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Courtesy of Barry Clifford

Barry Clifford on Finding the Santa Maria—and Why The Story Isn't Over Yet

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Courtesy of Barry Clifford

"I can't imagine what else it might be," Barry Clifford said earlier today at a press conference held at the New York headquarters of the Explorers Club. He was referring to the wreckage he discovered off the northern coast of Haiti that has been tentatively reported to be the remains of Christopher Columbus' flagship, the Santa Maria.

Clifford was all but adamant that this is the historic ship. "We're looking for a big pile of stones in a space the size of Yankee Stadium in clear water," he said of the search. "It's not nuclear physics." So why, then, had the ship gone undiscovered for over 500 years? Even Clifford didn't realize the wreck that he found and photographed in 2003 was the Santa Maria until recently.


All studies of Christopher Columbus rely on a detailed primary document: his diary. Like other explorers and archeologists, Clifford knew it would be the key to finding the Santa Maria: "[Columbus] wrote it knowing it would be scrutinized." And that instilled a very valuable sense of urgency.

At 11:00pm on Christmas Eve 1492, Columbus wrote that he went to sleep with the Santa Maria "standing" in the Bay of Campeche. An hour later, the ship ran ashore so quietly, according to Columbus, that no one on board even woke up.

Two things about the entry stood out: The first was Columbus' notion that the ship was standing still. "I knew after diving in this area that there’s no way you can stand still because of the current," Clifford said. The second thing that stood out was the relative silence of the crash, which would have been impossible had Columbus run aground on a coral reef. Clifford (and anyone else searching for the Santa Maria) knew they were looking for a sandy patch consistent with modern understandings of the currents around the coast.

And yet for years, excavators found nothing—because they were looking in the wrong place. Columbus wrote that the wreck was located one and a half leagues from La Navidad, the first European colony built in the "New World" in the days after the wreck using timber stripped from the ship. (Incidentally, La Navidad did not last long—when Columbus returned the following year, the fort was in ruins and the 39 men left behind had all been murdered by local tribes.) But one by one, targets (objects identified by magnetometer survey) at the correct distance from the assumed location were ruled out—until a proposition by the University of Florida's Dr. Kathy Deegan that put La Navidad two miles further west than originally thought.


That opened up a new range of possibilities, but Clifford still initially discounted the wreck that is now thought to be the Santa Maria when he first discovered it in 2003. He and his son photographed and surveyed everything at the site, but misidentified a long, tubular object.

"In 2012, I sat up in the middle of the night and realized, that's not a tube, that's a lombard," Clifford said, referring to a specific type of 15th century Spanish cannon known to have been aboard Columbus' ships. It was just the eighth of its kind found in the Americas and, after comparing photos from the wreck to research on lombards, represented the smoking gun in the mystery of the Santa Maria.


But the story is far from over. Clifford and his team returned to the site recently only to find many of the artifacts, including the telltale cannon, had been looted by what Clifford believes to have been opportunists from the Dominican Republic who got word of the valuable nature of the wreck. He calls this an "emergency situation"—especially since he was forced to leave the site unattended after contracting cholera.

Clifford expressed concern that Haiti is unprepared to take advantage of what could be a unique and valuable source of tourism and revenue. "It is a very important resource for Haiti and it has to be protected," he said. "But they need help."

Professor Charles Beeker of Indiana University will lead the excavation, but Clifford has hopes for an international effort to protect and preserve the wreck. He imagines that eventually a traveling exhibit can be brought to life showcasing the Santa Maria to the public, with proceeds benefiting Haiti.

SANTA MARIA PRESS VIDEO from Dov Freedman on Vimeo.

Password for the video: octoberfilms. All Photos Courtesy of Barry Clifford.

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Hamilton Broadway
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

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.

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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