James McCune Smith

I spent many years at Glasgow University; six years as an undergraduate learning medicine and a further decade later on when I worked as a lecturer in the medical faculty. During this time, I learnt about many of the illustrious ex-alumni such as Joseph Lister, Tobias Smollett, William Hunter and A.J. Cronin to name a few. However, to my shame, I did not until recently know the name of perhaps one of its most important sons – James McCune Smith (1813-1865). If the University can be proud of any part of its heritage its role in this gentleman’s education is one it should cherish.

James McCune Smith was born in slavery but was emancipated at the age of 14. Despite this emancipation no University in America would take this intelligent young man as a student because he was black, and his emancipation didn’t mean the end of racial discrimination. Being exceptionally bright the African Free School in New York and Abolitionist societies in Britain arranged to pay for his transport and education in Glasgow University. His promise was confirmed when he graduated at the top of his class and graduated with degrees in 1835, 1836 and 1837.

He was the first African-American to obtain a medical degree. He undertook his internship in Paris before returning to America to set up practice in lower Manhattan and work as the resident physician at the ‘Colored Orphan Asylum‘. He was a prolific writer and active in political circles. Indeed, Frederick Douglass described him as “the single most important influence” on his life and another commentator at the time noted “As the learned physician-scholar of the abolition movement, Smith was instrumental in making the overthrow of slavery credible and successful“. He was the first black man to have an articles published in American medical journals and he established the first black owned and run pharmacy in the United States. Despite all his success no New York Medical association, nor the American Medical Association, would accept him as a member because of his race. Racial discrimination followed him, despite the many successes of the abolitionist and emancipation societies over the years, and he was buried in an unmarked grave by his pale-skinned children to escape racial prejudice.

Glasgow University is to open a new learning hub building and intend to name it in James McCune Smith’s honour. It is about time. Hopefully future doctors in training won’t remain as shamefully ignorant, as I was, about the history of one of our most important colleagues.

Nuremberg. The Facts, the Law and the Consequences.

Nuremberg. The Facts, the Law and the Consequences.

As I am a keen reader, this is probably my primary hobby, I have been keen to consider the ecological impact of my pastime. I had thought that e-books might be the greenest option as they saved the trees and the water that went into making the paper counterpart. But after further reading it was clear that the situation is not as simple as this. E-books require a considerable infrastructure, as well as the manufacture of the device to read them, and also have a fairly large carbon footprint. It is sobering to think that about 10% of all the electricity used at present is used maintaining the internet’s functioning.

Fortunately, I was able to abandon my attempt to work out which book type was greener (this was proving almost impossible to ascertain) as I suddenly realised the simplest answer. The greenest book for me to read was and old paper book that was either about the house, or in the second-hand shop, as its ecological impact has already been spent when I, or someone else, first purchased it. These were now ‘waste’ and I can recycle that by reading them.

This also had a second valuable impact. I often find, when trying to decide what to read, that I get into ruts. I read similar books to ones I have just enjoyed, or I purchase something that is creating waves in the news, so I join the rut that everyone else if furrowing. If I read books I found in my own house, or in second-hand shops, my choice would be limited to what is available. It might throw me some surprises as someone else’s original choice may have been better than mine.

This is how I found this title. Nuremberg. The Facts, the Law and the Consequences.
This was published in 1947 just after the war trials and was written by Peter Calvocoressi. He had been a lawyer, and intelligence agent, who during the war had worked in Bletchley Park on the Enigma Project. After the war he had worked as a member of the British prosecution team in the war trials. The author and the timing mean the book is written with a great deal of first-hand experience and knowledge, when this knowledge was fresh and not tainted by the patina of retrospection.

