Elinor Morgenthau, who are you?

In Letters from Eleanor Roosevelt I write about a table game called, “who are you?” In the novel, I attribute it to the Roosevelt family as a way they came to know guests at the family dinner table. In truth, it is an ice breaker I would sometimes use when I course I was teaching had a relatively small enrollment. In class, each student would write an answer to the question, “who are you?” I asked the question 10 times, and students responded each time with a different answer. Then we would go around the class and record the responses on the board to get a bird’s-eye view of how we all thought of ourselves. That led to some very interesting discussions. In the (fictional) Roosevelt version of the game, one person volunteered to start, and then each person around the table would query that person, “who are you?” eliciting thoughtfulness and depth in the answers. The game continued rotating the person of focus until everyone responded to the question.

Today I thought I would play a version of that game with Elinor Morgenthau. And so I ask, Elinor

Morgenthau, who are you?

  1. Daughter of Lisette Lehman and Morris Fatman.
  2. Sister of Margaret Fatman.
  3. Wife of Henry Morgenthau.
  4. Mother of Henry III, Robert and Joan.
  5. An athlete who enjoyed tennis and horseback riding.
  6. Alumna of Vassar College.
  7. Teacher of theater at the Henry Street Settlement.
  8. Speaker for the New York State Democratic Committee Women’s Division.
  9. Dear friend of Eleanor Roosevelt and her assistant in the Office of Civilian Defense.
  10. Significant supporter of the War Refugee Board.

Elinor Morgenthau was all of that and more. She was a woman of her time and she was ahead of her times. In 1916, she proposed to her husband in Central Park, New York City. She was a delightful conversationalist, an astute political observer and analyst who supported and advanced her husband’s career and saw to it his appointment as Franklin Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Treasury.

Elinor Morgenthau died of a stroke on September 21, 1949. She was only 57 years old. Eleanor Roosevelt paid tribute to her friend in her September 23, 1949 My Day Column:

For nearly four and a half years, Mrs. Henry Morgenthau, Jr. had been ill at times. She suffered a great deal, but she was a gallant soul.

Elinor Morgenthau loved life and took a deep interest in what was happening in the world as a whole, as well as in what was happening in her own world of family and friends and personal affections. . .

There are not so many good people in the world that we can see their passing without grief for ourselves and regret that their share of humanity’s burdens will now have to be borne by others.

Elinor Morgenthau was many things to many people. She was deeply loved. She was deeply missed in her time. And yet, today her many contributions to our world receive little recognition or appreciation.  Her life, and Eleanor Roosevelt’s thoughts about her life, have me thinking about all the people who have died of COVID in the past years. In the United States, 1.03 million people have died of COVID. In the world writ large, over 6.4 million have died of COVID. For each of those unnecessarily lost lives, we could ask, “Who are you?” We could think about who they loved and how they lived. We should remember, “There are not so many good people in the world that we can see their passing without grief for ourselves and regret that their share of humanity’s burdens will now have to be borne by others.”

Thank You, Alice Hamilton

Get the lead out! An innocent enough mandate when it is simply a call to get moving faster. But in Flint, Michigan, Washington, DC, Newark & Trenton, NJ, Chicago, IL, Baltimore, MD, Philadelphia & Pittsburg, PA, Milwaukee, WI, Boston, MA—get the lead out is a lifesaving remediation that is moving all too slowly to get the lead out, out of their pipes and water systems. Lead poisoning causes learning difficulties, irritability, fatigue, belly pain, constipations, loss of appetite, weight loss, vomiting, hearing loss, premature birth, miscarriage and developmental delays. All of this in the past 20 years. But lead poisoning is not a new issue. The dangers of lead poisoning were clearly and cogently documented in the early 1900s by Doctor Alice Hamilton.

Today I would like to give thanks to Doctor Hamilton for her pioneering, ground breaking and lifesaving work. Let me introduce you to a bit of her life and some of her accomplishments.

Alice Hamilton was born on February 27, 1869 in New York City. She grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana. She studied medicine at the University of Michigan Medical School, taught medicine at the Woman’s Medical School of Northwestern University and Harvard Medical School. She lived at Jane Addams Hull House for over 35 years. And she died at 101 on September 22, 1970 in Hadlyme, CT.

