WTF Fun Fact 12768 – English as a Second Language (ESL)

English is the most commonly spoken language – but only because so many people learn it as a second language. Click to read the full fact.

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Interesting Facts About The Everyday Life Of An Ambulance Driver

We live in a society where cases such as accidents, deliveries, and other health-related emergencies can happen at any time of the day. This is why it is expedient to have readily on-ground people who would respond promptly to such emergencies. However, an ambulance driver is a profession without which immediate response and rescue would…

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That Time a Group of Psychiatrists Pretended to be Mentally Ill to Prove a Point

In 1972, eight people presented themselves to 12 psychiatric hospitals across the United States. They had seemingly nothing in common save for a very specific set of symptoms, with all eight reporting hearing voices saying a single word: “thud,” “empty,” or “hollow.” They were all immediately admitted, seven being diagnosed with schizophrenia and one with manic depression. Following admission, all eight patients suddenly stopped hearing the voices and reported feeling entirely normal. Nonetheless, they remained hospitalized for between 7 and 52 days, being treated with a variety of antipsychotic drugs before finally being released with a diagnosis of “schizophrenia in remission.” It was, at its face, little more than a curious coincidence. But in January 1973 an article appeared in the journal Science revealing that the eight patients were not who they appeared to be. In fact, they weren’t patients at all, but members of a secret study organized psychiatrist David Rosenhan of Stanford University. The results of that study, now known as the Rosenhan Experiment, would shake the psychiatric establishment to its very core.

The Rosenhan Experiment was inspired by the work of R.D. Liang, Thomas Szasz, Erving Goffman, and other leading figures of the anti-psychiatry movement. These men were concerned by the dehumanizing effects of psychiatric diagnosis and institutionalization, and the use of psychiatry as a tool of social and political repression. Indeed, in the Soviet Union, East Germany, and other communist states, forcible commitment to psychiatric hospitals was commonly used to silence political dissidents. Thomas Szasz in particular focused on the use of psychiatric labels in Western countries as a means of enforcing societal norms, citing such examples as “drapetomania”, the supposed “mental illness” that caused slaves to flee captivity; “hysteria,” the catchall diagnosis for misbehaving women; and the fact that homosexuality was officially categorized as a mental illness until 1974.

David Rosenhan believed that mistaken or overzealous diagnoses – indeed, the very act of labelling psychiatric disorders – could have serious detrimental effects at the personal and community level, due to the persistent stigma associated with mental illness. As he wrote in his famous 1973 article, On Being Sane in Insane Places: 

 The term “mental illness” is of recent origin.  It was coined by people who were humane [and] wanted very much to raise the station [of] the psychologically disturbed from that of witches and “crazies” to one that was akin to the physically ill…but while treatment has improved, it is doubtful that people really regard the mentally ill in the same way that they view the physically ill.  A broken leg is something one recovers from, but mental illness allegedly endures forever.  A broken leg does not threaten the observer, but a crazy schizophrenic?  [Attitudes] toward the mentally ill are characterized by fear, hostility, aloofness, suspicion, and dread.  The mentally ill are society’s lepers.”

“A psychiatric label has a life and an influence of its own.  Once the impression has been formed that the patient is schizophrenic, the expectation is that he will continue to be schizophrenic…such labels, conferred by mental health professionals, are as influential on the patient as they are on his relatives and friends, and it should not surprise anyone that the diagnosis acts on all of them as a self-fulfilling prophecy. A diagnosis of cancer that has been found to be in error is cause for celebration.  But psychiatric diagnoses are rarely found to be in error.  The label sticks, a mark of inadequacy forever.”

Due to these potentially harmful effects, Rosenhan became concerned about the objective reliability of psychiatric diagnoses – that is, the ability of psychiatrists to tell the sane from the insane. The seed of the idea that would become the Rosenhan Experiment was planted in 1969 when Rosenhan was teaching psychology at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. When his students complained that the course was too abstract, Rosenhan suggested that they check themselves into the nearby Haverford State Hospital and interact with real people suffering from schizophrenia. Just to be safe, however, Rosenhan decided to check himself in first. He emerged nine days later utterly traumatized by the experience, and refused to subject his students to the same ordeal. However, he soon began thinking of an experiment to expose the deficiencies of the mental health system – an experiment he would finally carry out three years later.

Rosenhan’s  team of eight test subjects, whom he called “pseudopatients,” consisted of five men and three women and included a graduate student, a paediatrician, a painter, a housewife, three psychologists, and Rosenhan himself. The 12 hospitals they were to infiltrate were similarly diverse, ranging from underfunded, understaffed state institutions to exclusive private hospitals. So their commitment would not result in social or professional embarrassment, the pseudopatients were given false names and professions, but were otherwise not to change or conceal any other details of their lives or personalities. They were instructed to present themselves to their assigned hospitals with a single symptom: hearing a voice saying “thud,” “empty,” or “hollow.” These words were selected due to their evocation of an “existential psychosis,” a hypothetical disorder in which a patient’s hallucinations reveal an inner feeling of hollowness and meaninglessness. As not a single case of existential psychosis had ever been reported, Rosenhan believed this might serve as a clue to hospital psychiatrists that the pseudopatients were feigning their illnesses.

Upon being admitted, the pseudopatients were to cease reporting any symptoms and act normally as they would outside the hospital. Their goal would then be to secure their release by convincing the staff of their sanity – but without revealing their involvement in the experiment.

As expected, Rosenhan and the other pseudopatients were immediately admitted to their respective hospitals and given diagnoses of schizophrenia and manic depression. But to their surprise, the immediate cessation of symptoms and resumption of “normal” behaviour did nothing to alter these diagnoses – or arouse the staff’s suspicion. On the contrary, the pseudopatients found their every behaviour on the ward framed by the staff as a manifestation of their supposed mental illness. For example, many pseudopatients took extensive notes on their fellow patients and the hospital staff, an activity which the doctors clinically described as “patient engaged in writing behaviour.”  Not once, however, did a staff member enquire as to the actual nature of the patient’s writing. On another occasion:

“One psychiatrist pointed to a group of patients who were sitting outside the cafeteria entrance half an hour before lunchtime.  To a group of young residents he indicated that such behaviour was characteristic of the oral-acquisitive nature of the syndrome.  It seemed not to occur to him that there were very few things to anticipate in a psychiatric hospital besides eating.”

Normal displays of anger were likewise interpreted as symptoms of mental illness, while one pseudopatient’s fluctuating – though entirely normal – relationship with his parents was interpreted in his case file as being intrinsically tied to his psychosis. Yet while all patient reports indicate that the pseudo patients were “friendly,” “cooperative,” and “exhibited no abnormal indications,” at no point did any of the staff suspect that they were not, in fact, mentally ill. But one group very often did see through the charade: the other patients. Many pseudopatients described other patients accusing them of being journalists reporting on the hospital, and where records were available a full 35 of 118 patients on the ward reported similar suspicions. Rosenhan attributed the doctors’ inability to detect the pseudopatients’ deception to:

“… the fact that physicians operate with a strong bias toward what statisticians call the Type 2 error.  This is to say that physicians are more inclined to call a healthy person sick (a false positive, Type 2) than a sick person healthy (a false negative, Type 1).  The reasons for this are not hard to find:  it is clearly more dangerous to misdiagnose illness than health.  Better to err on the side of caution, to suspect illness even among the healthy.”

Thus, despite acting as “normally” as possible, the patients continued to receive regular psychiatric treatment, being collectively administered over 2100 pills which they pocketed and flushed down the toilet.

