Double Book Review: Confessions of an Ad Man & The Way of the General

I.

David Ogilvy’s Confessions of an Advertising Man opens:

As a child I lived in Lewis Carroll’s house in Guildford. My father, whom I adored, was a Gaelic-speaking Highlander, a classical scholar and a bigoted agnostic. One day he discovered that I had started going to church secretly.

“My dear old son, how can you swallow that mumbo-jumbo? It is all very well for servants but not for educated people. You don’t have to be a Christian to behave like a gentleman!

My mother was a beautiful and eccentric Irishwoman. She disinherited me on the ground that I was likely to acquire more money than was good for me without any help from her. I could not disagree.

For those of you who are just tuning in, David Ogilvy was a copywriter who made his way to advertising stardom. He founded the advertising firm Ogilvy & Mather (now known simply as “Ogilvy”), and in 1962, Time Magazine called him “the most sought-after wizard in today’s advertising industry”. People still call him “the Father of Advertising” and “the King of Madison Avenue” to this day. Wikipedia describes him simply as a “British advertising tycoon”. 

It’s immediately obvious that Ogilvy is an engaging writer. He knows this, because he’s cultivated it. From the start he’s talking about the value of writing, and he never strays too far from the topic. You can tell it’s important to him. “We like reports and correspondence to be well-written, easy to read – and short,” he says. “We are revolted by pseudo-academic jargon.” Later he says, “American businessmen are not taught that it is a sin to bore your fellow creatures.”

The writing shines brightest in his personal narratives — his statistics training at Princeton, his time as a door-to-door salesman, dropping out of Oxford to go to work as an apprentice chef at the Hotel Majestic in Paris, trying to avoid the storm of forty-seven raw eggs thrown across the kitchen at his head (“scoring nine direct hits”) by the Hotel’s chef potager who had grown impatient with Ogilvy’s constant “raids on his stock pot in search of bones for the poodles of an important client” — and so on.

The Hotel Majestic, now known as The Peninsula Paris

But his business advice is equally gripping — hiring and firing, how to get clients, how to keep clients, how to be a good client, how to write ads for television, and so on. This is striking, because most business advice is tedious and bad. 

His advice escapes these clichés partly because it is delivered in the writing style he recommends — easy to read, short, and direct. But another part of it is that his advice has something of a timeless quality to it. So after the quality of the writing, the second thing we noticed is that Ogilvy strongly reminds us of 2nd-century Chinese statesman, mystic, and military strategist Zhuge Liang.

II.  

Zhuge Liang, also known by his courtesy name Kongming, or his nickname Wolong (meaning “Crouching Dragon”), was born in 181 CE, in eastern China. He grew to become a scholar so highly regarded that his surname alone is synonymous with intelligence. In China, calling someone “Zhuge” is like calling someone “Einstein” in the west, except less likely to be sarcastic. 

Zhuge’s parents died when he was very young, and he was raised by one of his father’s cousins. This was during the extremely unstable years leading up to the Three Kingdoms period, when war was tearing the empire apart, and famines were so extreme that whole provinces resorted to cannibalism. While Zhuge was still a teenager, he was forced to move to a town in central China.

There he grew into a man of great insight and intelligence. Eventually he was discovered by Liu Bei, a distant relation of the Emperor and one of the great men of the age. Liu Bei was an accomplished general, but he had a reputation for being direct and honorable to a fault. Zhuge, on the other hand, already had a reputation for trickery and cunning. He shared with Liu Bei an idea that came to be known as the Longzhong Plan, a plan which eventually led to Liu Bei being crowned emperor of the new state of Shu Han. Zhuge is a central character in the massive historical classic Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and shrines in his honor still dot China 1,800 years later.

The parallels between Ogilvy and Zhuge are surprisingly strong. Both were extremely well-read in a wide variety of topics, but neither of them were snobs. Zhuge could quote classics like the Analects of Confucius and Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, but also enjoyed reciting folk songs from his hometown. In his book, Ogilvy references the ancient Greek orator Demosthenes, quotes statesmen like Winston Churchill, but also quotes a stanza sung by The Pirate King from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance

David Ogilvy

When Liu Bei recruited Zhuge Liang, Zhuge was working as a subsistence farmer in Longzhong valley. Fifteen years later, he was appointed Regent to Liu Bei’s son, the young Emperor of Shu Han, when Liu Bei died. 

“Fifteen years ago,” writes Ogilvy at the beginning of Chapter Two, “I was an obscure tobacco farmer in Pennsylvania. Today I preside over one of the best advertising agencies in the United States, with billings of $55,000,000 a year, a payroll of $5,000,000, and offices in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Toronto.”

Farming wasn’t the only profession they shared. After finishing his book, we were surprised to learn that Ogilvy also worked as a military strategist. In World War II he served with British Intelligence, where he applied the insights he had gained from studying polling (with George Gallup himself) to secret intelligence and propaganda.

Takeshi Kaneshiro as Zhuge Liang, in John Woo’s Red Cliff

Zhuge Liang has a couple surviving works to his name. His longest work is called The Way of the General, so that’s the main book we draw on today. We also consider his two memorials known as the Chu Shi Biao, as well as a letter he wrote to his son, called Admonition to His Son. Finally, as The Way of the General is sometimes considered to be a sort of commentary on Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, we will occasionally reference that work as well. 

Similarly, Ogilvy has not only Confessions of an Advertising Man, but also a fascinating manual, The Theory and Practice of Selling the AGA Cooker, which Fortune magazine called “the finest sales instruction manual ever written.” With an endorsement like that, you know we will be referring to this piece.

III.

Let’s start with the writing. The two men have a very similar style. Both books are clearly written. But while the language they use is normally plain, both men have an occasional tendency to dip into wild metaphors. 

Ogilvy describes founders who get rich and let their creative fires go out as “extinct volcanoes”, and refers to his set of techniques for writing great campaigns as “my magic lantern.” Meanwhile, Zhuge opens his book with the following imagery: “If the general can hold the authority of the military and operate its power, he oversees his subordinates like a fierce tiger with wings, flying over the four seas, going into action whenever there is an encounter.” On the other hand: “If the general loses his authority and cannot control the power, he is like a dragon cast into a lake.” 

“Those who would be military leaders must have loyal hearts, eyes and ears, claws and fangs. Without people loyal to them, they are like someone walking at night, not knowing where to step. Without eyes and ears, they are as though in the dark, not knowing how to proceed. Without claws and fangs, they are like hungry men eating poisoned food, inevitably to die,” says Zhuge, while Ogilvy says, I prefer the discipline of knowledge to the anarchy of ignorance. We pursue knowledge the way a pig pursues truffles. A blind pig can sometimes find truffles, but it helps to know that they grow in oak forests.”

Sometimes these metaphors veer into the farcical. “Advertising is a business of words,” writes Ogilvy, “but advertising agencies are infested with men and women who cannot write. They cannot write advertisements, and they cannot write plans. They are helpless as deaf mutes on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera.” Zhuge strikes a similar note in writing, “If the rulership does not give [generals] the power to reward and punish, this is like tying up a monkey and trying to make it cavort around, or like gluing someone’s eyes shut and asking him to distinguish colors.”

Both of them make a lot of lists. Zhuge has lists of five skills, four desires, fifteen avenues of order, and eight kinds of decadence in generalship (“Seventh is to be a malicious liar with a cowardly heart.”). Ogilvy has lists of ten criteria for accounts, fourteen devices to use when you need to use very long copy, and twenty-two commandments for advertising food products (“The larger your food illustration, the more appetite appeal.”). 

These lists are good enough that you could easily turn them into a series of Buzzfeed-style listicles: “8 Kinds of Decadence in Generalship – Number 7 will SHOCK YOU”

Both men sometimes use little parables to drive home their points. In one section, Zhuge lists a number of ancient kings and their approaches to winning wars with the least possible violence. Ogilvy sometimes combines a parable with one of his vivid metaphors, and ends up sounding rather a lot like a Chinese courtier himself:  

When Arthur Houghton asked us to do the advertising for Steuben, he gave me a crystal-clear directive: “We make the best glass in the world. Your job is to make the best advertising.”

I replied, “Making perfect glass is very difficult. Even the Steuben craftsmen produce some imperfect pieces. Your inspectors break them. Making perfect advertisements is equally difficult.”

Six weeks later I showed him the proof of our first Steuben advertisement. It was in color, and the plates, which had cost $1,200, were imperfect. Without demur, Arthur agreed to let me break them and make a new set. For such enlightened clients it is impossible to do shoddy work.

