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The Quick 10: 10 Leaders Under the Influence

If we heard reports of George W. Bush or Barack Obama waking up and having a martini before going about their daily routines, there would definitely be an uproar. But not too long ago, it wasn't uncommon for world leaders to drink throughout the day, and it wasn't that long ago that opium was considered a cure-all medicine. Now that we're more fully aware of how those things can mess with your brain, it seems astonishing that these people were running the world while under the influence of hallucinogens or alcohol. This post was inspired by a great podcast, by the way - Dan Carlin's Hardcore History. If you're interested in stuff like this, be sure to check it out.

1. Despite the image of youth and vitality he portrayed, JFK actually had a lot of health problems, including asthma, Addison's disease, back problems and severe allergies. To treat all of his problems, he was using any number of painkillers and opiate-based medicine. A doctor nicknamed "Dr. Feelgood" gave him shots that included vitamins, steroids, and amphetamines. He was taking so many shots in such large doses that legitimate doctors told him he needed to back off of the stuff. During both the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis, he was on steroids, painkillers, anti-spasmodics, antibiotics, antihistamines and an anti-psychotic drug. This cocktail of drugs often left him feeling groggy or unfocused, so he would take anti-anxiety medicine to try to counter all of that.

2. Winston Churchill liked to drink "“ that was no secret. He woke up drinking, in fact, and was known to keep a drink within reach throughout the entire day. However, he also popped pills like they were candy. He named his pills majors, minors, reds, greens, and "Lord Morans," after his physician who prescribed them. He also took stimulants for the same reason JFK later did: to appear youthful and vigorous.

eden3. Churchill's successor, Anthony Eden, liked his fair share of pills as well. He had chronic gall bladder problems, which is why he carried a box of medicine with him at all times, including a healthy supply of morphine. He also got hooked on Benzedrine and has even acknowledged that fact himself.
4. Stalin is another one who was probably an alcoholic.

When the Germans attacked the Russians in 1941, Stalin pretty much disappeared off the face of the map for a week. One theory is that he was pretty much out on a bender that entire week. And a firsthand account says that he was able to drink a "khanty" "“ a buffalo horn used as a glass that could easily hold three or four bottles of wine "“ with no problem whatsoever.

5. Hitler reportedly took doctor-administrated amphetamine shots for the last several years of his life. Then he took barbiturates to come down. His doctor, Theodore Morell, meticulously recorded each of 73 medications he gave to Hitler, including sedatives, hormones, laxatives, narcotics, methamphetamine and cortisone.

alex6. Some historians speculate that Alexander the Great's decision to burn Persepolis to the ground was alcohol-fueled. Alexander loved to drink, despite being scornful of his father's drinking problem. The story is that Alexander, his men and some courtesans were celebrating their victories with copious amounts of alcohol when one of the courtesans gave a drunken speech about how Persepolis should be burned to the ground "“ the Persians burned Athens when they conquered it, so it would be only fair, she said. In their drunken revelry, everyone thought this sounded like a great idea (I think most of us have thought an idea was fabulous when under the influence, only to sober up and realize how stupid it was) and proceeded to do just that. Some historians think this was calculated, but the argument against it includes the fact that when Alexander's troops saw the city burning (they were camped out beyond city limits), they thought it was accidental and came running to help. If it was premeditated, Alexander probably would have informed his troops that it was about to happen.

7. Herman Göring, Hitler's designated successor, was a morphine addict. In fact, in the "˜20s, he was placed in a mental asylum because he was such a violent drug addict. But by the time he was a big cheese with the Nazis, he would shoot himself up before staff meetings and then fall asleep mid-meeting. By the end of the war, most of the people around him thought he was pretty incompetent.

8. It's speculated that Napoleon's performance at Waterloo was so awful because he was heavily under the influence. Reports say that on the day of the battle, he was sluggish, indecisive and slow, probably due to the fact that he was in pain the night before and took a dose of opium. This was a time when opium was commonly used as a medicine for a wide variety of ailments, so it really wouldn't have been thought of twice.

9. If the name James Wilkinson doesn't ring a bell, it's probably because history hasn't been kind to him. He led an invasion of Canada during the War of 1812, but he was so soused on alcohol and hopped up on opium that his directions were terrible, misleading and confusing. An army of 180 Canadians managed to fend off Wilkinson's force of more than 4,000.

