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Title: Blog by Novelist William S. Frankl, MD

Archive for the ‘biographies’ Category

Julius Caesar

Thursday, August 2nd, 2018

July 12 is the birthday of (Gaius) Julius Caesar, born in Rome around 100 B.C. He was the great military leader who managed to capture for the Roman Empire most of what became France and Great Britain.

In a series of dispatches from the battlefield, Caesar became his own war correspondent. Unlike many of the Roman poets and historians of the era, Caesar wrote short descriptive prose that was easy for ordinary people to understand. His stories of military victories turned him into a national hero, but the Roman Senate increasingly saw him as a threat. It passed legislation requiring him to lay down his military command and return to Rome.

But Caesar realized that he had the largest and most battle-tested army in the empire under his command. And if he returned to Rome, his political opponents would end his career. And so, on January 10, 49 B.C., Caesar crossed the Rubicon River with his army, directly challenging the authority of the Senate. The result was a civil war. Though he was outnumbered in many of the major battles, Caesar won the war. And he was extremely merciful with captured military leaders, because he wanted them as his allies. That might have been his biggest mistake, since it was a group of those men he spared that began to conspire against him.

He was an absolute dictator of Rome, with ambitious plans to redistribute wealth and land. But a group of senators, led by Brutus and Cassius, wanted to bring back the old republic. So they organized an assassination on the steps of the Senate.

The Roman republic never returned. Instead, Rome would be ruled by a series of emperors for the rest of the empire’s existence.

Geoffrey Chaucer

Thursday, August 2nd, 2018

On July 12 in 1389, King Richard II appointed poet Geoffrey Chaucer to the position of Chief Clerk of the King’s Works in Westminster. Chaucer, the middle-class son of a wine merchant, spent his lifetime associated with aristocracy: as an adolescent, he served as a page for a wealthy household and later fought in France with Edward III, who paid the ransom when Chaucer was captured during a siege. The clerkship came with a significant salary — 30 pounds per year — but a heavy workload: Chaucer supervised the building and maintenance of several royal projects, including the Tower of London and Westminster Palace. Chaucer traveled widely as Clerk, which afforded him the opportunity to meet people across a spectrum of social classes: peasants, nobles, and clergy. Their voices are the narrative cornerstone of Chaucer’s greatest work, The Canterbury Tales, the story of group of pilgrims journeying to St. Thomas Becket’s shrine at Canterbury Cathedral.

John Calvin/Protestant Theologian

Thursday, August 2nd, 2018

July 10 is the birthday of theologian and ecclesiastical statesman John Calvin (1509) , born Jehan Cauvin in Noyon, Picardy, France. Calvin was raised in a strict Roman Catholic family. His father was employed by the local bishop as an administrator in the town’s cathedral. Calvin was a precocious child, and by 12, he was working in a shop as a clerk and had received the tonsure, the severe haircut that symbolized dedication to one’s church.

Calvin’s father wished his son to be a priest, and sent him at age 14 to Paris to study at the College de Marche in preparation for university. Calvin studied rhetoric, logic, geometry, astronomy, music, and arithmetic. In Paris, he changed his name to its Latin form, Ioannes Calvinus, which in French became Jean Calvin.

Calvin was in his early 20s and working as a humanist lawyer when he had an epiphany sometime between 1528 and 1533. He wrote to a friend, “Being exceedingly alarmed at the misery into which I had fallen, and much more at that which threatened me in view of eternal death, I, duty bound, made it my first business to betake myself to your way, condemning my past life, not without groans and tears.” He left Roman Catholicism to join the Protestant faith. At that time, this was a dangerous and sometimes fatal undertaking: dozens of Protestants were being declared heretics and burned at the stake. Calvin fled Paris and traveled through France, Italy, and Switzerland for the next several years, settling in Geneva.

In 1536, he published the first version of Institutes of the Christian Religion, which he intended as a kind of primer, laying out the general rules of what would be come known as “Calvinism.” The five principles spell out TULIP:

Total depravity: all people are born sinful.
Unconditional election: God has already chosen those people who will be saved.
Limited atonement: Jesus died to atone for the sins of the elect only.
Irresistible grace: If you are among the elect, you will inevitably repent and become Christian.
Perseverance of the saints: You can never lose your salvation.