In addition to over-analysis and extreme boredom, Rosenhan and the others experienced first-hand the extreme dehumanization and abuse common to life inside a psychiatric hospital:

“The patient is deprived of many of his legal rights by dint of his psychiatric commitment.  He is shorn of credibility by virtue of his psychiatric label.  His freedom of movement is restricted.  He cannot initiate contact with the staff, but may only respond to such overtures as they make.  Personal privacy is minimal.  Patient quarters and possessions can be entered and examined by any staff member, for whatever reason.  His personal hygiene and waste evacuation are often monitored.  The water closets have no doors.”

 “At times, depersonalization reached such proportions that pseudopatients had the sense that they were invisible, or at least unworthy of account. On the ward, attendants delivered verbal and occasionally serious physical abuse to patients in the presence of others (the pseudopatients) who were writing it all down.  Abusive behaviour, on the other hand, terminated quite abruptly when other staff members were known to be coming.  Staff are credible witnesses.  Patients are not.”

 “During my own experience, one patient was beaten in the presence of other patients for having approached an attendant and told him, “I like you.”  Occasionally, punishment meted out to patients for misdemeanors seemed so excessive that it could not be justified by the most rational interpretations of  psychiatric cannon.  Tempers were often short.  A patient who had not heard a call for medication would be roundly excoriated, and the morning attendants would often wake patients with things like, “Come on, you m_ _ _ _ _ f _ _ _ _ _ s, out of bed!””

 While Rosenhan acknowledged the role of inadequate funds and understaffing in precipitating such abuses, this was not the whole story. After all, similar behaviour occurred even in well-funded private hospitals. Instead, Rosenhan attributed the extreme depersonalization of psychiatric patients to the severe lack of interaction between patients and staff. According to the pseudopatients’ notes, much of the staff’s time was spent inside a glass-walled enclosure known as “the cage,” with attendants spending only 11% of their shifts interacting with patients. Nurses were even less available, briefly emerging only 11 times per shift, and physicians scarcer still, emerging 9 times per shift.

“That [these attitudes] affect the professionals…who treat and deal with the mentally ill is more disconcerting, both because such attitudes are self-evidently pernicious and because they are unwitting.  Most mental health professionals would insist that they are sympathetic toward the mentally ill, that they are neither avoidant nor hostile.  But it is more likely that an exquisite ambivalence characterizes their relations with psychiatric patients, such that their avowed impulses are only part of their entire attitude.  Negative attitudes are there too and can easily be detected.  Such attitudes should not surprise us.  They are the natural offspring of the labels patients wear and the places in which they are found.”  

When Rosenhan and the others were finally released, they had spent an average of 19 days in hospital. The diagnostic Catch-22 behind their release was later described by Rosenhan in an interview with the BBC:

“I told friends, I told my family: “I can get out when I can get out. That’s all. I’ll be there for a couple of days and I’ll get out.” Nobody knew I’d be there for two months … The only way out was to point out that the psychiatrists are correct. They had said I was insane, “I am insane; but I am getting better.” That was an affirmation of their view of me.  If I was to be discharged, I must naturally be “in remission”; but I was not sane, nor, in the institution’s view, had I ever been sane.”

 On learning of Rosenhan’s deception, the infiltrated hospitals challenged Rosenhan to send more pseudopatients, confident in the ability of their doctors to spot them. Rosenhan agreed, even sending a score sheet with a 10-point scale on which doctors could grade their suspicion of a particular patient. Over the next several months the hospitals scrutinized a total of 193 newly-admitted patients, confidently pronouncing 41 of them to be impostors. But then, to their utter embarrassment, Rosenhan dropped a bombshell: he hadn’t sent any.

When in Rosenhan’s article appeared in Science in January 1973, it sent shockwaves through the psychiatric community. His results appeared to undermine the last great revolution in psychiatric diagnosis: the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM. Created in 1952, the DSM was intended to replace the often arbitrary and esoteric diagnoses of the psychoanalytic tradition with diagnostic criteria based on real-world statistics and clear, observable symptoms. No longer would a patient be diagnosed on the basis of a single symptom or their family history; in order to be diagnosed with a given disorder, a patient had to simultaneously display a certain number of symptoms statistically associated with that disorder. While this system was meant to drastically improve the reliability and usefulness of psychiatric diagnoses, the Rosenhan Experiment revealed that in practice, psychiatric labels were just as arbitrary – and harmful – as ever. As Rosenhan explained in his article:

Whenever the ratio of what is known to what needs to be known approaches zero, we tend to invent “knowledge” and assume that we understand more than we actually do.  We seem unable to acknowledge that we simply don’t know.  The needs for diagnosis and remediation of behavioural and emotional problems are enormous.  But rather than acknowledge that we are just embarking on understanding, we continue to label patients “schizophrenic,” “manic-depressive,” and “insane,” as if in those words we captured the essence of understanding.  The facts of the matter are that we have known for a long time that diagnoses are often not useful or reliable, but we have nevertheless continued to use them.  We now know that we cannot distinguish sanity from insanity.  It is depressing to consider how that information will be used.”  

 As a remedy, Rosenhan advocated a move away from the traditional institutional model of psychiatric care and towards:

“…[the] proliferation of community mental health facilities, of crisis intervention centers, of the human potential movement, and of behaviour therapies that, for all of their own problems, tend to avoid psychiatric labels, to focus on specific problems and behaviours, and to retain the individual in a relatively non-pejorative environment.” 

 The Rosenhan Experiment was highly influential, and helped to further speed  the de-institutionalization movement started by the introduction of antipsychotic drugs in the 1950s. By the end of the 1980s most of the large State Hospitals had been emptied and shuttered, with the majority of patients being treated in community health centres or psychiatric wards in regular hospitals.

Yet despite its fame and influence, the Rosenhan Experiment soon drew vehement criticism for its allegedly manipulative and unscientific methodology. In the most damning of these critiques, published in Nature in 1975, Robert Spitzer outright dismisses the Rosenhan Experiment as pseudoscience, arguing that the study was designed in such a manner as to invariably confirm Rosenhan’s own preconceptions. In particular, Spitzer points out that despite Rosenhan’s claims,

“The pseudopatients did not behave normally in the hospital. Had their behaviour been normal, they would have walked to the nurses’ station and said ‘Look, I am a normal person who tried to see if I could get into the hospital by behaving in a crazy way or saying crazy things. It worked and I was admitted to the hospital, but now I would like to be discharged from the hospital.””

In other words, as the pseudopatients’ behaviour was deliberately intended to fool the hospital staff, it is hardly surprising that they succeeded. After all, as Spitzer points out, aside from cases of malingering – wherein a patient pretends to be ill in order to, for example, score narcotic drugs – there is little reason for doctors to doubt the authenticity of a patient’s reported symptoms. Thus, the fact that the hospital staff did not suspect the pseudopatients of feigning their illnesses says little about the reliability of psychiatric diagnosis:

“If I were to drink a quart of blood and, concealing what I had done, come to the emergency room of any hospital vomiting blood, the behavior of the staff would be quite predictable. If they labeled and treated me as having a bleeding peptic ulcer, I doubt that I could argue convincingly that medical science does not know how to diagnose that condition.”

Spitzer goes on to dismantle nearly all Rosenhan’s interpretations of the staff’s behaviour, pointing out, for example, that nurses’ notes like  the infamous “engages in writing behaviour” are not diagnostic but instead used to update other staff on a patient’s daily activities. He also points out that the term “in remission” is almost never used to classify schizophrenic patients upon discharge, indicating that the hospital staff had in fact acknowledged that the pseudopatients were no longer suffering from any detectable mental illness. Indeed, Spitzer challenges Rosenhan’s foundational assertion that “schizophrenia” is a permanent, lifelong diagnosis, pointing out that the DSM acknowledges that the disorder can – and often does – go away, never to return. And while acknowledging that other symptoms typically present alongside hallucinations, he concludes:

“I would hope that if I had been one of the 12 psychiatrists presented with such a patient, I would have been struck by the lack of other signs of the disorder, but I am rather sure that having no reason to doubt the authenticity of the patients’ claim of auditory hallucinations, I also would have been fooled into noting schizophrenia as the most likely diagnosis.”