Both books hit their key themes over and over, in slightly different guises each time. They look at the same few ideas repeatedly, from different perspectives. Continuous focus on the fundamentals highlights what really matters, and maybe this is why much of their advice ends up sounding so similar.

Ambition

For these two men, the root of their advice, and probably the root of their similarity, is that both of them are enormously ambitious. “Aspirations should remain lofty and far-sighted,” writes Zhuge. Despite being born a Scotsman, Ogilvy sounds very American when he says, “Don’t bunt. Aim out of the park.” Then he sounds kind of like Zhuge again, when he finishes with, “Aim for the company of immortals.”

Ambition gets a bad rap these days, but these two aren’t talking about accumulating piles of money, or being as big or as famous as humanly possible. Ambition means doing something meaningful with your life. “I have no ambition to preside over a vast bureaucracy.” says our Ad Man. “That is why we have only nineteen clients. The pursuit of excellence is less profitable than the pursuit of bigness, but it can be more satisfying.” 

Zhuge goes out of his way to specifically mention fighting injustice. “If your will is not strong,” he says, “if your thought does not oppose injustice, you will fritter away your life stuck in the commonplace, silently submitting to the bonds of emotion, forever cowering before mediocrities, never escaping the downward flow.”

And this is the other side of ambition, maybe the side that really matters: freedom from fear. Zhuge says, “The years run off with the hours, aspirations flee with the years. Eventually one ages and collapses. What good will it do to lament over poverty?” You only get one life and it’s going to end someday. You’re going to lose it all no matter what, so why not be ambitious? The alternative is cowering before mediocrity.

Many people are afraid of failing, or worse, the embarrassment that they imagine comes with failure. We say “imagine” because, once you try it, you’ll find that most of the time, the embarrassment never comes. And you can’t fight injustice, let alone make excellent ads, if you’re hung up on the idea of failing.

Hard Work & Relaxation

To the short-sighted, effort and relaxation seem like opposites. It’s easy to think there are two categories of people: those who work very hard for very long hours (and presumably burn out) and those who are slackers (and presumably go nowhere). In certain rare cases people talk about aiming for “work-life balance”, a sort of purgatorial or limbo-like concept that combines the worst of both worlds — the inability to get anything done at work with the inability to have anything more than the most superficial personal life.

Ogilvy and Zhuge understand that this isn’t how it works. Work and rest are complements, and they advocate a life where you both work extremely hard and place a high premium on relaxation. 

Maybe it’s not surprising to hear that a Madison Avenue executive worked long hours, but Ogilvy really did work some long hours. He reminisces about his time working for the head chef at the Parisian Hotel Majestic, who worked seventy-seven hours a week, and says, “That is about my schedule today.” When describing what he admires, Ogilvy comes right out and says, “It is more fun to be overworked than to be underworked.” Elsewhere he says, “I believe in the Scottish proverb: ‘Hard work never killed a man.’ Men die of boredom, psychological conflict and disease. They never die of hard work.”

Zhuge mentions some long hours himself. “One who rises early in the morning and retires late at night,” he says, “is the leader of a hundred men.” He kind of makes a point of it. “Generals do not say they are thirsty before the soldiers have drawn from the well,” he says. “Generals do not say they are hungry before the soldiers’ food is cooked; generals do not say they are cold before the soldiers’ fire are kindled; generals do not say they are hot before the soldiers’ canopies are drawn.” 

These are grueling requirements, but much of it seems to spring from the noble desire to not expect anything from others that you wouldn’t do yourself. Zhuge says, “Lead them into battle personally, and soldiers will be brave.” In explaining his own long hours, Ogilvy says, “I figure that my staff will be less reluctant to work overtime if I work longer hours than they do.”

This seems like more than hustle culture. It’s closely related to the drive for excellence. “From morning to night we sweated and shouted and cursed and cooked,” says Ogilvy of his time at the Hotel Majestic. “Every man jack was inspired by one ambition: to cook better than any chef had ever cooked before.”

In warfare, excellence can save thousands of lives. It is somewhat more prosaic in advertising, but we think Ogilvy is sincere when he promises his employees, “I try to make sufficient profits to keep you all from penury in old age,” and excellence in advertising helps him make good on that promise.

The commitment to hard work is important in part because hard work is how you make something look easy. The height of woodworking is when you cannot see the seams, and the height of advertising is when you cannot see the ad:

A good advertisement is one which sells the product without drawing attention to itself. It should rivet the reader’s attention on the product. Instead of saying “What a clever advertisement”, the reader says “I never knew that before. I must try this product.”

It is the professional duty of the advertising agent to conceal his artifice. When Aeschines spoke, they said, “How well he speaks.” But when Demosthenes spoke, they said, “Let us march against Philip.” I’m for Demosthenes.

To our ear, this sounds almost exactly like the following passage from The Art of War

To see victory only when it is within the ken of the common herd is not the acme of excellence. Neither is it the acme of excellence if you fight and conquer and the whole Empire says, “Well done!” To lift an autumn hair is no sign of great strength; to see the sun and moon is no sign of sharp sight; to hear the noise of thunder is no sign of a quick ear.

What the ancients called a clever fighter is one who not only wins, but excels in winning with ease. Hence his victories bring him neither reputation for wisdom nor credit for courage. He wins his battles by making no mistakes. Making no mistakes is what establishes the certainty of victory, for it means conquering an enemy that is already defeated. 

While we think Ogilvy is more like Zhuge Liang than Sun Tzu, Confessions of an Advertising Man might be more like The Art of War than The Way of the General. Both are about the same length. The physical books are about the same size. Both are divided up into a modest number of chapters — 11 chapters for Confessions, and 13 for The Art of War. In both books, each chapter is devoted to a specific topic, like “How to Keep Clients”, “Variation in Tactics”, “How to Rise to the Top of the Tree”, “Laying Plans”, “How to Build Great Campaigns”, “The Use of Spies”, and “Attack by Fire”.

Zhuge and Ogilvy both stress the importance of relaxation as an explicit complement to their focus on hard work and long hours. In a letter to his son where he warns against being lazy, Zhuge also says:

The practice of a cultivated man is to refine himself by quietude and develop virtue by frugality. Without detachment, there is no way to clarify the will; without serenity, there is no way to get far.

Study requires calm, talent requires study. Without study there is no way to expand talent; without calm there is no way to accomplish study.

Ogilvy also likes to study, but he tends to think of it as “homework”. His true love is vacations, which he describes like so:

I hear a great deal of music. I am on friendly terms with John Barleycorn. I take long hot baths. I garden. I go into retreat among the Amish. I watch birds. I go for long walks in the country. And I take frequent vacations, so that my brain can lie fallow—no golf, no cocktail parties, no tennis, no bridge, no concentration; only a bicycle.

Zhuge makes it clear that calm is needed for study, so that you can increase your talents. Ogilvy is equally clear that he takes vacations because he needs them to be creative:

The creative process requires more than reason. … I am almost incapable of logical thought, but I have developed techniques for keeping open the telephone line to my unconscious, in case that disorderly repository has anything to tell me. …

While thus employed in doing nothing [on vacation], I receive a constant stream of telegrams from my unconscious, and these become the raw material for my advertisements.

Both men emphasize relaxation because they believe it will help them be more productive. You may see this as dysfunctional; if so, it’s telling that Ogilvy agrees with you. “If you prefer to spend all your spare time growing roses or playing with your children, I like you better,” he says, “but do not complain that you are not being promoted fast enough.“ 

But there’s also an interesting point to be made. Even if productivity is the only thing you care about (let’s hope it’s not, but even so), you still need lots of calm and rest to make it happen. Working long hours can be fine if that’s what you want, but people who work all the time are doing it wrong. 

It’s also worth noting how the two of them think about creativity in about the same terms: 

Creative people are especially observant, and they value accurate observation (telling themselves the truth) more than other people do. They often express part-truths, but this they do vividly; the part they express is the generally unrecognized; by displacement of accent and apparent disproportion in statement they seek to point to the usually unobserved. They see things as others do, but also as others do not.

And:

An observant and perceptive government is one that looks at subtle phenomena and listens to small voices. When phenomena are subtle they are not seen, and when voices are small they are not heard; therefore an enlightened leader looks closely at the subtle and listens for the importance of the small voice. This harmonizes the outside with the inside, and harmonizes the inside with the outside; so the Way of government involves the effort to see and hear much.

Recruiting Great People

Zhuge and Ogilvy had different sorts of ambitions. Ogilvy wanted to be a great chef, then he wanted to make the best advertisements. Somewhere in between he wanted to be a tobacco farmer. Zhuge wanted to fight injustice, lower the people’s taxes, prevent government corruption, and (depending on the version of the story) embarrass Zhou Yu.

