In the 3rd episode of the Bizzarro Bazar Web Series we talk about some scientists who tried to hybridize monkeys with humans, about an incredible raincoat made of intestines, and about the Holy Foreskin of Jesus Christ.
[Be sure to turn on English subtitles.]
Next year this beautiful lady, Katherine Johnson, will turn one hundred. When she was a little girl, her father Joshua used to repeat to her: “You are as good as anybody in this town, but you’re no better”.
It was hard to believe you were as good as anybody else for a coloured little girl who had grown up in White Sulphur Springs, where education ended compulsorily with the eighth grade for anybody who was not white.
Katherine’s father, Joshua, worked as a farmer and handyman for the Greenbrier Hotel, the thermal resort where the wealthiest squires of all Virginia used to spend their holidays; it was perhaps for this reason that he wanted his daughter to follow her own path without hesitation, in spite of the segregationist barriers. If she wasn’t allowed to study in the small town where they lived, he was going to bring her to Institute, 130 miles further west.
Katherine, for her part, sped up the process: at the age of 14 she had already finished high school, at the age of 18 she earned a degree with honours in mathematics. In 1938 the Supreme Court established that “white-only” universities should admit coloured students, therefore in 1939 Katherine became the first African-American woman to attend the graduate school at the West Virginia University in Morgantown.
After completing her studies, however, a career was far from being guaranteed. Katherine wished she could take up research, but once again she had to cope with two disadvantages: she was a woman, and on top of that African-American.
She taught mathematics for more than ten years, waiting for a good chance which eventually presented itself in 1952. NASA (called NACA at the time) had started to employ both white and African-American mathematics, and offered her a job. Therefore in 1953 Katherine Johnson joined the very first team of the space agency.
She started working in the “computer in skirts” section, a pool of women whose job was to read the data from the black boxes of planes and carry out other mathematical tasks. One day Katherine was assigned to an all-male flight research team; she was supposed to work with them for a limited time, but Katherine’s knowledge of analytic geometry made her bosses “forget” to return her to her old position.
But she couldn’t escape segregation. Katherine was required to work, eat, and use restrooms in areas separated from those of her white peers. Regardless of whoever had carried out the work, reports were signed only by the men of the pool.
But Katherine had kept in mind her father’s words, and her strategy was to ignore what she was expected to do. She used to participate in the all-male engineering meetings, she signed reports in place of her male superiors, and in spite of any objection. Because she had never thought she was inferior – nor superior – to anybody.
That was a pioneering era and participating in the first Space Task Force in history meant venturing in completely new operations and facing unknown issues. With her competence and talent for geometry, Katherine was one of the most brilliant “human computers”. She calculated the trajectory of the first American space flight, the one of Alan Shepard in 1961.
Then at some point NASA decided to move on to electronic computers, dismantling the team of “human calculators”; the first flight programmed using the machines was that of John Glenn, who orbited around the Earth. But the astronaut himself refused to leave unless Katherine manually verified all the calculations made by the computers. She was the only one he trusted.
Later Katherine helped to calculate the trajectory of Apollo 11, launched in 1969. Seeing Neil Armstrong taking the first step on the Moon moved her, but only to a certain point: for somebody who had been working on that mission for years, this certainly came as no surprise.
For a long time, little was known about the work carried out by Katherine (and her colleagues): overlooked for decades by a society that was always reluctant to acknowledge her real value, today her name is studied at school and her story has been recently narrated by the film Hidden figures (2016, directed by Theodore Melfi). The contribution offered by Katherine to the space race is now regarded as essential – although the ones who became heroes were those astronauts who could have never left the Earth soil without her precise calculations.
Smiling, about to turn one hundred, Katherine Johnson continues to repeat: “I’m as good as anybody, but no better”.
The fourth book in the Bizzarro Bazar Collection, published by Logos, is finally here.
While the first three books deal with those sacred places in Italy where a physical contact with the dead is still possible, this new work focuses on another kind of “temple” for human remains: the anatomical museum. A temple meant to celebrate the progress of knowledge, the functioning and the fabrica, the structure of the body — the investigation of our own substance.
The Morgagni Museum in Padova, which you will be able to explore thanks to Carlo Vannini‘s stunning photography, is not devoted to anatomy itself, but rather to anatomical pathology.
Forget the usual internal architectures of organs, bones and tissues: here the flesh has gone insane. In these specimens, dried, wet or tannized following Lodovico Brunetti’s method, the unconceivable vitality of disease becomes the real protagonist.
A true biological archive of illness, the collection of the Morgagni Museum is really a time machine allowing us to observe deformities and pathologies which are now eradicated; before the display cases and cabinets we gaze upon the countless, excruciating ways our bodies can fail.
A place of inestimable value for the amount of history it contains, that is the history of the victims, of those who fell along the path of discovery, as much as of those men who took on fighting the disease, the pioneers of medical science, the tale of their committment and persistence. Among its treasures are many extraordinary intersections between anatomy and art.
