your house is not from your windowsills, it's from your
feet from walking around outside. Another thing that's incredibly important
is to use a good doormat. One of the vinyl-backed numbers like they have in
department stores are really effective. But vacuuming is also extremely
important, and many vacuum cleaners don't do the greatest job. The experts
recommend a model that has a little light that goes on when it has sucked up
as much dust as it can. Then if you're talking about dust mites, the most
effective thing is probably just to wrap up your pillows and your mattresses
in those anti-allergy container things.
CONAN: And that's about all you can do.
Ms. HOLMES: Well, vacuum, vacuum, vacuum. And the lower you can keep the
humidity in your house, the less happy your dust mites are going to be.
That's difficult to do unless you live in a desert, but it can be done. You
can buy a humidifier that keeps the humidity low.
CONAN: And I guess the reference that most of us know about dust is, well
first, the ashes to ashes part, and then dust thou art and unto dust thou
Ms. HOLMES: And there will be no exceptions to that one, I'm happy to
report. It gives me a bit of pleasure to think that we all are going to end
up being blown out into space as little black bits of smoke. I don't know why
I find that so pleasing, but perhaps it's because our solar system was built
from space dust, and in the end, our human bodies are only going to enrich the
dust of the cosmos. As things wind down in the solar system, our planet is
mostly likely going to spiral in toward the sun. It's going to be engulfed in
the hot outer regions of the sun and burned to a crisp, and a little bit of
smoke that was us is going to waft out into the cosmos.
CONAN: And I guess be recycled.
Ms. HOLMES: Absolutely. Over and over for the foreseeable future, which is
very long, space dust will continue to come together in clumps and form solar
systems. And then when those solar systems burn out, they'll produce more
dust. The universe will continue to get more and more dusty with every
generation of stars.
CONAN: You could almost describe the story of humanity as the effort to
prevent our bodies turning into dust. We all, of course, are familiar with
the Egyptian mummification, and a lot of modern-day twists on that are
happening right now, most of them, it seems, in California.
Ms. HOLMES: Yeah. Well, there are also people who really do desperately
want to be dust, and they want their dust to blow around. There's wonderful
ways to get your ashes scattered these days, including being packed into
firecrackers and blasted off over the ocean. But there are also folks who
really resist that concept, and mummification is one of the best ways. There
is a company that does it. They will mummify you and even encapsulate you in
a big metal egg and presumably that should postpone your dustification
CONAN: You say the Earth is going to end up as nothing more than dust, but
wasn't it at least a possibility that the Earth would end up as a burned-out
cinder floating through space?
Ms. HOLMES: Yes, there are some chances that we'll escape that dusty fate.
One is that our planet will actually be adopted by another star system, and we
could be sort of kidnapped and taken away by a different star system and live
a much longer life with much cooler, slower-burning stars as our new parents.
And there's yet another possible outcome whereby we simply fly off into the
cosmos by ourselves and die a very cold and lonesome death.
CONAN: Hannah Holmes, thanks very much.
Ms. HOLMES: Thank you very much.
CONAN: Hannah Holmes book is "The Secret Life of Dust: From the Cosmos to
the Kitchen Counter, the Big Consequences of Little Things."
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Julie Fenster talks about her new book, "Ether Day: The
Strange Tale of America's Greatest Medical Discovery and the Haunted
Men Who Made It"
NEAL CONAN, host:
The surgeon who examined the body of William Morton recognized the face of the
man who lay dead. `Young gentlemen,' he said, turning to his students, `you
see lying before you a man who has done more for humanity and for the relief
of suffering than any man who has ever lived.' That's some eulogy. Author
Julie Fenster has some other words to describe the man who introduced
anesthetics to surgery--cheat, embezzler, con man, swindler, sneak, check
kiter, mail fraud, scoundrel, imposter, fortune hunter and mountebank. Julie
Fenster's new book about William Morton and his colleagues is titled "Ether
Day: The Strange Tale of America's Greatest Medical Discovery and the Haunted
Men Who Made It." She joins us from NPR's bureau in New York.
Welcome to FRESH AIR.
Ms. JULIE FENSTER (Author, "Ether Day: The Strange Tale of America's
Greatest Medical Discovery and the Haunted Men Who Made It): Oh, thank you,
CONAN: Describe for us, if you will--just the idea's chilling enough--but
surgery before anesthetic.
