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6 Incredible True Stories That Should Be Made Into Movies

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Hulton Archive/Getty Images

If you grew up in the United States, you probably learned American history. Heck, even if you didn’t grow up in the U.S., you probably learned American history. Colonialism, revolutions, wars, slavery, civil rights, women’s rights, scientific innovation, etc.—a lot of stuff happened that we know about. And while we keep making movies about WWII and musicals about the American Revolution, there are a ton of stories in American history that are ripe for adaptation. Here we humbly suggest six stories that depict people and places in the past that we would want to see on the big screen.

1. THE GI WHO BECAME A TRANSGENDER CELEBRITY

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While we all know of Caitlyn Jenner, Christine Jorgensen was actually the first American trans woman who was widely known for having sex reassignment surgery. After a brief stint in the Army in 1945, she learned about and obtained special permission to get the surgery in Denmark in 1951. Her return to the U.S. in the early 1950s was her last stop when it came to her surgeries, which led to a public story about her in the New York Daily News: “Ex-G.I. Becomes Blonde Bombshell.” She wrote about her life and became a prominent trans figure, going on the radio, talk shows, and touring college campuses to talk about her life as a trans woman. She was an actress and nightclub singer, known for her wit. Just months before her death in 1989, Jorgensen said that she had given the sexual revolution a "good swift kick in the pants.”

There’s already been an indie movie made about Jorgensen (and Ed Wood’s Glen or Glenda blatantly tried to exploit Jorgensen's story), but we’d love a fun reboot where we got to spend more time on her winning personality.

2. THE WAR HERO-TURNED-PRESIDENT WHO WON THE NOBEL PEACE PRIZE

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Theodore Roosevelt was undoubtedly one of our most badass presidents. He was a sickly kid with asthma, but he worked toward becoming a naturalist, historian, and politician. He was also a war hero and a big proponent of war. Despite this, he won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work regarding the Portsmouth Treaty, where he invited delegations from Japan and Russia to solve the Russo-Japanese war through diplomacy. Similar to the movie Lincoln, why not do a long, extended look at the Portsmouth Peace Conference?

Not to say that this was Roosevelt’s only accomplishment. After his presidency, he also traveled Africa doing research for the Smithsonian, killing or capturing over 10,000 animals to send back alongside his writings. He also traveled the Amazon basin and, while campaigning for the 1912 presidency, survived an assassination attempt. (He kept giving his speech even when he was shot, and the bullet stayed in his chest for the rest of his life.)

3. AN AUSTRIAN PHYSICIST IN CALIFORNIA

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We could all benefit from an outsider’s perspective, and there are few people wittier than Ludwig Boltzmann to give us that. An Austrian physicist’s travelogue of his time at the University of California in Berkeley in 1905 might seem random, but it’s always the smaller stories that are the most fun to adapt and watch. History can seem so distant and vast, but the details Boltzmann provides—of the people he met, the food he ate, and the beautiful imagery he saw—would provide a sumptuous and engrossing slice-of-life history. Plus, he’s a physicist, widely known to be the most charismatic of the scientists. (Just look at Albert Einstein, Neil deGrasse Tyson, or Richard Feynman.)

Boltzmann’s life certainly wasn’t a completely happy one (he committed suicide the next year and some historians believe he might’ve been bipolar), but he was a smart, complex person with the kind of witty observations that can make the past come to life.

4. THE FIRST NON-NATIVE AMERICAN NEW YORKER

Unfortunately, the beginning stages of America are a bit hazy in our U.S. history education. Oh sure, we know all about the Revolution, but what about before that? Many kids' educations are focused primarily on how the Native Americans in their respective state lived, then abruptly switched to the various colonies that struggled (like Roanoke and Jamestown) until one finally stuck.

But Juan Rodriguez’s story is different. Having come to America from what is now the Dominican Republic to what is now Manhattan on a Dutch ship in 1613, when the rest of the crew began preparing to return to Europe, Rodriguez decided to stay, becoming the first non-Native American to live independently in Manhattan for a prolonged period of time. (He was also the first Latino and the first man “with African blood” to arrive in Manhattan.) What was his life like? Why did he decide to stay? What did he think of this new country? A movie could explore all that and more.

