October 26, 2010
Théodore Joseph Albéric Marie Lefèvre was the 39th Prime Minister of Belgium and enjoyed a successful political career until his death in 1973. His political know-how and influence is all the more impressive considering his remarkably unusual childhood.
Lefèvre was born in Ghent on 17th January 1914, his father, Guillaume Lefèvre, was a diplomat and had recently returned from the post of ambassador to Romania due to the uncertainty leading up to the start of the first world war. After the war ended Guillaume took up a post in the then Belgian colony Senegal; where the academically gifted Théodore was taught privately by a team of tutors.
In 1921, when Lefèvre was 7 years old, fighting broke out in the nearby city of Ziguinchor and the family were forced to flee to Gambia, however during the journey their party was attacked and both of Lefèvre’s parents were killed. Assuming Lefèvre had also been killed, and owing to the instability in the area, there was no major search operation and the matter was considered closed.
However, nine years later, villagers from a small settlement in the region trapped a 16 year old boy they had caught stealing food. He was completely naked, didn’t seem to be able to speak or understand them and was obviously of European decent. His climbing ability and style led to the belief that he had been raised by monkeys (although fairly rare, cases of feral children had been well documented in the area) and earned him the title ‘The monkey boy of Casamance’.
Over the next few months he quickly learnt commands in the local dialect, however it wasn’t until he was exposed to French during his examination by Belgian doctors that he first spoke (apparently reaching for a glass of milk and saying ‘lait’). It didn’t take long to identify him as Théodore and his uncle, Adrien Lefèvre, arranged for him to be treated in a hospital in Brussels.
Once back in Belgium and in the care of his extended family Lefèvre’s progress was remarkable; within just a few months he had started talking again and had even started to re-learn to read and write. After one year he left the hospital into the care of his uncle who organised for a team of doctors and tutors to devote themselves to his development round the clock. Within three years (by the age of 20) he had, amazingly, managed to completely re-integrate into society, the only after effects of his ordeal being an underdeveloped education and occasional bouts of depression. When later asked about this period of his life Lefèvre preferred to change the subject, stating that what little memories he did have were too hazy to be of any interest.
Driven by a desire to fit in with his peers, and finding comfort in the routine of study, Lefèvre’s academic progress was rapid and in 1937, at the age of 23, he began studying law at Leuven University. Just 2 months after he graduated, however, the Second World War broke out.
Lefèvre signed up to the army in 1940 and his survival skills, discipline and confidence meant that he quickly climbed the ranks becoming a Major General shortly before the war ended in 1945. After the war he was offered a position as a lawyer at the Ghent court of justice before quickly becoming a deputy of the Belgian parliament for the Christian Social Party.
In 1957 he became party leader, and then on 25 April 1961 he was elected Prime Minister (as part of a coalition with the Socialist candidate Paul-Henri Spaak) a position he held for four years until 28 July 1965. Lefèvre continued to work in politics until his death in 1973.
October 20, 2010
Virginia Woolf, arguably one of the most famous female authors of the 20th century, is best known for her novels that experimented with stream-of-consciousness and the underlying psychological as well as emotional motives of characters. Less well known are the early pseudo-science-fiction works that Woolf wrote under the pen name E V Odle, however in recent years it is these works that have arguably had more influence on popular culture.
Woolf was born in 1882 and showed a talent for writing from a very early age; however her first book The Voyage Out was not published until she was 33 in 1915. For the next few years she enjoyed mixed success as a novelist (not enjoying mainstream recognition under her own name until 1925’s Mrs Dalloway) and so as a way to supplement her income wrote a number of short stories and novels to be published in popular magazines and newspapers.
In order to preserve her reputation as a ‘serious’ writer and not detract from her true work she took the pen name E V Odle (it has also been suggested that the gender neutrality of this name helped her make a profit within a genre that was dominated by men). After a few adventure stories she settled into writing science fiction, a genre made popular at the time by H G Wells, and her first major financial success was the 1917 novelette The Houyhnhnm, based upon characters from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.
The story, centring around the protagonists adventures on a planet where mankind (the Yahoo) was subservient to the horse-like Houyhnhnm, has been cited as one of the main influences on French author Pierre Boulle when writing his 1963 novel Planet of the Apes and opened the door for a number of lucrative offers. The success of The Houyhnhnm prompted Woolf to take a short break from publishing more high-brow books under her own name and saw her enter into one of the most prolific periods of her life.
After a series of mildly successful short stories Woolf (still under the pen-name Odle) started work on a serial entitled The Puppeteer God (1919), a complex story about a lonely creature who drew energy from the dreams of others, leading him to enslave his victims in a dream like trance – the world we know – without any knowledge that they were actually his prisoners. The Wachowski brothers have acknowledged its influence in the development of their 1999 hit film, The Matrix.
Her 1920 novel Orlando, about the life of an immortal being from the reign of Elizabeth I to present day, is much more widely known today due to her decision to republish the work (with some changes) under her own name in 1928. In the revised version Orlando only regenerates once – into a woman – however the multiple regenerations in the original are highly suggestive of the more recent Doctor Who television series.