The path I undertook for His Anatomical Majesty was particularly intense on an emotional level, also on the account of some personal reasons; when I began working on the book, more than two years ago, the disease — which up until then had remained an abstract concept — had just reached me in all its destabilizing force. This is why the Museum, and my writing, became for me an initiatory voyage into the mysteries of the flesh, through its astonishments and uncertainties.
The subtitle’s oxymoron, that obscure splendour, is the most concise expression I could find to sum up the dual state of mind I lived in during my study of the collection.
Those limbs marked by suffering, those still expressive faces through the amber formaldehyde, those impossible fantasies of enraged cells: all this led me to confront the idea of an ambivalent disease. On one hand we are used to demonize sickness; but, with much the same surprise that comes with learning that biblical Satan is really a dialectical “adversary”, we might be amazed to find that disease is never just an enemy. Its value resides in the necessary questions it adresses. I therefore gave myself in to the enchantment of its terrible beauty, to the dizziness of its open meaning. I am sure the same fruitful uneasiness I felt is the unavoidable reaction for anyone crossing the threshold of this museum.
The book, created in strict collaboration with the University of Padova, is enriched by museology and history notes by Alberto Zanatta (anthropologist and curator of the Museum), Fabio Zampieri (history of medicine researcher), Maurizio Rippa Bonati (history of medicine associated professor) and Gaetano Thiene (anatomical pathology professor).
In 2002 Lydia Fairchild, a 26-year-old woman living in Washington state, was already a mother of two kids, with a third one on her way, and without a steady job; she had decided to seek public assistance.
The procedure required her children to undergo DNA testing to confirm that their father was indeed Jamie Townsend, Fairchild’s former partner. It should have been a routine check, but some days later the woman received a strange call, asking her to come in the prosecutor’s office at Social Services.
And that is when her world almost fell apart.
Once she went in, the officers closed the door behind her and started drilling her: “Who are you?”, they kept asking her repeatedly, without her understanding what was going on.
The reason behind the relentless questioning was absolutely unpredictable: the DNA tests had proven that Jamie Townsend was actually the children’s father… but Lydia was not their mother.
Although the woman kept repeating that she had carried and delivered them, the results categorically excluded this possibility: the genetic profiles of her children were in fact made up for one half from their father’s chromosomes, and for the other half from the chromosomes of an unknown woman. Lydia Fairchild was facing the risk of having her kids taken away from her.
Before the woman’s despair, Social Services ordered a new test, which gave exactly the same results. Lydia showed no genetic link with her children.
During the following 16 months, things got worse. The officers launched court action to remove her custody rights, as this could turn out to be a case of abduction, and the state even had a court officer witness her third child’s delivery, so that DNA test could be run immediately after birth. Once again, the newborn baby showed no genes in common with Lydia, who then became a suspect of acting as a surrogate for payment (which in Washington state is considered gross misdemeanor).
Lydia Fairchild was living a true nightmare: “I’d sit and have dinner with my kids and just break out crying. They would just look at me like, ‘What’s wrong, Mum.’ They’d come get me a hug, and I couldn’t explain it to them, because I didn’t understand“.
Her lawyer Alan Tindell, though initially perplexed by the case, decided to investigate and one day stumbled upon a similar story that happened in Boston, as described in a paper on the New England Journal of Medicine: a 52-year-old woman, Karen Keegan, had undergone a hystological exam in view of a transplant, and the results had shown no link between her DNA and her children’s.
Quite often the solution for the most intricate mysteries turn out to be disappointing, but in this case the explanation was just as incredible.
The lawyer understood that, just like the mother the scientific paper was about, Lydia too was a chimera.
Tetragametic chimerism happens when two egg cells are fertilized by two different sperm cells and, instead of developing into two fraternal twins, they fuse together at a very early stage. The chimeric individual is equipped with two different genetic makeups, and can develop whole organs having different chromosomes from all the others. Most chimeras do not even know they are, because the existence of two cellular lines is not often noticeable; but they carry inside them for instance the liver, or some other gland, that should have been part of their unborn twin.
In Fairchild’s case, the “foreign” organs were her ovaries. Inside of them were hidden those unknown chromosomes that formed the genetic makeup of Lydias’s children, as was confirmed by the examination of the cells obtained via pap test.
Finally the court dismissed the case. In the court hearing, the judge openly wondered how reliable could DNA tests be, as they are even today held essential in forensic cases — but what if the criminal is a chimera?
Today Lydia Fairchild is back to her normal life, leaving this terrible adventure behind. And some years ago she gave birth to her fourth daughter; or, if you will, the fourth daughter of that sister she never had.
The New England Journal of Medicine paper mentioned in the post can be read here. To discover some less-known istances of chimerism, I suggest this articolo.
Melvin Burkhart è stato, a suo modo, una leggenda. Ha lavorato nei principali luna park e circhi americani dagli anni ’20 fino al suo ritiro dalle scene nel 1989.
