'Tut tut'
Slipping on asp bracelets and the striped headgear of the Pharoahs, neurologist Dr. Ralph Kuncl probed the connection between ancient Egypt and the dynasty of the New York Yankees in an April 25 lecture sponsored by the centers for Visual Culture and Science in Society.

Kuncl, who is professor of neurology and pathology at the Johns Hop-kins University School of Medicine and director of the Neuromuscular Pathology Laboratory, singled out two cultural icons in the history of medicine that have changed perceptions about disease-a papyrus manuscript at least 4500 years old and baseball legend Lou Gehrig.

From a computer in a new "smart classroom," Thomas 224, he projected a photograph taken of M. Carey Thomas during a 1929 trip to Egypt, her profile uncannily similar to the statue next to her of the hawk-god Horus. Against a backdrop of changing images, Kuncl explained that a period of fascination with all things Egyptian in the 1920s and 30s overlapped Gehrig's spectacular and tragic career. The publication of the Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus in 1930 showed that the ancient Egypt-ians associated brain injuries with changes in the function of other parts of the body, especially the lower limbs, as early as the 26th century B.C.E. (It was not until the late 19th century that it was again recognized that lesions of the human brain result in sensory, motor or cognitive deficits in specific locations.) "This papyrus is one of the most important treatises in history," said Kuncl. "It turns away from superstition and marks a new world view-the beginning of scientific observation."

The treatise differs fundamentally from other medical papyri in discussing rational and chiefly surgical treatments for various types of cases, mostly injuries (probably sustained in combat or from construction accidents), organized anatomically from the head downward. One of three diagnoses are recommended: "An ailment which I will treat;" "An ailment with which I will contend," and "An ailment not to be treated." ("Tut, tut-This, of course, was the invention of the HMO," Kuncl joked.) In the 48 cases preserved, there is only one resort to the magical practices of traditional folk medicine also common at the time.

A partial copy made in the 17th century B.C.E. of a text thought to have been written between 3000 and 2500 B.C.E. because of certain archaisms used, it is also the first known treatise to use a word for "brain," and to describe its appearance and anatomy. Convolutions of the brain, for example, are likened to "those corrugations which form in molten copper (slag)" and its pulsations as "something therein throbbing and fluttering under thy fingers."

Named after American Egyptologist Edwin Smith, who bought it from a vandal in Luxor in 1862, the papyrus was ultimately translated by James Henry Breasted, founder of the Oriental Institute of Chicago. "Breasted considered the work as historically momentous as the discovery in 1630 of the circulation of the blood by William Harvey, to whom he dedicated the work as a symbol of that importance," said Kuncl.

Tossing Yankees' caps, one of the most recognizable icons in sports (the interlocking "NY" design was created in 1877 by Louis B. Tiffany), to those in the front row of his audience, Kuncl put them back in the bleachers at Yankee Stadium in 1929 as he reviewed Gehrig's career: "M. Carey Thomas and James Henry Breasted are in Luxor, but you are witnessing the evolution of an American icon...." By 1938, however, Gehrig had developed the symptoms of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a fatal neurodegenerative disease that is one of Kuncl's primary areas of research and treatment.

Gehrig's impromptu farewell speech in 1939, in which he broke down and cried before the nation, put a human face on the disease, which, unusually, took the name of a living victim, Lou Gehrig's disease. "The indelible image of Lou Gehrig wiping his eyes, among other things, communicates emotionally the idea of turning medical helplessness into hopefulness," said Kuncl, contrasting it with the ancient surgeon's "an ailment not to be treated."

"How different is the image of Senator Jacob Javits, who developed ALS in 1979 at the age of 75, but did not give a retirement speech and continued working full time from a wheelchair, wearing braces, hooked up to a small portable ventilator, and communicating by using a computer and a speech synthesizer.

"Lou Gehrig's disease became a frontier of neuroscience. Patients called me to offer their bodies for absolutely any experimental treatment. In my own lab, I discovered that the spinal fluid was abnormal in ALS in a unique way. This led to the discovery that the glutamate transporter-the pump that sucks up glutamate to detoxify it from the brain's synapses-was defective in ALS.

"This knowledge about glutamate, along with much other work from around the world, led to the first drug treatment approved for ALS by the FDA in 1995, the same year Cal Ripken broke Lou Gehrig's 'Iron Man' record." Brain cell degeneration research began 50 years ago with the discovery of a new protein called nerve growth factor by Nobel prize winner Rita Levi-Montalcini. There is hope in Kuncl's lab that a new protein growth factor derived from the retina may help dying motor neurons survive.

