Wednesday, December 22, 2010

What's Coming in 2011?

Have A Merry Holiday and Happy New Year!

In the first few months of 2011 many of the headings with ID resources and lists will start to fill in, magically, inspiring you to read, learn and just view for a while.

Topics upcoming include:
  • Of Lice and Men....infestations in art.
  • Children's Literature
  • The Brave New World of Inoculations
  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
  • The Brother's Grimm
  • Outbreak--the movie
  • A Play
Some of the titles will be different from what is listed, but you get the idea.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Bananas, Fungus and the Songwriters

by Dan Koeppel, 2008
Food shortages are not funny, as many people today and in our collective history can tell you. Drought, excessive rain, and disease can wipe out a food supply for many people.  These shortages can be significant and may lead to malnutrition.  Malnutrition can lead to increased incidence of various diseases including infectious diseases.  No one can dispute, reasonably, that the potato famine didn't have serious effects on the Irish, nor the concentration camps on the Jewish.  Malnutrition is serious;  it affects many in the US, but is most severe in developing nations such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo and others.

On the lighter side, a novelty song may have been born out of a shortage of bananas in a New York grocery store in the early 1920's.  In 1923 Frank Silver and Irving Cohn published "Yes, We Have No Bananas", a song that became a smashing the chagrin of Harry L. Alford, composer, music arranger and publisher in Chicago who rejected the work.  It's been passed down that he said something like "It was the biggest business mistake I made.  I would never have thought that a song about bananas would sell like that".  My Grandmother would say this and shake her head, remembering her father's dismay. The Missouri Jazz Hounds play the song here, a free download from the Internet Archive.

The full lyrics to Yes, We Have No Bananas are available online.  Here is the first stanza:

There's a fruit store on our street
It's run by a Greek.
And he keeps good things to eat
But you should hear him speak!
When you ask him anything, he never answers "no".
He just "yes"es you to death, and as he takes your dough
He tells you "Yes, we have no bananas
We have-a no bananas today.
We've string beans, and onions
Cabbageses, and scallions,
And all sorts of fruit and say
We have an old fashioned to-mah-to
A Long Island po-tah-to
But yes, we have no bananas.
We have no bananas today."

Obviously, a shortage of one food in our grocery store may not seem like a big deal, but it was then and is now, as Dan Koeppel outlines in his book "Banana:  The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World" and an earlier article.  A fungus, Fusarium oxysporum, otherwise known as Panama Disease, wiped out the Gros Michael banana that was known to America until that time in the 1920's.  Now we have the Cavendish variety [there are others], still susceptible to Fusarium and other species of fungus, and is currently endangered again, in many parts of the world.

A fungus took the potato from the Irish.  Phytophthora infestans causes late blight in the potato and was the likely culprit.  Early potato blight is caused by Alternaria solani.  Tomato blight caused a shortage of tomatoes last year in the US.  Main causes of tomato blight are Verticillium, Fusarium, and Alternaria.

Toxins produced by Fusarium--fumonisins [interfere with absoption of folic acid by cells of body] and trichothecenes have caused many problems in our time.  Fusarium-contaminated wheat flour in the 1920's in Russia killed over 100,000 people, and high fumonisin in corn [during a drought year] may have lead to many babies in Texas being born with multiple neural tube defects such as anencephaly--without a brain.

These fungi are not all bad, perhaps.  Fusarium venenatum--used to produce Quorn, is eaten by some vegetarians as a mycoprotein source.
One Hundred Years
of Solitude by
 Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Back to the banana.  Bananas are a major food source for many people and are the most popular fruit in the US.  They are fun to look at, eat, smash, and sing about too.  In addition, their latin name is Musa, yet bananas have a dark history.  Many scholars believe that the banana is the original fruit on the tree of knowledge and the banana, for better or worse, started the fruit industry that we know today.  It is and has been the continuing source of land and ecological strife, murder, poisoning, and even Gabriel García Márquez details the Columbian Banana Massacre of 1929 in "One Hundred Years of Solitude".

