History’s Hidden Heroes: Denmark Vesey

Denmark VeseyThis month in History’s Hidden Heroes, I’m writing about Denmark Vesey.  Vesey is a character in The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd.  We are reading The Invention of Wings for Between the Lines Book Club.  The character is loosely based on  a  real person, Denmark Vesey, born Telemaque, who planned a slave uprising in 1822.

Telemaque was born a slave, with the name Telemaque, in 1767 in St. Thomas.  He was purchased by a sea captain whose last name was Vesey.  Vesey eventually brought Telemaque to South Carolina.  Telemaque won $1500 in a lottery in 1799.  He bought himself, and took on the name Denmark Vesey.  Vesey married a woman who was a slave.  He attempted to buy his wife, but her owner would not sell her.  This meant that all of Vesey’s children would be born into slavery, since by law they acquired the legal status of the mother.

Vesey started a congregation of the African Methodist Episopal Church.   When the church was closed by city authorities, Vesey began planning a rebellion.  Two slaves leaked the plot and Vesey was arrested, along with other suspects.

Vesey was hung on July 2, 1822.  Records show that he was hung publicly, but folklore tells of him being hung alone, secretly, at an oak tree, and this is the story Kidd uses in The Invention of Wings.  Kidd also perpetrates the legend that Vesey practiced polygamy although there’s little evidence to support this.  How advanced the rebellion was remains a matter of historical controversy.  However advanced Vesey’s plans were, he inarguably had a huge effect on slaveowners, slaves, and abolitionists.  He remains a controversial figure today – revered because of his commitment to freedom, and condemned by some because of his willingness to use violence towards that end.



History’s Hidden Heroes: Sheik Umar Khan, Samuel Brisbane, Sam Mutooro Muhumuza

Dr. Sheik Umar Khan

Dr. Sheik Umar Khan

This month’s History’s Hidden Heroes is absolutely heartbreaking.  Dr. Sheik Umar Khan, a doctor from Sierra Leone who led the fight against the Ebola virus in that country, died on July 29, 2014, of the virus.  Dr. Samuel Brisbane, one of the top physicians in Liberia, died of the disease on July 26, and Dr. Samuel Mutooro Muhumuza, from Uganda, died on July 2.

We’ve all seen movies and TV shows in which there is a crisis in a foreign country, usually Africa, and white doctors from America and Europe rush in to save the day.  Health workers from all over the world have come to Africa to fight the Ebola virus, at enormous risk to their own lives.  As of this moment, American doctor Kent Brantly is in grave condition in Liberia.  The heroism of doctors, nurses, and aides who come from overseas to assist other countries in times of crisis absolutely cannot be overstated.

But I want to highlight the efforts of the West African doctors Dr. Sheik Umar Khan, Dr. Samuel Brisbane, and Dr. Samuel Mutooro Muhumuza, because I think that we like to tell ourselves a story about Africa.  It’s a story about a place with no resources of its own, no universities, no people with knowledge or competence.  It’s a colonial story, one in which “The White Man’s Burden”, as described by Rudyard Kipling, is to help the helpless and ignorant people of The Third World.  It’s a story about a helpless princess who needs a white knight.  The lives of these three doctors suggest that a more accurate story would be  about a knight who has incurred an injury (let’s face it – a really, really awful injury) in battle and who needs assistance from a comrade.

I hope that the visibility of doctors, nurses, and aides who are African residents and who are of African descent will challenge us to change our story.  Dr. Sheik Umar Khan, Dr. Samuel Brisbane, and Dr. Samuel Mutooro Muhumuza were not only competent – they were highly regarded experts in and out of their countries of origin.  They were leaders in their fields.  They weren’t ignorant or helpless.  West Africa needs our help.  But I want our future stories to reflect that regions like West Africa also have competent people who know stuff – who are experts.

History’s Hidden Heroes: Dr. Patricia Bath

Dr. PAtricia BathTime for my favorite blog feature – History’s Hidden Heroes, where we talk about scientists who may not get the recognition they deserve, especially outside of their field.  This month we are talking about Dr. Patricia Bath.  If you’ve had cataracts, and you’ve had those cataracts treated, you can think Dr. Bath for saving your eyesight. Patricia Bath, an opthamologist, was the first African-American female doctor to patent a medical invention.  Her patent was for the Cataract Laserphaco Probe.  This terrifyingly named device was a method to remove cataracts from people’s eyes.  Dr. Bath owns four patents and also developed new strategies of delivering eye care to underserved populations.