But despite these differences in focus, both of them agree that the highest form of ambition is to work with great people. Even so, the trouble with amazing people is, how do you find them? This question is at least as old as Zhuge’s time, probably much older, and both authors take it very seriously.

Ogilvy tells us that he has talked to some psychologists who have been working on the problem of creativity. But, he tells us, they have not yet caught up to his approach:

While I wait for Dr. Barron and his colleagues to synthesize their clinical observations into formal psychometric tests, I have to rely on more old-fashioned and empirical techniques for spotting creative dynamos. Whenever I see a remarkable advertisement or television commercial, I find out who wrote it. Then I call the writer on the telephone and congratulate him on his work. A poll has shown that creative people would rather work at Ogilvy, Benson & Mather than at any other agency, so my telephone call often produces an application for a job.

I then ask the candidate to send me the six best advertisements and commercials he has ever written. This reveals, among other things, whether he can recognize a good advertisement when he sees one, or is only the instrument of an able supervisor. Sometimes I call on my victim at home; ten minutes after crossing the threshold I can tell whether he has a richly furnished mind, what kind of taste he has, and whether he is happy enough to sustain pressure.

Zhuge has similar tricks. “Hard though it be to know people,” says Zhuge, “there are ways.” He doesn’t recommend visiting your prospective hires at home; instead, he suggests other situations you can put them in, to test their personalities. In characteristic fashion, he gives us a list:

First is to question them concerning right and wrong, to observe their ideas.

Second is to exhaust all their arguments, to see how they change.

Third is to consult with them about strategy, to see how perceptive they are.

Fourth is to announce that there is trouble, to see how brave they are.

Fifth is to present them with the prospect of gain, to see how modest they are.

Sixth is to give them a task to do within a specific time, to see how trustworthy they are.

Ogilvy goes a step further — not only does he give advice on how ad agencies can take the measure of potential employees, he lays out advice on how clients (that is, businesses) can take the measure of a potential ad agency! In spelling it out, he practically reiterates Zhuge’s list:

Invite the chief executive from each of the leading contenders to bring two of his key men to dine at your house. Loosen their tongues. Find out if they are discreet about the secrets of their present clients. Find out if they have the spine to disagree when you say something stupid. Observe their relationship with each other; are they professional colleagues or quarrelsome politicians? Do they promise you results which are obviously exaggerated? Do they sound like extinct volcanoes, or are they alive? Are they good listeners? Are they intellectually honest?

Above all, find out if you like them; the relationship between client and agency has to be an intimate one, and it can be hell if the personal chemistry is sour.

The most specific piece of advice the two authors agree on is where to find great people. “We receive hundreds of job applications every year,” Ogilvy admits. “I am particularly interested in those which come from the Middle West. I would rather hire an ambitious young man from Des Moines than a high-priced fugitive from a fashionable agency on Madison Avenue.” 

They agree that great people usually come from obscurity. “For strong pillars you need straight trees; for wise public servants you need upright people,” says Zhuge. “Straight trees are found in remote forests; upright people come from the humble masses. Therefore when rulers are going to make appointments they need to look in obscure places.” And apparently, this practice goes back pretty far. “Ancient kings are known to have hired unknowns and nobodies,” says Zhuge, “finding in them the human qualities whereby they were able to bring peace.”

Maybe these authors both feel this way because both of them started out in obscurity. But then again, here we are reading their books approximately 60 and 1,800 years later, so maybe they’re right. 

This is how Zhuge describes himself:

I was of humble origin, and used to lead the life of a peasant in Nanyang. In those days, I only hoped to survive in such a chaotic era. I did not aspire to become famous among nobles and aristocrats. The Late Emperor did not look down on me because of my background. He lowered himself and visited me thrice in the thatched cottage, where he consulted me on the affairs of our time. I was so deeply touched that I promised to do my best for him. 

Driving the point home is this memo Ogilvy sent to one of his partners in 1981:

Will Any Agency Hire This Man? 

He is 38, and unemployed. He dropped out of college. 

He has been a cook, a salesman, a diplomatist and a farmer. 

He knows nothing about marketing and had never written any copy. 

He professes to be interested in advertising as a career (at the age of 38!) and is ready to go to work for $5,000 a year. 

I doubt if any American agency will hire him.

However, a London agency did hire him. Three years later he became the most famous copywriter in the world, and in due course built the tenth biggest agency in the world. 

The moral: it sometimes pays an agency to be imaginative and unorthodox in hiring.

In case you can’t tell, he is describing himself.

Integrity

When Zhuge and Ogilvy talk about greatness, they’re not just talking about skill. In fact, skill comes second, and a distant second at that! Without integrity, without virtue, skill means nothing. 

“I admire people with first-class brains, because you cannot run a great advertising agency without brainy people,” says Ogilvy. “But brains are not enough unless they are combined with intellectual honesty.” Zhuge quotes Confucius as saying, “People may have the finest talents, but if they are arrogant and stingy, their other qualities are not worthy of consideration.”

Ogilvy doesn’t pull his punches, here or indeed ever. “I despise toadies who suck up to their bosses,” he says. “They are generally the same people who bully their subordinates. … I admire people who hire subordinates who are good enough to succeed them. I pity people who are so insecure that they feel compelled to hire inferiors as their subordinates.” 

A good leader looks to their team for counsel — these people were recruited for a reason! “Those who consider themselves lacking when they see the wise, who go along with good advice like following a current, who are magnanimous yet able to be firm, who are uncomplicated yet have many strategies,” says Zhuge, “are called great generals.”

You don’t expect much personal virtue from Madison Avenue, but Ogilvy really seems to feel strongly about this one:

I admire people who build up their subordinates, because this is the only way we can promote from within the ranks. I detest having to go outside to fill important jobs, and I look forward to the day when that will never be necessary.

I admire people with gentle manners who treat other people as human beings. I abhor quarrelsome people. I abhor people who wage paper-warfare. The best way to keep the peace is to be candid. 

Integrity is especially important in leadership — “for what is done by those above,” says Zhuge, “is observed by those below.” Here especially, the two leaders exhibit their belief that they should not expect anything of others that they are not prepared to demonstrate themselves. “To indulge oneself yet instruct others is contrary to proper government,” says Zhuge. “To correct oneself and then teach others is in accord with proper government. … If [leaders] are not upright themselves, their directives will not be followed, resulting in disorder.”

Ogilvy gives more detail. “I try to be fair and to be firm,” he says, “to make unpopular decisions without cowardice, to create an atmosphere of stability, and to listen more than I talk.” This is in some ways a very Confucian perspective, that a leader owes their subordinates exemplary behavior. “A policy of instruction and direction means those above educate those below,” says Zhuge, “not saying anything that is unlawful and not doing anything that is immoral.”

Exceptional integrity means understanding that you have a commitment to the people who work for you. Not the same commitment than they have to you — more of a commitment.  

Zhuge paraphrases Confucius as saying, “an enlightened ruler does not worry about people not knowing him, he worries about not knowing people. He worries not about outsiders not knowing insiders, but about insiders not knowing outsiders. He worries not about subordinates not knowing superiors, but about superiors not knowing subordinates. He worries not about the lower classes not knowing the upper classes, but about the upper classes not knowing the lower classes.”

“In the early days of our agency I worked cheek by jowl with every employee; communication and affection were easy,” says Ogilvy. “But as our brigade grows bigger I find it more difficult. How can I be a father figure to people who don’t even know me by sight?” If Confuicius was right, I guess this makes Ogilvy an enlightened ruler.

“It is important to admit your mistakes,” Ogilvy tells us, “and do so before you are charged with them. Many clients are surrounded by buckpassers who make a fine art of blaming the agency for their own failures. I seize the earliest opportunity to assume the blame.” 

But it’s not all tactics — you also want to earn the respect of the people you work with. “If you are brave about admitting your mistakes to your clients and your colleagues, you will earn their respect. Candor, objectivity and intellectual honesty are a sine qua non for the advertising careerist.” 

Being respected does happen to be good for business, but it’s also important for your self-worth as a person. Ogilvy offers a few conspicuous cases where he decided to act honorably, even though it was against his business interests:

Several times I have advised manufacturers who wanted to hire our agency to stay where they were. For example, when the head of Hallmark Cards sent emissaries to sound me out, I said to them, “Your agency has contributed much to your fortunes. It would be an act of gross ingratitude to appoint another agency. Tell them exactly what it is about their service which you now find unsatisfactory. I am sure they will put it right. Stay where you are.” Hallmark took my advice.

