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15 Female Explorers You Should Know

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You've heard of Christopher Columbus, Lawrence of Arabia, and Lewis and Clark. But do you know the incredible accomplishments of Gertrude Bell, Osa Johnson, or Valentina Tereshkova? In the female sect of explorers, there are heiresses, socialites, rebels, and cross-dressers. But the one thing they share beyond their sex is an intrepid spirit that thirsts for adventure. 

1. GERTRUDE BELL

A contemporary and colleague of T.E. Lawrence (a.k.a. Lawrence of Arabia), Gertrude Bell was a writer and archaeologist who traveled all around the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. Her books gave the people of Great Britain a clear concept of the empire's outer territories and are still studied today.

An Oxford graduate who was fluent in Persian and Arabic, she met Lawrence while working in the Arab Bureau in Cairo during World War I. She's best known for her contribution to the Conference in Cairo in 1921, where the beginnings of Iraq as a nation were forged. She'd later pioneer the school of thought that relics and antiquities should be preserved in their home nations. The National Museum of Iraq was born from her efforts.

2. NELLIE BLY

American journalist Nellie Bly (a.k.a. Elizabeth Jane Cochrane) is best known for her world-changing exposé for which she went undercover to reveal the abuse going on at Women's Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell's Island. But on November 14, 1889, Bly took on a new challenge for Joseph Pulitzer's paper, the New York World.

Inspired by Jules Verne's novel Around the World in 80 Days, Bly set out to beat the fictional globetrotting record. Traveling in ships, trains, and rickshaws, on horseback and on mules, Bly made her way from England to France, Singapore to Japan, and California back to the East Coast. And she did all this in 72 days. Well, 72 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes and 14 seconds to be precise. Naturally, Bly's bold endeavor made for a series of thrilling news stories, as well as a memoir—Around the World in Seventy-Two Days.

3. ISABELLA BIRD

A prolific author and fearless traveler, Isabella Bird thwarted social convention and her own sickly nature by traveling about the world at will, and often alone. "The English Bird" wrote her first book after coming to the United States in 1854. From there, she traveled to Australia and then Hawaii, where she trekked up an active volcano. She also explored the Rocky Mountains in Colorado before traveling to Japan, China, Indonesia, Morocco, and the Middle East. This resulted in books like The Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains, Unbeaten Tracks in Japan and The Yangtze Valley and Beyond. For all her incredible contributions, Bird was inducted into the Royal Geographical Society of London in 1892. She was the first woman ever to earn the honor.

4. Fanny Bullock Workman

Traveling with her husband William Hunter Workman, M.D., this American mountaineer broke a string of women's altitude records while becoming a noted geographer, cartographer, and travel writer. The Workmans both came from wealth, enabling them to go on extravagant and arduous trips, like bicycle rides through Spain and India and treks up the Himalayas.

A shameless self-promoter, she earned a reputation for riling her rivals. But her dedication to detailing her accomplishments with precise measurements and thorough documentation meant she could back up her big mouth. A compelling orator, Fanny was the first American woman to lecture at the Sorbonne in Paris, and the second female explorer ever allowed to address—and later join—the Royal Geographical Society of London.

5. Jeanne Baré

A French sailor and botanist in the 1700s, Jeanne Baré was the first woman to circumnavigate the world. However, she did it disguised as a man, a ruse that kept her close to her love, Philibert de Commerson. The two met over a shared passion for botany. First she was the teacher to the widowed man's children, then his assistant, and later lover.

When Commerson scored a commission from the French government to sail the world and conduct research, the couple conspired to hide Baré's gender by dressing her as a man, "Jean." It worked for more than a year, but when the crew hit the South Pacific, some islanders uncovered the truth, though particulars on how vary. When Baré returned to France, the Navy paid tribute to "this extraordinary woman" and her work of gathering new species of plants by giving her a pension of 200 livres a year.

6. Aimée Crocker

An American railroad heiress born in 1864, Aimée Crocker was infamous for her lavish parties and long list of lovers and husbands. She was a frequent subject of society gossip and a proud friend of Oscar Wilde. But when the public attention became too much, Crocker took off on a tour of the Far East.