Kuncl spent the fall 2000 semester at Bryn Mawr as a fellow of the American Council on Education (ACE)'s program that prepares promising faculty and senior administrators for leadership positions at colleges and universities. He worked with President of the College Nancy J. Vickers and studied data gathered by the National Science Foundation on 2200 American colleges and universities, showing that Bryn Mawr is indeed a national leader in sending women into the sciences and math.

'Garbology' and landfill myths
The "Indiana Jones of solid waste" told a campus Earth Day audience that fast-food "clamshells" and disposable diapers are not the evils clogging landfills.

Archaeologist William Rathje, founder and director of the Garbage Project at the University of Arizona, began studying fresh garbage in 1973 but had difficulty getting his work funded as archaeology because there was "no dirt." That changed (the dirt, anyway) in 1987. On the same day the Mobro "garbage barge" left New Yorkharbor to wander up and down the Atlantic seaboard for 55 days looking for a place to unload its cargo, Rathje and colleagues started digging in a Tucson landfill.

Rathje said that in the midst of the national furor over refuse and landfills triggered by the Mobro, "we were shocked to discover that no one had ever dug into an actual landfill to determine what was inside and what had been happening to it."

He has since conducted landfill digs in Tucson, San Francisco, Chicago, Phoenix, New York City, Toronto, West Palm Beach and Philadelphia, and is the co-author with Cullen Murphy of Rubbish! (1992).

Based on its research, the Garbage Project reports that first and foremost, much of the information used to plan environmentally responsible policies for municipal solid waste landfills may be based more on myths than on facts.

Fast-food packaging, popularly estimated to take up as much as 10 percent of the volume of waste in a landfill, amounts to no more than one-third of 1 percent; polystyrene accounts for no more than 1 percent. Disposal diapers take up from 0.53 to 1.82 percent; they are simply not in the same league with paper of various kinds, especially newspapers, which can take up from 14-22 percent and do not deteriorate. Rathje has found newspapers published 40 years ago that are so well preserved they still can be read with ease. Tires account for 3.5 percent of volume. They float up to the surface of the fill and pose additional environmental hazards because they can catch fire easily. Construction and demolition debris-rubble, rebar, concrete, wood-takes up the greatest amount, from 20-30 percent at a bare minimum.

In the anaerobic (oxygen-free)conditions of a landfill, decomposition of biodegradable waste is much slower than under normal circumstances. Rathje's teams have found nearly whole heads of lettuce and bread rolls that had been buried for five years, as well as 15-year-old ears of corn and hot dogs. Anaerobic degradation in landfills produces methane gas, which is piped out and sold to make electricity, an incentive to finding ways of speeding degradation.

"I'm sorry to tell you that recycling just isn't going to be enough," said Rathje, who advocates source reduction, cutting down on the creation of waste at the beginning of a process so there is less to manage at the end.

"Dance: Is the Heroic Era Past?"
The nation's preeminent dance critic, Anna Kisselgoff '58, treated an audience in Goodhart Music Room to commentary on video clips of American and Russian dancers since the 1930s and an analysis of the current dance scene.

Four-year-old Anna was captivated by a performance of Swan Lake and studied ballet seriously from the age of 8 until coming to BrynMawr, where there was "no dance at all." Still, she found ways to explore her interests in academic work and as editor of the College News. (She played basketball and was taken aside one day by the head of the physical education department, who said, "You know, you don't have to point your toe every time you shoot the ball.")

"If you've had nine years of ballet from the age of 8 on, you can't help it, but I couldn't explain that to her," Kisselgoff said.

Kisselgoff was a guest editor for Mademoiselle in 1957(along with a classmate who had invented the nose warmer). She interviewed John Martin, then New York Times dance critic, because she admired him, but he stressed that there were "no jobs." She prepared for political journalism, instead, earning a master's of science in journalism and a master's in European history from Columbia. While working inParis, she freelanced for the international New York Times, writing cultural features and dance reviews. The clips helped her get hired by the Times in New York as second critic to Clive Barnes in 1968 She has been principal critic since 1977.

"After the 1960s, the two key figures were George Ballanchine and Merce Cunningham, formalist choreographers for whom the material of dance was dance itself, pure movement," Kisselgoff said.

"What I see now are younger choreographers trying very hard to express emotion and to tell stories, not in a linear but in a fragmented way. If you've spent 20 years believing that movement is movement without any meaning and now you want to tell stories or convey emotion, you have a problem. This is my analysis of where dance is at the moment in certain more experimental quarters. I think the older choreographers have decided which aesthetic they want to stick with and have no problems with it.

