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Paracelsus: The Man Beneath the Myth

Abstract: Paracelsus––whose unorthodox beliefs and volatile temperament caused him to be ostracized from his contemporaries in the tightly knit academic and medical communities, where gossip and scandal circulated with relative ease in spite of the spacial limitations under which mail couriers then operated––was thought of as an agent of the Devil. Though history has been kinder to him, his association with the black arts remains irrevocable––for in a 1942 speech before the Royal Society of Medicine, H. P. Bayon described Paracelsus as “not a harbinger of light.” This paper seeks to uncover the man beneath the myth, and then, hopefully, to set at rest the idea that Paracelsus was anything but an ordinary (and godly) man with ideas and ideals ahead of his time, ideas and ideals that, unfortunately for his reputation, were unsettling to his contemporaries. On a separate note, this paper also attempts to demonstrate the folly of basing one’s opinion of someone or something off of a reputation that, more often than not, is fabricated from half-baked rumors and ill-conceived exaggerations. Read the rest of this entry

Review of “The Ghost Map”

The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic – and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World.  By Steven Johnson.  New York: Riverhead Books, 2006.  Print.  Pp. xviii+302.  $16.00.

This tightly-written triumph of historical nonfiction, written by Steven Johnson, author of seven other books including the national bestseller Everything Bad Is Good for You, follows two eminently prolific individuals––the taciturn yet brilliant Dr. John Snow, and the genial and equally perceptive Rev. Henry Whitehead––as their lives briefly intertwine when an unprecedentedly intense outbreak of cholera devastates a swathe of Victorian London.  Johnson describes how, in the span of a few weeks during the summer and fall of 1854, these two tenacious men join forces to propose a pioneering solution to what then was medicine’s most befuddling conundrum: a waterborne theory of cholera.  The implications of their explanation for cholera’s spread, though not immediately realized––Snow and Whitehead’s seminal achievement is recognized only shortly after the Great Stink of 1858, posthumously in Snow’s case––are unfavorable for the continued survival of the then-preponderant miasmatic theory of disease. Read the rest of this entry

Akhenaten, Egypt’s Heretic Pharaoh, and the Amarna Revolution

Akhenaten (Amenhotep IV)

Akhenaten (Amenhotep IV)

Lost to humanity for three millennia until “[t]he Prussian exploration expedition of 1842-45 gave special attention” (Niebuhr & Hutchison, 1901, p. 1) to the ruins of a great city along the eastern bank of the Nile at what is now known as el-Amarna in Middle Egypt, Amenhotep IV (or Akhenaten, as he was later called) was a figure unlike any other in Egyptian history. Ruling Egypt as Pharaoh for less than two decades from ca. 1353-1336 B.C., Akhenaten nonetheless distinguished himself as an apostate who discarded a spiritual tradition that stretched unbroken for nearly two thousand years. Rejecting the Theban god Amun who, joined with Re at the start of the New Kingdom era (ca. 1539 B.C.), became Amun-Re, Akhenaten is said to have devoted himself to the worship of “a manifestation of the sun god” (Murnane & Meltzer, 1995, p. 4), the Aten. Since Akhenaten’s discovery at el-Amarna, where he built a city called Akhet-Aten (which translates as “The Horizon of the Aten” [Brewer, 2012, p. 163]), his devotion to the Aten has branded him a monotheist and invited speculation about his motives for shunning Egyptian polytheism. Such is the public’s interest in Akhenaten that some, myself included, wonder about a connection between Atenism and the genesis of the Judaic-Christian-Islamic monotheistic tradition; it should be noted, however, that though the biblical Exodus from Egypt is said to have occurred only a century after Akhenaten’s reign (ca. 1250-1200 B.C.), and Moses himself is said to have lived during Akhenaten’s reign, there exists nothing but circumstantial evidence (if even that) to support any such connection. In any case, Egyptologists have since cast doubt on Akhenaten’s status as a monotheist, instead postulating that he was a henotheist (someone who worships one god, but accepts the existence of other gods) or an atheist. But whatever Akhenaten’s religious beliefs, he remains an enigmatic figure worthy of further study. Thus are Akhenaten and his short-lived religious movement, now known as the Amarna revolution, the subject of this paper. Read the rest of this entry

The Death of Henry Ford’s America

Born in 1863 to an Irish immigrant farmer, Henry Ford quit his parents’ estate as a young man, and became an engineer at the Edison Illuminating Company where, prone to experimentation, he became intrigued by the automobile. In 1905, he founded the Ford Motor Company which, by an innovative manufacturing process christened “Fordism,” made cars accessible to ordinary Americans. Ford, amongst others, was to blame for the indulgent consumerism that overtook the U.S. in the teens and twenties; such was America’s fascination with and dependence on the car that “[m]any families . . . [didn’t] spend anything on recreation except for the car.”[1] Only after the New York Stock Exchange crashed in late October 1929 did Ford’s star wane, as Americans disposed of their misguided regard for such technological wonders as the car, the vacuum cleaner, and the electric sewing machine. By the 1940s, that which Ford represented and stood for––the so-called “business consensus” of the Roaring Twenties, American prosperity, economic inequality, anti-labor, anti-welfare, anti-immigration, white supremacy, and isolationism––was less prevalent in the U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Depression-era populist reforms and the U.S.’s precipitous entry into World War II convinced America of the need to settle its domestic affairs and assume a more prominent international role as the West’s guiding light; Henry Ford’s America, as morally dubious as it was, was unprepared to discharge such momentous responsibilities. Read the rest of this entry

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