Oh, but what she did with those 101 years! While she was at Hull House, she treated the local immigrants for diseases that were the consequence of their working conditions. In her autobiography, ‘Exploring the Dangerous Trades’, she said that life in a settlement teaches you that education and culture have little to do with real wisdom, the wisdom that comes from life experience. She personally thrived in the environment of Hull House, observing that “it satisfied every longing, for companionship, for the excitement of new experiences, for constant intellectual stimulation and for the sense of being caught up in a big movement which enlisted my enthusiastic loyalty. At Hull House, Alice Hamilton’s medical knowledge, linked with Jane Addams’ passion for social reform, and the lives for the working-class people, ignited her compassion and indignation. Alice Hamilton brought her education and cultural background to bear on the life experiences she gained at Hull House, and she changed our understanding of health and working conditions to enhance human dignity and public health.

In 1910, the governor of Illinois invited Dr. Hamilton to conduct a study of the extent of industrial sickness in the state. She became managing director of the survey of lead and enamelware industries, rubber production, painting trades and the explosive and munitions industries, with the study of the lead industries as her particular focus. Charles Neill, Commissioner of Labor in the U.S. Department of Commerce, later asked her to conduct a similar survey of all the United States. By the time Alice Hamilton was in her early 40s, she was the leading authority on lead poisoning and one of a very small group of experts in occupational diseases.

Alice Hamilton fully embraced her focus on industrial toxicology, which she described as “scientific in part, but human and practical in great measure.” In each of her investigations, she employed ‘shoe-leather’ epidemiology: careful and extensive analysis of hospital records to document the connection between specific illnesses and occupations, the thorough investigation of factories to learn which industrial processes used or produced dangerous chemicals. But she was not content to document the extent of lead poisoning. She personally tried to persuade factory owners and managers to remedy the dangerous conditions by instituting dust and fume prevention techniques; or by having workers wear protective clothing to be removed and washed at the end of each shift.

Alice Hamilton was a woman of her time and she was ahead of her time. Many of us owe our health and the good health of our relatives to her research and interventions. Thank You, Doctor Alice Hamilton.

{Alice Hamilton is one of nearly 90 women mentioned in my novel: Letters from Eleanor Roosevelt. You can find her there on page 92. Happy Reading!}

May I Introduce Cecilia Payne Gaposchkin

Cecilia Payne Gaposchkin is high on my list of people I wish I could invite to a dinner party. She was a diligent, dedicated, hardworking woman and a world class astronomer.

Cecilia Payne Gaposchkin was born on May 10, 1900, in Wendover, Buckinghamshire, England, and died on December 7, 1979 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. And oh, what a life she lived in those 79 years. She was the first person to earn a PhD in astronomy from Harvard University. She was the first woman to become a professor in her department and the first woman to become a department chair at Harvard. In 1976, the American Astronomical Society awarded her the Henry Norris Russell Prize, its highest honor, in recognition of her lifetime of excellence in astronomical research.

But the prizes and accolades at the summit belie the obstructions and obstacles in the climb. Gaposchkin began her academic studies in Cambridge, England, in the 1920s. She prohibited from sitting in the same rows of seats as her male classmates. The University prohibited her from receiving a degree. Even though she fulfilled all the requirements, women were only granted ‘certificates.’

In 1923, she moved to the United States and began her studies at Harvard, where she completed her PhD in 1925. Her dissertation showed that helium and hydrogen were the most common elements in the stars and in the universe. That contradicted the scientific consensus of the time, and her findings were highly controversial. Her work was dismissed, and she took on less prestigious, low paying research jobs at Harvard. But she worked, and she worked in her chosen field. (Her discovery was later credited to Henry Norris Russell of Princeton University, who reached the same conclusion by different means. Gaposchkin’s role in the discovery remained in the background for decades.) But she worked, and she worked in her chosen field. Eventually, she claimed some small measure of recognition.

I highly recommend her autobiography for her personal views on her life, and to taste both her brisk style and her ability to communicate both complexity and nuance.

Reflecting on the way her dissertation findings were treated, Gaposchkin said, “I was to blame for not having pressed my point. I had given in to Authority when I believed I was right. That is another example of How Not To Do Research. I note it here as a warning to the young. If you are sure of your facts, you should defend your position.”
When asked for advice, Gaposchkin often said: Do not undertake a scientific career in quest of fame or money. There are easier and better ways to reach them. Undertake it only if nothing else will satisfy you; for nothing else is probably what you will receive. And yet, there is nothing personal in the thunderclap of understanding. The lightning that releases it comes from outside oneself. Your reward will be the widening of the horizon as you climb. Indeed, the reward of the young scientist is the emotional thrill of being the first person in the history of the world to see something or to understand something. Nothing can compare with that experience. The reward of the old scientist is the sense of having seen a vague sketch grow into a masterly landscape. If you achieve that reward, you will ask no other.

