Monthly Archives: November 2013

November 30th – The Welland Canal opens for shipping

A modern day ship moving through the Welland Canal, near St. Catherines, Ontario

A modern day ship moving through the Welland Canal, near St. Catherines, Ontario

On this day in 1829, the first ship moved through the Welland Canal in the Niagara Peninsula, ushering in a new age in North American shipping. Connecting Lake Erie with Lake Ontario, the Welland Canal allowed for shipping to move successively through the Great Lakes and into the St. Lawrence River, and from there, to the Atlantic Ocean.

The waterways of North America have long functioned as natural highways, being used as transportation routes by the First Nations. With the rise of important American Great Lakes cities such as Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland, there was a demand for moving goods from the Great Lakes out into the Atlantic and over to Europe. An artificial waterway was necessary to connect Lake Erie with Lake Ontario, as the Niagara River, which naturally connects the two lakes, is impeded by the Niagara Falls. This natural barrier prevents any shipping from moving through (at least in one piece).

The first ground was broken for the Welland Canal in Allanburg, Ontario (in today’s Thorold, Ontario) on November 30th, 1824. Five years later to the day, the Welland Canal was completed on November 30, 1829 and shipping could now move from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario through the Niagara Peninsula, extending from Allanburg to Port Robinson. Over the years, the Welland Canal would be expanded to allow for larger ships to move through and taking different routes through the Niagara Peninsula.

The Welland Canal was a tremendous boon to both Lower and Upper Canadas. Due to the amount of shipping now moving through the Great Lakes and into the St. Lawrence River, the cities of Toronto, Montreal, and Quebec City rose in economic and political prominence. The Welland Canal rivalled the Erie Canal for Great Lakes shipping traffic. While the Erie Canal connected the Great Lakes to New York City, America’s burgeoning port city, via the Hudson River, the Welland Canal was far wider than the Erie Canal, allowing larger ships to move through. To this day, the Welland Canal remains an important infrastructure to the economy of the Great Lakes, almost two hundred years when work on it first began.

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November 29th – First human surgery to correct blue baby syndrome

Vivien Thomas' autobiography, Partners of the Heart, tells the story of Blalock and Thomas' journey to treat blue baby syndrome

Vivien Thomas’ autobiography, Partners of the Heart, tells the story of Blalock and Thomas’ journey to treat blue baby syndrome

On this day in 1944 at the Johns Hopkins University, the first surgery was performed to treat patients with blue baby syndrome. Under the leadership of surgeon Alfred Blalock, his surgical assistant Vivien Thomas, and paediatric cardiologist Helen Taussig, the surgery paved the way to future innovations to combat this life-threatening condition.

Due to certain congenital defects of the heart (four anatomical defects in fact, cumulatively called the Tetralogy of Fallot), individuals with blue baby syndrome do not have enough blood that is being delivered from the heart to the lungs to become oxygenated. The defects in the heart disrupt the normal pathway blood undertakes, that is, moving through the heart, then to the lungs, back to the heart and out towards the body. As a consequence, an abnormal amount of deoxygenated blood enters the body’s circulation.

As its name suggests, blue baby syndrome occurs when newborn babies have inadequate oxygenation of blood by the lungs, resulting in a bluish hue to their skin. Contrary to medical diagrams that have used the colour red to symbolize oxygenated blood and the colour blue to symbolize deoxygenated blood, the deoxygenated blood in your body is not actually blue. Your blood is always red, brighter when oxygenated and dark red or maroon when deoxygenated. In fact, the only animals that do have blue blood are molluscs, crustaceans, and horseshoe crabs (the blue blood from the horseshoe crabs has some medical potential, see here: Rather, the blue appearance of deoxygenated blood (e.g. your veins) has something to do with the difference in absorption of blue light and red light through your skin and blood.

Now back to the history. Prior to his work on blue baby syndrome, Dr. Alfred Blalock was a prestigious physician at the Vanderbilt University Hospital. He had done a lot work on the physiological component of shock, and his work has been credited with saving the lives of thousands in WWII. It was while Blalock was at Vanderbilt that he became acquainted with Vivien Thomas. As an African-American lab assistant who did not receive any post-secondary education, Vivien Thomas would prove invaluable to Blalock’s work with blue baby syndrome, developing cardiac surgical techniques and proposing novel solutions to clinical problems.

After being introduced by Dr. Helen Taussig to the problem of blue baby syndrome, Blalock and Thomas tackled the problem based on previous work done on shock. After some experimentation, they proposed joining (anastomosing) the left subclavian artery (an artery just above the heart) to the pulmonary artery, the artery that directs blood from the heart to the lungs. This procedure, later known as the Blalock-Taussig shunt, would allow for increased blood flow to the lungs, allowing for the oxygenation of the blood. On November 29th, 1944 this procedure was performed for the first time on a dying blue baby. As this was the first time the procedure was performed on a human, there was some concern of an adverse outcome for the patient. The baby survived the operation however, and over the next couple days after the surgery, became less blue and recovered from her illness. The procedure was a success.