 More recently, in her 2019 book The Great Pretender, author Susannah Cahalan claims that the little data Rosenhan presents in his 1973 article conflicts with that in his original notes, with key statistics such as the length of pseudopatients’ stays or the number of patients at each hospital being altered in the final publication. In addition, despite an extensive search, she was unable to track down any of the original pseudopatients, leading her to suspect that they had, in fact, been invented by Rosenhan.

And so it is that the Rosenhan Experiment joins the pantheon of  extremely influential but fundamentally flawed psychological studies, along with the likes of the Milgram Obedience Experiment, the Stanford Prison Experiment, and the Robber’s Cave Experiment. Yet for all its flaws, it cannot be denied that Rosenhan’s stunt was instrumental in bringing about a more humane and personal era of mental healthcare. And the fear of institutionalization and dehumanization, perhaps best expressed by evolutionary biologist T.H. Huxley in 1893, are still with us to this day:

“One of the unpardonable sins, in the eyes of most people, is for man to go about unlabeled. The world regards such a person as the police do an unmuzzled dog, not under proper control.”

If you liked this article, you might also enjoy our new popular podcast, The BrainFood Show (iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Feed), as well as:

Expand for References

 

Rosenhan, David, On Being Sane in Insane Places, https://web.archive.org/web/20041117175255/http://web.cocc.edu/lminorevans/on_being_sane_in_insane_places.htm

 

Myers, David, Psychology, Worth Publishers, NY, 2004

 

Abbott, Alison, On the Troubling Trail of Psychiatry’s Pseudopatients Stunt, Nature, October 29, 2019, https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-03268-y

 

Spitzer, Robert, Pseudoscience in Science, Logic in Remission, and Psychiatric Diagnosis: A Critique of Rosenhan’s “On Being Sane in Insane Places”, Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 1975, Vol.84, No. 5, 442-452, https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/57c8/aa6e7101b6cb7f1db2076401318cdb60b0c1.pdf?_ga=2.140566450.1217741913.1612541771-688871321.1612541771

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How Hitler’s Flatulence Helped End WWII

After the Second World War, a common joke was that Adolf Hitler was the best general the Allies ever had. His string of disastrous decisions, from halting his forces around Dunkirk, delaying his invasion of Russia, and refusing to pull the 6th Army out of Stalingrad, handed the advantage to his enemies time and time again – to the point that Operation Foxley, a 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler at his home in the Bavarian Alps, was cancelled for fear the Fuhrer would be replaced by a more competent leader.  But while Hitler’s military judgement was shaky from the start, it grew significantly worse as the war dragged on and the Fuhrer’s mental and physical health sharply declined. In April 1945, while Hitler was holed up in his Berlin Fuhrerbunker as the Red Army closed in on the city, SS doctor Ernst-Günther Schenck remembered being shocked at the leader’s condition, describing him as a “living corpse, a dead soul.”

 “His spine was hunched, his shoulder blades protruded from his bent back, and he collapsed his shoulders like a turtle.… I was looking into the eye of death.”

 Shuffling and stumbling around like a man far older than his 56 years, his hands trembling so violently he could no longer write his own name, and his mood swinging wildly between wild euphoria and unstoppable rage, the once vigorous leader of Nazi Germany had become a mental and physical wreck, a mere shell of his former self whose irrational decisions likely helped end the Second World War far earlier than it otherwise would have. But what caused this dramatic collapse? For decades historians and medical professionals have proposed a variety of candidates for Hitler’s particular ailments, from Parkinson’s to tertiary neurosyphilis, but there may be another, even stranger explanation, and it all has to do with Adolf Hitler being extremely gassy.

The Third Reich, as fanatically driven by ideology as it was, was always a mess of contradictions. Though Nazi ideology lionized the blonde, blue-eyed Aryan, few top Nazis – including Heinrich Himmler, Martin Bormann, Herman Göring, Josef Göbels, and Hitler himself remotely resembled this ideal. Even the infamous SS, the organization most obsessed with racial purity, eventually recruited entire legions of Muslims from the Balkans and Hindus and Sikhs from India into its ranks. But perhaps the most surprising contradiction of all was that Hitler’s personal doctor, Theodor Morell, the man with arguably the greatest and most intimate access to the Fuhrer, was half-Jewish. Born in 1886, the balding, overweight Morell served as a ship’s doctor and Army physician during WWI before establishing a general practice on Berlin’s fashionable Kurfürstendamm street. There he amassed a clientele of mainly wealthy high-society patients whose mostly non-existent ailments responded well to flattery, homeopathy, and a variety of elaborate quack cures Morell concocted himself. Hitler met Morell by chance at a Christmas party in 1936, and while the doctor repelled the Fuhrer’s inner circle with his poor hygiene, repulsive body odour, and unpleasant demeanour, Hitler took an instant liking to him as he promised to cure one of the leader’s most long-standing and embarrassing health complaints.

Hitler had suffered from digestive issues his entire life, alternating between crippling bouts of stomach cramps, diarrhea, constipation, and uncontrollable flatulence that often forced him to leave official functions in a hurry. For a leader obsessed with image and expected to attend countless such functions and deliver speeches in public, it was a serious problem. These issues prompted Hitler to become a vegetarian in the early 1930s, eliminating meat, milk, butter, and other rich foods from his diet in favour of vegetables and whole grains. But while this diet likely reduced the odour of Hitler’s flatulence, the increased fibre intake only made the problem worse, eventually leading Hitler, who did not trust doctors, to seek out Dr. Morell’s assistance.

At first, Morell prescribed the Fuhrer a medication called Mutaflor, a precursor to modern probiotics. Said to be made from the excrement of “Bulgarian peasants of the most vigorous stock,” the pills claimed to replace the “bad” gut bacteria of city living with the “good” bacteria of hard-working, clean-living country folk. While these pills seem tailor-made for Hitler’s troubles, Morell owned stock in the company and prescribed them to all his patients whether they had intestinal complaints or not. To accompany this treatment, Morell also prescribed Hitler two of Dr. Koester’s Anti-Gas Pills with every meal. At first Hitler’s flatulence did seem to become more intermittent, prompting the jubilant Fuhrer to exclaim:

“Nobody has ever before told me so clearly and precisely what is wrong with me. His method of cure is so logical that I have the greatest confidence in him. I shall follow his prescription to the letter.”  

It is more than likely, however, that this improvement was merely the product of the placebo effect, for Hitler’s bouts of intestinal distress tended to coincide with periods of high stress. Nonetheless, Morell had gained Hitler’s confidence and became a valued member of his inner circle. But while Morell’s medical interventions were initially limited to diet tips and gut pills, he soon began prescribing the Fuhrer a dizzying array of enzymes, animal extracts, hormones, painkillers, sedatives, and stimulants along with secret injections of his own concoction which he vaguely described as containing “vitamins.” By 1941, Hitler was taking 63 different pills containing 92 different drugs at a rate of 150 pills per week. While Hitler’s inner circle grew increasingly suspicious of Morell’s quackery, Hitler continued to swear by him, the Doctor travelling with the Fuhrer everywhere he went – even as far as the Wolf’s Lair, his forward headquarters in East Prussia. Meanwhile, Morell’s high position in the Nazi establishment allowed him to acquire pharmaceutical companies in conquered territories to mass-produce his various health tonics, netting him millions.