Ms. FENSTER: Well, I think you can kind of imagine. Not only did the
patients have to feel every stroke of the surgeon's scalpel or knife or saw,
but they also had to see and they also had to hear. And these memories were
so haunting that quite a few patients would actually go insane or have mental
problems. Those, on the other hands, were the survivors. Quite a few people
opted not to have surgery and just died of the disease or committed suicide
CONAN: Ether Day is October 16th, 1846. The scene is an operating theater at
Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. A man named Gilbert Abbott is
sitting in a chair in anticipation of the agony that will ensue when a tumor
on his neck is removed. William Morton comes up with a glass contraption
containing ether, and you say he doesn't have a clue as to what he's doing.
Ms. FENSTER: And apparently he doesn't need to, because he strides into the
room a half-hour late, addresses some of the greatest surgeons in America at
the time, addresses also his patient, to whom he administers his ether
concoction. And a few minutes later, the world observes the first operation
ever conducted without any pain, without any screaming, without any agony, and
the room erupted into cheering. It was such a fantastic achievement for one
with so little preparation for it.
CONAN: Ether and nitrous oxide were known 50 years before Ether Day. What
took so long for this application of them to be made?
Ms. FENSTER: Well, I think that's a pretty profound question, because
humanity had given up hope. And whenever that happens, it's quite a tragedy.
And in this case, it was an especial tragedy because what were those two
substances being used for? Entertainment. They were in the hands mostly of
teen-agers who had ether frolics for their friends, you know, sniffing and
CONAN: The recreational drugs of their day.
Ms. FENSTER: Yeah. And relatively harmless. Adults condoned the use of
ether. And I don't think there was ever too much harm done. And also, the
equivalent of Vaudeville entertainment. There were nitrous oxide or laughing
gas lectures where people would come through--people would arrive just to
watch other members of the audience go up on stage and sniff laughing gas and
sometimes bump and bruise themselves, which made the audience laugh.
Ms. FENSTER: ...but without feeling it.
CONAN: And your story really begins when a man named Horace Wells attends one
of these entertainments in New York City.
Ms. FENSTER: Yeah. Well, in Hartford, Connecticut, actually. He was a
dentist there. And while on stage, he noticed one of his friends got all
bruised and bleeding from bumping into some furniture. He said to his friend,
`Sam, you know, look at your legs. Did that hurt?' And Sam said, `What?
What's wrong with my legs? I didn't feel anything.' And that--Bong! That's
when Horace Wells said, `Maybe this would be good in my dental practice and
maybe even in surgery, too.'
CONAN: So anyway, Horace Wells takes his lesson from the theater.
Ms. FENSTER: Yeah, yeah.
CONAN: And he uses nitrous oxide to become the world's first painless
dentist. He then proposes that it would work in surgery as well and somehow
gets hooted out of the operating theater.
Ms. FENSTER: I think that he had a very retiring personality, and the
operation was mostly a success. He pulled a tooth out of a volunteer at
Massachusetts General Hospital, but the patient made a little groan afterward.
And the audience was so ready for this to be called humbug, but at the sound
of the groan they hooted him right off the dais and then right out of the
city. He ended up becoming very sick, he was so depressed.
CONAN: His former partner then, William Morton...
Ms. FENSTER: Yeah.
CONAN: ...ends up talking to a scientist by the name of Charles Jackson. One
of them, and there's more about that later, comes up with the idea of trying
ether instead. Morton is the guy who plunges ahead, and he plunges ahead just
Ms. FENSTER: Yeah.
CONAN: What? This all happens in a space of a couple of weeks.
Ms. FENSTER: Yeah. I really think that all three of them together devoted
about five or six hours to the research for this. So when we say they weren't
prepared for what came next, I think there's no question. But Jackson was a
brilliant, brilliant chemist. And he was so well trained in Paris and at
Harvard, I think he thought that Morton was just a tool, was just a puppet.
But Morton didn't think he was a puppet. He thought he was in command of this
discovery and he plunged ahead and gained permission to demonstrate ether at
Mass General, which was Ether Day.
CONAN: Now Morton you describe as a young man with an eye for the main
Ms. FENSTER: Yeah. There's no doubt. He was a con man, an official. I
think it was on his income tax return, occupation: con man. But he really
was. He also was very opportunist where women were concerned. He had an eye;
not for ladies, but for wealthy ladies. And that was the direction of his
life. He had grown up very poor. A lot of people do without becoming con
men, but he really needed money for somehow his own personality, his
So he did a terrible thing, though, I have to tell you, Neal. I mean, maybe
not a terrible thing, but an abrupt thing. He patented ether just before he
demonstrated it. He tried to gain a US patent and was eventually issued one.