It is a small unprepossessing book. Its plain maroon cover and small type face give little away but inside is a fascinating story of the development of the war trials. It is clear that the victors in the war were worried that these trials, though necessary, may be open to scrutiny as they could be seen as Victor’s Justice rather than following accepted moral principles. For example there is a chapter on the “Indicted Organisations“, as a lawyer, Calvocoressi clearly had problems with the “obvious difficulties in any allegation of guilt against a group as opposed to an individual” and this chapter is at pains to clarify why this would not occur in the Nuremberg trials. Further problems arose with the limitation of accusation to Germans. It was worried that the exclusion of the Allies was a risk, war crimes may have been committed by them too (E.g. Dresden, Hiroshima), but these were not considered. The Italians were excluded as the translation implications would have been considerable. There was concern that these exclusions may have made the War Trials open to criticism in the public arena. However, the morals and legality were openly discussed and debated. It appears that while there was an appetite for justice there was not, thankfully, and appetite for revenge and retribution at any cost. There seems to have been the recognition that, after the horror of years of war and Nazi atrocities, it was more important than ever to find universal principles of Law and Justice that we can all follow. I am glad I found this book as it would be a shame, if three generations later, we start to loose sight of these Universals, because as the author states “Principles become rusty if ignored

Lone Wolf by Jodi Picoult

Jodi Picoult’s books are often the victim of some snobbery. They are seen as the cupcakes in the literary patisserie; light, airy, and fun, but hardly serious. However, there are times when what you fancy is a cupcake and you don’t want anything too serious or fancy. These are perfect for a ‘by the pool on holiday‘ or ‘last thing at night to get to sleep’ read.

This one follows the usual formula –take a moral dilemma, populate it with some stereotypes, and join it together with a narrative thread. In Lone Wolf the dilemma is turning off life support in the setting of brain injury. To be fair it does air the conflicts that exist and does show the impossibility of being dogmatic. If it had stopped at this it would have been a respectable, workmanlike, novel but it unfortunately had to include a side story of a man who went to live in the wolf pack.

This part of the book was wildly inaccurate and exaggerated and did not serve to amplify any of the points of the main story. Indeed, if anything, it made the reader think ‘if she can be as gullible on this, how accurate are her other views? ‘. Rather like finding something hard, crunchy, and out of place in your cupcake.

If you are packing a bathing suit and heading abroad this book might be a good choice, but if you are packing an overnight bag for a hospital visit perhaps not.

Grubby lessons

Grubby lessons

Over the last few days I started to get ready to be able to take a crop of hay. The last time we did this we had major problems – when we were on the last small field the power scythe blade appeared to jam and stop working. We tried, with limited success, to get the remainder of the field by hand but this really didn’t work and I needed the power scythe working before the end of the month. The grass has been growing well and looks like a fair crop, we have to be ready should there be a dry sunny period long enough to do the work.

The power scythe is an implement which attaches to the front of our two wheeled Goldoni tractor. It is quite expensive so buying a new one is not a prospect I wanted to consider. The companies who sell these machines are keen to sell the kit but, I discovered, much less keen to get involved in repairs so it was down to me to get it working again. I had the instruction manual so what could go wrong ?

Firstly, the manual itself could throw an obstacle in my path. These machines are made in Italy (the small farms and olive groves make two-wheeled tractors popular there) and the manuals likewise.  Thus my manual was written in Italian which made the first step an attempt to decode the booklet. It had few diagrams or schematics to ensure that there were no unnecessary visual clues.

Over two days I, with the help of a neighbour, stripped the machine down to all its constituent parts. We inspected and cleaned every piece and then reassembled the machine checking all the settings with feeler gauges to the millimeter. With new grease and oil the machine moved smoothly with no jamming or hesitation. We hooked it up to the tractor and proudly set forth into the field for a celebratory and confirmatory cut of some long grass. It cut smoothly and effortlessly through the sward for about a yard then jerked and the sickle blade seemed to seize. No further cutting was possible. No amount of rocking, shaking, cajoling or threatening, coaxed even an inch of movement from the machine’s teeth.

Back in the barn we disassembled the blade to seeimg_20190611_1533491793820467678928354.jpg where we had gone wrong. This is not a fun job. The piece weighs about 80kg, is oily and slippery and has two rows of menacingly sharp iron teeth.  I have seem those teeth slice effortlessly slice though the legs of an iron park bench – it is no fun to handle! After having looked everywhere there was no sign of any jam. No sign of anything that could block the transit of the blades. The problem had to lie in the connection between the power unit and the appliance but we had checked this twice. In additon we had checked with two other appliances to be doubly sure that the transmission linkage worked properly.