Dr. Bath was born in Harlem in 1942.  Her parents encouraged her academic career.  While serving as a fellow at Columbia University, she began a life-long campaign to bring eye care to poor patients and to people of color who were often not receiving the same care as whites.

It seemed that at the Eye Clinic at Harlem Hospital, half the patients were blind or visually impaired. In contrast, at the Eye Clinic at Columbia . . . there were very few obviously blind patients. That observation fueled [a] passion . . . to conduct a retrospective epidemiological study . . . which documented that . . . blindness among blacks was double that [among] whites. I reached the conclusion that the cause for the high prevalence among blacks was due to lack of access to ophthalmic care. This conclusion led me to propose a new discipline, known as Community Ophthalmology, which is now operative worldwide.

The Laserphaco method and technology that Dr. Bath developed has restored sight to people who had been missing it for decades.You can find more about Dr. Bath, including more amazing quotes, at inventionsmithsonian.org  Here’s the concluding quote from the Smithsonian webpage:

While her career has been marked by many “firsts” as a scientist, a woman, and an African-American, she looks forward to the day when a person’s work will speak for itself. “Hopefully, our society will come to that point. Sometimes I want to say to people, just look at my work. . . . I’ve had technological obstacles, scientific obstacles, and obstacles being a woman. Yes, I’m interested in equal opportunities, but my battles are in science.”



History’s Hidden Heroes: Lynn Margulis

Photo of Lynn MargulisLynn Margulis lived from 1938 – 2011.  Her most significant legacy is her contribution to the field of endosymbiotic theory.  She fought for years to defend the validity of her ideas, and they are now generally accepted as fact.

Endosymbiosis is a theory that states that all eukaryotes (organisms with cells that contain nuclei), including humans, are descended from a combination of bacteria and archaea.  There are three domains of life:  bacteria, archaea (single-celled organisms that are similar to bacteria but different in structure), and  eukaryotes.  Dr. Margulis’ theory states that all eukaryotes evolved from a combination of specific archaea and bacteria that combined into the same individual and began to reproduce as a single individual.

This theory was intensely controversial because in standard evolutionary theory, populations usually evolve into separate groups (with the exception of species hybridization, which is rare).  But in Dr. Margulis’ theory the organisms combined to make a new individual, which went on to establish a whole new domain of life.  Today, her theory is generally accepted, because she was able to show the extreme similarity between mitochondria and some kinds of bacteria.  This theory revolutionized the field of evolutionary biology.

Dr. Margulis was also involved in formulating the Gaia hypothesis, the idea that all life on earth (the biota) is in symbiosis with the atmosphere and other non-living parts of earth.  Although she collaborated extensively with James Lovelock, she rejected his metaphor of the Earth as being one living organism.

It is unfortunate that Dr. Margulis spoke out against the idea that the HIV virus causes AIDS.  In this, she joins a long line of scientists who were brilliant and right about a lot of things, and horribly wrong about some other things (see:  Dr. Fred Hoyle, brilliant astronomer, strange, strange man).  Dr. Margulis had a tendency to devote herself to an idea and defend it to the death, and it just so happened that in the case of endosymbiotic theory, she was right.

Geek Bonus:  Remember how George Lucas ruined Star Wars by saying that the Force involved using midichlorians?  Of course you do.  Well, the idea of midichlorians is that they are in us but also separate from us.  This was inspired by the very real existence of mitochondria, which are the descendents of the original bacteria that combined in the original eukaryotes.  That is why mitochondria have their very own DNA even thought they reside in our cells.

Many thanks to my mad scientist husband for suggesting Dr. Margulis as one of History’s Hidden Heroes, and for staying up late into the night patiently trying to explain endosymbiotic theory to me despite the fact that my grasp on cellular biology is limited to a vague idea that biological organisms consist of cells.  Also thanks to the ever-reliable (Ha!)  Wikipedia article on Dr. Margulis for supplementing the science lecture with dates and things.