On route, she detoured to Hawaii, where she met King Kalākaua, who—according to her memoir And I'd Do It Againwas so enchanted with her that he gave her an island and the title Princess Palaikalani (which is said to translate to "Bliss of Heaven"). Crocker's book offers a slew of other outrageous encounters, including run-ins with headhunters in Borneo, a would-be murderer in Shanghai, and a sultry boa constrictor in India. After ten years abroad, Crocker returned with wild tales, tattoos, a devotion to Buddhism, and a whole new allure for the high society of America.

7. Ida Pfeiffer

Though barred from the Royal Geographical Society of London because of her gender, this Austrian globe-trekker is now celebrated as one of the world's first female explorers. She took to traveling once her children were grown, and frequently journeyed alone. Knowing the risk, she penned up her will before heading off on her first trip to the Holy Land. From there, she trekked to Istanbul, Jerusalem, and Giza, visiting the pyramids on camelback. On her return trip, she detoured through Italy.

From these travels, Pfieffer published her first book in 1846. Its success funded her next exploration to Iceland and Scandinavia, which in turn became the subject of her next book. More trips were made to Brazil, China, India, Iraq, Borneo, and Indonesia. Her works would be translated into seven languages and earn her spots in the geographical societies of Berlin and Paris.

8. Sacagawea

All of the credit of the Lewis and Clark expeditions of 1800s America traditionally goes to its namesakes Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, but this Native American teen proved to be a crucial member of this Corps of Discovery. A member of the Lemhi Shoshone tribe, she and her trader husband Toussaint Charbonneau met Lewis and Clark while the explorers visited among the Mandan and Hidatsa tribes of North Dakota.

Joining their expedition with Charbonneau by her side and her newborn son Jean Baptiste on her back, she served as an interpreter and a guide when the party reached Southern Montana, where she grew up. With her help, the newly acquired territories of the West were explored and mapped, a crucial step in maintaining the United States' claim to them.

9. Osa Johnson

Born Osa Helen Leighty, this American explorer met her match in travel photographer Martin Johnson. The pair married May 15, 1910, and by 1917 they began traveling the globe together, making films to document their discoveries. Their documentaries boasted such provocative titles as Among the Cannibals of the South Pacific, Jungle Adventures, Headhunters of the South Seas, and Wonders of the Congo.

They worked as a team. Martin shot pictures and film, while Osa hunted for food and when necessary defended her husband with her rifle. This was the case when a rhino in the wild full-on charged the pair. Osa brought it down, while Martin captured the entire encounter with his camera. The Johnsons promoted their films with lecture tours, and in 1940 Osa released the best-selling memoir I Married Adventure. Today, the Johnsons' films and photos can still be seen in Disney's Animal Lodge and at the Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum in their home state of Kansas.

10. Isabelle Eberhardt

Born in 1877 in Geneva the daughter of a Prussian aristocrat and an ex-priest turned anarchist, Isabelle Eberhardt was fated to defy convention. She took to wearing men's clothes at an early age, and by 20 had converted to Islam. When she later began traveling alone through North Africa in the 1890s, she presented herself as a Muslim man named Si Mahmoud Saadi.

She only lived to 27; her life cut short by a flash flood in a desert in 1904. Still, in her days she participated in revolts against French colonialism, wrote travel essays for French magazines, survived an assassination attempt that nearly severed her arm, and smoke, drank, and had sex whenever and with whomever she liked. Much of this is documented in The Nomad: The Diaries of Isabelle Eberhardt, which paint her as a creature of her own creation, formed between the Sahara and fearless sexual exploration.

11. Krystyna Chojnowska-Liskiewicz

This Polish sea captain and shipbuilding engineer earned the title of "First Lady of the Oceans" when she became the first woman to sail solo around the world in 1976. On February 28th, Chojnowska-Liskiewicz left from the Canary Islands. Her ship Mazurek was built in Poland with its construction led by her husband. Her route took her through the Caribbean and the Panama Canal to the Pacific Ocean. From there, Chojnowska-Liskiewicz steered across the Indian Ocean and then down around Africa.

She returned to the Canary Islands on April 21, 1978, having traversed 31,166 nautical miles in 401 days. That meant more than a year with only herself as company and crew, preparing all her meals, maintaining the boat, and facing potential threats like storms, rough seas and even pirates alone. She said of her solo voyage, "Grown people should be aware that sometimes in life is lonely. But during the trip I was not plagued by loneliness. I was not lonely, but alone. There's a difference."