Interesting history of a fruit.  Relevant to us. Relevant to infectious diseases...Inspires the arts.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Singing and Consumption: La Boheme's Portrayal of Tuberculosis


AJ Cann 2006
Before drug therapy was available in 1946, nearly half of the people infected with tuberculosis [TB] died.  This death was horrific, yet romanticized due to it's purity--it was an "above the waist" disease. It struck wealthy and poor alike, but was worse for the poor since malnutrition, overcrowding, and poor living conditions hastened the disease process.  Doctors and medicines to lessen the pain were also less available to the poor.

Head and shoulders portrait in heavy shadow, depicting a dark-haired man with a curling moustache, wearing a winged collar with a tie and with a handkerchief protruding from the top pocket
Giacomo Puccini; courtesy
of  Wikipedia
In 1896, Puccini's magnificent opera La Bohème opened in Turin, Italy, directed by Arturo Toscanini. The two main characters Rodolfo and Mimi, living the Bohemian life, meet and fall in love.  Through trials and tribulations and a sustained absence their love does not waver.  The problem is that Mimi is dying of consumption.

The masses loved the opera, but the critics were not so enthusiastic.  They didn't like the life-style portrayed in the opera, didn't feel it measured up to what Italian Opera should be.  The people thought differently.  They came in droves to see this story of life and love, the Bohemian life, and all the complications of both.  Puccini's score and the libretto of Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica wove together an amusing, rowdy, sad, and mostly intense story.

At the end, Mimi sings about how cold her hands are and that she needs to sleep, becomes unconscious and quietly dies.  Rodolfo eventually becomes aware of her death and is understandably upset.  The opera ends with him crying "Mimi! Mimi!"--a most emotional scene to bear:

Recognizing that La Bohème was written before there was understanding of the cause of TB, was this an accurate portrayal?  Pulmonary TB can be asymptomatic for a number of years, but poor appetite, fatigue, weight loss, chills, fever and night sweats are common non-specific constitutional symptoms. Early in the opera, it appears that Mimi has limited energy, is frail and has chilled hands, but otherwise is able to live all right.  She is pale and has a cough that gets worse by Act 3.  At her end, she is weak, coughs a lot, has cold hands, but is able to belt out a song until the last few minutes. In advanced pulmonary disease one would expect a productive, phlegmy cough, and possibly blood-tinged sputum.  Painful pharyngeal [throat] ulcerations and hoarseness along with other dreadful symptoms could also be expected.  The patients, when close to death  [half of them died before there was drug treatment] would suffocate, leading to wild anxiety and hallucinations, often accompanied by severe pain.  Obviously, this would be an awful death. Perhaps too awful to stage accurately.  Mimi's death was awful in that it caused great pain to Rodolfo, her love, but was relatively peaceful, without medication except a cordial, for her.

Now, I can overlook all the inaccuracies and just enjoy the acting and music, even if a woman whose lungs are filled with infection, blood and fluid can sing wonderfully. Obviously others feel the same way.  Other books and productions with similar themes are Henry Murger's short story La Vie de Bohème; his play La Vie de Bohème written in 1848 with Théodore Barrière; Murger's 1849 book Scenes de la Vie de Bohème; La Bohème silent film in 1926 starring Lillian Gish; La Dames aux Camélias written by Alexandre Dumas in 1848; La Traviata by Giuseppi Verdi in 1853; La Bohème by Ruggiero Leoncavallo in 1897; 1936 movie Camille starring Greta Garbo; 1974 Charles Ludlam play Camille; RENT by Jonathon Larson in 1996--portrayal of AIDS instead of TB; and Moulin Rouge! written by Baz Luhrmann in 2001.  Luhrmann is also responsible for the Australian version of La Bohème.

For TB there are now multiple medications used in combination to treat it. That is another story--perhaps the next version of La Bohème.  I'd like to see Puccini's La Bohème unaltered, except the Mimi understudy should come out in the last scene and do what the original Mimi can no longer do--sing.