Yet Morell’s intense drug regimen did little to improve Hitler’s overall health, and as the Fuhrer continued to suffer from bouts of intestinal distress, irritability, insomnia and fatigue, Morell was forced to alternate between medications such as morphine and laxatives or stimulants and sedatives to keep his symptoms on an even keel.

Among the first to suspect that Morell’s drug cocktails, if not directly responsible for Hitler’s ills, were at least making them worse, was Dr. Erwin Giesing, who decided to actually examine the contents of the doctor’s favourite anti-gas pills. What he discovered shocked him: the active ingredients on the tin included strychnine, commonly used in rat poison, and atropine, another toxin used as a heart medication. While Morell had only prescribed two pills per meal, Hitler ate them like candy, taking as many as six at a time. Was it possible that Hitler was being slowly poisoned by his gut pills? When informed of the pills’ contents, Hitler was unfazed, explaining:

“I myself always thought they were just charcoal tablets for soaking up my intestinal gases, and I always felt rather pleasant after taking them.”

And despite Dr. Giesing’s dire warnings about the other drugs Morell was prescribing him, Hitler refused to listen, dismissing Giesing for daring to contradict his favourite physician. In any case, an analysis of the pills revealed levels of strychnine and atropine too low to have any serious effect, so while the pills might not have been helping Hitler, they probably weren’t hurting him either. Morell’s daily “vitamin” injections, however, were a different matter entirely.

By 1941, Hitler was receiving an injection in bed every morning as part of his daily routine. While Morell always maintained that his cocktails contained nothing but glucose and vitamins, Hitler’s reaction to them tells a very different story. Within minutes, the injections would transform the Fuhrer from exhausted and groggy to alert, euphoric and chatty – a state that lasted for several hours afterward. This effect is consistent not with glucose, but amphetamines. Amphetamine use was common in Nazi Germany, with German troops being issued a type of oral methamphetamine called Pervitin to increase alertness and stamina and reduce combat fatigue. It is believed that Pervitin was a a key factor in allowing German forces to steamroller across France in only six weeks in the summer of 1940. However, it is now known that amphetamines are highly addictive, and as the war ground on and Germany’s situation deteriorated Hitler required larger and more frequent doses to overcome his body’s tolerance to the drug. By 1944 Hitler was receiving two injections a day of 16cc each – a 700-fold increase from when he first started. And with this increasing dependence came the classic symptoms of amphetamine abuse: insomnia, loss of appetite, euphoria, irritability, paranoia, impulsiveness, and wild mood swings – all of which severely affected his ability to make rational decisions in a time of crisis. In the final months of the war this rigid, stubborn thinking led Hitler to issue endless futile “no retreat” orders that resulted in hundreds of thousands of German troops being needlessly killed or captured. At the battle of Stalingrad alone, 800,000 troops were killed and 90,000 marched off to captivity, where all but 6000 perished.

Heavy amphetamine use also took a toll on Hitler’s body, with historians attributing his tremors and extreme weakness in his final days to a series of strokes or heart attacks – an extremely unlikely occurrence for a healthy 56-year-old. Given his terrible physical condition, it is likely that had he not killed himself on April 30, 1945, Hitler would have died of another stroke or heart attack shortly thereafter.

Theodor Morell remained at Hitler’s side almost to the very end, spending the last days of the war holed up in the Fuhrerbunker along with the rest of the Nazi high command. But on April 21, 1945, Morell approached the Fuhrer with one of his daily injections only for Hitler to angrily fire him on the spot. While the rest of his inner circle had planned to flee to the Bavarian alps, Hitler refused, insisting on remaining in his capital city and committing suicide before the Russians took over. Consequently, he grew paranoid that his subordinates – especially Morell – would conspire to drug him and spirit him away. The dismissal came as a relief to Morell, who boarded an evacuation flight along with other Nazi officials and successfully managed flee the city. He was captured by American forces in July, but after it was determined he had committed no war crimes he was released. Hitler’s eccentric, incompetent personal doctor lived on for another three years, finally dying of a stroke in May 1948.

Wars and battles are never lost or won by a single factor, but seemingly small factors can have outsized effects. While it is likely Nazi Germany’s plans of European conquest were doomed from the start, the effects of Dr. Theodor Morell’s injections on the Fuhrer’s mental and physical health lead to a chain of increasingly poor decisions that ultimately hastened its demise. And all because Adolf Hitler farted like a horse.

If you liked this article, you might also enjoy our new popular podcast, The BrainFood Show (iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Feed), as well as:

Bonus Fact

 While the Nazis were perfectly happy to pump their soldiers and even their beloved Fuhrer full of meth and cocaine, there was one stimulating substance that they did not tolerate: caffeine. Strange as it may seem, the Third Reich was one of the first large-scale adopters of the relatively new invention of decaffeinated coffee, whose consumption was promoted as official government policy. Nazi doctrine called for citizens to adopt a healthy, natural lifestyle in order to produce a stronger, more virile Aryan race, encouraging them to exercise regularly and avoid alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine. And decaf coffee was the ideal tool with which to promote these ideals.

The first decaffeination process was developed 30 years earlier by Ludwig Roselius, who discovered that a shipment of coffee beans which had become soaked in seawater had somehow been stripped of its caffeine. After patenting the process in 1905, Roselius founded his own company, Kaffee HAG, which sold decaffeinated coffee under the brand name Sanka, short for the French “Sans-Caféine.” 

 While Sanka sold well throughout the 1910s and 1920s, it wasn’t until the rise of the Nazis that its popularity truly took off, the product being promoted in official propaganda and served in large quantities at Nazi rallies, festivals, and other government-sponsored events. But not all of this success was strictly due to government involvement. Despite their best efforts, Nazi attempts to reduce smoking and alcohol consumption were unsuccessful, and it is likely that Sanka’s popularity was due more to its status as a luxury product than its supposed health benefits. And if the irony of the Nazis shunning coffee while embracing meth wasn’t enough, Roselius’ decaffeination process left behind traces of Benzene, a far more toxic substance than caffeine even in small quantities.

Whatever the reasons for its popularity, after the war Sanka and other brands of decaf coffee became worldwide bestsellers, taking their place alongside Fanta as an unexpectedly long-lived culinary legacy of the Third Reich.

Expand for References

Nambi, Karthick, The Man Who Drugged Hitler – Dr. Theodor Morell, Medium, https://medium.com/lessons-from-history/the-man-who-drugged-hitler-dr-theodor-morell-2375fb8bb5ff

 How Hitler’s Flatulence May Have Helped End WWII Earlier Than it Otherwise Would Have, Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader, July 18, 2016, http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2016/07/hitlers-flatulance/

 

Sedacca, Matthew, Why the Nazi Party Loved Decaf Coffee, Atlas Obscura, November 15, 2017, https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/decaf-coffee-nazi-party

 

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How do The Persians Teach Alexander the Great and When Did He First Become “Great”?

We’ve all heard of him. Alexander the Great has been for many centuries a household name in much of the world- an impressive feat for a king who’s been dead for two millenia and reigned only for a little over a decade.

In western countries, his defeat of the Persian Empire in the 320s BC has often been depicted as bringing culture to barbarian lands. And thus, the events of his life are put in a context of the clash between East and West.

As you can imagine, however, there is another side to the story and indeed, to history: the one of the defeated Persians. And if you have seen our video on how the Crusades are taught in these regions, we are always interested in discussing what a historical event we might know from one point of view looked like from the other side.  So how do the defeated peoples view Alexander and who first called him “Great” anyway?