Nel mondo dei sideshow americani, lo spettacolo di Mel faceva parte dei cosiddetti working act, ossia quelle esibizioni incentrate sulle abilità dell’artista piuttosto che sulle sue deformità genetiche o acquisite. Ma quello che davvero lo distingueva da tanti altri performer specializzati in una singola prodezza, era l’incredibile ecletticità del suo talento: nella sua lunghissima carriera, Burkhart ha ingoiato spade, lanciato coltelli, sputato fuoco, combattuto serpenti, eseguito innovativi numeri di magia, resistito allo shock della sedia elettrica.
È stato anche la prima “Meraviglia Anatomica” della storia del circo, grazie alla sua capacità di risucchiare lo stomaco dentro la gabbia toracica, allungare il collo oltre misura, far protrudere le scapole in maniera grottesca, torcere la testa quasi a 180°, “rigirare” lo stomaco sul suo stesso asse. Mel sapeva anche sorridere con metà faccia, mentre l’altra metà si accigliava preoccupata (provate a coprire alternativamente con una mano la foto qui sotto per rendervi conto della sua incredibile abilità).
Le sue specialità erano talmente tante che, durante la Grande Depressione, Burkhart riuscì a sostenere da solo ben 9 dei 14 numeri proposti dal circo per cui lavorava. Praticamente un one-man show, tanto che alle volte qualcuno fra il pubblico lo punzecchiava ironicamente gridandogli: “Vedremo qualcun altro, stasera, oltre a te?”
Ma il suo maggiore contributo alla storia dei circhi itineranti è senza dubbio il numero chiamato The Human Blockhead – ovvero, la “Testa di Legno Umana”. La genesi di questo stunt, come tutto quello che concerneva Burkhardt, è piuttosto eccentrica. Ad un certo punto della sua vita, Melvin si era lasciato prendere dalla velleità di diventare un pugile professionista; purtroppo però, dopo la sesta sconfitta consecutiva, si ritrovò con i denti rotti, il labbro tumefatto e il naso completamente fracassato. Finito sotto i ferri del chirurgo, Burkhart stava contemplando la rovina della sua carriera agonistica mentre il medico, con pinze ed altri strumenti, estraeva dalle sue cavità nasali dei sanguinolenti pezzi di osso. Eppure, mentre veniva operato, ecco che piano piano si faceva strada in lui un’illuminazione: i lunghi attrezzi del medico entravano così facilmente nel naso per rimuovere i frammenti di turbinati fratturati, che forse si poteva sfruttare questa scoperta e costruirci attorno un numero!
Detto fatto: Melvin Burkhart divenne il primo performer ad esibirsi nell’impressionante atto di piantarsi a martellate un chiodo nel naso.
Lo spettacolo dello Human Blockhead fa leva sulla concezione errata che le nostre narici salgano verso l’alto, percorrendo la cartilagine fino all’attaccatura del naso: l’anatomia ci insegna invece che la cavità nasale si apre direttamente dietro i fori del naso, in orizzontale. Un chiodo o un altro oggetto abbastanza sottile da non causare lesioni interne può essere inserito nel setto nasale senza particolari danni.
Proprio come accade per i mangiatori di spade, non c’è quindi alcun trucco: si tratta in questo caso di comprendere fino a dove si può spingere il chiodo, come inclinarlo e quale forza applicare. La parte più lunga e difficile sta nell’allenarsi a controllare ed inibire il riflesso dello starnuto, che potrebbe risultare estremamente pericoloso; altri rischi includono infezioni alle fosse nasali, ai seni paranasali e alla gola, rottura dei turbinati, lacerazioni della mucosa e via dicendo (nei casi più estremi si potrebbe arrivare addirittura a danneggiare lo sfenoide). Un lungo periodo di pratica e di studio del proprio corpo è necessario per imparare tutte le mosse necessarie.
Mel Burkhart, però, non era affatto geloso delle sue invenzioni, anzi: con generosità davvero inusuale per il cinico mondo dello show business, insegnava tutti i suoi trucchi ai giovani performer. Così, lo Human Blockhead divenne uno dei grandi classici della tradizione circense, replicato ed eseguito infinite volte nelle decadi successive.
Anche oggi, dopo che nel 2001 Melvin Burkhart ci ha lasciato all’età di 94 anni, innumerevoli performer e fachiri continuano a piantarsi chiodi nel naso, nella cornice degli ultimi, rari sideshow – così come nella loro moderna controparte, i talent show televisivi da “guinness dei primati”. Moltissime le varianti rispetto al vecchio e risaputo chiodo: c’è chi nel naso inserisce coltelli, trapani elettrici funzionanti, lecca-lecca, ganci da macellaio, e chi più ne ha più ne metta. Ma nessuno di questi numeri può replicare la sorniona e consumata verve del vecchio Mel Burkhart che, a chi gli chiedeva se ci fosse un trucco o un segreto, rispondeva serafico: “Uso un naso finto”.