Inside the Psyche of a Robber Baron

Question: Was Cornelius Vanderbilt really illiterate?

TJ Stiles:
He's been accused of being illiterate and in fact the first credit bureau in America, called the Mercantile Agency which is actually the ancestor of Dunn and Bradstreet, when it first report on Vanderbilt in 1853, Vanderbilt was born in 1794. So this first report about him actually came in his late '50s and yet, you know, this is kind of mid career for Vanderbilt's very long life. It called him illiterate and boorish, offensive, and vulgar. And yet he actually was not illiterate. He could read perfectly well and he could write but he wrote phonetically.

So for example his early letters had not only would every word be misspelled, I found some letters in which he misspelled the same three letter word three different ways in the same letter. In his early letters he wrote very much as he spoke, so his very lack of eduction allows us to gain access to the pattern of speech he had, even the pronunciations of certain words. For example, I found this in other letters from people around this time, early 19th Century New York. They would often add an A before a verb ending in ING. So for example, Mr. Jones is agoing to Albany. Things are aworking.

He would use constructions that are - would be familiar today. If he ought to have been he would be right. He ought to been would be the way he would write it out. As he aged he shifted a lot of the writing to a clerk and the letters that survive in his own hand show that his speech actually became more formal. That as he became to circulate in a more refined layer of society due to his wealth and business connections, and we know also from newspaper interviews as well. His actual speech became more formal and more correct. And some of the letters are very interesting written in his own hand.

For example, when Cyrus Field who was from a very socially prestigious family, the man who pioneered, the transatlantic telegraph cable, he invited Vanderbilt over for dinner in the 1850s around the time of this credit report that condemned him as illiterate and vulgar. And Vanderbilt wrote a note back declining. And it's very interesting because the not says, in his own hand, "I regret to inform you that I must decline in consequence of an engagement I've perviously made." Very correct, formal note. Almost every word misspelled but a very formal and correct note.

And this showed - this is Vanderbilt, you know, he never had a formal education, let alone classical. And yet he actually began to affect the dignity that his wealth lifted him to, that status and that level of society. And yet at the same time it's possible for example that he was dyslexic. That's the diagnosis I can't really formally make in a book because of the distance of time but it's possible that he had some sort or reading disability such as dyslexia.

How do you think he would he react to your book?

TJ Stiles:
Well first of all, I doubt that he would've read it. He didn't do a lot of leisure reading. Most of his leisure activities involved something competitive. Perhaps if he was in a race with someone to read it, see who could read it fastest, he might read it. But I think that Vanderbilt was someone who, you know, he let the chips fall where they may. I think that he would feel that some of my discussions about the way Americans saw him and argued about him might be a bit too much verbiage. He didn't like people who said too much but I tried to present a very fair and honest portrait of him, and express the fact that he was controversial for important reasons.

He was very familiar with the public debate about him throughout his career and what he represented—for good and for ill—in American society. And yet at the same time I made clear that his contemporaries, especially those who really dealt with him in business including his enemies, felt that he had earned his pride in himself. He was a very proud man. Wasn't boastful, but he was very proud and, you know, he often for example befriended his enemies after... usually after he'd crush them in a business battle. Then later they would become card-playing partners.

This shows that, you know, not only did he not take things personally but that he had sort of a good sportsmanship attitude toward business battles. He would fight with every weapon available to him and yet he lived by a code. As ruthless as it was, it was a code and as a corporate manager he was honest as much as he represented a new power in corporations. And so I try to bring that out, the fact that he was a man that everyone respected, even when they opposed him. And I think that's something that he would take great pride in so I, you know, the Vanderbilt descendants for example who I've spoken to, who've read my book have really felt like it was a really fair portrait. And that's the best I can ask for.

Recorded May 25, 2010
Interviewed by Andrew Dermont

Cornelius Vanderbilt couldn’t spell, but he had a consummate passion for competition.

To boost your self-esteem, write about chapters of your life

If you're lacking confidence and feel like you could benefit from an ego boost, try writing your life story.

Personal Growth

In truth, so much of what happens to us in life is random – we are pawns at the mercy of Lady Luck. To take ownership of our experiences and exert a feeling of control over our future, we tell stories about ourselves that weave meaning and continuity into our personal identity.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Ashes of cat named Pikachu to be launched into space

A space memorial company plans to launch the ashes of "Pikachu," a well-loved Tabby, into space.

GoFundMe/Steve Munt
Culture & Religion
  • Steve Munt, Pikachu's owner, created a GoFundMe page to raise money for the mission.
  • If all goes according to plan, Pikachu will be the second cat to enter space, the first being a French feline named Felicette.
  • It might seem frivolous, but the cat-lovers commenting on Munt's GoFundMe page would likely disagree.
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