To begin with a little background to his “greatness”- as king Alexander III of Macedon, Alexander ruled from 336 to 323 BC. He was born as the son of king Philipp II, came into power when he was 20 years old, and died thirteen years later as a living legend, undefeated in battle but brought to heel only by an unidentified sickness.

During his short reign, he managed the unthinkable: Not only did he secure the unity of the Greek nations under his banner, but he also went on to begin a streak of conquests so successful, the world would arguably never see their like again – though not for lack of trying. In fact, despite many anecdotes highlighting different aspects of his character – such as cutting the unsolvable Gordian knot – Alexander might be best-known for being a major role-model for a huge number of significant historical figures that came after.

Not just admired after death, generally the first in line of battle, he was reportedly loved by the soldiers and heralded as an example of excellent leadership. From his practice of literally leading his men into battle, unsurprisingly, he was almost killed countless times and regularly got injured trying to imitate his personal hero, Achilles. One of many examples of this comes from the siege of a Malian city along the Indus river in the winter of 325, when Alexander grabbed a ladder and led his men up it himself. The ladder broke and he found himself alone on top of a wall. Instead of jumping back down to safety, he dove inside the city with only two comrades. Somehow, he survived the ordeal, walking away with nothing but an arrow in the chest. Naturally, his comrades and even enemy were impressed at his boldness and courage.

For his people, who had their entire world established around the shores of the east Mediterranean, the experience of reaching lands previously unheard of  – up to the Indus river! – seemed like a mythical experience happening in their lifetime. The very fact that Alexander’s military achievements surpassed anything the Greeks had hitherto known also made a big difference in propelling him to godhood.

This went right down to performing miracles, like reports of the sea retreating to let him pass through near Phaselis or being greeted as the son of Ammon-Zeus by priests in Egypt. In other instances, he was shown to even surpass other gods, for example during the attack on the Aornos fortress that according to legend, even Heracles could not conquer.

The worship of Alexander is a complex phenomenon. Although it was based on an existing tradition, it still differs from both his immediate predecessors and later developments. His cult was established in many cities in Asia Minor, probably already during his campaign in response to his achievements and his benefactions.

An important difference from the cult of both earlier mortals and that of later kings is the wide diffusion, popularity and persistence of Alexander’s worship, which in some places lasted until the Christian era.

Moving on from his boldness, Alexander was also a savvy politician. The attack on the Persians was strongly portrayed as Just Vengeance of the Greek Peoples (of whom Alexander was declaring himself leader) in response to the Persian attacks of Xerxes and Darius against Greece 150 years earlier. These were the Persian Wars of 490 to 479 BC with the whole big fuss about Marathon and “this is Sparta”, which were very traumatizing for the Greek subconscious. Thus, by getting revenge for this, he helped unite these groups under his banner.

Alexander’s revenge policy culminated in perhaps the most hideous act Alexander the Great committed during his illustrious career, a deed he allegedly regretted after the fact: Namely, the burning of Persepolis, the symbolic capital and sacred ground of the Persian kings.

By ancient historians, it was regarded as a political act, a sort of “mission accomplished” move in direct vengeful parallel to the burning of Athens by Xerxes in 480 BC. In an effort to remove the blame from Alexander, some also accuse an Athenian girl of having proposed this during the feast, with the troops burning the ancient city under the influence of alcohol, and with sobriety came Alexander’s regret. Of course, it is very convenient that gold and other valuables were removed from the city first in a very orderly, non-drunken fashion in preparation for the destruction…

Another thing to chalk up to earning the “Great” moniker was his pivotal role is the formation of the so-called Hellenistic World, which now consisted of all of the eastern Mediterranean, including Egypt and Syria. These regions, although holding on to their traditional values (see the maccabees) participated in the new Greek and later Roman civilization and helped in the distribution of historically significant ideas and even religion.

 Unsurprisingly, conquering the known and partially unknown world in a series of victories that stretch from the Danube to the Punjab and the Indus river without being defeated once, all the while living life to the fullest- fighting by day and partying at night- until his sudden death – all between the age of 20 and 33, won him the epithet ‘the Great’.

However, it wasn’t the Greeks that came up with the moniker, but the Romans, as the first known historian to call him that was Quintus Curtius Rufus, a 1st century AD historian. And the earliest mention we have of Alexander Magnus (‘the Great’ in Latin) is in a play written by Titus Maccius Plautus around 200 BC, so more than a hundred years after the death of Alexander.

But the name stuck and is an indicator of the Alexander hype having reached the young and growing Roman Empire. On the note, many historically significant imitators came after, such as the Roman general Pompey the Great, who not only adopted the same epithet ‘Magnus’ but also Alexander’s hairdo. He also imitated Alexander in other aspects of his life, such as the friendly attitude towards his subordinates or his habit of naming cities after himself- a fact still visible in places like Pablona, Spain, which comes from  Pompeiopolis, the camp of Pompeius during the civil war against Sartorius, around 75 BC.

In his biography of Caesar, Plutarch also states that when Caesar was reading from the history of Alexander, he burst into tears realizing he could never accomplish what Alexander had accomplished by the age of 33.

Moving on from there, Octavian, the future first emperor Augustus, visited Alexandria in 31 BC after defeating Cleopatra. There, Suetonius informs us, he made a great deal out of honoring Alexander’s grave by reverently placing a golden crown there. When his guides asked if he would also like to view other important tombs of the Ptolemies – the last Pharaohs – he abruptly dismissed the suggestion by saying that ‘he came because he wanted to see a king, not dead men”.

(In Latin: “regem se voluisse ait videre, non mortuos” – Suetonius,  Augustus. 18)

But that’s the western perspective- how was Alexander perceived and taught by the people he conquered and those in the region that came after?

To begin with, very quickly following Alexander’s conquest, some of the Persians regrouped to form the Parthian empire – more or less around today’s Iran – then bordering the Hellenistic world and its later Roman successors to their west. From their point of view, they did not necessarily distinguish between the terms Greek kingdoms and Roman empire, as to their eyes these two belonged to the same cultural group.

In 224 AD, a revolution brought a change in the name and attitude of the empire. Namely it saw the rise of what would become the archnemesis of the Roman empire: the Sassanids. Their policy was a conscious callback to the good old days and aimed to revive the glory of the Achaemenid empire – the one that Alexander conquered over 500 years prior – implying their intention to reclaim all the lands that were once part of said empire and which now lay deep within the Roman domain.

The Sassanids’ declared maxim could be seen in all forms of expression, as a renaissance of Achaemenid art and style. Even archaism in language was all around. To understand this anachronistic tendency, imagine an English person walking around downtown Manhattan in colonial clothes and speaking Shakespearean English. He’s either a history geek cosplayer, or… he’s up to something. Now imagine a whole culture doing this.

Some of the things the Sassanids revived would remain very important elements in Eastern symbols, such as the crescent moon and star, then reappearing on coins and monuments as elements of the Sassanid king’s crown.

A common theme that emerged was that the valuable centers of their religion were destroyed by the troops of Alexander the Great. Tales of Alexander paying respects to the founder of the Achaemenids, king Cyrus, or other noble behavior meant little for the Magi – the Zoroastrian priesthood – for whom the destruction was nothing short of a calamity. And according to the Iranians, the desolation did not just extend to the temples but had also ravaged sacred scripture as well. The Avesta, the holy book of Zoroastrianism, was said to have been lost in the destruction of Persepolis.

From the early Sassanid period onwards, Alexander is referred to by the epithet gujastak in Persian literature, meaning “accursed”. A famous book stemming from around the 3rd or 4th Century, Ardaviraf-Namak, tells of a valuable copy of the Avesta in the Achaemenid archives in Persepolis that was destroyed by “Alexander of the Romans“ (as alluded to, Roman and Greek were regarded as the same.)