When one of the can companies invited us to solicit their account, I said, “Your agency has been giving you superb service, in circumstances of notorious difficulty. I happen to know that they lose money on your account. Instead of firing them, reward them.”

Exceptional integrity means exceptional humanity. “One whose humanitarian care extends to all under his command, whose trustworthiness and justice win the allegiance of neighboring nations, who understands the signs of the sky above, the patterns of the earth below, and the affairs of humanity in between, and who regards all people as his family,” says Zhuge, “is a world-class leader, one who cannot be opposed.”

Exceptional humanity in advertising — in 1963 no less! — looks like this:

Some of our people spend their entire working lives in our agency. We do our damnedest to make it a nice place to work. 

We treat our people like human beings. We help them when they are in trouble–with their jobs, with illness, with alcoholism, and so on.

We help our people make the best of their talents, investing an awful lot of time and money in training–like a teaching hospital. 

Our system of management is singularly democratic. We don’t like hierarchical bureaucracy or rigid pecking orders.

We give our executives an extraordinary degree of freedom and independence. 

We like people with gentle manners. Our New York office gives an annual award for “professionalism combined with civility.” 

We like people who are honest in argument, honest with clients, and above all, honest with consumers.

We admire people who work hard, who are objective and thorough.

We despise office politicians, toadies, bullies and pompous asses. We abhor ruthlessness.

The way up the ladder is open to everybody. We are free from prejudice of any kind — religious prejudice, racial prejudice or sexual prejudice. 

We detest nepotism and every other form of favouritism. In promoting people to top jobs, we are influenced as much by their character as anything else.

And in case that isn’t scrupulous enough for you, there’s at least one product that Ogilvy entirely refuses to advertise: politicians. “The use of advertising to sell statesmen,” he says, “is the ultimate vulgarity.”

V.

Zhuge and Ogilvy focus on different things. Zhuge has a section on grieving for the dead, Ogilvy has a chapter on writing television commercials. But these differences are superficial. Both men are animated by the same spirit. Both of them are infinitely ambitious — but it’s not a callous ambition. Their ambition is to be honest, relaxed, creative, and humane. 

We think these men would have been good friends. It’s tragic that they were born 1,730 years and several thousand miles apart. But it’s to our advantage that we get to read both books and see that these two authors are drawing from the same well. The best wisdom is timeless.

Reality is Very Weird and You Need to be Prepared for That

I. 

Maciej Cegłowski’s essay Scott And Scurvy is one of the most interesting things we’ve ever read. We keep coming back to it — and we hope to write more about it in the future — but today we want to start with just how weird the whole thing is.

Scott and Scurvy tells the true history of scurvy, a horrible and dangerous disease. Scurvy is the result of a vitamin C deficiency — if you’re a sailor or something, eating preserved food for months on end, you eventually run out of vitamin C and many horrible things start happening to your body. If this continues long enough, you die. But at any point, consuming even a small amount of vitamin C, present in most fresh foods, will cure you almost immediately. 

We can’t do the full story justice (read the original essay, seriously), but just briefly: The cure was repeatedly discovered and lost by different crews of sailors at different points in time. Then in 1747, James Lind tried a bunch of treatments and found that citrus was more or less a miracle cure for the disease. Even so, it took until 1799, more than 50 years, for citrus juice to become a staple in the Royal Navy. 

Instead of diagrams depicting the horrifying symptoms of scurvy, please enjoy this picture of James Lind shoving a whole lemon into some unfortunate sailor’s mouth.

Originally, the Royal Navy was given lemon juice, which works well because it contains a lot of vitamin C. But at some point between 1799 and 1870, someone switched out lemons for limes, which contain a lot less vitamin C. Worse, the lime juice was pumped through copper tubing as part of its processing, which destroyed the little vitamin C that it had to begin with. 

This ended up being fine, because ships were so much faster at this point that no one had time to develop scurvy. So everything was all right until 1875, when a British arctic expedition set out on an attempt to reach the North Pole. They had plenty of lime juice and thought they were prepared — but they all got scurvy. 

The same thing happened a few more times on other polar voyages, and this was enough to convince everyone that citrus juice doesn’t cure scurvy. The bacterial theory of disease was the hot new thing at the time, so from the 1870s on, people played around with a theory that a bacteria-produced substance called “ptomaine” in preserved meat was the cause of scurvy instead. 

This theory was wrong, so it didn’t work very well. Everyone kept getting scurvy on polar expeditions. This lasted decades, and could have lasted longer, except that two Norwegians happened to stumble on the answer entirely by accident: 

It was pure luck that led to the actual discovery of vitamin C. Axel Holst and Theodor Frolich had been studying beriberi (another deficiency disease) in pigeons, and when they decided to switch to a mammal model, they serendipitously chose guinea pigs, the one animal besides human beings and monkeys that requires vitamin C in its diet. Fed a diet of pure grain, the animals showed no signs of beriberi, but quickly sickened and died of something that closely resembled human scurvy.

No one had seen scurvy in animals before. With a simple animal model for the disease in hand, it became a matter of running the correct experiments, and it was quickly established that scurvy was a deficiency disease after all. Very quickly the compound that prevents the disease was identified as a small molecule present in cabbage, lemon juice, and many other foods, and in 1932 Szent-Györgyi definitively isolated ascorbic acid.

Even in retrospect, the story is pretty complicated. But we worry that it would have looked even messier from the inside.

II.

Holst and Frolich also ran a version of the study with dogs. But the dogs were fine. They never developed scurvy, because unlike humans and guinea pigs, they don’t need vitamin C in their diet. Almost any other animal would also have been fine — guinea pigs and a few species of primates just happen to be really weird about vitamin C. So what would this have looked like if Holst and Frolich just never got around to replicating their dog research on guinea pigs? What if the guinea pigs had gotten lost in the mail?

Three of Theodore Roosevelt’s children posing in a photo with one of their five guinea pigs. Kermit Roosevelt is holding the pig.

Let’s imagine a version of history where the guinea pigs did indeed get lost in the Norwegian mail, so Holst and Frolich only tested dogs, and found no sign of scurvy. Let’s further imagine that Frolich has been struck by inspiration, and through pure intuition has figured out exactly what is going on. 

Frolich: You know Holst, I think old James Lind was right. I think scurvy really is a disease of deficiency, that there’s something in citrus fruits and cabbages that the human body needs, and that you can’t go too long without. 

Holst: Frolich, what are you talking about? That doesn’t make any sense.

Frolich: No, I think it makes very good sense. People who have scurvy and eat citrus, or potatoes, or many other foods, are always cured.

Holst: Look, we know that can’t be right. George Nares had plenty of lime juice when he led his expedition to the North Pole, but they all got scurvy in a couple weeks. The same thing happened in the Expedition to Franz-Josef Land in 1894. They had high-quality lime juice, everyone took their doses, but everyone got scurvy. It can’t be citrus.

Frolich: Maybe some citrus fruits contain the antiscorbutic [scurvy-curing] property and others don’t. Maybe the British Royal Navy used one kind of lime back when Lind did his research but gave a different kind of lime to Nares and the others on their Arctic expeditions. Or maybe they did something to the lime juice that removed the antiscorbutic property. Maybe they boiled it, or ran it through copper piping or something, and that ruined it.

Holst: Two different kinds of limes? Frolich, you gotta get a hold of yourself. Besides, the polar explorers found that fresh meat also cures scurvy. They would kill a polar bear or some seals, have the meat for dinner, and then they would be fine. You expect me to believe that this antiscorbutic property is found in both polar bear meat AND some kinds of citrus fruits, but not in other kinds of citrus?

Frolich: You have to agree that it’s possible. Why can’t the property be in some foods and not others? 

Holst: It’s possible, but it seems really unlikely. Different varieties of limes are way more similar to one another than they are to polar bear meat. I guess what you describe fits the evidence, but it really sounds like you made it up just to save your favorite theory. 

Frolich: Look, it’s still consistent with what we know. It would also explain why Lind says that citrus cures scurvy, even though it clearly didn’t cure scurvy in the polar expeditions. All you need is different kinds of citrus, or something in the preparation that ruined it — or both! 

Holst: What about our research? We fed those dogs nothing but grain for weeks. They didn’t like it, but they didn’t get scurvy. We know that grain isn’t enough to keep sailors from getting scurvy, so if scurvy is about not getting enough of something in your diet, those dogs should have gotten scurvy too.