"Instead of telling a story, many young choreographers are telling their stories. I have great sympathy for some of these stories, but if Ihave to see one more tale of growing up gay in the South, I think it needs to be convincing. You can devalue certain stories; everything is turning into a confessional performance. I think you have to realize that if you're going to put your story in front of an audience, you have to find a way to tell it in more universal terms.

"I think that we did have a 'heroic age' from, say, the 1930s through the 1980s. We had the major choreographers of the century. I'm not pessimistic, but I think that what we're seeing now is what happened in the Soviet Union, for political reasons, where there was no possibility of developing new choreographers. What we have here are enormous superb ballet dancers and male dancers from all over the world, but we are not really at the top in terms of ballet choreography."

The power of boards of directors and large funding sources who withdraw their money if they don't like what they see hampers creativity and exploration, she said.

"I respect people who experiment," she said. "Martha Graham, George Balanchine, Anthony Tudor, Ninette de Valois were not afraid of starting their arts organizations in community centers, settlement houses, and low-priced theaters. Lincoln Kirstein and George Balanchine knew that if they offered low-priced tickets, they could experiment. ... If you charge $2, you can do whatever you want. That's not the case now."

Bach's odyssey of the soul
Pressure systems that produced thunder and heat lightning outside Goodhart Music Room during a May 12 evening concert also stuck at the wood, iron wire, and crow quill of a replica 1679 Flemish harpsichord inside. "Do you want a soul-wrenching experience or a tuning wrenching experience?" quipped Trevor Stephenson as he tightened the pins of his instrument.

Stephenson delivered both, fusing physics and theology into a musical odyssey of the soul as he performed preludes and fugues from J.S. Bach's The Well Tempered Clavier: Book I. Breaking down the first two pieces, the Prelude and Fugue in C Major, often talking as he played, Stephenson analyzed relationships between Bach's music and reformation beliefs, mysticism, storytelling, and renaissance and baroque art.

"Well-temperament" doesn't mean "good natured" (although P.D.Q. Bach, aka Peter Schickele, has written a piece called the "Short-Tempered Clavier"). It is a method of tuning, revolutionary at the time, in which the octave is divided into unequal steps, producing a sound that gives a different "color" or affect to the different chords and keys. Bach wrote a prelude and fugue in every key to illustrate these differences. (In the modern tuning system of "equal temperament," the octave is divided into absolute equal semitones and generally not found acceptable for playing early music.)

Unlike the Italian harpsichord, the sound of the northern instrument Bach used is brilliant, not warm, like the colors of a painting by Van Eyck, Brueghel or Vermeer, Stephenson said. His four-octave harpsichord, modeled after the 1679 Couchet in The Smithsonian, was built by colleague Norman Sheppard. Why a harpsichord?"There had been harps forever, but comes the Renaissance with its huge burst of intellectual activity and people trying to mesh a clockwork universe of science, religion and art, one line of music at a time wasn't enough," he said. "Bach could improvise six different lines at a time. His world is one where truth is as important as beauty, if not more so. It is a contrapuntal world of religious intensity and sanctified moments.

"The Well Tempered Clavier is simply the greatest thing ever written. Pianists call it the Bible and for good reason. Every piece is a new universe. No market survey asked for it. No patron asked for it. It was just like a kid saying, 'I'm going to paint a picture of every house in this city.' I love that ingenuous quality.

"Bach came up with a structure that he called prelude and fugue. You kind of jam for a while in the prelude and then you get real serious with a good sermon. In his system of musical values,beginning at the top, C major expresses truth, verity, beginnings. The C major prelude starts high-on the harpsichord it sounds as if you're in the stratosphere-and the whole piece goes down and gets darker. I played this on the piano for years but never realized what a fall it is. ... Why does Bach repeat everything? Without the repetition it's pretty thin gruel.Your blood pressure goes down. It's like stroking the cat. It's OK. There is a big plan. You don't have to do everything. You're born to grace. The prelude ends with an amen, but it's a Baroque amen-Bach said at one point that his life was a prayer.

"The fugue is the contrapuntal device of the Baroque, a very sophisticated round. It delivers the wake-up call to sinners. The repetitive falling structure of the fugue in C majro is like that of the first prelude, but it's a kaleidoscope; no two measures are the same color. A serpentine figure makes you see the snake coming right down the tree, like one of the 1920s silent films. Adam and Eve have huge black eyes. Bach's a good Lutheran, so you have to keep both hands busy-and you get two snakes. Adam and Eve don't have a chance. Here, the repetition tells you you're damned. The piece ends with the most eloquent eviction notice ever written."