From their side, an ideological spearpoint was – similar to propaganda Alexander himself had used to get revenge upon the Persians- the idea of vengeance; seeking to rectify the sacrilege of Alexander who had burned Persepolis and destroyed the sacred texts of Ahura mazda, the sacred Avestas.

From the Roman side, clashes with the Parthians had become routine, but now, suddenly… it became an ideological matter.

This was quickly felt from Ardashir and Shapur, the first two rulers of the Sassanids,  infamous to the Romans as a constant threat. They even managed to capture the Roman Emperor Valerian in 260 AD, who thus became the first Roman emperor to be taken as a prisoner of war, causing shockwaves in the Roman world.

All of this came with an unexpected benefit, however. In early medieval times, many works of literature and science were lost due to the decayed interest in things that were not purely about praising the emperor or dealing with religious matters.

A main way much of the ancient knowledge was saved, was a trend of translating Latin and Greek authors to Middle Persian and later into Arabic. The beginning of this trend has a surprising link to the propaganda against Alexander the Great.

A first systematic interest in translations of works of scientists and philosophers in the Middle East can be traced back to the time of the Sassanid Persian Empire. The Sassanid ideology up to the 6th century AD emphasized the superiority of the Persian tradition, and explained the advances of other rival states – such as the East Roman Empire (Byzantium) – as knowledge scattered from ancient Persia. Namely, they accused Alexander the Great of stealing the ancient Persian knowledge from the palatial library – where the sacred books were kept – to the later benefit of the Greeks.

This rhetoric was linked with the ties that the Sassanids tried to form to Achaemenid Persia and was useful politically during the constant conflicts with the Roman and Byzantine Empires.

This way, the Sassanids saw themselves as guardians of the ancient knowledge that was returning from Roman territory to the Middle East, where according to their view, it had initially originated. Thus a nationalistic propaganda that actually saved books for a change!

This transfer often happened in the form of books brought by Nestorian refugees, former citizens of the Roman and Byzantine Empire, who established schools within the Sassanid Persian Empire, for example in Jundishapur, where they were involved mainly in medicine but also dealt with other philosophical subjects. (This trend would continue later by the Arabic-speaking Abbasid dynasties.)

But what about Iran today? What do they think of Alexander and his supposed greatness? Does it follow their Sassanid predecessors in the criticism of Alexander? Well, yes and no.

Alexander of Macedon is again portrayed as the destroyer of their ancient empire, but since other parts of their history are far more focused on for political or religious reasons, these events are not typically greatly discussed in the education system.

One of the reasons is that the revival of the nationalistic Persian pride around the Achaemenid empire was undertaken by the Shah of Persia, the one that the Iranian Islamic revolution of 1979 overthrew.

In 1967, he had taken the title Shah-en-shah, or ‘King of Kings’ that the ancient Persian kings had carried before. As part of his efforts to modernise Iran and give the Iranian people a non-Islamic identity, he began the effort to celebrate Iranian history before the Arab conquest. An effort culminating in the celebrations at Persepolis in 1971 for the 2500th anniversary of the coronation of Cyrus the Great, the first Achaemenid king. This celebration was criticized by Khomeini and his followers who would later found the islamic republic, and who called it the “Devil’s Festival”.

So, in the end here, it is not like the Achaemenid Empire has disappeared from the national identity – far from it. But it is not necessarily in the foreground, as the Islamic republic has other things they want to focus on.

More specifically, in the modern Iranian standard school books, Alexander does appear somewhat prominently in three subjects.

The first reference comes from the Social Studies textbook taught in primary years, which include the discussion of Iran’s historical sites, including Persepolis. Alexander’s successors in Persia and the dissemination of Greek customs and language are mentioned, but the expedition itself, its battles, or even the burning of Persepolis is completely missing.

In the 7th grade (so concerning around 12-year-olds) the Persian empire is presented analytically and so is the invasion of Greece, but no mention is given to the burning of Athens. Here the invasion of Alexander is described in some detail.

It is similarly treated within the 4th grade of secondary education (age 15).

As Fatima Faridi Majid noted, “In all, the Iranian books do not report the destructions in Greece such as the burning of Athens, although they admit the weakness of the Achaemenids, to which they ascribe Alexander’s conquests, and also mention the burning of Persepolis and other cities more than once. For Iranians, the Persian Wars and Alexander’s conquest of Persia are generally seen as short interludes in their long, turbulent history.”

Therefore, Alexander’s deeds are seen as an act of foregn infiltration, but it is not as big an issue as, say, the Crusades. As other issues have become prevalent, it is no longer as important as it was for their ancestors, the Sassanids.

Of course, the negative depictions are not necessarily representative of the Alexander tradition, as he was integrated into myths and legends of various peoples, as a semi-mythical king or personality.

And so, even in Persia, the mythical aspect prevailed. This is best seen in the Persian 11th century poet Farrukhi Sistani, in the introduction of some Alexander stories:

“The acts of Sikander (Alexander),

The tale of his exploits and of where he went

Have so much been heard by men wide and far,

His story now is known to all by heart.”

As Mendeghi in a 2018 article mentions, “To give an example of the popularity of Alexander’s story in the Persian tradition, it is worth mentioning that in Khāqānī’s twelfth-century Dīvāns and Farrukhī’s and ‘Unṣurī’s eleventh-century Dīvāns alone, Alexander and his deeds are mentioned more than 30 times.”

One of the most important works of literature of the Persian language, the 11th century epic Shahnameh (“The Book of Kings”) by Firdausi includes Alexander in a line of legitimate Persian shahs, a mythical figure who explored the far reaches of the world in search of the Fountain of Youth.

The trend of connecting mythical elements with Alexander began soon after his death. One such example is that when Lysander, a general of his, heard a story in his late years that Alexander had met with the queen of the Amazons, he ironically answered, “and where was I during this?”

Contemporary philosophers noticed the increasing mythical elements of the historical occurrences of Alexander, in both high and popular literature. Some were smart enough to recognize that they were witnessing the birth of legends and future myths.

One of these was the philosopher Euhemerus, who asserted that the origin of the Greek gods was likely similar, and that must have been kings or benefactors to the people, who had thus earned a claim to the veneration of their subjects. His most extreme  example was that the highest Greek god, Zeus, was originally a king of Crete, who had been a great conqueror. This rationalizing method of interpretation is named after this philosopher and now known as “euhemerism” and is considered one of the first schools of atheism.

In the end, Alexander the Great does in many ways live up to his epithet, as the prime example of how a historical personality can inspire numerous generations across several cultures and in the end continued to change history in significant ways long after his death owing to his many imitators who sought to mimic and outdo their idol.

If you liked this article, you might also enjoy our new popular podcast, The BrainFood Show (iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Feed), as well as:

Expand for References

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander_the_Great/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Book_of_Arda_Viraf

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mohammad_Reza_Pahlavi

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Euhemerism

https://www.bloomsburycollections.com/book/alexander-the-great-in-the-persian-tradition-history-myth-and-legend-in-medieval-iran/introduction?from=search

Majid, Fatemeh-Koutlaki, Sofia. 2016. One Event, Two Readings: A look at Alexander’s Expedition to Iran in Iranian and Greek History Books

Manteghi, H. (2018). Introduction. In Alexander the Great in the Persian Tradition: History, Myth and Legend in Medieval Iran (pp. 1–9). London • New York: I.B.Tauris. Retrieved December 19, 2020, from http://dx.doi.org/10.5040/9781350985230.0008

The post How do The Persians Teach Alexander the Great and When Did He First Become “Great”? appeared first on Today I Found Out.