Frolich: Maybe only a few kinds of animals need the antiscorbutic property in their food. Maybe humans need it, but dogs don’t. I bet if those guinea pigs hadn’t gotten lost in the mail, and we had run our study on guinea pigs instead of dogs, the guinea pigs would have developed scurvy.

Holst: Let me get this straight, you think there’s this magical ingredient, totally essential to human life, but other animals don’t need it at all? That we would have seen something entirely different if we had used guinea pigs or rats or squirrels or bats or beavers?

Frolich: Yeah basically. I bet most animals don’t need this “ingredient”, but humans do, and maybe a few others. So we won’t see scurvy in our studies unless we happen to choose the right animal, and we just picked the wrong animal when we decided to study dogs. If we had gotten those guinea pigs, things would have turned out different.

III.

Frolich is entirely right on every point. He also sounds totally insane. 

Maybe there are different kinds of citrus. Maybe some animals need this mystery ingredient and others don’t. Maybe polar bear meat is, medically speaking, more like citrus fruit from Sicily than like citrus fruit from the West Indies. Really???

This looks a lot like special pleading, but in this case, the apparent double standard is correct. All of these weird exceptions he suggests were actually weird exceptions. And while our hypothetical version of Frolich wouldn’t have any way of knowing, these were the right distinctions to make. 

Reality is very weird, and you need to be prepared for that. Like the hypothetical Holst, most of us would be tempted to discard this argument entirely out of hand. But this weird argument is correct, because reality is itself very weird. Looking at this “contradictory” evidence and responding with these weird bespoke splitting arguments turns out to be the right move, at least in this case. 

Real explanations will sometimes sound weird, crazy, or too complicated because reality itself is often weird, crazy, or too complicated. 

It’s unfortunate, but scurvy is really the BEST CASE SCENARIO. The answer ended up being almost comically simple: it’s just a disease of deficiency, eat one of these foods containing this vitamin and be instantly cured. But the path to get to that answer was confusing and complicated. Think about all the things in the world that have a more complicated answer than scurvy, i.e. almost everything. Those things will have even weirder and more confusing stories to untangle.

This story has a couple of lessons for us. The first is just, don’t discard an explanation just because it’s weird or complicated. 

Focus on explanations that are consistent with all the evidence. Frolich’s harebrained different-citrus different-animals explanation from above does sound crazy, but at least it’s consistent with everything they knew at the time. If some kinds of citrus cured scurvy and other kinds didn’t, that would explain why it worked for Lind and for early sailors, but it didn’t work for the polar explorers after 1870. And in fact, that does explain it.  

It’s also testable, at least in principle. If you think there might be differences between different kinds of citrus fruits, you could go back and try to figure out the original source used by James Lind and the Royal Navy, and try to re-create those conditions as closely as possible.

FRUIT

We’re taught to see splitting  — coming up with weird special cases or new distinctions between categories — as a tactic that people use to save their pet theories from contradictory evidence. You can salvage any theory just by saying that it only works sometimes and not others — it only happens at night, you need to use a special kind of wire, the vitamin D supplements from one supplier aren’t the same as from a different supplier, etc. Splitting has gotten a reputation as the sort of thing scientific cheats do to draw out the con as long as possible.

But as we see from the history of scurvy, sometimes splitting is the right answer! In fact, there were meaningful differences in different kinds of citrus, and meaningful differences in different animals. Making a splitting argument to save a theory — “maybe our supplier switched to a different kind of citrus, we should check that out” — is a reasonable thing to do, especially if the theory was relatively successful up to that point. 

Splitting is perfectly fair game, at least to an extent — doing it a few times is just prudent, though if you have gone down a dozen rabbitholes with no luck, then maybe it is time to start digging elsewhere.

Scurvy isn’t the only case where splitting was the right call. Maybe there’s more than one kind of fat. Maybe there are different kinds of air. Maybe there are different types of blood. It turns out, there are! So give splitting a chance.

Be more forgiving of contradictory evidence. These days people like to put a lot of focus on the idea of decisive experiments. While it’s true that some experiments are more decisive than others, no experiment can be entirely decisive either for or against a theory. We need to stop expecting knock-down studies that solve things forever.

Contradictory evidence can be wrong! The person making the observations might have been confused. They might have done the analysis wrong. The equipment may have malfunctioned. They might have used dogs instead of guinea pigs, or they might have used the wrong kind of hamster. The data might even be fabricated! Shit happens. 

Things change as contradictory evidence piles up, but even then, it doesn’t mean you should scrap the theory you started out with. Everyone back in the 1870s made a big mistake throwing out their perfectly good “disease of deficiency” theory as soon as there were a few contradictory stories from polar explorers.

Their mistake was thinking “maybe the theory is wrong”, instead of “maybe the real theory is more complicated”. When you see evidence that goes against a theory, it could mean that you’ve been barking up the wrong tree. Or it could just mean that there’s a small wrinkle you aren’t aware of.

If you have a theory that’s been working pretty well for a while — it made good predictions, it solved real problems, it explained a lot of mysteries — you should stick with it in the face of apparent contradictions, at least for a while. When you hit a snag with a reliable theory, think “maybe it’s complicated” instead of “oh it’s wrong”. It may still be wrong, but it’s good to check!

Be careful of purely verbal, syllogistic reasoning. We make these arguments in conversation all the time. They seem plain, convincing, and commonsensical, but in reality they’re pretty weak. It’s hard to get away from commonsensical, verbal arguments since that’s how we naturally think, but don’t take them too seriously. They’re ok as starting points, but keep in mind that they’re not actually evidence.

“Different kinds of citrus fruits are more like one another than they are like polar bear meat” sounds very reasonable, but in this case it was wrong. Sicilian lemons really ARE more like polar bear meat than they are like West Indian limes, at least for the purposes of treating scurvy.

One of these things is not like the others. That’s right — the limes!

“Dogs are about as similar to humans as guinea pigs are” also sounds very reasonable. The three species are all the same class (Mammalia) but different orders (Carnivora, Primates, and Rodentia, respectively), so there seems to be some taxonomic evidence as well. But humans really are a lot more like guinea pigs than they are like dogs, or most other animals, at least for the purposes of getting scurvy.

IV.

We were tickled to see this paragraph near the end of Scott and Scurvy, for obvious reasons

…one of the simplest of diseases managed to utterly confound us for so long, at the cost of millions of lives, even after we had stumbled across an unequivocal cure. It makes you wonder how many incurable ailments of the modern world—depression, autism, hypertension, obesity—will turn out to have equally simple solutions, once we are able to see them in the correct light. What will we be slapping our foreheads about sixty years from now, wondering how we missed something so obvious?

This is really good, and we think it’s reason to be optimistic. We might be closer than we think to cures for depression, hypertension, and yes, even obesity

The answer to scurvy was just one thing, plus a few wrinkles — mostly “not all citrus has the antiscorbutic property” and “most animals can’t get scurvy”. This was only difficult because people weren’t prepared to deal with basic wrinkles, but we can do better by learning from their mistakes.

This means don’t give up easily. It suggests that there is lots of low-hanging fruit, because even simple explanations are easily missed.

Lots of theories have been tried, and lots of them have been given up because of something that looks like contradictory evidence. But the evidence might not actually be a contradiction — the real explanation might just be slightly more complicated than people realized. Go back and revisit scientific near-misses, maybe there’s a wrinkle they didn’t know how to iron out.

Higher than the Shoulders of Giants; Or, a Scientist’s History of Drugs


I. 

The United States used to introduce new constitutional amendments all the time. But after the 26th Amendment in 1971, we stopped coming up with new amendments and haven’t added any since. (The 27th Amendment doesn’t really count — while it was ratified in 1992, it was proposed all the way back in 1789. It’s also only one sentence long and really boring.)

Global GDP used to grow faster and faster all the time — the time it took the global economy to double in size showed a pretty clear linear trend. This was the rule until about 1960-1980, when economic growth suddenly stagnated. Global GDP is still going up, but it’s now growing at a more or less constant rate, instead of accelerating. 

Productivity and hourly wages used to be tightly linked — if you’re creating more value for your employer, they will be willing to pay you more. However, around 1970, these two trends suddenly decoupled. You may have seen graphs like this: 

There used to be less than 1 lawyer per 1000 Americans, though that number was slowly increasing. That is, until about 1971, when it suddenly shot up. Now there are about 4 lawyers for every 1000 Americans. In some parts of the country, the ratio can be as high as 10 per 1000. This is (unsurprisingly) true in New York but also unexpectedly true in our home state of Vermont, which has 5.8 lawyers per 1000 people. It’s ok though, I hear they can’t enter your home unless you invite them in. 