Black Dog Opera Library: La Bohème

La Bohème and dying/courtesan themed works

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Life Cycle

The life cycle of malaria
William Shakespeare showed us malaria from his point of view:

"...Worse than the sun in March,
This praise doth nourish agues...."
--from Henry IV

Much like our need to understand the life cycle of organisms in order to understand infectious diseases, we need to understand the life cycle of literacy to make sure our children grow up to understand Mr. Shakespeare, and others.

The literacy life cycle begins at infancy.  As infants hear words and parents read to them, the child develops connections to these words and begins to understand what they mean.  If children are exposed to literature of only simple wording or simple themes--or none at all, their learning platform will be less substantial than peers that had parents who "snuck-in" unusual or more complex themes once in a while, as appropriate for the child's age. 

I wish for all children to be exposed to literature that encompasses history and vocabulary, the building blocks for understanding science to a greater degree than route memorization of words and processes.  If we help our children to develop a place in their brains where they can store baseline information, then we can read more and more complex things to them.  They, and parents as well, will become readers and not shy away from complex topics.

Although the overall United States literacy rate is 99%, there are pockets of America where the national average is not achieved.  The US is tied for 21st place among other developed countries.  Science literacy is less.  Nearly 70% of adult Americans can not understand the science section of the New York Times.  A further example:  the issue of stem cells in the 2004 election was too complex for 92% of Americans to even consider in their choice for President or other governmental officials.  I'm not stating a side here, just an observation that people need to understand complex scientific issues in order to make decisions for their communities and nation.

To complete the life cycle process, informed children get older and become informed teens, young adults and grown-ups.  They pass on knowledge to future generations.  They teach their children, students, neighbors, and community.  The life cycle continues.

Back to the beginning goes the life cycle, and back to the beginning of this post, with the phrase "Worse than the sun in March".  In Shakespeare's time, the sun was thought to raise up the bad air that led to ague.  This thought continued on until 1898 when Sir Ronald Ross discovered that it wasn't bad air--mal aria--but the Anopheles mosquito that carried and delivered it.  "This praise doth nourish agues" may make one's eyes cross unless they understand that ague was the Elizabethan term for the collection of symptoms attributed to what we now call malaria.  With this understanding the above verse makes sense.  If it makes sense, a person will less likely shun it, and I dare say enjoy it.  I know that I will read, with faithful dictionary upon my knee.

Shakespeare source:
Mabillard, Amanda. Worst Diseases in Shakespeare's London. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2000. Accessed 13/4/2010
Literacy Source
 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Institute for Statistics (UIS) April 2007 Assessment (UNESCO Institute for Statistics 2007a), taken from Wikipedia, accessed 12/6/2010.
Scientific Literacy Sources:
Michigan State University. "Scientific Literacy: How Do Americans Stack Up?." ScienceDaily27 February 2007. 6 December 2010.
Raloff, Janet, Science literacy: U.S. college courses really countMarch 13th, 2010; Vol.177 #6 (p. 13), accessed 12/6/2010.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

What's in a Name?

Used with permission from Wellcome Library, London

I wasn't initially sure if I wanted the title "The Febrile Muse".  After all, not all infectious diseases or infestations bring on fever.  Not all febrile illnesses are due to infectious disease, and not all infectious diseases bring on fever all the time.  In addition, infectious diseases, when affecting a loved one aren't particularly amusing--all too often there are terrifying results.  Infectious Diseases can be terrifying, interesting, sometimes mundane, but always awe-inspiring. Scientists who study them and people who draft them in their art are interested, and interesting to me.  The link between art and infectious disease will be explored here.  I welcome any comments as you are the one reading this. You are the one seeking information and inspiration, I hope. 

I kept the name because of a poem I found.  When Sir William Watson (1858-1935), the English poet wrote sonnets on England's desertion of Armenia, The Purple East, he appears to despair over the British's involvement in the events and the state of the civilians in Armenia.  Among other things he feels that creativity can save us:

"...And flee the things that are unmaking you. 
Still in your midst there dwells a remnant, who
Love not an unclean Art, a Stage no less
Unclean, a gibing and reviling Press,
A febrile Muse, and Fiction febrile too.
And they it is would pluck you from this slime..." 

taken from Last Word.

Creativity can save us.  I'm looking forward to learning and sharing what I learn.  

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