12. Amelia Earhart

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American aviatrix Amelia Earhart is best known for becoming the first female pilot to ever fly across the Atlantic Ocean. Her interest in aviation was sparked as a young woman when she attended a stunt-flying exhibition. A natural tomboy, she wasn't deterred by social pressure that suggested a cockpit was no place for a woman. She took her first flying lesson on January 3, 1921, and bought her own plane six months later.

The following year she'd break the woman's world altitude record, reaching 14,000 feet. A slew of other accomplishments followed, including speed records and solo flights. Earhart urged other women to fly by writing pieces about aviation for Cosmopolitan magazine and helped found The Ninety-Nines: International Organization of Women Pilots. It was while attempting to set a record for flying around the world that Earhart and her plane went missing. Some recently uncovered evidence suggests she crash landed on an uninhabited island and lived out the rest of her days there.

13. Annie Londonderry

Born in Latvia Annie Cohen, she married in the U.S. and became Annie Kopchovsky. But this mother of three's ambitions as an athlete, entrepreneur, and explorer urged her to create a new name for herself: Annie Londonderry, the first woman to circle the globe on a bicycle. A bet was made that challenged her to circumnavigate the world in under 15 months while earning at least $5,000 along the way. What might seem a silly wager became a way to challenge the concept of female propriety as well as a chance for her to show just how a woman might get on in the world on her own.

Departing from her husband and children on June 25, 1894, Londonderry set off from the Massachusetts State House in Boston with a crowd of 500 looking on. Along her route she sold promotional photos of herself and made paid appearances. She leased out advertising space on her clothes and bicycle, among these a billboard for Londonderry Lithia Spring Water. Once her ride was complete, The New York World called her adventure “the most extraordinary journey ever undertaken by a woman.”

14. Lady Hester Stanhope

Charming and witty, Lady Stanhope was an admired socialite in English high society. But after a string of messy romances, she left England forever at the age of 33, and went on to become the first Biblical archaeologist. She journeyed to Greece, Turkey, France, and Germany.

En route to Egypt, Stanhope discarded her feminine and European attire for menswear of most common in Tunisia, a look that would prove her signature the rest of her days. She traversed through Israel, Lebanon, and Syria. Later, she'd tell tales of how she so impressed the Bedouin tribes that they named her Queen of the Desert, successor to Zenobia. But her greatest success came in 1815, when she convinced Ottoman authorities to allow her to excavate the ruins of Ashkelon. Stanhope went looking for gold, but instead found a seven-foot headless marble statue. Her reputation as an archaeologist takes a hit here, as she ordered the artifact smashed to bits.

15. VALENTINA TERESHKOVA

Leaving Earth exploration behind, we move to on to the first woman to travel into space, Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova. She flew the Vostok 6 mission, which launched on June 16, 1963. But her path to space was paved with tragedy. Her family was stricken personally and financially when her father died in World War II. Tereshkova was only able to attend school from age 8-16.

While working at factories, she continued her education through correspondence courses. Though she had no piloting experience, Tereshkova was accepted into the Soviet space program because she'd done 126 parachute jumps, an essential skill in a cosmonaut's descent to Earth. After much training, she was chosen to pilot Vostok 6, and logged 70 hours in space, making 48 orbits around Earth. Her work here earned her the title of Hero of the Soviet Union, as well as the Order of Lenin and the Gold Star Medal.

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5 Dubious Historical Antidotes for Poison (and What Actually Works)
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An artificial bezoar stone from Goa, India
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

When it comes to their health, humans will believe just about anything. In this extract from the new book Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything, authors Lydia Kang, MD, and Nate Pedersen discuss some of the more questionable ways people once tried to protect themselves from poison—whether or not the methods actually worked.

Poison is everywhere. Naturally or unnaturally, it can be in the soil (arsenic), in the air (carbon monoxide), in your drinks (lead), and in your food (cyanide). With so much danger around, it’s no wonder humans have obsessed over finding a universal antidote—the one thing that could save us from all toxins. Imagine you’re a medieval prince about to inherit the throne. Chances are, there are a lot of power-hungry wannabes waiting in the wings. A little arsenic or hemlock might be your best friend or your worst nightmare. Just in case, best have an antidote on standby.

For millennia, a certain amount of magical thinking was employed when arming oneself against poison because science was inconveniently slow to catch up. So grab your handy unicorn horn and a bezoar, and let’s take a look.

