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4 Reasons You Must Watch HBO's "John Adams"

At last night's Emmy Awards, HBO's John Adams miniseries won a boatload of awards. It's out on DVD now, and I enjoyed the heck out of it when it aired on HBO earlier this year. It's must-watch material for anyone with a keen interest in American history, and "should-watch" material for everyone else. Here are a few reasons why I think you should give it a look.

1. It's the Emmy-Winningest Miniseries of All Time

John Adams won a staggering thirteen Emmies, which makes it the biggest winner in miniseries history. Among the honors it received were Outstanding Miniseries, Outstanding Writing (Kirk Ellis), and both Lead Actor and Lead Actress (in a Miniseries of Movie) awards for Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney. Tom Wilkinson also got a Best Supporting Actor award for his portrayal of Benjamin Franklon. If that's not enough, go read the full list of awards at Wikipedia. (While you're there, check out the list of historical inaccuracies in the miniseries.)

2. A "Low Talker" With a Lot to Say

You can easily tell from the trailer that Paul Giamatti's performance as John Adams, while excellent, is sort of hard to hear. There's a lot of mumbling and whispering going on, even in scenes where you'd expect shouting (for example, in courtrooms). If you're a mumblephobe like me, just turn on your TV's closed captioning (or subtitles on the DVD) to catch the dialog -- trust me, it helps. For a taste of Giamatti's low talking, here's the trailer:

3. It Humanizes the American Revolution

The events of the American Revolution are truly remote to most Americans today -- a few hundred years will tend to do that. HBO sought to made a miniseries of huge scale and budget (over $100 million) that still focused on the core drama of the personal lives of John and Abigail Adams and their children. By examining the story of the Revolution on two scales: the national political struggle, as well as its personal cost to a family, the miniseries succeeds in explaining why Adams was such an interesting guy. (He was also kind of a jerk, especially to his kids, but perhaps you'll give him points for public service.) But seriously, there's a lot to digest in this collision of public and private life -- Adams keeps finding himself torn between duties to country and duties to family, and he really does have to choose one (as duty to country often means being on another continent for years, as well as braving dangerous ocean voyages, wars, disease, and so on).

4. Tom Hanks Does Great TV

Tom Hanks was Executive Producer (with Gary Goetzman) for the miniseries. Hanks has been involved with a ton of good television in recent years, including Band of Brothers, From the Earth to the Moon, and even Big Love. Check out this video to hear Hanks and writer David McCullough talk about the making of the miniseries:

Have I convinced you to "John or Die?" You can get a copy of the miniseries on DVD at Amazon for under $40. It's also available on Netflix (three-disc series).

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Hamilton Broadway
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Food
A Hamilton-Themed Cookbook is Coming
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Hamilton Broadway

Fans of Broadway hit Hamilton will soon be able to dine like the Founding Fathers: As Eater reports, a new Alexander Hamilton-inspired cookbook is slated for release in fall 2017.

Cover art for Laura Kumin's forthcoming cookbook
Amazon

Called The Hamilton Cookbook: Cooking, Eating, and Entertaining in Hamilton’s World, the recipe collection by author Laura Kumin “takes you into Hamilton’s home and to his table, with historical information, recipes, and tips on how you can prepare food and serve the food that our founding fathers enjoyed in their day,” according to the Amazon description. It also recounts Hamilton’s favorite dishes, how he enjoyed them, and which ingredients were used.

Recipes included are cauliflower florets two ways, fried sausages and apples, gingerbread cake, and apple pie. (Cue the "young, scrappy, and hungry" references.) The cookbook’s official release is on November 21—but until then, you can stave off your appetite for all things Hamilton-related by downloading the musical’s new app.

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History
The Man Who First Made Childbirth Pain-Free

The Wood Library Museum of Anesthesiology in Schaumburg, Illinois—a sprawling exurb of Chicago—is home to an obstetric treasure: a plaster cast of a newborn infant’s head. The bust shows the trauma of birth, the infant's head squeezed to a blunted point. The cast was made on January 19, 1847 by Sir James Y. Simpson in Edinburgh, Scotland, for a very special reason: It commemorates the first time that modern anesthesia was used to ease the pain of childbirth.