The entire story of Blalock and Thomas’ work became popularized through an HBO TV movie called Something the Lord Made (2004), starring Alan Rickman as Dr. Alfred Blalock and Mos Def as Vivien Thomas ( Besides describing the process by which Blalock and Thomas came to develop their procedure, Something the Lord Made also delves into the racial aspect to this story. Taking place in the American South, the movie addresses the, at times, unequal relationship dynamic between Blalock and Thomas, such that Blalock took credit for many of the medical innovations that Thomas developed. The fact that Thomas’ name was not included in the name for this procedure (the Blalock-Taussig shunt), and that Vivien Thomas received his due credit for his pioneering work only until the 1970s, as seen at the end of Something the Lord Made, is a testament to the racial issues that underlined this story.

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November 28th – Magellan enters the Pacific from the Atlantic

The Strait of Magellan, connecting the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific Ocean through South America

The Strait of Magellan, connecting the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific Ocean through South America

On this day in 1520, Ferdinand Magellan entered the Pacific Ocean from the Atlantic Ocean around the southern tip of South America, becoming the first European to do so.

While Portuguese by birth, Magellan sailed for the Spanish crown. Magellan was certainly not the only explorer to sail for a foreign nation, for instance: the Genoese Christopher Columbus sailing for Spain and the Venetian John (Giovanni) Cabot sailing for England. Rather than being bound by loyalty to their country, explorers of this time were bound to gold. Whichever crown offered the greatest pay dictated who sailed for whom.

The Treaty of Tordesillas (1494) divided up the undiscovered (to Europeans) world between the two prominent powers of the time, Spain and Portugal. This treaty drew a line on the map, where everything east of the line were to be Portuguese lands, and those to the west were Spanish domains. This artificial line, dating back to the fifteenth century, explains why Brazil is a Portuguese-speaking country while the rest of South and Central America are Spanish-speaking. Another stipulation of the treaty dictated that the Portuguese had a monopoly over the eastern sea route from Europe to Asia, going around the southern tip of Africa. In order for the Spanish to reach Asia, and in particular, the lucrative Spice Islands (modern day Indonesia), they would have to go westward. Enter Ferdinand Magellan.

Magellan set out from Seville, Spain on August 10th, 1519 with five ships and a crew of approximately 270 sailors from all over the Continent in the attempts of finding a route to Asia. After sailing across the Atlantic Ocean with the five ships for over a year (albeit with stops, deaths, mutinies, and the loss of two ships along the way), Magellan reached the tip of South America. Proceeding through a narrow passageway through the continent’s tip (nowadays known as the Strait of Magellan), on November 28th, 1520 Magellan arrived in the South Pacific. Noting the calmness and stillness of this newly found water, Magellan named the body of water Mar Pacifico, or the Pacific Sea (same etymology as the word ‘pacifist’, with pac- meaning peace). It is from Magellan, almost five hundred years ago, that we take the ocean’s current name.

In elementary school and in common folklore, we are taught to believe the myth of Magellan, that is he was the first man to circumnavigate, that is, travel completely around, the globe. This is not true. After Magellan and his crew entered the Pacific Ocean, he proceeded northwest, discovering islands along the way until he landed on the island of Cebu, in modern day Philippines. Typical of other explorers of the time (‘cough cough’ Pizarro and Cortez), Magellan proceeded to proselytize and convert the natives to Christianity. Unfortunately for Magellan, the natives were not too pleased with his preaching, and attacked Magellan and his crew. Shot by a poison dart in battle, Magellan died on April 27, 1521 in the Philippines. As Magellan failed to make it back to Spain, it would be incorrect to say that he was the first man to circumnavigate the world. This epithet may more appropriately be given to Magellan’s translator, Enrique, who originated from the Spice Islands, got taken to Spain in 1511 as a slave, and journeyed on Magellan’s voyage back to the Pacific. It was Enrique, not Magellan who was the first to circumnavigate the globe. Suffice to say, myth busted.

On a final note, while Magellan’s fleet did arrive back in Spain with spices from the Orient (sans Magellan of course), it came at a heavy price. Of the five ships and 270 men that set sail from Spain on August 10th, 1519, only one ship and 18 men made it back to Spain in September 1522. I think it is safe to assume that if you were looking for a safe, stable career in the sixteenth century, exploring was probably not for you.