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WTF Fun Fact 12727 – Steven Jay Russell Escaped Prison Multiple Times

Steven Jay Russell escaped the law peacefully many times. Click to read the full fact.

The post WTF Fun Fact 12727 – Steven Jay Russell Escaped Prison Multiple Times appeared first on WTF Fun Facts.

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I’ll Do It Myself- The Greatest Feat of Piloting in Space

On April 9, 1959, the newly-formed National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA, introduced the world to a new breed of heroes: the Mercury Seven, America’s first astronauts. Selected from a pool of over 500 military test pilots, these men represented the best the nation had to offer, and its best hope in the intensifying Space Race against the Soviets. Almost immediately, the Mercury Seven became national heroes: on May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard would became the first American in space, while on February 20, 1962, John Glenn would become the first American to orbit the earth, a feat which catapulted him to superstardom. But among these early pioneers was an astronaut who, while less well-known to the public, would become a legend in the aviation community. His name was Gordo Cooper.

Leroy Gordon Cooper Jr. is probably best remembered for his portrayal by actor Dennis Quaid in the 1983 film The Right Stuff. In the film, Cooper is portrayed as a cocky fighter jock with an easy smile and the catchphrase “Who’s the best pilot you ever saw? Well, you’re looking at him.” However, the real Coope was considerably more soft-spoken and taciturn than his Hollywood counterpart. Born on March 6, 1927, in Shawnee, Oklahoma, Cooper first learned to fly in his father’s biplane, soloing at age 12 and earning his pilot’s license at 16. As the Army and Navy flying schools were no longer taking candidates, Cooper instead joined the Marine Corps, but WWII ended before he could see active service. After living in Hawaii where he met his first wife Trudy Olson, Cooper finally received military flight training at Williams Air Fire Base in Arizona and in 1950 was posted to Landstuhl Air Base, West Germany. In 1956, Cooper attended the US Air Force Experimental Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base in California and spent the next three years test-flying high-performance jet aircraft.

In February 1959 Cooper was invited to participate in the gruelling medical tests to select America’s first astronauts. While he passed with flying colours, one obstacle stood in his way: his marriage. While Cooper claimed to NASA officials that he was in a stable, happy marriage, in fact Trudy had left him four months before on account of his infidelity, a rather common trend among many of these early astronauts- see the video on our sister channel TodayIFoundOut- Don Draper in a Spacesuit- The Life of Alan Shepard, but nonetheless keeping up appearances was critical. Knowing that NASA wanted to project an image of its astronauts as dependable family men, Cooper convinced Trudy to come back and keep up the charade that they were a happily married couple. With this detail sorted, Cooper passed selection. At 32, he was the youngest of the Mercury Seven.

Cooper would serve as capsule communicator for Alan Shepard’s 1961 Mercury-Redstone 3 flight and Scott Carpenter’s 1962 Mercury-Atlas 7 mission, and as backup pilot for Wally Schirra on Mercury-Atlas 8 before finally getting his chance to fly in May of 1963. Mercury-Atlas 9 was a highly ambitious flight that would see Cooper orbit the earth for an entire day – more than three times the duration of any previous mission – and push the capabilities of the Mercury spacecraft to their absolute limits. And it was a mission that very nearly didn’t happen. The previous Mercury-Atlas 8 flight had been a near-textbook mission, and many believed that NASA should end the Mercury program on a high note and move on to the more sophisticated Project Gemini. However, as all but one of the Soviet Vostok manned flights had lasted a day or more, it was decided to fly one last mission to bring the American program up to par with the Russians.

To prepare it for its marathon mission, Cooper’s Mercury Capsule, which he dubbed Faith Seven, underwent extensive modifications, including the addition of extra batteries and oxygen tanks and the removal of equipment such as the periscope to save weight. A number of scientific experiments were also planned for the flight, including the installation of a bungee cord so Cooper could exercise in orbit. Cooper was also provided with experimental freeze-dried foods to try out, which could be rehydrated using the capsule’s onboard water tank. Other experiments included testing a slow-scan TV camera, taking photographs of the Earth’s airglow layer and zodiacal light, observing a bright spotlight in South Africa, deploying a small sphere with flashing lights to test visual tracking, measuring radiation levels in orbit, and deploying a small tethered balloon to measure atmospheric drag.

The launch date for Mercury-Atlas 9 was set for May 14, 1963. But Cooper very nearly wasn’t the pilot. Two days earlier, while flying an F-106 Delta Dart, Cooper had recklessly buzzed a building where senior NASA officials were meeting. The stunt so enraged Mercury Operations Director Walt Williams that he nearly pulled Cooper off the flight in favour of his backup pilot, Alan Shepard. Nevertheless at 6:36 AM on the 14th, Cooper rode the elevator up the gantry and climbed aboard the capsule only to find an amusing gift had been left for him: a toilet plunger with a tag reading “Remove Before Flight.” It was a prank by Shepard, who, lacking any sort of urine collection system on his flight, had been forced to urinate in his spacesuit- yes the first American in space, and second human overall, did so soaking in his own urine. Unfortunately, radar problems at the Bermuda tracking station lead to the launch being scrubbed, but the next morning at 8:04 AM, Mercury-Atlas 9 roared off the pad and streaked into the sky, Cooper exclaiming: “What an afterburner!” Orbital insertion was perfect, and an hour and a half later as Faith 7 passed over Guaymas, Mexico, Mission Control announced Cooper was go for at least seven orbits.

For the first eighteen orbits, Mercury-Atlas 9 seemed like it would be another textbook mission. Indeed, the flight surgeons were astonished by how little oxygen Cooper consumed during the flight, a consequence of him being the only member of the Mercury Seven who didn’t smoke. The only major problem Cooper encountered was regulating the temperature of his space suit, an issue that had also plagued previous Mercury missions. Cooper also had difficulty transferring water into his dehydrated food packets, and reported that some of the selections, including powdered roast beef mush, were less than palatable. But with the exception of the test balloon failing to deploy, Cooper managed to carry out all his assigned experiments without incident. On his tenth orbit, Cooper also became the first astronaut to sleep in orbit, dozing heavily for around an hour before waking up over the Himalayas. On his 15th orbit, Cooper recited a prayer into his onboard voice recorder:

“I would like to take this time to say a little prayer for all the people, including myself, involved in this launch and this operation. Father, thank you, for the success we have had in flying this flight. Thank you for the privilege of being able to be in this position, to be up in this wondrous place, seeing all these many startling, wondrous things that you’ve created.”

But 29 hours into the flight, at the start of Cooper’s 19th orbit, signs began to appear that all was not well. As Faith 7 approached Hawaii, the 0.5g indicator light on Cooper’s instrument panel suddenly lit up. This light normally indicated that the spacecraft had entered the earth’s atmosphere and was beginning to decelerate, but as Cooper’s orbit was holding true, Ground Control suspected that the switch had been tripped by a short circuit. This suspicion was confirmed an hour later when Cooper reported that his Automatic Stabilization and Control System, or ASCS, was not responding. A system of gyroscopes that allowed the astronaut to determine his orientation, the ASCS was essential for aligning the spacecraft for reentry. But no matter what Cooper or Ground Control tried, they could not revive the system, and it was soon discovered that the 250-volt inverter bus bar had suffered a catastrophic short circuit, permanently knocking out the ASCS. Faith 7 was now drifting passively, unable to control its orientation.

