By Lines

Most of us can probably imagine a brain, isolated from its body. We might think of its walnut-like shape in cartoonish perfection, or of a pink orb floating in a jar. It is much more difficult to imagine a live brain, bathed in blood, still metabolizing, still pumping, still full of vital fluids. It doesn’t look like gray matter at all but flushed and pink.  And more than this, that first successful isolated monkey brain was still sending out electrical signals via electroencephalogram (EEG), just as any living brain inside any living head would do. As jagged lines scraped over the graph paper, the scientist had to wonder: was this brain, entirely excised of its body, still thinking? And if thinking, was the monkey—despite being bodiless—still alive? It wouldn’t be easy to answer. After all, the 1960s neurological community couldn’t even agree on what constituted brain death; they were not prepared (or even very interested) in discussing which blips and bleeps constituted life. [READ MORE]

Dr. White Challenged the Line Between Life and Death

In early March of 1958, Michael Dillon, ship’s surgeon, made his way below deck. A member of the United Kingdom’s Merchant Navy, possessed of athletic bearing and a luxuriant beard, Dillon had hardly opened his sick bay when the steward delivered a cable. “Do you intend to claim the title since your change-over?” it read. “Kindly cable the Daily Express.” Dillon blanched and crushed the letter in his palms, then lit his pipe with shaking hands. He had kept a secret for over 15 years: Dillon had been born Laura Maud (sometimes written as “Maude”) Dillon. [READ MORE]

The Surprisingly Old Science of Being Transgender

In the still-dark morning of October 9, 1908, two Ohio farm hands made a chilling discovery: a bundle of cloth, a tangle of limbs, and a mess of matted hair. They fetched a lantern and returned to the lonely spot to discover a young woman, stiff, bloody, and quite dead. She had been shot at close range, a blue entry hole livid against her temple and another where her eye ought to have been. Dark welts left grooves in her flesh; it seemed she had been thrown from a carriage after death and then driven over by the wheels. Her name was Ora Lee, and she was four months pregnant. [READ MORE]

Forensics on Trial: America’s First Blood Test Expert

Fallout from the Harvey Weinstein scandal has put the company in crisis—and destructive tremors have reached a 2017 Oscar hopeful. Following the horrifying expose of Weinstein’s behavior (longstanding and devastating in reach), the company announced that The Current War release would be pushed into 2018, leaving its future in doubt. Chris Evangelista, writing for FILM, aptly summarized the plight in an October 15th article, suggesting that only “time will only tell when The Current War sees the light of day.” In fact, time, and light, operate at the center of film’s story…and the more interesting history behind its script. [READ MORE]

Contenders in ‘The Current War’

The first gender affirmation surgeries took place in 1920s, at a facility which employed transgender technicians and nurses, and which was headed by a gay Jewish man. The forgotten history of the institute, and its fall to Nazis bent on the euthanasia of homosexuals and transgender people, offers us both hope—and a cautionary tale—in the face of oppressive anti-trans legislation in the United States. [READ MORE]

The Forgotten History of the World’s First Trans Clinic

It’s not that science hadn’t tried to extend life with organs before; it’s that it had tried and failed… December 20, 1954, dawned to thick falling snow. By midafternoon, Dr. Joseph E. Murray, a surgeon at Harvard’s Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston, stood in his kitchen with an ingredient list for eggnog. A balding, pleasant-faced man, Murray and his wife, Bobbie, were preparing for their annual Christmas party, 75 guests strong—but the phone rang in the hall before he could crack the first egg. “It’s the pathology people,” Bobbie told him. They both knew what that meant. Murray dropped his whisk and threw on his coat. He cranked the engine of his car, swerved out of the drive and onto icy roads. The Brigham Pathology Department had a cadaver for him.. [READ MORE]

Undark

Medicine has long been shadowed by the specter of the resurrection men who dug up and raided recently buried coffins in the dead of night to supply 19th century anatomists with objects for study. The need for grave robbers had largely been obviated by body donation programs when, in 1954, the first successful kidney transplant at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston kicked off the race to transplant other organs. And physicians weren’t willing to confine themselves to those like the kidney that the human body has in duplicate. They wanted to transplant the heart. And that, of course, requires a donor who will not survive the surgery. The age of resurrection men might well have been over, but the age of what we might call harvest men had only begun. [READ MORE]

Organ Harvesting’s Troubles Past–Complicated Present

Ashes to ashes, adjust adjust: The ancient, deeply human instinct to physically gather in times of death has now run up against social-distancing practices. But COVID-19 might just serve as an opportunity to make the ways we grieve better.

Grief is personal, intimate, crushing. The tether bonding another life to ours has snapped and there is no going back to revisit old joys or old wounds; we can dial the number, but it doesn’t connect. Feeling raw and often shattered, we nevertheless have decisions to make, people to contact, events to plan. In light of the present crisis, there are even more questions and frightening realities to grapple with. Is it safe to gather in grief, as humans have been doing for centuries? Is it ethical to invite others to do the same?

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Greif in a Time of Coronavirus