How I wish I could sit with her, share an evening and a glass of wine, and explore the contours of her mind.

Armadillo’s Song A Bolivian Legend

As retold by S.E. Schlosser

There once lived an armadillo who loved music more than anything else in the world. After every rainfall, the armadillo would drag his shell over to the large pond filled with frogs and he would listen to the big green frogs singing back and forth, back and forth to each other in the most amazing voices.

“Oh,” thought the armadillo, “Oh how I wish I could sing.”

The armadillo would creep to the edge of the water and watch the frogs leaping and swimming in a frantic green ballet, and they would call back and forth, back and forth in beautiful, musical tones. He loved to listen to the music they made as they spoke, though he didn’t understand their words; which was just as well – for the frogs were laughing at this funny animal that wanted so badly to sing like a frog.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” sang the frogs as they played. “Armadillos can’t sing.”

Then one day a family of crickets moved into a new house near the armadillo, and he was amazed to hear them chirp and sing as merrily as the frogs. He would creep next to their house and listen and listen all day, all night for their musical sounds.

“Oh,” sighed the armadillo, “Oh how I wish I could sing.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” sang the crickets in their dulcet tones. “Armadillos can’t sing.”

But the armadillo could not understand their language, and so he just sighed with longing and listened to their beautiful voices laughing at him.

Then one day a man came down the road carrying a cage full of canaries. They were chirping and flittering and singing songs that were more beautiful even than those of the crickets and the frogs. The armadillo was entranced. He followed the man with the cage down the road as fast as his little legs would carry him, listening to the canaries singing.

“Oh,” gasped the armadillo, “Oh how I wish I could sing.”

Inside the cage, the canaries twittered and giggled.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” sang the canaries as they flapped about. “Armadillos can’t sing.”

The poor tired armadillo couldn’t keep up with the man and the cage, and finally he fell exhausted at the door of the great wizard who lived in the area. Realizing where he was, the armadillo decided to beg a boon of the man.

Timidly, the armadillo approached the wizard, who was sitting in front of his house and said: “Great wizard, it is my deepest desire to learn to sing like the frogs and the crickets and the canaries.”

The wizard’s lips twitched a little in amusement, for who had ever heard of an armadillo that could sing. But he realized that the little animal was serious. He bent low to the ground and looked the creature in the eye.

“I can make you sing, little armadillo,” he said. “But you do not want to pay the price, for it will mean your death.”

“You mean if I die I will be able to sing?” asked the armadillo in amazement.

“Yes, this is so,” said the wizard.

“Then I want to die right now!” said the armadillo. “I would do anything to be able to sing!”

The wizard and the armadillo discussed the matter for many hours, for the wizard was reluctant to take the life of such a fine armadillo. But the creature insisted, and so the wizard finally killed the armadillo, made a wonderful musical instrument from his shell, and gave it to the finest musician in the town to play.

Sometimes the musician would play his instrument by the pond where the frogs lived, and they would stare at him with big eyes and say: “Ai! Ai! The armadillo has learned to sing.”

Sometimes the musician would play his instrument by the house where the crickets lived, and they would creep outside to stare at him with big eyes and say: “Ai! Ai! The armadillo has learned to sing.”

And often the musician would visit the home of his friend who owned the cage full of canaries – who was also a musician – and the two men would play their instruments together while the little birds watched with fluttering wings and twittered in amazement: “Ai! Ai! The armadillo has learned to sing.”

And so it was. The armadillo had learned to sing at last, and his voice was the finest in the land. But like the very best musicians in the world, the armadillo sacrificed his Life for his Art.


I kind of like this story because it reminds me about the power and the cost of dedication to one’s life passion – literally, it costs your life. but then, what is life without passion and commitment?

Two frogs but no spilt milk

Once upon a time there were two frogs. These frogs were the best of friends, and went nowhere without each other. Well, one day the frogs found themselves in a dairy barn. They were exploring around, hopping here and there, and just checking things out when the cows began to wander back into the barn. Well, the frogs had never seen animals quite that large, and they were in fear for their lives, afraid that the cows would accidentally step on one or both of them.