1. BEZOARS

Bezoars have been used for centuries as antidotes to poisons. A bezoar is solid mass of undigested food, plant fibers, or hair found in the digestive tracts of animals, including deer, porcupines, fish, and, yes, humans. Anyone with a cat is familiar with the less-cool feline version: hairballs.

Bezoars and other stone-like items created by animals often had a good story behind them. Legends told of deer that would eat poisonous snakes and become immune or cry tears that solidified into poison-curing stones. First-century Arabic author al-Birumi claimed bezoars could protect against one poison called “the snot of Satan,” which we hope never ever to encounter. By the 12th century, when Europe became plagued with, uh, plagues, the bezoar crept into pharmacopeias as panaceas and alexipharmics (poison antidotes).

Bezoars were a seductive notion for the rich and royal, who were at risk of assassination. The stones were often enclosed in bejeweled gold for display or worn as amulets. Indian bezoars, in particular, were sought for life-threatening fevers, poisonous bites, bleeding, jaundice, and melancholy. Consumers were also known to scrape off a bit of bezoar and add it to their drinks for heart health and kidney stones. These tonics were sometimes adulterated with toxic mercury or antimony, which caused vomiting and diarrhea, making buyers think they were effective.

But were they? One team of researchers soaked bezoars in an arsenic-laced solution and found that the stones absorbed the arsenic or that the poison was neutralized. Hard to say if it worked well enough to cure a fatal dose. Ambroise Paré, one of the preeminent French physicians of the 16th century, was also a doubter. The king’s cook, who’d been stealing silver, was given the choice between hanging or being Paré’s lab rat. He chose the latter. After the cook consumed poison, Paré looked on as a bezoar was stuffed down his throat. Six hours later, he died wracked with pain. Perhaps he chose ... poorly?

2. MITHRIDATES

This antidote was named after Mithridates VI, the king of Pontus and Armenia Minor. Born in 134 BCE, he pretty much invented the phrase “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” by consuming poisons daily to prevent his own assassination. His royal home was stocked with stingray spines, toxic mushrooms, scorpions, mineral poisons, and a poisonous plant–filled garden. He was so unpoisonable that after his son took over his kingdom and he faced execution, he couldn’t even commit suicide by poison! He begged a guard to stab him to death. (It worked.)

Though the king’s actual recipe for the antidote is nowhere to be found, versions began to circulate after his death, and they became synonymous with the king himself. Compounds with lengthy and expensive ingredient lists prevailed, including iris, cardamom, anise, frankincense, myrrh, ginger, and saffron. In the first century, Pliny the Elder snarkily remarked, “The Mithridatic antidote is composed of fifty-four ingredients ... Which of the gods, in the name of Truth, fixed these absurd proportions? ... It is plainly a showy parade of the art, and a colossal boast of science.”

Showy or not, people would take the extensive mix of herbs, pound them together with honey, and eat a nut-sized portion to cure themselves. At least it endowed them with expensive-smelling breath.

3. HORNS

An apothecary shop sign in the shape of a unicorn
An ivory pharmacy sign in the shape of a unicorn's head
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

Unicorn horns have been considered a part of antidote legend since the mythical beast galloped into literature around 300 BCE. For centuries afterward, real earthly beasts would sacrifice their lives and their horns to slake our thirst for the miraculous, nonexistent animal, including rhinoceroses, narwhals, and oryx. Even fossilized ammonites were used. It was believed that drinking vessels made of such horns might neutralize poisons, and wounds could be cured by holding them close by. In the 16th century, Mary, Queen of Scots reportedly used a unicorn horn to protect her from poisoning. Too bad it didn’t prevent her beheading.

4. PEARLS

Pearls have long been thought to be powerful antidotes. A beautiful, rare gem created by the homely oyster, a pearl is born out of annoyance (the mollusk secretes iridescent nacre to cover an irritant, like a parasite or grain of sand). Pretty as they are, they’re about as useful as the chalky antacid tablets on your bedside table; both are chiefly made of calcium carbonate. Good for a stomachache after some spicy food, but not exactly miraculous.

Pearl powder has been used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat a variety of diseases, and Ayurvedic physicians used it as an antidote in the Middle Ages. It was also reported to make people immortal. An old Taoist recipe recommended taking a long pearl and soaking it in malt, “serpent’s gall,” honeycomb, and pumice stone. When softened, it would be pulled like taffy and cut into bite-sized pieces to eat, and voilà! You would suddenly no longer need food to stay alive. Cleopatra famously drank down a large and costly pearl dissolved in wine vinegar, though in that case she wasn’t avoiding poison. She didn’t want to lose a bet with Antony—which might have fatally injured her pride.