It used to be that about 100 out of every 100,000 people in the population were in prison. That is, until about 1971, when that rate started climbing. Now about 700 out of every 100,000 Americans are incarcerated.

There are even signs that scientific progress has been slowing down since — you guessed it! — about 1970 (see also this paper). 

This is only a small selection of the many things that seem to have gone terribly wrong since about 1970. For a more complete picture, check out the excellent Wake Up, You’ve Been Asleep for 50 Years and WTF Happened In 1971?, which are our sources for most of the trends described above. 

So yeah, what the F did happen in the early 1970s? When dozens of unexplained trends all seem to start in the same year, it seems like more than coincidence — you start wondering if there might be a monocausal event

“The break point in America is exactly 1973,” says economist Tyler Cowen, “and we don’t know why this is the case.” One possible culprit is the 1973 oil embargo, because many of these trends have to do with energy. But Cowen doesn’t think this holds water. “Since that time, the price of oil in real terms has fallen a great deal,” he says, “and productivity has not bounded back.” 

Another possible culprit is the US going off the gold standard in 1971, part of the set of measures known as the Nixon shock (also the name of our new Heavy Metal band). This makes some sense because many of these trends have to do with the economy. But it’s not clear if this is a good explanation either, as many of these trends seem to be global, and most of the world is not on the US dollar. The US is admittedly a pretty big deal, but we’re not the only economy in the world.

But it’s also possible that all this comes from a different policy that Nixon signed into law the year before: the 1970 Controlled Substances Act.

II. 

The early history of coffee is shrouded in mystery. Legends of its discovery date as far back as the 9th century CE, but whenever it was discovered, it’s clear that it came from Africa and had reached the Middle East by 1400. The first coffeehouse in Istanbul opened around 1554, and word of coffee began reaching Europe in the middle 1500s. Even so, it took Europeans about a hundred more years to really take note — the first coffeehouse in Christendom didn’t open until 1645, when one popped up in Venice.

Only five years later, in 1650, the first coffeehouse in England opened in Oxford. There is nothing new under the sun, so unsurprisingly it was very popular with students and intellectuals. Early patrons included Christopher Wren and John Evelyn, and later additions included Hans Sloane, Edmund Halley, and Isaac Newton, who according to some stories, “are said to have dissected a dolphin on a table in the coffeehouse before an amazed audience.” Coffee is a hell of a drug. 

The first coffeehouse in London opened in 1652 in St. Michael’s Alley in Cornhill, operated by a Greek or Armenian (“a Ragusan youth”) man named Pasqua Rosée. The coffee house seems to have been named after Roseé as well, and used him as its logo — one friend who wrote him a poem addressed the verses, “To Pasqua Rosée, at the Sign of his own Head and half his Body in St. Michael’s Alley, next the first Coffee-Tent in London.”

The Royal Society, the oldest national scientific institution in the world, was founded in London on 28 November 1660. The founding took place at the original site of Gresham College, which as far as we can tell from Google Maps, was a mere three blocks from Rosée’s coffeehouse. Some accounts say that their preferred coffeehouse was in Devereux Court, though, which is strange as that is quite a bit further away. But this may be because Rosée’s coffeehouse was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666.

In 1661, Robert Boyle published The Sceptical Chymist, which argues that matter is made up of tiny corpuscules, providing the foundations of modern chemistry. In 1665, Robert Hooke published Micrographia, full of spectacularly detailed illustrations of insects and plants as viewed through a microscope, which was the first scientific best-seller and invented the biological term cell. By 1675, there were more than 3,000 coffeehouses in England. In 1687, Newton published his Principia

As the popular 1667 broadside News from the Coffe House put it: 

So great a Universitie

I think there ne’re was any;

In which you may a Schoolar be

For spending of a Penny.

This trend continued into the following centuries. As just one example, Voltaire (1694-1778) reportedly consumed a huge amount of coffee per day. No, REALLY huge. Most sources seem to suggest 40 to 50 cups, but The New York Times has it as “more than 50 cups a day.” Perhaps the cups were very small. Wikipedia says “50-72 times per day”, but we can’t tell where they got these numbers. I ask you, what kind of drugs would this man be on, if he were alive today?

Do we really think this mild stimulant could be responsible for the Scientific Revolution? Well to be entirely clear, we aren’t the first ones to make this argument. Here’s a Huffington Post article reviewing several books and essays on the same idea, including one by Malcolm Gladwell. And in Weinberg and Bealer’s The World of Caffeine, the authors tell us that the members of the Royal Society, “had something in common with Timothy Leary, the Harvard professor who experimented with LSD, in that they were dabbling in the use of a new and powerful drug unlike anything their countrymen had ever seen. Surviving recorded accounts confirm that the heavily reboiled sediment-ridden coffee of the day was not enjoyed for its taste, but was consumed exclusively for its pharmacological benefits.”

Today we tend to take coffee in stride, but this stimulant didn’t seem so mild at the time. In 1675, King Charles II briefly banned coffeehouses in London, claiming they had “very evil and dangerous effects.” We don’t know the exact details of the public response, but it was so negative that the king changed his mind after only eleven days! Ten years later, coffee houses were yielding so much tax revenue to the crown that banning them became totally out of the question. 

Merchants panicked over an imagined danger to the economy, one writing, “The growth of coffee-houses has greatly hindered the sale of oats, malt, wheat, and other home products. Our farmers are being ruined because they cannot sell their grain; and with them the landowners, because they can no longer collect their rents.” The owner of the second coffeehouse in London, James Farr, was prosecuted by his neighbors in 1657, “for making and selling a sort of liquor called coffe, as a great nuisance and prejudice to the neighborhood, etc.”

On the less official side of things, the 1674 anonymous WOMEN’S PETITION AGAINST COFFEE REPRESENTING TO PUBLICK CONSIDERATION THE Grand INCONVENIENCIES accruing to their SEX from the Excessive Use of that Drying, Enfeebling LIQUOR (which possibly deserves to be read in full, if only for the 1674 use of “cuckol’d” and “dildo’s”) declared, among other things:

Never did Men wear greater Breeches, or carry less in them of any Mettle whatsoever. There was a glorious Dispensation (’twas surely in the Golden Age) when Lusty Ladds of seven or eight hundred years old, Got Sons and Daughters; and we have read, how a Prince of Spain was forced to make a Law, that Men should not Repeat the Grand Kindness to their Wives, above NINE times in a night … the Excessive Use of that Newfangled, Abominable, Heathenish Liquor called COFFEE …has…Eunucht our Husbands, and Crippled our more kind Gallants, that they are become as Impotent, as Age, and as unfruitful as those Desarts [sic] whence that unhappy Berry is said to be brought.

It’s not like these concerns disappeared as people got used to it. As late as the early 1900s, physicians were still raving about the dangers of this terrible drug. As the wonderful (and sadly defunct) site History House reports:

In the spectacularly titled Morphinism and Narcomanias from Other Drugs (1902), one T. D. Crothers, M.D. tells a few tales of delirium induced by coffee consumption. He also remarks, not unlike analogies to marijuana made by current drug crusaders, that, “Often coffee drinkers, finding the drug to be unpleasant, turn to other narcotics, of which opium and alcohol are the most common.” Similarly, in A System of Medicine (1909), edited by the comically degreed Sir T. Clifford Allbutt (K.C.B., M.A., M.D., LL.D., D. Se., F.R.C.P., F.R.S., F.L.S., F.S.A., Regius Professor of Physic [Internal medicine] in the University of Cambridge), some contributors announce their distaste for caffeine: “We have seen several well-marked cases of coffee excess… the sufferer is tremulous, and loses his self-command… the speech may become vague and weak. By miseries such as these, the best years of life may be Spoilt.”

High doses of caffeine cause odd behavior in test animals. Rats will bite themselves enough to die from blood loss, prompting Consumers Union to observe, “Some readers may here be moved to protest that the bizarre behavior of rats fed massive doses of caffeine is irrelevant to the problems of human coffee drinkers, who are not very likely to bite themselves to death.”

Neither did the science-coffee connection disappear with Newton and Hooke. Researchers still consume more coffee than any other profession. The mathematician Alfréd Rényi quipped, “A mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems,” and he and his colleagues, including Paul Erdős, drank copious amounts. At one point, when trying to explain why Hungary produces so many mathematicians, one of the reasons Erdős gave was, “in Hungary, many mathematicians drink strong coffee … At the mathematical institute they make particularly good coffee.” 