Calvin continued revising and publishing the Institutes throughout his life. It made him famous. Though he enjoyed an occasional game of shove ha’penny, which was a kind of precursor to shuffleboard, he was somewhat joyless and austere and disapproved of drinking, dancing, saucy songs, and gambling.

In Geneva, he preached over 2,000 sermons, at least once a day, for over an hour at each time. He used no notes. His friends urged him to marry, but he said, “I, who have the air of being so hostile to celibacy, I am still not married and do not know whether I will ever be. If I take a wife, it will be because, being better freed from numerous worries, I can devote myself to the Lord.” He told acquaintances that his wife would have to be “chaste, obliging, not fastidious, economical, patient, and careful for my health.”

When presented with a young woman from a noble family, he at first refused to marry her, but then reluctantly agreed, but only if she learned French, which she did, dutifully. Still, he backed out of the marriage at the last minute and instead married a widow named Idelette. They had several children, but none survived infancy. When Idelette died, he was bereft. He wrote to a friend, “I have been bereaved of the best friend of my life.”

John Calvin died in 1564. Aside from Martin Luther, he’s the most important figure in the second generation of the Protestant Reformation.

 

LouisPasteur/19th Century Microbiologist

Thursday, August 2nd, 2018

Louis Pasteur successfully tested his rabies vaccine on July 6 in 1885. Pasteur had begun work on a vaccine in 1882, using a weakened form of the virus taken from the spinal cords of infected animals. The research was time-consuming, because it took several weeks for the virus to reach his test animals’ brains after they were infected, but Pasteur soon realized that people didn’t need to have the vaccine on board before they were bitten, as with other diseases. The delay between the rabid animal’s bite and the outbreak of the disease meant the vaccine could be given only when needed, and it would have plenty of time to work.

In 1885, a nine-year-old boy named Joseph Meister was bitten by a rabid dog. He was brought to Pasteur, and though Pasteur didn’t feel his vaccine was sufficiently tested yet, he knew the boy would certainly die otherwise, so he took a chance. It was a tense few weeks waiting to see if Meister would come down with the disease, but the boy recovered, and three months later was pronounced in good health. Pasteur’s fame spread quickly, and the era of preventative medicine had begun.

Franz Kafka/ Great Czech Author

Thursday, August 2nd, 2018

July 3 was the birthday of writer Franz Kafka (1883) , who wrote the story The Metamorphosis, about a traveling salesman named Gregor Samsa who wakes up one day transformed into a hideous insect. Many consider it the finest short story ever written. All of Kafka’s most famous works were published after his death, and all contain surrealistic elements that led to the phrase “Kafkaesque,” as a descriptor for bizarre, dark stories.

He was born into a middle-class Jewish family in Prague, the oldest of six children. His father was a temperamental, controlling man, and two of Kafka’s brothers died in infancy. Later, three of his sisters died in concentration camps during the Holocaust. Kafka was a fine student and went on to train as a lawyer, though his heart wasn’t in it, and he later found better work at an insurance company, which allowed him plenty of time to work on his stories.

Kafka was always anxious, and frequently suffered from depression and illnesses. Some historians now believe he may even have suffered from anorexia nervosa and schizophrenia, which may explain some of the more surrealistic plots in his work. In his diary, he once wrote: “The tremendous world I have in my head! But how to free myself, and free it, without being torn in half. And a thousand times sooner be torn in half than keep it in me or bury it. For this I’m here, that’s quite clear to me.”

One of Franz Kafka’s most famous works is The Trial (1925), about a man arrested and prosecuted by remote authorities. The man, and the reader, never learn exactly what the man’s crimes were. He wrote The Judgment (1913) in a frenzy over one night in September 1922. He called that story “a complete opening of body and soul.” During his lifetime, he burned more than 90 percent of his work. He hated most of The Metamorphosis, saying, “Unreadable ending. Imperfect almost to its very marrow.”

Franz Kafka died from tuberculosis at the age of 40 in 1924.

Before he died, he wrote a request to his friend Max Brod: “Dearest Max, my last request: Everything I leave behind me … in the way of diaries, manuscripts, letters (my own and others), sketches and so on, to be burned unread.”

Max Brod ignored his wishes and after Kafka died, made sure that his works were published, and Kafka became famous. In 1988, a handwritten manuscript of The Trial sold at auction for $1.98 million.

 


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