5. THERIAC

Albarello vase for theriac, Italy, 1641
A vase for theriac, Italy, 1641
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

Theriac was an herbal concoction created in the first century by Emperor Nero’s physician, Andromachus, who was reported to have Mithridates’s secret notes. It was a mashed formula of about 70 ingredients, including cinnamon, opium, rose, iris, lavender, and acacia in a honey base. In the 12th century, theriac made in Venice was branded as particularly special, and Venetian treacle (derived from a Middle English translation of theriac) became a hot commodity. Its public, dramatic production often attracted curious crowds.

By the 18th century, cheaper golden syrup was substituted for honey. As treacle began to lose its luster as a treatment, its definition as an herbal remedy disappeared from common vernacular. But the sweet syrup remained. Which is why when we think of treacle, we think of treacle tarts, not a fancy means of saving ourselves from a deathly poisoning.

BONUS: WHAT ACTUALLY WORKS

Thankfully, science has brought us a wide range of antidotes for many items we shouldn’t be exposed to in dangerous quantities, if at all. N-acetylcysteine, fondly referred to as NAC by doctors, saves us from acetaminophen overdoses. Ethanol can treat antifreeze poisoning. Atropine, ironically one of the main components of plants in the toxic nightshade family (such as mandrake), can treat poisoning from some dangerous fertilizers and chemical nerve agents used as weapons. For years, poisonings were treated with emetics, though it turns out that plain old carbon—in the form of activated charcoal—can adsorb poisons (the poisons stick to the surface of the charcoal) in the digestive system before they’re dissolved and digested by the body.

As long as the natural world and its humans keep making things to kill us off, we’ll keep developing methods to not die untimely deaths.

We’ll just leave the fancy hairballs off the list.

The cover of the book Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything
Workman Publishing

Excerpt from Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything by Lydia Kang, MD and Nate Pedersen/Workman Publishing. Used with permission.

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By Napoleon Sarony - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
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25 of Oscar Wilde's Wittiest Quotes
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By Napoleon Sarony - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

On October 16, 1854, Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was born in Dublin, Ireland. He would go on to become one of the world's most prolific writers, dabbling in everything from plays and poetry to essays and fiction. Whatever the medium, his wit shone through.

1. ON GOD

"I think that God, in creating man, somewhat overestimated his ability."

2. ON THE WORLD AS A STAGE

"The world is a stage, but the play is badly cast."

3. ON FORGIVENESS

"Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much."

4. ON GOOD VERSUS BAD

"It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious."

5. ON GETTING ADVICE

"The only thing to do with good advice is pass it on. It is never any use to oneself."

6. ON HAPPINESS

"Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go."

7. ON CYNICISM

"What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing."

8. ON SINCERITY

"A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal."

9. ON MONEY

"When I was young I thought that money was the most important thing in life; now that I am old I know that it is."

10. ON LIFE'S GREATEST TRAGEDIES

"There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it."

11. ON HARD WORK

"Work is the curse of the drinking classes."

12. ON LIVING WITHIN ONE'S MEANS

"Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination."

13. ON TRUE FRIENDS

"True friends stab you in the front."

14. ON MOTHERS

"All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his."

15. ON FASHION

"Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months."

16. ON BEING TALKED ABOUT

"There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about."

17. ON GENIUS

"Genius is born—not paid."

18. ON MORALITY

"Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike."

19. ON RELATIONSHIPS

"How can a woman be expected to be happy with a man who insists on treating her as if she were a perfectly normal human being?"

20. ON THE DEFINITION OF A "GENTLEMAN"

"A gentleman is one who never hurts anyone’s feelings unintentionally."

21. ON BOREDOM

"My own business always bores me to death; I prefer other people’s."

22. ON AGING

"The old believe everything, the middle-aged suspect everything, the young know everything."

23. ON MEN AND WOMEN

"I like men who have a future and women who have a past."

24. ON POETRY

"There are two ways of disliking poetry; one way is to dislike it, the other is to read Pope."

25. ON WIT

"Quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit."

And one bonus quote about Oscar Wilde! Dorothy Parker said it best in a 1927 issue of Life:

If, with the literate, I am
Impelled to try an epigram,
I never seek to take the credit;
We all assume that Oscar said it.

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