The first webcam, great ancestor to all those Zoom calls you’ve been having, was developed by University of Cambridge computer scientists so they could watch the coffee pot without having to leave their desks.  

And while it’s very popular, coffee isn’t the only way to get your sweet, sweet caffeine fix. Consider the connection between Tea and the British Empire. [cue Rule, Britannia!

Hey Jared we have a piping hot tip for you

Caffeine in one form or another continued to be the stimulant of choice until the middle of the 19th century, when the Germans made an even more exciting discovery.

III. 

When the Spanish arrived in South America, they noticed that some of the natives had the refreshing habit of chewing on the leaves of a local plant, “which make them go as they were out of their wittes.” At first the Spaniards were concerned but then they realized it was pretty great, and started using it themselves — for medicinal purposes, of course. 

Even so, chemistry was not fully developed in the 1600s (they needed to wait for the coffee to hit), so despite many attempts it took until 1855 for the active ingredient to be purified from coca leaves. This feat was accomplished by a German named Friedrich Georg Carl Gaedcke. With this success, another German chemist (Friedrich Wöhler) asked a German doctor who happened to be going on a round-the-world trip (Carl Scherzer) to bring him back more of these wonderful leaves. The doctor came back a few years later with a trunk full of them, which the second chemist passed on to yet a third German chemist, Albert Niemann, who developed a better way of purifying the new substance, which he published as his dissertation. (Sadly he never got to enjoy the substance himself, as he discovered mustard gas the same year and died the year after that, probably from working too closely with mustard gas.)

And with this series of developments, pure cocaine was injected directly into the German nervous system.

A typical example of the effects of cocaine on the German scientific body can be found in a man you might have heard of — Sigmund Freud, who has the same birthday as one of the authors. Having recently moved on from his earlier interest in trying to find the testicles and/or ovaries of eels (don’t laugh, it was a major scientific question of the day!), he found himself VERY EXCITED by the possibilities of this new treatment, which had just become available to physicians.

“Woe to you, my Princess, when I come,” wrote Sigmund Freud to his future wife, Martha Bernays, on June 2, 1884. “I will kiss you quite red and feed you till you are plump. And if you are forward, you shall see who is the stronger, a gentle little girl who doesn’t eat enough, or a big wild man who has cocaine in his body. In my last serious depression I took cocaine again and a small dose lifted me to the heights in a wonderful fashion. I am just now collecting the literature for a song of praise to this magical substance.”

He didn’t just use cocaine to intimidate (???) his fiancée, though. Freud also found that it had professional applications. “So I gave my lecture yesterday,” he wrote in a letter a few months earlier, “Despite lack of preparation, I spoke quite well and without hesitation, which I ascribe to the cocaine I had taken beforehand. I told about my discoveries in brain anatomy, all very difficult things that the audience certainly didn’t understand, but all that matters is that they get the impression that I understand it.” We see that not much has changed since the 1880s. 

Freud wasn’t the only one who was excited by this new discovery, of course. Only two years later, a bedridden Robert Louis Stevenson wrote The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, a 30,000-word novella that he completed in about three days. Many accounts suggest that Stevenson was high on cocaine during this brief, incredibly productive period, possibly recreationally, or possibly because it was simply part of the medicine he was taking. This claim is somewhat contested, but we’re inclined to believe it — you try writing 30,000 words in three days, by hand, while bedridden, without the help of a rather good stimulant.

One Italian, Paolo Mantegazza, was so enthusiastic about the new substance that he actually developed a purification process of his own in 1859. Over the next several decades, he founded the first Museum of Anthropology in Italy, served in the Italian parliament, published a 1,200-page volume of his philosophical and social views, at least three novels, and several scientific books and papers (this paper from 2008 claims that he founded the field of sexual medicine), including one in which he wrote:

“I sneered at the poor mortals condemned to live in this valley of tears while I, carried on the wings of two leaves of coca, went flying through the spaces of 77,438 words, each one more splendid than the one before. An hour later, I was sufficiently calm to write these words in a steady hand: God is unjust because he made man incapable of sustaining the effect of coca all lifelong. I would rather have a life span of ten years with coca than one of 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 centuries without coca.”

We should note that while Mantegazza was very productive in these decades, he was also a vivisectionist and a racist. Clearly not everyone should have access to cocaine of this quality.

A different Italian looked at cocaine and saw not poor mortals condemned to live in the valley of tears, but economic opportunity. He happened to read a paper by Mantegazza on the substance, and was inspired. This man was Angelo Mariani, and in 1863 he “invented” cocawine, by which we mean he put cocaine in wine and then sold it. 

Apparently this was more than just a good idea. Cocaine.org, a reputable source if ever we’ve seen one, tells us, “If cocaine is consumed on its own, it yields two principal metabolites, ecgonine methyl ester and benzoyleconine. Neither compound has any discernible psychoactive effect. Cocaine co-administered with alcohol, however, yields a potent psychoactive metabolite, cocaethylene. Cocaethylene is very rewarding agent in its own right. Cocaethylene is formed in the liver by the replacement of the methyl ester of cocaine by the ethyl ester. It blocks the dopamine transporter and induces euphoria. Hence coca wine drinkers are effectively consuming three reinforcing drugs rather than one.”

Mariani is notable less for taking cocaine himself, and more for being possibly the most influential drug pusher of all time. His enticing product, called Vin Mariani, soon became a favorite of the rich, powerful, and highly productive, unleashing the creative potential of cocaine on the world.

YOU CAN TELL SHE’S VERY EXCITED ABOUT THIS WINE FOR SOME REASON

A good catalogue of its influence can be found in the literally thousands of celebrity endorsements it received, and which were proudly displayed in its ads. “Testimonials from eminent personages were so numerous that Mariani, as great a public relations man as he was a chemist, published them in handsome leather-bound volumes—replete with portraits and biographical sketches of the endorsers.” Many of these names and endorsements seem to have been lost to time, but here are a few you might recognize. 

Presumably you have heard of the Pope. Pope Leo XIII and Pope Pius X both enjoyed Vin Mariani, and Pope Leo XIII liked it so much that he often carried a hip flask of the wine. He even awarded Mariani a Vatican Gold Medal, “to testify again in a special manner his gratitude.” He also appeared on a poster advertisement endorsing the wine, and later called Mariani a “benefactor of humanity”. AP news reports that the chief rabbi of France liked it too. 

Sarah Bernhardt, famous actress and subject of the most entertaining Wikipedia entry of all time, said, “My health and vitality I owe to Vin Mariani. When at times unable to proceed, a few drops give me new life.” Jules Verne, one of the fathers of science fiction, wrote, “Vin Mariani, the wonderful tonic wine, has the effect of prolonging life.” Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, who you will know as the sculptor of the Statue of Liberty, wrote, “this precious wine will give me the strength to carry out certain other projects already formed.” Alexander Dumas is said to have enjoyed it as well, but we can’t find a quote. 

In 1892, Thomas Edison contributed the almost maddeningly vague note, “Monsieur Mariani, I take pleasure in sending you one of my photographs for publication in your album.” Edison was already quite famous by this point, and it’s not clear how long he had been enjoying the effects of Vin Mariani, but we can make an educated guess. 

Vin Mariani was invented in 1863, and we know that by 1868, Edison had a reputation for working “at all hours, night or day”. His famous Menlo Park lab was built in 1876, and soon began producing inventions at a steady rate — the phonograph in 1877, his work on electric lights about 1880, motion picture devices in 1891, and so on. 

In 1887, one writer noted, “he scarcely sleeps at all, and is equally as irregular concerning his eating”. The same account quotes a “co-laborer” of Edison’s as saying, “he averaged eighteen hours [of work] a day. … I have worked with him for three consecutive months, all day and all night, except catching a little sleep between six and nine o’clock in the morning.” In 1889, when he was 42, he told Scientific American that he slept no more than four hours a night. Given that we know he enjoyed Vin Mariani, we think this is good evidence of just how much he must have been drinking. 

Mariani claimed to have collected over four thousand such endorsements from various celebrities. It’s only natural that he also collected endorsements from physicians. In one of his ads, he trots out the following: “In cases of morphinomania, Dr. Dujardin-Beaumetz has pointed out the advantage to be obtained with the Vin Mariani, and following him, Dr. Palmer, of Louisville, and Dr. Sigmaux Treaux [sic] of Vienna, have obtained excellent results with this therapeutic agent.” Yes, you saw that right — that last name there is a botched attempt to spell “Dr. Sigmund Freud”. Maybe Mariani was high on his own supply after all.

While Mariani deserves credit as the man who got cocaine to the masses, the Germans were the ones who first purified the cocaine, and the ones who undoubtedly put it to the best scientific and medical use.