CONAN: And that is something that no other physician before him ever had was
a patent attorney.
Ms. FENSTER: Exactly. It was really shocking to a profession that had
prided itself on the fact that any discovery was open to all, that, you know,
humanitarian considerations were far more important than monetary ones. All
of that kind of idealistic talk went out the window when William Morton came
on the scene, because he made it clear that there was money to be made in
alleviating suffering, and he was right. I'm sorry to say he was right.
CONAN: You were talking about William Morton as being late to that first
operation on Ether Day.
Ms. FENSTER: Yeah.
CONAN: And he was late not because he was worried about the ether, but he was
worried about his contraption. He was worried about an invention.
Ms. FENSTER: Yeah. Well, if you're going to patent something that's as
basic as the substance sulfuric ether, then you want to add as many elements
to it, you know, so that it makes it individual, you know, proprietary. So
one of the things he came up with was his apparatus that looked kind of like
an old-fashioned coffee pot with some hoses attached, I think, and you didn't
really need it. I think it was just as effective to put ether on a
handkerchief, but he couldn't patent a handkerchief so he came up with this
But he was, I have to say, such a kind of an overenergetic, kind of a goofy
guy that he decided at the last possible minute to change the apparatus all
around, and that's why he was at the instrument makers. When he was still due
at the hospital, he's sitting with an instrument maker trying to figure out
how to make the apparatus work. But he eventually got to the operation. And
with as much secrecy as he could, he administered the ether.
CONAN: And though he is administering ether for the first time to a surgical
patient with a device he has never seen before...
Ms. FENSTER: Yeah, never used. But with all the confidence. You know, this
is why, I think--you know, we asked before why did it take the world 50 years
or so, you know, to promote this great discovery. Well, I think it's because
it took a con man. I think sometimes you need a man who seems to have nothing
Ms. FENSTER: ...and just goes ahead, and that's the kind of guy--I think
Jackson would have been testing the idea for the next, you know, three dozen
years, because he was a scientist and very careful. And that's obviously
admirable, but the world needed Morton for all of his foibles.
CONAN: Well, the patent, as it turns out, is worthless. There is no fortune
to be made for any of these men, yet the battle for the credit for this
discovery continues for decades afterwards. Jackson, it seems, is motivated
in part by his unwillingness to accept the idea that Morton, this con man...
Ms. FENSTER: Yeah.
CONAN: ...could possibly have been involved in anything as grand as this.
Ms. FENSTER: Yeah. He didn't want his name ever uttered in the same book
and couldn't be mentioned in the same paragraph with Morton, because Jackson
was, you know, on a different level. But they fought over the credit, and a
lot of inventors fight over credit for obvious reasons...
Ms. FENSTER: ...you know, immortality being one of them. But that patent
entered into a lot of the bitterness. I think that both Wells and Jackson
felt resentful that a discovery that should have been more humanitarian had
been sullied by this moneymaking scheme of Morton's. So part of the reason
they refused to say, `Oh, all three of us contributed,' you know, in a nice
way was because they partially wanted to squelch Morton's kind of attitude.
They wanted to distance themselves from his commercialism.
CONAN: And we look at Morton and, to some degree, you almost have to as a
caricature, as, you know, Snidely Whiplash character trying to make money out
of this thing. Yet...
Ms. FENSTER: Except he was charming. That was the thing, snidely, but
CONAN: And in a way, you say he was right, this was the future.
Ms. FENSTER: Yeah. I think that he was the first modern man. I think the
1840s in a lot of ways are more similar--I mean, much more similar to our
current day than the 1830s. You know, I think there was a sea change in the
pace of American life and the attitude toward commercialism, and Morton was
swept in with that. I think he would be perfectly comfortable if he were
alive today. Jackson would be lost, you know, waiting for somebody to pay him
CONAN: I'm fascinated by some of the reaction then in the mid-19th century as
this great boon to mankind is introduced. There are some who oppose it,
partly because of this patent controversy...
Ms. FENSTER: That's right, yeah.
CONAN: ...but others oppose it as the work of Satan.