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November 28, 2013 · 8:45 am

November 27th – Assassination of Harvey Milk

Harvey Milk, 1930 – 1978

On this day in 1978, Dan White assassinated fellow politicians Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone in San Francisco. For those who have never heard of him, nor seen the 2008 biopic, Harvey Milk was the first openly gay man elected to public office in the United States, serving as a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

Born on May 22, 1930 in Woodmere, NY, Milk only moved out to San Francisco in 1972. In his lifetime prior to San Francisco, Milk held various occupations, including: a Navy diving instructor, a teacher, an associate for Broadway musicals, and as a Wall Street investment banker. Gay rights issues however became prominent in the late 60s and early 70s, prompting Milk’s relocation to the centre of the gay rights movement: San Francisco.

As a politician on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Milk was able to pass many gay rights ordinances for the city and was a strong advocate for his community. His initial reception with the gay community in San Francisco was icy, as he was considered a transplant to the gay rights scene, and was not there from the start of the movement. Over time however, the gay community came to embrace him, and affectionately called him “The Mayor of Castro Street” (the street being the centre of the gay neighbourhood in the city). Milk was also able to successfully combat a statewide referendum campaign that would have prevented gay or lesbian teachers from being employed in public schools.

While Milk was certainly instrumental in pushing forward many gay rights issues in San Francisco, he required the support of other city politicians, namely Mayor George Moscone. As mayor, Moscone supported the agenda of Milk and abolished the city’s anti-sodomy laws as well as appointing several gays and lesbians to municipal positions in city government.

On November 27, 1978, a disgruntled politician on the Board of Supervisors, Dan White, shot and murdered both Milk and Moscone at City Hall. Long an opponent of Milk’s political agenda, White also expressed disdain at the increasing tolerance of homosexuality within San Francisco.  At White’s trial, a surprise verdict was handed down by the jury, which found White guilty of voluntary manslaughter rather than murder. Serving only six years in prison, in 1985, one year after his release from incarceration, White committed suicide.

To this day, Milk remains a hero to the gay community in San Francisco and worldwide. His life has been documented in the 2008 biopic Milk (, starring Sean Penn as Harvey Milk himself. The superb portrayal of Harvey Milk led to Sean Penn to win the 2009 Academy Award for best actor.

On the plaque of Harvey Milk’s ashes – “[Harvey Milk’s] camera store and campaign headquarters at 575 Castro Street and his apartment upstairs were centers of community activism for a wide range of human rights, environmental, labour, and neighbourhood issues. Harvey Milk’s hard work and accomplishments on behalf of all San Franciscans earned him widespread respect and support. His life is an inspiration to all people committed to equal opportunity and an end to bigotry.”

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November 27, 2013 · 6:13 am

November 26th – Last Flight of the Concorde

A British Airways Concorde in flight

A British Airways Concorde in flight

Welcome to the first post in my blog “What Happened Today in History”! Everyday I hope to write about an interesting historical event that occurred on this date. I will try to remain unbiased towards any specific cultural or nation’s history, and seek to present a diversity of events. Hope you enjoy!

On this date in 2003, the Concorde (or le Concorde en français) took its final flight and flew, effectively, into the history books. For those who do not know what the Concorde was, it was the world’s most famous supersonic commercial airplane. I do say ‘most famous’, and not ‘only’, because there was one other supersonic commercial airplane: the Russian built Tupolev Tu-144.

As a supersonic airplane, the Concorde was capable of flying faster than the speed of sound, reaching a cruising speed of Mach 2.04 (2173 km/h, over twice the speed of sound) and flying at an altitude of 60000 feet (over 11 miles high)! Interestingly, as the Concorde reached supersonic speeds, the body of the Concorde would stretch anywhere from 6 to 10 inches due to the immense heat of the plane’s frame. The speed of the Concorde also accorded for the fastest time recorded for a transatlantic flight: from Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport (CDG) to New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport (JFK) in 2 hours, 52 minutes and 59 minutes! This record holds to this day!

Beginning commercial service in 1976, primarily with British Airways and Air France, a total of twenty Concordes were built. The Concordes remained in service until 2003, with the final commercial flight flying from New York’s JFK Airport to London’s Heathrow Airport (LHR). By 2003, the Concorde fleet had proven expensive to upkeep and the state of the commercial airline industry post-9/11 dictated the retirement of this aircraft. The last ever flight of the Concorde took place on November 26th from Heathrow Airport to an airfield in Bristol – the very airfield where it was built.

Interesting fact: While the plane was originally called Concorde, the British prime minister at the time of constructing the aircraft, Harold MacMillan, officially dropped the –e from the end of the name, to make it appear “less French” (Concorde vs. Concord). Under the succeeding government to MacMillan, Minister for Technology Tony Benn reinstated the –e, much to chagrin of British nationalists. Benn quickly rectified the situation by claiming the ‘e’ stood for “Excellence, England, Europe and Entente (as in the Entente Cordiale of 1904)”. Scots quickly took protest to Benn’s pronouncement however, stating that parts of the Concorde were in fact made in Scotland, not solely in England. Benn then announced the ‘e’ also stood for Écosse, the French word for Scottish. Who knew the name of a plane would cause so much trouble?

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