This is the story of two frogs. One frog was fat and the other skinny. One day, while searching for food, they inadvertently jumped into a vat of milk. They couldn’t get out, as the sides were too slippery, so they were just swimming around. Without thinking or looking, they two of them jumped into a huge vat of milk to get out of the way. They swam around in the vat for a while, and then things with the cows quieted down, so the frogs decided it was time to get out of the vat and head home. So they began to try to leap out of the vat. But it was too deep. They could not reach the bottom to gain any leverage for leaping. And the sides of the vat were too slippery from the milk fat, and they could not gain any traction to push off a side.

One frog looked at the other and said, “Bud, there is no use paddling any longer. We are just going to drown here in this milk. We might just as well save our energy and give up.”

But the other frog was wiser, and said, “Hang on Bud, keep paddling. Someone may come along and get us out.” And the two frogs kept paddling for hours and hours. But no one came into the barn. By then it was dark. And the first frog said, “Bud, it is no use, no one is coming. I’m exhausted. We are doomed. There is no way out.”

And the wiser frog said, “Just keep paddling. Something will happen, just keep trying.” And a few more hours went by. But still nothing.

The first frog said, “Bud, I can’t go on. You know what they call it when you keep doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result? That, my friend is insanity.” And with that the first frog gave up and he drowned in the milk.

But Bud kept paddling. And a few minutes later he felt something solid under his feet. He had churned the milk into butter. Standing on that, he leapt out of the vat.

And the moral of the story? What do you think? Was Bud wiser?

With thanks to Roger Darling (www.rogerdarlington.me.uk) for the heart of the story.


Something From Nothing

There is a wonderful story that is variously called something from nothing, or sometimes Sara’s coat. I’ve tweaked it a bit here and inserted Sophie, but the basic storyline remains faithful to a telling I found from Colin Gibson. At its core, this is a Yiddish story of transformations, of hope, of faith and of actions.

When Sara was a baby, her grandmother (who was a tailor) made her a wonderful coat to keep her warm and dry.

But as Sara grew older the wonderful coat grew older too.

One day her mother said to her, ‘Sara, look at your coat. It’s frazzled and it’s worn and it’s unsightly and it’s torn. It is time to throw it away.’

‘Grandma can fix it’, Sara said.

So Sara’s grandmother took the little coat and turned it round and round. ‘Hmmm,’ she said as her scissors went snip snap and her needle flew in and out,’ there’s just enough material to make a wonderful jacket. Sara put on the wonderful jacket and went outside to play.

But as Sara grew older the wonderful jacket grew older too.

One day her mother said to her, ‘Sara, look at your jacket. It’s shrunken and small, doesn’t fit you at all. It is time to throw it out.’

‘Grandma can fix it’, Sara said.

Sara’s grandmother took the jacket and turned it round and round. ‘Hmmm,’ she said as her scissors went snip snap and her needle flew in and out,’ there’s just enough material to make a wonderful vest. Sara put on the wonderful vest and wore it to school the very next day. She was so proud of it she wore it all the time.

But as Sara grew older the wonderful vest grew older too.

One day her mother said to her, ‘Sara, look at your vest. It’s spotted with glue and there’s paint on it too. It is time to throw it out.’

‘Grandma can fix it’, Sara said.

So Sara’s grandmother took the vest and turned it round and round. ‘Hmmm,’ she said as her scissors went snip snap and her needle flew in and out,’ there’s just enough material to make a wonderful tie. Sara wore the wonderful tie to her grandparents’ house every Friday.

But as Sara grew older the wonderful tie grew older too.

One day her mother said to her, ‘Sara, look at your tie. This big stain of soup makes the end of it droop. It is time to throw it out.’

‘Grandma can fix it’, Sara said.

Sara’s grandmother took the tie and turned it round and round. ‘Hmmm,’ she said as her scissors went snip snap and her needle flew in and out,’ there’s just enough material to make a wonderful button. Sara wore the wonderful button on her sweater to hold her to keep it close around her.

One day her mother said to hedr, ‘Sara, where is your button?’

Sara looked. It was gone.

She searched everywhere but she could not find it. Sara ran to her grandmother’s house. ‘My button, my wonderful button is lost!’ she cried. Her mother ran after her. ‘Sara, listen to me. The button is gone, finished, kaput. Even your grandmother cannot make something from nothing!’

Sara’s grandmother shook her head sadly. ‘I’m afraid that your mother is right,’ she said.