10. Lyndon B. Johnson may or may not have been an alcoholic, but he certainly had alcohol-related bouts of rage. One Air Force One Steward recalls that Johnson threw a drink on the floor after declaring it too weak: his preference was three-quarters of a glass of scotch and one-quarter soda water. George Reedy, Johnson's press secretary, said he would drink scotch after scotch for days on end, and then abruptly just stop for months.

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Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
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science
Head Case: What the Only Soft Tissue Dodo Head in Existence Is Teaching Scientists About These Extinct Birds
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock

Of all the recently extinct animals, none seems to excite the imagination quite like the dodo—a fact Mark Carnall has experienced firsthand. As one of two Life Collections Managers at the UK's Oxford University Museum of Natural History, he’s responsible for nearly 150,000 specimens, “basically all the dead animals excluding insects and fossils,” he tells Mental Floss via email. And that includes the only known soft tissue dodo head in existence.

“In the two and a bit years that I’ve been here, there’s been a steady flow of queries about the dodo from researchers, artists, the public, and the media,” he says. “This is the third interview about the dodo this week! It’s definitely one of the most popular specimens I look after.”

The dodo, or Raphus cucullatus, lived only on the island of Mauritius (and surrounding islets) in the Indian Ocean. First described by Vice Admiral Wybrand van Warwijck in 1598, it was extinct less than 100 years later (sailors' tales of the bird, coupled with its rapid extinction, made many doubt that the dodo was a real creature). Historians still debate the extent that humans ate them, but the flightless birds were easy prey for the predators, including rats and pigs, that sailors introduced to the isolated island of Mauritius. Because the dodo went extinct in the 1600s (the actual date is still widely debated), museum specimens are very, very rare. In fact, with the exception of subfossils—the dark skeletons on display at many museums—there are only three other known specimens, according to Carnall, “and one of those is missing.” (The fully feathered dodos you might have seen in museums? They're models, not actual zoological specimens.)

A man standing with a Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird
A subfossil (bone that has not been fully fossilized) Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird in a museum in Wales circa 1938.
Becker, Fox Photos/Getty Images

Since its extinction was confirmed in the 1800s, Raphus cucullatus has been an object of fascination: It’s been painted and drawn, written about and scientifically studied, and unfairly become synonymous with stupidity. Even now, more than 300 years since the last dodo walked the Earth, there’s still so much we don’t know about the bird—and Oxford’s specimen might be our greatest opportunity to unlock the mysteries surrounding how it behaved, how it lived, how it evolved, and how it died.

 
 

To put into context how old the dodo head is, consider this: From the rule of Oliver Cromwell to the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, it has been around—and it’s likely even older than that. Initially an entire bird (how exactly it was preserved is unclear), the specimen belonged to Elias Ashmole, who used his collections to found Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum in 1677. Before that, it belonged to John Tradescant the Elder and his son; a description of the collection from 1656 notes the specimen as “Dodar, from the Island Mauritius; it is not able to flie being so big.”

And that’s where the dodo’s provenance ends—beyond that, no one knows where or when the specimen came from. “Where the Tradescants got the dodo from has been the subject of some speculation,” Carnall says. “A number of live animals were brought back from Mauritius, but it’s not clear if this is one of [those animals].”

Initially, the specimen was just another one of many in the museum’s collections, and in 1755, most of the body was disposed of because of rot. But in the 19th century, when the extinction of the dodo was confirmed, there was suddenly renewed interest in what remained. Carnall writes on the museum’s blog that John Duncan, then the Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum, had a number of casts of the head made, which were sent to scientists and institutions like the British Museum and Royal College of Surgeons. Today, those casts—and casts of those casts—can be found around the world. (Carnall is actively trying to track them all down.)

The Oxford University Dodo head with scoleric bone and the skin on one side removed.
The Oxford University Dodo head with skin and sclerotic ring.
© Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History // Used with permission

In the 1840s, Sir Henry Acland, a doctor and teacher, dissected one side of the head to expose its skeleton, leaving the skin attached on the other side, for a book about the bird by Alexander Gordon Melville and H.E. Strickland called The dodo and its kindred; or, The history, affinities, and osteology of the dodo, solitaire, and other extinct birds of the islands Mauritius, Rodriguez and Bourbon. Published in 1848, “[It] brought together all the known accounts and depictions of the dodo,” Carnall says. The Dodo and its kindred further raised the dodo’s profile, and may have been what spurred schoolteacher George Clark to take a team to Mauritius, where they found the subfossil dodo remains that can be seen in many museums today.