5. THE INVISIBLE MEN AND WOMEN BEHIND THE REVOLUTION

By Anthony22, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Speaking of the Revolution: If you don’t know that story, we recommend listening to the Hamilton soundtrack. Hamilton is revolutionary in how it casts people of color as the Founding Fathers, turning the stories of revolution and change into modern, fresh ideas. But what about the actual people of color involved in the Revolution? The slaves, yes, but also the free black men and women, the immigrants (Rodriguez may have been the first Latino, but the second wouldn’t have been far behind), and the women who so often get pushed aside during the Revolution. Let’s hear about Sybil Ludington, who took a midnight ride like Paul Revere’s—except that she was 16 years old at the time, and rode twice as far.

What about the slave/spy James Armistead Lafayette, who took his friend’s name after the marquis petitioned to have him freed? What about Governor and General Bernardo de Gálvez, who organized a militia of Native Americans, freed African Americans, and his own Spanish soldiers to fight off the British? A movie that focused on these people with only glancing cameos of the Founding Fathers could be a thrilling change-up to the usual historical rendition of the Revolution.

6. THE GREAT FLU EPIDEMIC OF 1918

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You’d think with all these plague movies and TV shows, the 1918 Spanish Flu (so called because the first papers to write about it were in Spain, as censors had quieted other European papers) would be up for a movie adaptation. But nothing seems to be forthcoming, which is a shame, because when it comes to real-life terrifying epidemics, the 1918 Flu is horrifying. It was so terrible it dwarfed the last year of the war, and caused a lot more deaths—up to 40 percent of the world’s population contracted the flu. Maybe it’s because, even though scientists have dug up the Alaskan graves of some of the dead and sequenced the virus’ RNA, they still don’t know what caused it. Forget an epidemic tale, this is a full-on horror story. (Especially when you hear about what happened to someone when they got the flu, which we hesitate to detail here). Worst of all: It was a horror story that everyone in the world was experiencing.

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Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
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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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How Promoting Handwashing Got One 19th Century Doctor Institutionalized
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Regardless of how often we actually do it, it's common knowledge that washing our hands before eating, after coughing, and after using the bathroom is good for us. But the connection between handwashing and health wasn't always accepted as fact. As Danielle Bainbridge explains in the PBS web series Origin of Everything, the first doctor to campaign for cleanliness in hospitals was not only shunned by other medical professionals, but ended up in an insane asylum.

Prior to the 19th century, handwashing primarily existed in the context of religious ceremonies and practices. It plays a role in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, and Buddhism in some form or another. But washing up to stop the spread of disease wasn't really a thing for most of history. People weren't aware of germs, so instead of microbes, they blamed illness on everything from demons to bad air.

Then, in 1846, a Hungarian doctor named Ignaz Semmelweis made a breakthrough observation. He noticed that women giving birth with the help of midwives were less likely to die than those treated by doctors. He determined that because doctors were also performing autopsies on victims of puerperal fever (a bacterial infection also known as childbed fever), they were somehow spreading the disease to their other patients. Semmelweis started promoting handwashing and instrument sterilization in his clinic, and the spread of puerperal fever dropped as a result.

Despite the evidence to support his theory, his peers in the medical community weren't keen on the idea of blaming patient deaths on doctors. Partly due to his commitment to the controversial theory, Semmelweis was shunned from his field. He suffered a mental breakdown and ended up in a mental hospital, where he died a few weeks later.

Germ theory did eventually become more mainstream as the century progressed, and washing hands as a way to kill unseen pathogens started gaining popularity. Even so, it wasn't until the 1980s that the CDC released the first official guidelines instructing people on best handwashing practices.

If this story suddenly has you in the mood to practice good hygiene, here's the best way to wash your hands, according to experts.

[h/t Origin of Everything]

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