Back on the ground, Mission Control swung into crisis mode. The textbook mission had suddenly turned into a nightmare. While the Mercury Capsule was designed to be controlled from the ground in case the astronaut was incapacitated, in this case the ground controllers were just as blind as Cooper; without the ASCS to tell them the spacecraft’s orientation, neither could align the capsule for retrofire. Ironically, this eventuality had actually been accounted for in the Mercury Capsule’s original design. The periscope, which was deleted from Faith 7 to save weight, featured a system that allowed the astronaut to use the earth’s horizon to line up the capsule for reentry. This alignment was absolutely crucial; if the capsule entered the atmosphere at too steep an angle, it would burn up; too shallow, and it would skip off the atmosphere and become stranded in orbit, condemning the astronaut to a slow death by suffocation.

But just as it seemed like the last Mercury mission would end in tragedy, Cooper performed one of the most extraordinary feats of piloting in spaceflight history. On his 22nd orbit, exactly 34 hours after liftoff, Cooper fired Faith 7’s retro-rockets and flew the spacecraft manually through reentry, using grease-pencil lines drawn on the capsule window to align himself with the stars and his wristwatch to time the duration of the burn. It was an extraordinarily risky maneuver, for even if Cooper survived the reentry, every second he was off in his timing would cause him to overshoot the recovery area by many miles. But incredibly, Cooper’s manual reentry was so perfect that he splashed down only four and a half miles from the recovery aircraft carrier USS Kearsarge – the closest landing of all the Mercury flights. He had flown better than any NASA computer, proving once and for all the value of pilots in spaceflight and dispelling the notion that the Mercury astronauts were, in the words of test pilot Chuck Yeager, merely “spam in a can.”

Prior to Cooper’s flight, Alan Shepard had petitioned to fly an even longer three-day, 48-orbit mission, but due to the numerous technical issues which had plagued Mercury-Atlas 9, it was decided that the Mercury Capsule design had been pushed far enough, and the program was brought to a close. Cooper would be the last American to fly into orbit alone.

Cooper immediately transitioned to Project Gemini, which would test all the equipment and skills needed for the upcoming Apollo lunar missions. In 1965, Cooper was given command of Gemini 5, whose primary objective was to demonstrate the feasibility of an eight-day flight – the minimum time needed to fly to and from the moon. It was on this mission that Cooper created what would become an enduring NASA tradition: the custom mission patch. Cooper’s design featured the names of the crew along with a drawing of a covered wagon bearing the slogan “Eight Days or Bust.” On August 21, 1965, Cooper and co-pilot Pete Conrad blasted off from Cape Canaveral and spent a relatively uneventful eight days in orbit, during which they finally smashed the Soviet space endurance record of 4 days, 23 hours set by Vostok 5 in 1963.

But Gemini 5 would be Cooper’s last hurrah as an astronaut. In the buildup to the mission, Cooper had displayed a lax attitude towards training, believing his natural piloting skills to be an ample substitute for simulator practice. This attitude did little to endear him to fellow Mercury astronaut Deke Slayton, who as head of the Astronaut Office was responsible for choosing crew assignments. Cooper and Slayton’s relationship further soured when Cooper entered the 1968 24 Hours of Dayton auto race, and complained loudly to the press when NASA forced him to withdraw. Nonetheless, Slayton placed Cooper on the backup crew for Apollo 10. According to NASA’s crew rotation system this would have placed Cooper in command of Apollo 13, and Slayton hoped the assignment would whip Cooper into shape. However, in May 1969 Alan Shepard, after undergoing corrective surgery for an inner ear condition called Meniere’s Disease, returned to flight status and replaced Cooper as commander of Apollo 13. Shepard’s command was later moved to Apollo 14 to give him more time to train. This decision outraged Cooper, who felt that Shepard, who had a mere 15 minutes of suborbital spaceflight experience under his belt, was unqualified to command an Apollo mission. Realizing that he was unlikely to ever fly again, Cooper resigned from NASA on July 31, 1971.

After leaving NASA, Cooper worked as a technical consultant for a number of aerospace and technology firms, including General Motors and Walt Disney – where he served as vice president of research and development for Epcot. He also founded his own aerospace consulting and land development firm, Gordon Cooper & Associates, and became heavily involved in high-speed boat racing and underwater archaeology. Cooper also became increasingly obsessed with UFOs, which he claimed to have seen many times over his test-flying career. So convinced was he that the U.S. Government was covering up the presence of extraterrestrials that he even testified on the subject to the United Nations in 1978. Leroy Gordon Cooper died of heart failure on October 4, 2004 – the 47th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik – at the age of 77. While his conduct during Projects Gemini and Apollo and his later UFO obsession lost him a certain measure of respect among his peers, few would deny that on that glorious day of April 16, 1963, Cooper had truly been the greatest pilot anyone had ever seen.

If you liked this article, you might also enjoy our new popular podcast, The BrainFood Show (iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Feed), as well as:

Bonus Facts

#1 The Mercury Seven were well known to be a boisterous bunch fond of practical jokes, which ranged from Alan Shepard’s toilet plunger gag to an infamous incident where the astronauts dropped a motor boat and a cooler of live fish into the pool of Florida’s Starlite Motel and proceeded to have a fishing party. But one of the Mercury Seven’s favourite games involved a tongue-in-cheek fraternal organization started by WWII pilots known as the Ancient and Honorable Order of Turtles – AKA the “Turtle Club.” The rules of the game were simple. If one member of the order asked another “Are you a turtle?” the latter had to answer “You bet your sweet ass I am!” Failure to deliver the correct password would result in the victim having to buy a round of drinks. This private game came close to being made public during the October 3, 1962 Mercury-Atlas 8 mission, when Deke Slayton, acting as Capsule Communicator, asked pilot Wally Schirra “Are you a turtle today?” Knowing that his transmissions were being broadcast live to the nation, Schirra simply said “Roger” and switched to his onboard voice recorder to deliver the appropriate answer. In official NASA mission transcripts, his reply is simply given as “Correct response recorded.” Schirra would later get his revenge as Commander of Apollo 7, when he asked the same question of Deke Slayton and NASA public affairs officer Paul Haney, both of which failed to give the correct response and, presumably, owed Schirra a drink when he returned to earth.

#2: A long-standing NASA tradition is for astronauts to eat a breakfast of steak and eggs just prior to a launch. This practice, which originated all the way back with Alan Shepard’s 1961 Mercury-Redstone 3 flight, actually had a practical purpose. In addition to being high in protein, steak and eggs are almost completely absorbed by the body and leave very little residue in the digestive tract. As the early astronauts did not have any provision for collecting fecal matter in their space suits, such a “low-residue” diet was an ideal means of avoiding close encounters of the turd kind.  Not that it exactly worked on longer missions, see our video on TOdayIFoundOut- To Boldly Go Where No Fecal Matter Has Gone Before

Expand for References

MA-9 Mission Transcript: https://ia800607.us.archive.org/28/items/NasaAudioHighlightReels/MA09_TE2.pdf

 

The Flight of Faith 7, 1963, https://archive.org/details/flight_of_faith_7

 

Garber, Megan, 2060 Minutes: Gordo Cooper and the Last American Solo Flight in Space, The Atlantic, May 17, 2013, https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/05/2-060-minutes-gordo-cooper-and-the-last-american-solo-flight-in-space/275988/

 

Burgess, Colin, Selecting the Mercury Seven: The Search for America’s First Astronauts, Springer-Praxis Books, 2011

 

Carpenter, M. Scott et al, We Seven, Simon and Schuster, 1962

 

Evans, Ben, The Right Man: Remembering Gordon Cooper’s Day-Long Mercury Mission, 55 Years On, AmericaSpace, May 13, 2018, https://www.americaspace.com/2018/05/13/the-right-man-remembering-gordon-coopers-day-long-mercury-mission-55-years-on/

 

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