Tuesday, March 31, 2015

When were the good old days, exactly?

President Herbert Hoover didn’t have his own email server. Obviously.

Also, he didn’t have a telephone at his desk when he took office on March 4, 1929.

Hoover was the first president to install a telephone in the Oval Office. Otherwise, he would have had to use the phone in the lobby just outside it.

A few weeks after Hoover began his term, an initially pesky instrument was wired up on his desk. At first, it wouldn’t work properly, but the White House crew put it right.

Let’s be fair: a telephone system and switchboard was installed in the White House in 1878, only two years after Alexander Graham Bell received his patent. However, the telegraph system was the dominant communications channel at that time.

The telegraph stayed in the No. 1 spot in the U. S. through the end of the 19th century—in 1900, almost all of the telephone traffic in America was confined to strictly local calls. The long-distance telephone network became a 20th century phenomenon.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015

Sunday, March 22, 2015

When “the poorhouse” was a place….

Before the middle of the 20th century, “the poorhouse” wasn’t an abstract concept.

Through the World War II era, mostly county governments in the U. S. provided much of the care for the indigent and elderly folks who could not afford medical care or couldn’t take care of themselves. 

The facilities—“poorhouses” or, in some areas, “poor farms”—were often marginal or wretched.

They were systematically closed by mid-century, in tandem with a massive, federally-sponsored buildout of hospitals after WWII. In 1954 the federal government started providing funds so hospitals could build separate custodial units for patients who needed an extended period of “recovery,” and people who couldn’t take care of themselves increasingly ended up in extended stays in the expanded hospital facilities. That was the beginning of modern nursing homes.(1)

In the present time, economic constraints in the hospital health care system are reducing a patient’s time in hospital, and steadily pushing the indigent, elderly, helpless and terminal people toward retirement homes, nursing homes, hospice care, private care or no care.

(1) Atul Gawande, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End (New York: Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, 2014), 68-71.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015

Monday, March 16, 2015

Jared Sparks, first American historian

We can think of Jared Sparks (1789-1866) as the first American historian.

Obviously he wasn’t the first person to write about American history. You may recall that Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States in 1831-32 and then went home to France to write De la démocratie en Amérique (Democracy in America).

Sparks was the first American with public recognition as a scholar of American history. In 1838 he was selected as the McLean Professor of Ancient and Modern History at Harvard University, and he served in that post until 1849. He was the first academic historian doing original research, and did pioneering work in the collection of primary documentary materials. Sparks also served as president of Harvard during 1849-53.

The first history prof wrote The Life and Writings of George Washington (12 vols.) in 1834-37.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Have you “seen the elephant”?

Here’s one you probably don’t know:

Which came first, the Revolutionary War or the first elephant in America?

Think April 13, 1796.

That’s the day Capt. Jacob Crowninshield of Salem, MA, unloaded an Asian elephant from Calcutta in New York City. He sold it to a showman for $10,000 (almost $180,000 in current dollars).

President John Adams and crowds of Americans flocked to see “Old Bet,” a 2-year-old female who grandly toured throughout the United States for the next nine years. President Thomas Jefferson told Lewis and Clark to be on the lookout for “elephantine mammoths” as the hardy explorers were scouting new routes through the American West.

The exhibition of “Old Bet” was such a marvelous spectacle that folks who saw her talked about “seeing the elephant,” and even the folks who were waiting to see her—or missed the opportunity—helped to add those mundane words to the American lexicon. Later, Civil War soldiers added the darker dimension to the phrase as we know it today, when they guardedly recounted the grisly horror of combat with a sanitized acknowledgment that they had “seen the elephant.”

Elephants and circuses are as American as apple pie. Almost 100 years after “Old Bet,” P. T. Barnum did his fantastic best to promote “Jumbo,” a 12-foot-tall African elephant who weighed in at about 12,000 pounds.

Too bad that the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus announced this week that the troupe of 13 elephants now appearing with its traveling shows will be retired in the next few years, and won’t be replaced.

When you were a kid, did you “see the elephant”? 

And, hey, did you get to do the elephant ride when the circus came to your town?

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015

Friday, March 6, 2015

There’s no place like home….

Before 1950, most Americans died at home, from what were once familiarly described as “natural causes.”

By the 1980s, only about 1 out of 6 deaths occurred at home—most folks died in hospitals or nursing homes. The practice of medicine had expanded to embrace one’s last moments in an institutional setting, instead of the relative comfort of one’s own bed.

The trend toward dying in a hospital bed has reversed itself. Data from 2010 shows that about 45% of Americans departed this life in hospice care, and more than half of those folks received hospice care at home. These U. S. figures are among the highest in the world.

Dr. Atul Gawande writes in Being Mortal: “…our most cruel failure in how we treat the sick and the aged is the failure to recognize that they have priorities beyond merely being safe and living longer; that the chance to shape one’s story is essential to sustaining meaning in life; that we have the opportunity to refashion our institutions, our culture, and our conversations in ways that transform the possibilities for the last chapters of everyone’s lives.”

Dr. Gawande explores the often un-mentioned truth that simply “living as long as possible” isn’t the real wish of many people, and probably isn’t what most people really want.

“We’ve been wrong about what our job is in medicine. We think our job is to ensure health and survival. But really it is larger than that. It is to enable well-being. And well-being is about the reasons one wishes to be alive.” (1)

Most folks say that “quality of life” is most important at the end.

Read Being Mortal.

Take some time to think about what “quality of life” means to you.

Talk to your doctor and your loved ones about it.

 (1) Atul Gawande, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End (New York: Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, 2014), 6, 193, 243, 259.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015