While we had the machine upside down we noticed a small hole and wondered what is that for. Peering in we could see nothing of note, just black think molybdenum grease. Five minutes later, after poking our fingers down the shaft and pulling out all the grease img_20190614_0852139102052722490262669.jpgwe could, we were able to see a small circlip around the drive shaft. As we rotated the drive shaft we saw that this was held in place by a small set screw – a small grub screw about 3mm across with a hexagonal allan key head. We checked and this grub screw was loose so we tightened it up.

We realized that when slack this grub screw would not stop the driving spline from being pushed back just far enough to allow the connection between the power unit and the scythe to be lost – the two connecting faces img_20190612_2005567828267653246616948.jpgwould no longer be sufficiently close to carry the power down to the blade and instead they would just bump over each other. After tightening up the screw we powered up and returned to the field where the unit ran perfectly. We cut grass, tried on an area of brambles, and pushed over rocky ground and through dense scrub – it didn’t waver. It just ploughed on cutting as it went, it was well and truly fixed.

This episode taught me a two lessons. Firstly, be careful no to jump to conclusions. Had we spent more time at the beginning thinking about the problem we might have realized the problem lay further back in the chain from power unit to cutting blade. We might have saved ourselves a lot of work. However, I am glad I have dismantled and serviced the machine, it needed it anyway, and I feel much better knowing exactly how it is made and how it works. Even when we did realize the problem was to do with the power take off it would have taken us a while to find this small screw that appears no where in the manual.

The second lesson is perhaps more important. I often wonder if there is any point in trying to be green in my daily life as I try to reuse and recycle. I wonder if my attempts to reduce my consumption make any great difference. What does my level of consumption matter in the greater scale of things. On a wider basis I wonder if it makes any point that I, as a fairly insignificant and powerless individual, try to do my bit for a better society – can one person make a difference ?

This little grub screw was only about 0.0001% of the metal parts of the mowing machinery;  of the parts it clearly was the “least of these“. Hidden down a shaft in the bowels of the machine, in the dark, covered in oil and grease this little screw had slackened off, stopped doing its job, and the whole hay making project shuddered to a halt. In the interconnected system it lived within it was as valuable as any other. And so it is with all of us. We might often feel small and powerless in comparison to our rulers, or the celebrities we see daily, but we all play our part and it may be our part which proves to be the vital step in how things change.

For Esmè – with Love and Squalor by J.D. Salinger

I didn’t choose this book because of its cover. ForEsmeWithLoveAndSqualorOh no ! I am not as shallow as that. I chose this book because of its title, or rather one word in its title – Esme. I recently became a grandparent again and my granddaughter was given the name Esme. This name was chosen, in part, because it was the name of the midwife who helped in the delivery and also as it was a charming and pleasant name in itself.

I had never met an Esme before and didn’t know anything of the origins or history of the name. Because of this, and as my son and daughter-in-law were debating whether this would be the first person in our family to have an accent in their name (either Esmè or Esmé), I was seeking information on the name. During this I discovered this collection of short stories by J.D. Salinger.

J.D. Salinger has rather fallen out of favour of late and, were it not for “Catcher in the Rye” he is rarely on reading lists now. This is a great shame as this collection of short stories  will be overlooked by many people.

This book is a collection of short pieces. They are almost too short to be called stories and are little more than conversations between people. They are interlinked by their characters and the theme of the manner  in which adults and children interact. The writing is simply superb.  The dialogues are real and almost audible – you can hear these characters in your head, their accents and intonations – and the descriptions allowed me (who has no relationship to either the time or the place they are set) to be there and to understand.

This is a writer at the peak of their form. Though small these are not slight works and I must thank Esme (or Esmé or, perhaps Esmè) for having a name that led me to discover them. I’d advise you to do the same.

5star