But the next day Sara went to school. ‘Hmm,’ she said as her pen went scritch scratch, scritch, scratch over the paper. There’s just enough material here to make a wonderful story.’

Colin Gibson reminds us that this is folktale which has inscribed on it the experience of a whole people, which acknowledges some of the difficulties of existence, and comes up with a gesture of hope and belief in the future. In a special way it offers a transformation or rather a series of transformations; it also suggests that we may yet bring life out of death.

Gibson point out that the world in which Sara lives is one of desperate poverty, in which any material goods must be made to last as long as possible. The world of Sara’s family overshadowed by two great evils all human beings experience in life: the inevitable losses brought about by the passage of time (coats are worn out, ties are stained with soup) and unfortunate accident (buttons are lost). They are evils most of us know from personal experience. The voice of Sara’s mother steadily acknowledges these sad truths: ‘it is time to throw it out, to throw it away. The button is gone, finished, kaput. Even your grandmother cannot make something from nothing!’ it is the voice of stoic realism. But the world of Sara is lightened by two great human values: the first is the power of loving social relationships (the girl’s love for and trust in her grandmother—’Grandma can fix it’— and the grandmother’s loving imagination, courage and creativity, forever winning something out of nothing. This is the voice of the tailor-grandmother, whose scissors went snip snap while her needle flew in and out. Through the imaginative experience of the story, there rings out the old human challenge to a hostile universe; the ancient Jewish belief in the race’s survival against all odds. The child has learned the wisdom of her grandmother; there is a trick left yet; the lost piece of cloth will be transformed in a story that goes on being sung to this day.

And I would ask you all to consider, where is social justice in this story? Where are human rights? Look between the lines my friends. They are woven in the fabric. They are the very something that we can all resuscitate, that we all must resuscitate, even from nothing with our own imagination, courage, creativity and persistence, forever claiming the precious dignity of each and every human being even from the seeming nothingness of unending daily degradations. We must each of us stand fast and be the tailors of each other’s respect and dignity.

Thinking about Great Expectations

What can you expect from a fellow whose school career ended after a mere three months and ended with his teacher describing him as addled? What, really can you expect from a fellow who was home schooled by his mother with much of his reading focused on two books? Really, what can you expect from a fellow who moved from job to job, only to be fired from each?

Imagine someone so pig headed that he would get an idea in his head, and when the idea did not come to fruition after one thousand experimental attempts, the fellow just tried another thousand or two thousand or even three thousand times more!

I suspect that today we would label this addled fellow with attention deficit disorder and/or maybe obsessive compulsive disorder. Certainly the guy had some kind of dis-order.

And, truth be told, this fellow has indeed been labeled by many – this fellow Thomas Alva Edison, is the guy the world calls ‘the wizard of Menlo Park.’ He was probalby one of the greatest inventors our world has ever known. Over the course of his life, Thomas Alva Edison registered 1,093 patents. His inventions include the phonograph, the electric generator, fuel cell technology, a kinetographic camera making motion pictures possible, the alkaline battery, improved cement production, improvements on the telephone, and improvements on the electric light bulb to make it practical, Many of Edison’s inventions were improvements on earlier inventions that were interesting but not practical. Thomas Edison frequently said “I find out what the world needs. Then I go ahead and try to invent it.”

When Edison was asked about the many thousands of failed experiments in his laboratories, he is quoted as saying, “We have not failed, we have discovered many ways not to make whatever is the focus of our experiment.” Through his persistence through his many failures, which he understood as steps in the path to success, Thomas Edison worked his way up from being an impoverished, uneducated railroad worker to one of the most famous and financially successful men. In his lifetime, Edison became a working man’s folk hero. As history looks back on his contributions, Edison is credited with building the framework for modern technology and society in the age of electricity.

Yes, Edison held over a thousand patents, and produced many commercially successful inventions. And all of that was built on the foundation of thousands and thousands of failures. One of the keys to it all was his confident vision that success was on the horizon and he and his team were working their way along the path toward their goal. As one of my teachers once said to me, “You have not failed so much as you have begun to succeed.”

Be clear on your vision. Be true to your dream. Know that the road toward your goal is likely to be a long and winding road. Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow. Do your best. Learn each day. Treasure your frustrations as signposts for new areas to learning and growth. Edison brought us a framework for technology and electricity. We can be the vanguard ushering in a future of justice and human rights.