Simpson was not only a titled 1st Baronet but a gifted obstetrician. At age 28, he became Professor of Medicine and Midwifery at the University of Edinburgh. Many his senior in the medical community thought Simpson was an upstart—in fact, it's said that his middle name, "Young," was originally a derogatory taunt by his elders. In response to their jeers, Simpson adopted it for good.

Simpson initially used ether as an anesthetic in deliveries, but he soon began looking for an alternative anesthetic because of the gas's "disagreeable and very persistent smell" and the fact that it was irritating to the patients' lungs. His experimentation with chloroform—invented in the United States in 1831 by physician Samuel Guthrie—began in November 1847, with a brandy bottle and some post-dinner party research. The story goes that he presented the filled bottle to his guests to inhale. The next morning, the party were all found on the floor unconscious.

Scholars say this dramatic version of events is likely overblown, but the story illustrates the dangers of discovery. As Simpson's experiments continued, one neighbor and fellow doctor reportedly [PDF] came around to his home at 52 Queen Street every morning "just to inquire if every-one was still alive."

A drawing said to depict the effects of liquid chloroform on James Y. Simpson and his friends.
A drawing said to depict the effects of liquid chloroform on James Y. Simpson and his friends.

Eventually, Simpson got the formulation right with some help from his assistants, who were also local chemists. Over time, the delivery method also improved: Instead of a whiff of fumes from a brandy bottle, doctors developed an apparatus that resembled a glass hookah with long tubes attached to a mask. Later in the century, a soft flannel-covered, metal-handled cup or pouch placed over the nose and mouth of the patient was the preferred delivery method. The doctor—hopefully competent—doled out the anesthetic drop by drop. This method sought to reduce the risk of overdose deaths, which were a significant concern early on.

Simpson was the first to discover the anesthetic properties of chloroform, and soon began to use the drug to help women in labor. The medical community applauded his achievements, as did many women of childbearing age, but some Scottish Calvinists (and members of other religions) were not so happy. Genesis 3:16 was very clear on the matter of women suffering in childbirth as punishment for eating fruit from the Tree of Knowledge: "To the woman he said, I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children." For those who took the Bible literally, easing a woman’s pain was anathema.

Some reports from the time describe the divide between medicine and religion on this issue as an all-out revolt, while other accounts claim the religious response to anesthetizing "the curse of Eve" has been overblown by history. In general, it's fair to say the church wasn't thrilled about the use of anesthesia in labor. When Simpson introduced his discovery in 1847, the Scottish Calvinist Church proclaimed it a "Satanic invention." Pregnant women were reportedly warned by preachers: Use this “devilish treatment” and your baby will be denied a baptism.

Simpson disagreed—he didn't think women should have to suffer the pain of childbirth. He made both a scientific and biblical argument for anesthesia during labor. In a pamphlet, Answers to the Religious Objections Advanced Against the Employment of Anaesthetic Agents in Midwifery and Surgery and Obstetrics, Simpson pointed to Genesis and the deep sleep of Adam while his rib was being removed as being evidence "of our Creator himself using means to save poor human nature from the unnecessary endurance of physical pain." He went further, declaring that labor pains were caused by anatomical and biological forces (a small pelvis and a big baby caused uterine contractions)—not a result of the curse of Eve.

Public opinion changed after Queen Victoria took chloroform (applied by Dr. John Snow, famous for his work related to cholera) for the birth of her eighth child, Leopold, in 1853. The queen wrote in her diary: "Dr Snow administered that blessed chloroform and the effect was soothing, quieting and delightful beyond measure." Her final child, Princess Beatrice, was also born with the aid of anesthesia. Clearly, she approved.

Edinburgh is still proud of Simpson and of its special place in the history of anesthesia. From August 16 to 18, 2017, the Edinburgh Anesthesia Research and Education Fund will host the 31st Annual Anesthesia Festival, featuring lectures on anesthesia and pain medicine as well as drinks receptions, a private viewing of a Caravaggio, recitation of the works of Robert Burns (Scotland's most revered poet), and bagpiping.

According to the event website, the past success of the festival has led to moving the whole thing to a larger space to accommodate demand. Apparently there are a great number of people with a passion for medical history—or at least, a great deal of gratitude for the development of anesthesia.

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