Ms. FENSTER: Yeah. Part of the reason why the world had given up hope for a
remedy for pain was that pain was part of God's will, you see, and you could
accept pain because of that, because part of being human was admitting that
you weren't always in control of your own body, you know, God or nature or
something like that was.
Ms. FENSTER: So this was kind of a philosophical change, too; not that there
hadn't been other more or less pain killers of different kinds, but this was
so complete and gave so much more power to physicians than they'd ever had
CONAN: In your subtitle, these men who made this discovery are described as
haunted. And it seems to me that the third character, Horace Wells, is in
many ways the saddest.
Ms. FENSTER: Yeah. And I think he is for two reasons, I guess. One is that
he was a very sweet man and he only wanted--you know, he once wrote to his
parents, `It is my sincere desire to do as much good as possible. And I hope
and pray that no selfish motive may ever influence me to go contrary to this
principle.' But he lived it. He didn't just write it to his parents. That's
the way he was to a great extent. And so it's rather sad that he was
overwhelmed by William Morton. And because of that, because he was crushed,
he ended up committing suicide only two years after Ether Day.
CONAN: He also had his head turned, it seemed, when he was in Paris and was
among those claimants or put forward as among the claimants to the title of
the discoverer of ether.
Ms. FENSTER: Yeah. He had his one moment. I guess my heart goes out to
him, so almost everything is rather sad. And he had one moment in Paris when
he was hailed as the true discover and taken through the streets and paraded
around. And then he came back to America and things were so different here,
and he was so powerless really that he became very quickly a chloroform addict
and took his own life.
CONAN: The peripheral characters in this story are almost as riveting as the
main ones. Along the way we meet Charles Jackson's brother-in-law, Ralph
Ms. FENSTER: Yeah.
CONAN: Henry David Thoreau and Louisa May Alcott make cameo appearances...
Ms. FENSTER: Yes.
CONAN: ...Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., the father of the great Supreme Court
justice, who gave anesthetic its name. We meet Charles Dana, who wrote "Two
Years Before the Mast." He weighs in on this controversy. And this battle
over who gets the credit, it was like the O.J. case of its day.
Ms. FENSTER: Oh, what a good analogy. It's true, because everybody--they
called it the dreaded controversy. And everybody had to back one of these
three men. It was just--somehow you could almost go up to people and say `Are
you a Democrat or Republican? Morton or Jackson?' you know? And Morton had
Massachusetts General Hospital on his side, and that's not inconsequential.
And Jackson had Ralph Waldow Emerson, who was, I'm sure you know, much more
than just a writer then. He was a popular idol. And those are the kind of
factions that lined up. Because what Morton was really trying to do after the
patent fell apart was convince the US government to give him $100,000 or
$200,000 in, you know, consideration for the fallen patent. So that's what
kept this controversy alive.
CONAN: Eventually, he takes the case to court and it's thrown out. The judge
said, `You can't possibly patent this.'
Ms. FENSTER: Yeah. They say that ether, being, you know, just a
substance--that court case probably should have happened. That court case
was, I think, on till about 1860. If only they had had it around Ether Day in
the late 1840s, it would have saved this dreaded controversy, but Morton knew
that and purposely wouldn't let it go to court until he had no other hope.
CONAN: Because he was afraid of that very ruling.
Ms. FENSTER: Exactly. Once that ruling came through, a lot of wind went out
of his sails. So it's a case for patent history as well as medical and social
CONAN: Morton ends up also dying in the city of New York; not committing
suicide in a cell in the tombs the way Wells did...
Ms. FENSTER: Yeah.
CONAN: ...but in a carriage under great, obviously, mental stress.
Ms. FENSTER: Yeah. Well, it was a very hot day and he was under terrible
strain because a new article in a major magazine had come out backing Jackson.
And he was alone in his hotel room and sort of went a little bit insane day by
day, until finally he took a carriage ride in Central Park and went mad and
dove into a pond and was pulled out and died about an hour later. So, you
know, he died in a state of terrible agony, I would say.
CONAN: At the age of--What?--48.
Ms. FENSTER: Yeah, about 47, 48. Still such a young man, really. But he
had devoted really his entire career to the dreaded controversy.
CONAN: Thanks very much.
Ms. FENSTER: Well, thank you so much.
CONAN: Julie Fenster's book is "Ether Day: The Strange Tale of America's
Greatest Medical Discovery and the Haunted Men Who Made It."