Melville and Strickland described Oxford’s specimen—which they believed to be female—as being “in tolerable preservation ... The eyes still remain dried within the sockets, but the corneous extremity of the beak has perished, so that it scarcely exhibits that strongly hooked termination so conspicuous in all the original portraits. The deep transverse grooves are also visible, though less developed than in the paintings.”

Today, the specimen includes the head as well as the sclerotic ring (a bony feature found in the eyes of birds and lizards), a feather (which is mounted on a microscope slide), tissue samples, the foot skeleton, and scales from the foot. “Considering it’s been on display in collections and museums, pest eaten, dissected, sampled and handled by scientists for over 350 years,” Carnall says, “it’s in surprisingly good condition.”

 
 

There’s still much we don’t know about the dodo, and therefore a lot to learn. As the only soft tissue of a dodo known to exist, the head has been studied for centuries, and not always in ways that we would approve of today. “There was quite some consideration about dissecting the skin off of the head by Sir Henry Acland,” Carnall says. “Sadly there have also been some questionable permissions given, such as when [Melville] soaked the head in water to manipulate the skin and feel the bony structure. Excessive handling over the years has no doubt added to the wear of the specimen.”

Today, scientists who want to examine the head have to follow a standard protocol. “The first step is to get in touch with the museum with details about access requirements ... We deal with enquiries about our collections every single day,” Carnall says. “Depending on the study required, we try to mitigate damage and risk to specimens. For destructive sampling—where a tissue sample or bone sample is needed to be removed from the specimen and then destroyed for analysis—we weigh up the potential importance of the research and how it will be shared with the wider community.”

In other words: Do the potential scientific gains outweigh the risk to the specimen? “This,” Carnall says, “can be a tough decision to make.”

The head, which has been examined by evolutionary biologist Beth Shapiro and extinction expert Samuel Turvey as well as dodo experts Julian Hume and Jolyon Parish, has been key in many recent discoveries about the bird. “[It] has been used to understand what the dodo would have looked like, what it may have eaten, where it fits in with the bird evolutionary tree, island biogeography and of course, extinction,” Carnall says. In 2011, scientists took measurements from dodo remains—including the Oxford specimen—and revised the size of the bird from the iconic 50 pounder seen in paintings to an animal “similar to that of a large wild turkey.” DNA taken from specimen’s leg bone has shed light on how the dodo came to Mauritius and how it was related to other dodo-like birds on neighboring islands [PDF]. That DNA also revealed that the dodo’s closest living relative is the Nicobar pigeon [PDF].

A nicobar pigeon perched on a bowl of food.
A nicobar pigeon.
iStock

Even with those questions answered, there are a million more that scientists would like to answer about the dodo. “Were there other species—plants, parasites—that depended on the dodo?” Carnall asks. “What was the soft tissue like? ... How and when did the dodo and the related and also extinct Rodrigues solitaire colonize the Mascarene Islands? What were their brains like?”

 
 

Though it’s a rare specimen, and priceless by scientific standards, the dodo head is, in many ways, just like all the rest of the specimens in the museum’s collections. It’s stored in a standard archival quality box with acid-free tissue paper that’s changed regularly. (The box is getting upgraded to something that Carnall says is “slightly schmancier” because “it gets quite a bit of use, more so than the rest of the collection.”) “As for the specific storage, we store it in vault 249 and obviously turn the lasers off during the day,” Carnall jokes. “The passcode for the vault safe is 1234ABCD …”

According to Carnall, even though there are many scientific and cultural reasons why the dodo head is considered important, to him, it isn’t necessarily more important than any of the other 149,999 specimens he’s responsible for.

“Full disclosure: All museum specimens are equally important to collections managers,” he says. “It is a huge honor and a privilege to be responsible for this one particular specimen, but each and every specimen in the collection also has the power to contribute towards our knowledge of the natural world ... This week I was teaching about a species of Greek woodlouse and the molluscs of Oxfordshire. We know next to nothing about these animals—where they live, what they eat, the threats to them, and the predators that rely on them. The same is true of most living species, sadly. But on the upside, there’s so much work to be done!”

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