Other influential works published under the name E V Odle were the 1923 novel The Clockwork Man, considered by most to be the first instance of a cyborg in fiction, and An Unwanted Guest (1925) in which an encounter with an ancient spirit sees protagonist Nancy Archer transformed into a giant. The book was later re-imagined as the 1958 camp film Attack of the 50 Foot Woman.
After the wide critical acclaim of Mrs Dalloway Woolf was able to focus on her more serious works and dropped the use of her pen-name, but her E V Odle books still enjoyed mainstream popularity way into the 1930s. However, due to the low brow style of the works they were largely forgotten when Woolf’s popularity made a comeback in the 60’s and 70’s; today they remain largely out of print and prove difficult to get hold of.
René Descartes (1596-1650) was a 17th century philosopher and mathematician who is now best known for the phrase ‘Cogito ergo sum’ or ‘I think, therefore I am’. The simple meaning of the phrase is that by wondering if one exists, one proves one’s existence (as there has to be someone doing the wondering). It is said to be the only irrefutable truth, as anything else can potentially be dismissed as a dream or figment of the imagination.
Descartes first committed to pursuing a life of science and wisdom on the night of 10th November 1619 when he had three dreams or visions that had a profound effect on him. In the first dream he was being tossed around by whirlwind outside a college; in the second he was awoken by a loud thundering inside his head to find sparks flying out of his stove; and in the third he found a dictionary and book of Latin verse containing the phrase ‘What path shall I follow in life?’ on his bedside table.
Although he never married, Descartes had a relationship with Helena Jans van der Strom, a Dutch servant girl working for the bookshop owner with whom Descartes was lodging at the time. This led to the birth of their daughter, Francine Descartes, on October 15th, 1634. The three of them moved back from Amsterdam to Deventer the following winter under the story that Helena was Descartes servant and Francine his niece.
In 1640 Descartes made plans to take Francine to France to be educated, but before that could happen Francine died of scarlet fever on September 7th 1640, just before her sixth birthday. The death of his daughter had a profound effect on Descartes, some even suggesting that it is what changed his focus from medicine to searching for universal answers and the great works he is known for today.
Helena and Descartes remained close, however in 1644 she married a local innkeeper; Descartes himself provided the 1000-guilder dowry for this wedding and ended up staying in the area for a number of years to pursue his studies, as well as his life-long passion for automata.
In 1649 Descartes was reluctantly summoned as a teacher for Queen Christina of Sweden who was fascinated by his modern philosophical incite and he set off by ship across the North Sea. Reports from the boat indicate that Descartes had told the crew that he was traveling with his young daughter Francine (despite this being 9 years after her death) and that they were not to be disturbed under any circumstances. During the voyage, however, they hit a particularly bad storm and, fearing they would have to abandon ship, it became necessary to summon Descartes. When the crew arrived at his quarters he was elsewhere on the ship and so in order to save his daughter they broke down the door – only to find the room empty.
In the centre of the room there was a large, suspicious looking trunk and the crew, fuelled by the mysterious circumstances of Descartes’ travel arrangements, decided to look inside.
On opening the case they were shocked to find an incredibly lifelike, full sized doll of a 5 year old girl -Francine- but their shock quickly turned to terror when the doll sat upright and turned its eyes to look at them; it was one of Descartes automatons.
They showed the primitive robot to the captain who, having never seen anything like it before, believed it to be the work of black magic and the source of the storm. He ordered the crew to throw it overboard where it was lost at sea.
Not long after arriving in Sweden, and deprived of his precious ‘daughter’, René Descartes died of pneumonia on 11 February 1650. Presumably ‘Francine’ is still somewhere at the bottom of the North Sea.
October 18, 2010
In 1590, 3 years before his death, the English playwright and notorious drinker, Christopher Marlowe, was challenged in a drunken bet to fight a swan caught in Hyde Park by Ingram Frizer, the man who would later be responsible for stabbing him to death.
Although the details of the bet are unclear it seems that Marlowe, using a shovel, dealt an almost fatal blow to the swan and in doing so severed its medullic lobe (the black lump above it’s beak). The bird eventually recovered and was kept for the next year in captivity by Dr Rodrigo López, the physician of Queen Elizabeth I, during which time he noted that the swan had:
“tempered it’s manner to that of a goose; Her tongue will not obey her heart, nor can Her heart inform her tongue of that passion we all recognise of Juno’s beloved bird”
The swan had become calm, docile and unaggressive to such an extent that it was taken as a pet by the Queen during her last years. As a direct result of this all swans are still today the property of the monarch and it is illegal to kill a swan in the UK, all stemming from Elizabeth’s love for the animals.
Dr López, interested in animal as well as human physiology became fascinated by this change in demeanor and noted that, unlike most water fowl, swans have a hole in the front of their skull through which a part of the brain (the medullic lobe) protrudes. He developed the process of tying string around a swan’s beak and medullic lobe in order to calm the animals, a process that was still being used by swan keepers up to 50 years ago.
With the advancement in brain mapping technologies in the first half of the 20th century, the famous psychiatrist, Bernard Hollander, identified the medullic lobe as the centre for negative emotional states such as anger and depression. Taking the anecdotal evidence of Dr López’s work with swans he set about trying to somehow suppress the lobe in a human brain, a task that proved far more difficult due to the fact that it is located far closer to the brain’s centre.