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Commentary: Thoughts on "Transatlantic Paintings" by Piet Mondrian
NEAL CONAN, host:
An exhibit at Harvard of Piet Mondrian's "Transatlantic Paintings" got our
classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz thinking about the relationship between
abstraction and emotion. Lloyd's been wondering how paintings, which seem so
cool, have so much power over him.
The history of art, from the time of the cave paintings, is a history of the
intersection between reality and abstraction. Any work of art, even a great
photograph, is both less than a complete photograph and more. There's always
some element of abstraction--design, structure, repetition. The Dutch painter
Piet Mondrian began as a painter of realistic images, but his paintings of
grids, simple black lines against a white background filled in with blocks of
red, yellow and blue, are the primary example of the most austere qualities of
abstract painting. They have no intrinsic or explicit emotional content. Yet
like a Cezanne painting of apples or a Mozart string quartet, they're not only
beautiful, but extraordinarily poignant, filled with mysterious implications,
unsettling tensions and dramatic juxtapositions. Of course, I can imagine
real objects--Dutch interiors, mazes of rooms and corridors, or Manhattan
streets with flashing lights, as in his famous painting "Broadway
Boogie Woogie"--Mondrian loved boogie-woogie piano and often played jazz
records while he painted--and skyscrapers under construction, little elevators
speckling the precarious, open-air girders.
I've been thinking about these issues since I saw the small, but thrilling
show of Mondrian's "Transatlantic Paintings" at Harvard's Busch-Reisinger
Museum. Mondrian had been living in Paris, but before the Nazi invasion, he
moved to London, then to New York where he arrived in 1940 at the age of 70
with a bunch of paintings he regarded as finished. But for his first New York
show, he decided to repaint these canvases. He changed the relationship
between the black lines in his grids, moved them closer together or further
apart, white some out, added others. Even more surprising, he placed right
next to one another, as he rarely did in his earlier work, areas of different
colors, especially around the edges of the canvases, without boxing them
inside the black lines. Narrow red rectangles now bump up against narrow
yellow rectangles. Little red, yellow or blue squares dot the perimeters. On
a ghostly, unfinished canvas, you can see lines being rubbed out, areas of
color in the process of being altered. These small patches of color are like
eyes winking. They add a kind of festivity and charm that's rare in Mondrian.
Each of these paintings is signed with a tiny P.M. in red paint at the bottom
of one of the black stripes. Two dates of composition, five or six years
apart, also in red, appear over another black line.
One part of this exhibit includes interactive computer programs that allow
you, through X-rays, ultraviolet light, infrared images and microscopic
observation, to trace the various stages of these paintings. One started out
as mostly the black and white framework with four small yellow squares near
the bottom right. These became four blue squares. Mondrian added more lines
and moved others, some only slightly. In the final version, there's only one
small blue square, the one human touch in the anonymous structure, the open
eye looking out at the world at you.
It's surprising to see these Mondrian's in person. In reproduction, the
surfaces are slick, perfect. In real life, you can see the vivid brush
strokes. Many of the canvases are cracked and fragile, which only heightens
your sense of the precariousness of these images. Far from the cool detached
artist, the artist of rational balance, Mondrian turns out really to have been
the artist of exploration, of experiment, of the obsessive, maybe even
desperate attempt to find balance and harmony. The pure geometry, like
musical notes or form and meter in poetry, keeps the artist literally from
going to pieces, and each new painting is an admission that the search for
that perfect harmony isn't over, can never be over.
Some of these late paintings also show a new spirit of--What is it?--almost
frivolity. Is it the joy of creation in the face of impending catastrophe?
`All things fall and are built again,' Yeats wrote in 1938 in his poem
"Llapis Lazuli," `and those that build them again are gay. This joy doesn't
deny the underlying tragic nature of human life. It's a kind of heroism.'
Yeats died the following year. In 1939, Mondrian still believed these
paintings were finished, but he escaped the war with a new life at 70, in a
new country, in a city that excited him. `Gaiety,' Yeats says earlier in that
same poem, `which not only shows us what art can do in the shadow of worldwide
political crisis, but the heroism each of us is capable of in the face of our
own inevitable mortality, gaiety transfiguring all that dread.'
CONAN: Lloyd Schwartz is classical music editor of The Boston Phoenix. His
latest book of poems is "Cairo Traffic." He reviewed an exhibit of Piet
Mondrian's "Transatlantic Paintings," which opens at the Dallas Museum of Art
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: For Terry Gross, I'm Neal Conan.
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