Stephenson's performance of TWTC:Book I, released on CDthis summer, was recorded with a ribbon microphone, which was developed in the 1930s and has been improved by new technology. A corrugated aluminum ribbon suspended between two powerful magnets twists in the wind of the sound, and is superior to a condenser microphone in capturing string, brass and voice.

"On the harpsichord, dissonances are very strong because the wire is so pure and so thin," he explained. (It is made of non-carbonized iron.) "The piano sound is made to roll, like thunderstorm, through the hall. The harpsichord sound is almost the opposite-upward, outward spirals.

"You're also hearing a sound made by a piece of a crow quill, cut from the hard center part, that plucks the strings. A bird quill doesn't weigh anything but is incredibly strong, it's elastic, filled with proteins that give it this resilience. No piece of plastic, which is what they use on most harpsichords, can do this for sound."

Following degrees in piano performance from the universities of Missouri and Illinois, Stephenson received a doctor of musical arts in historical performance of 18th century music from Cornell University. He founded the Light & Shadow concert and recording company in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1994. His other recordings include Chopin, Mozart, Debussy and Brahms on period pianos.

Prize-winning Chicana poet and author Ana Castillo visited campus on April 17 to read from her latest work, I Ask the Impossible.

Despite numerous works of fiction and essays, I Ask the Impossible is her first book of poetry since 1988. Between readings, Castillo shared her thoughts about the writing process with the group of students, staff, and faculty assembled in the Dorothy Vernon Room. Her poetry reflects her role as a mother, which she acknowledges has changed her as a person. When asked about her experience as a trailblazer in the field of modern women authors, she commented, "There were no Chicana writers for me…. S o I had to become one." Castillo's visit was co-sponsored by the departments of German, Spanish, and English; the centers for International Studies and for Ethnicities, Communities and Social Policy; and the Office of Institutional Diversity.

Other readings this spring were given by novelist Shirley Hazzard, author of The Transit of Venus, sponsored by the Lucy Martin Donnelly Women Writers Series; Piri Thomas, Nuyorican storyteller, poet and author; Maryse Condé, novelist and a pioneer in the field of Francophone African and Caribbean Studies; and Carol Ann Duffy, one of Britain's leading poets. The departments of Spanish and Hebrew and Judaic Studies sponsored an evening of verse from the Middle East, poetry readings in Arabic, Hebre w, Persian, Turkish and Urdu.

Bruce Cole, Ph.D '69, heads NEH
President George W. Bush has appointed Bruce M. Cole, Ph.D. '69, Distinguished Professor in the Henry Hope School of Fine Arts at the University of Indiana, Blooming-ton, the next chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

A highly regarded art historian, Cole previously served on the Nat-ional Council on the Humanities, the advisory board to the NEH, during the administration of the president's father, George H. W. Bush. He has held fellowships and grants from, among others, the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, the NEH, the Kress Foundation, the American Philosophical Society, and the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.

He is the author of many journal articles and 12 books, mainly devoted to the art of the Italian Renaissance.

Civil liberties advocate honored
Helen Bacon '40, Ph.D. '55 was presented the David Burres Award for Civil Liberties by the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts in an April 29 ceremony at Smith College Archives.

As told by Barry Werth in The Scarlet Professor-Newton Arvin: A Literary Life Shattered by Scandal, Bacon organized fellow Smith faculty and students in 1960 on behalf of two younger professors, Joel Dorius and Ned Spofford, who were outed to police by Arvin after he was arrested on charges of possessing homosexual pornography. Smith allowed Arvin, an internationally renowned literary critic, to retire early, but the college's board of trustees fired Dorius and Spofford even after it was determine d that they were accomplished teachers who posed no threat to students. Bacon, with "fire springing out of her head," Dorius later said, pressured the board to reverse its decision, although the men were never rehired.

She has demurred that she does not deserve particular credit for helping Spofford and Dorius, saying "There were hundreds of us who helped." But she was herself being considered for tenure at the time, and is among those "heroes who speak out for civil liberties when it counts most-at the moment when individual rights are violated," said American Civil Liberties Union Director Ira Glasser. Bacon ultimately received tenure and left Smith for a distinguished career in classics at Barnard.

The Lady of the Tree, carved into a willow stump, has been relocated (right) to a spot
overlooking the College's new pond, which has filled since this photograph.

cover icon Return to Fall 2001 highlights