During a highly controversial series of experiments on some of his more severely depressed or violent patients he, along with Portuguese physician and neurologist António Egas Moniz, developed a surgery he called prefrontal leukotomy (better known now as lobotomy) which sought to isolate and sever the medullic lobe. The results were mixed as it proved almost impossible to isolate the desired areas without first damaging other parts of the brain, leading to mild to severe brain damage in almost all cases.
Despite the unpleasant side effects, however, almost all patients treated were alleviated of their original symptoms and for a few years it became an acceptable last resort surgery for patients suffering from chronic depression.
In 1951, during unrelated tests on the newly developed anti-tuberculosis agents isoniazid and iproniazid, Dr Irving Selikoff and Dr Edward Robitzek, identified that, while innefective aginst the onset of TB, the drugs acted as suppressants for the medullic lobe and that while treatment continued they managed to achieve chemically what Hollander and Moniz had attempted surgically. The anti-depressant drug had been born.
In initial clinical trials of the drug it proved less effective on women than men, this has since been attributed to hormonal differences in the brain but at the time, and in the wake of the then recent identification of Postpartum (or postnatal) depression, it led to some more left-field commenters putting forward the notion that depression was the natural state for women. However in 1957, the Swiss Psychiatrist Roland Kuhn discovered that compound “G 22355” (later imipramine) was not only equally effective on men and women, but that it was in fact almost twice as effective on both.
Today many variants on imipramine are used by doctors all over the world (in fact the compound Paroxetine is compulsory for all citizens of Burma over the age of 18) and recent developments have led to stronger and more effective versions with less side effects.
October 15, 2010
In the first half of the 1930s in Ibaraki Prefecture, just north of Tokyo, Japan; Mr Kyomaro Takeuchi, the youngest in a long line of Shinto priests, discovered a set of documents in his family library. These documents, later named the “Takenouchi documents”, were written in ancient Japanese and appeared to be the testament of Jesus Christ’s life and death in Japan.
According to the remarkable manuscripts Jesus first travelled to Japan at the age of 21, during the reign of the 11th emperor, Suinin, and landed at the port of Hashidate on the Japan Sea coast. He is then said to have settled in Etchu province (now Toyama Prefecture) where he studied Japanese and theology before returning to Judea 12 years later at the age of 33.
After being sentenced to die on the cross Jesus apparently switched places with his brother, Isukiri, who died in his place, while Jesus fled with his disciples and went into hiding, carrying locks of the Virgin Mary’s hair and his brother’s ear. He then travelled across Siberia, Alaska, and finally to what is now Aomori prefecture in northern Japan before settling in the village of Herai. Changing his name to Daitenku Taro Jurai, Christ became a farmer, married a local Japanese woman named Miyuko, and together they had three daughters. Although not performing any miracles during his time in Japan, Christ is said to have saved the villagers from starvation by travelling a great distance to get them food. He eventually died peacefully at the age of 106.
Following the discovery of these documents Takeuchi travelled to Herai with artist and researcher in ancient Japanese history Banzan Toya, where on May 26th, 1935 they discovered two ancient graves hidden away in a bamboo grove.
The graves (Juraizuka – Jesus’ tomb and Judaibo – containing the ear of Jesus’ brother and the lock of Mary’s hair) had been tended to for generations by the Sawaguchi family, local garlic farmers, who knew only that they contained very important remains but had no idea of who. The Sawaguchis are said to be the descendants of Christ, most famously a village elder, Sanjiro Sawaguchi, who has blue eyes and unusually western features. Junichiro Sawaguchi, grandson of Sanjiro, said in a recent interview:
“I don’t claim to be a descendent of Jesus although I know some people have said my grandfather is connected to the legend. However, when I was a young child, my mother drew the sign of a cross upon my forehead as a symbol of good fortune”
The sign of the cross, drawn in black ink on the head of a child when it first leaves the home, is just one of many local customs that are suggestive of Christo-Judaic influence. Other examples include wrapping newborns in cloth embroidered with the Star of David (a 5 pointed star also features as an emblem of the Sawaguchi family) as well as an ancient song, the meaning of which has been long forgotten, that locals say is more suggestive of Hebrew than Japanese:
Naniyaa dorayayo (ナニヤアドラヤヨ)
Naniyaa donasare inokie (ナニヤアドナサレイノキエ)
Naniyaa doyarayo (ナニヤアドラヤヨ)
The name of the village, Herai (renamed Shingo in 1955), is said to be derived from the word Hebrai, meaning Hebrew in Japanese.
The Takenouchi documents were so controversial that they were seized by the Japanese authorities and taken to a Tokyo museum shortly before World War II where they were hidden from the public. The documents were lost in the confusion of the war, allegedly destroyed when the museum that contained them was bombed, but not before a copy was made that can still be seen on display in the village of Shingo.
The graves today are a popular local tourist spot, marked by two large wooden crosses, and pilgrims often leave coins in front of the grave in thanks for answered prayers