[content warning for the next several paragraphs: descriptions of 19th-century medical experimentation]

It’s easy for a modern person to miss the fact that aside from alcohol and getting held down by surgical assistants, there were few anaesthetics at this point in history. Laughing gas (nitrous oxide) was discovered in 1776, but the Americans took a long time to figure out that it could be used for anything other than killing animals and getting high, and were still struggling with the idea that it might have medical applications. 

Furthermore, laughing gas is a general anaesthetic, not a local anaesthetic, and a weak one at that. It was totally unsuitable for delicate operations like eye surgery. 

People had already noticed that a dose of cocaine will numb your nose, lips, or tongue. Even so, it took the combined powers of Sigmaux Treaux Sigmund Freud and his friend Karl Koller, an ophthalmology intern, to make this breakthrough. Koller was interested in finding a local anaesthetic for eye surgery, and he had already tried putting various chemicals, including morphine, into the eyes of laboratory animals, with no success. Separately, Freud was convinced that cocaine had many undiscovered uses. So in 1884, when Freud left to go pay a visit to Martha, he left Koller some cocaine and encouraged him to experiment with it. 

While Freud was away, Koller made his discovery. Amazingly, in his papers Koller describes the exact moment when he made the connection:

Upon one occasion another colleague of mine, Dr. Engel, partook of some (cocaine) with me from the point of his penknife and remarked, “How that numbs the tongue.” I said, “Yes, that has been noticed by everyone that has eaten it.” And in the moment it flashed upon me that I was carrying in my pocket the local anesthetic for which I had searched some years earlier.

Dr. Gaertner, an assistant in the lab where Koller worked, continues the story in more detail:

One summer day in 1884, Dr. Koller, at that time a very young man … stepped into Professor Strickers laboratory, drew a small flask in which there was a trace of white powder from his pocket, and addressed me … in approximately the following words: “I hope, indeed I expect that this powder will anesthetize the eye.” 

“We’ll find out that right away”, I replied. A few grains of the substance were thereupon dissolved in a small quantity of distilled water, a large, lively frog was selected from the aquarium and held immobile in a cloth, and now a drop of the solution was trickled into one of the protruding eyes. At intervals of a few seconds the reflex of the cornea was tested by touching the eye with a needle… After about a minute came the great historic moment, I do not hesitate to designate it as such. The frog permitted his cornea to be touched and even injured without a trace of reflex action or attempt to protect himself, whereas the other eye responded with the usual reflex action to the slightest touch. The same tests were performed on a rabbit and a dog with equally good results. … 

Now it was necessary to go one step further and to repeat the experiment upon a human being. We trickled the solution under the upraised lids of each other’s eyes. Then we put a mirror before us, took a pin in hand, and tried to touch the cornea with its head. Almost simultaneously we could joyously assure ourselves, “I can’t feel a thing.” We could make a dent in the cornea without the slightest awareness of the touch, let alone any unpleasant sensation or reaction. With that the discovery of local anesthesia was completed. I rejoice that I was the first to congratulate Dr. Koller as a benefactor of mankind.

The final proof came on August 11, 1884, when Koller performed the first successful cocaine-aided cataract surgery. Koller was only 25 when he made this discovery, a Jewish medical student so poor that he had to ask a friend to present the findings for him, since he could not afford the train fare to go to the ophthalmology conference in Heidelberg that year. 

The finding was received with worldwide amazement and enthusiasm. “Within three months of this date,” says one paper, “every conceivable eye operation had been attempted using cocaine, in every part of the world.” The idea spread “not just into ophthalmology, but wherever mucous membranes required surgery—in gynecology, proctology, urology, and otolaryngology.”  Encyclopedia Britannica says that this finding “inaugurated the modern era of local anesthesia.”

In fact, cocaine got such an amazing reputation as a local anaesthetic that the suffix -”caine” was back-formed from the name, and was used form names of new local anaesthetics as they were discovered, like amylocaine, lidocaine, bupivacaine, prilocaine, and procaine (aka novocaine).

[content warning: more descriptions of 19th-century medical experimentation]

As the technique developed further, people started using cocaine as an anaesthetic in spinal operations. The first was an American named James Leonard Corning, who also happened to be a big fan of Vin Mariani. In 1885, he performed a spinal injection of cocaine on a dog (why?), and found that this left the dog temporarily unable to use its legs. 

Encouraged by this finding, he soon decided to give a similar injection to a patient who had recently been referred to him for “addiction to masturbation”. Corning gave the man cocaine as a spinal injection of some sort (there is scholarly debate over what sort!). After 20 minutes, he noticed that “application of [a wire brush] to the penis and scrotum caused neither pain nor reflex contraction.” Whether this was a successful treatment for the unfortunate patient is not recorded.

A German surgeon named August Bier independently came up with the idea in 1898. He and his assistant August Hildebrandt performed the procedure on several patients as part of routine surgeries, until one day in August 1898, when for reasons that remain unclear, they decided to experiment on each other.

“Hildebrandt was not a surgeon and his ham-fisted attempts to push the large needle through Bier’s dura proved very painful,” begins one account, not at all what you would expect from the rather dry-sounding volume Regional Anaesthesia, Stimulation, and Ultrasound Techniques. It continues, “The syringe of cocaine and needle did not fit well together and a large volume of Bier’s cerebrospinal fluid leaked out and he started to suffer a headache shortly after the procedure.” Probably because of the flawed injection, Bier was not anaesthetized at all.

Bier of course was a surgeon, and so when it was his turn to give Hildebrandt the injection, he performed it flawlessly. Soon Hildebrandt was very anaesthetized. To test it, reports Regional Anaesthesia, “Bier pinched Hildebrandt with his fingernails, hit his legs with a hammer, stubbed out a burning cigar on him, pulled out his pubic hair, and then firmly squeezed his testicles,” all to no effect. In a different account, this last step was described as “strong pressure and traction to the testicles”. They also pushed a large needle “in down to the thighbone without causing the slightest pain”, and tried “strong pinching of the nipples”, which could hardly be felt. They were thrilled. With apparently no bad blood over this series of trials, the two gentlemen celebrated that evening with wine and cigars, and woke up the next morning with the world’s biggest pair of headaches, which confined them to bed for 4 and 9 days, respectively. You can read the account in its thrilling original German here.

(Why genital flagellation has such a central role in the climax of both of these stories is anyone’s guess.)

Despite the wild tale of the discovery, this represented a major medical advancement, which made many new techniques and treatments a possibility. Spinal anaesthesia is now a common technique, used in everything from hip surgery to Caesarean sections. Soon Bier and others had developed various forms of regional anaesthesia, which made it safe to perform new and more delicate operations on the arms and legs.

A more prosaic discovery, but no less important, was made by Richard Willstätter in 1898. At the time there was some academic debate about the chemical structure of cocaine, and there were a couple competing theories. Willstätter proved that they were both wrong, came up with the correct structure, and demonstrated that he was correct by synthesizing cocaine in the lab. This was not only the first artificial synthesis of cocaine, but the first synthesis of an organic structure that we’re aware of.  

We’re tempted to wink and ask why he was so motivated to develop a synthetic cocaine, but we’ve looked through Willstätter’s autobiography, and he very clearly states at one point, “although I always possessed cocaine from my youth on, I never knew the temptation to experience its peculiar effects myself.” Maybe this was because by 1894 they had discovered that cocaine had some side effects (even the diehard Freud was off it by 1904), or maybe because he was a nice Jewish boy who wouldn’t mess around with that sort of thing (though Dr. Karl “pins-in-the-eyes” Koller was also Jewish). In any case, his early fame was closely related to the rise of cocaine, and he went on to win the 1915 Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

Just like England was the center of learning in the enlightenment, Germany was the center of scientific advancement in the second half of the 19th century, especially in the natural sciences. Anyone who wanted to study biology, chemistry, or physics had to learn German, because that’s the language all the best volumes and journals were printed in. 

Around 1897, the great Spanish neuroscientist Santiago Ramón y Cajal wrote, “it must be admitted that Germany alone produces more new data than all the other nations combined when it comes to biology. … A knowledge of German is so essential that today there is probably not a single Italian, English, French, Russian, or Swedish investigator who is unable to read monographs published in it. And because the German work comes from a nation that may be viewed as the center of scientific production, it has the priceless advantage of containing extensive and timely historical and bibliographic information.”

“We can only speculate as to how twentieth century history would be different if the Germans had discovered marijuana instead of cocaine,” writes History House (they wrote about the history of drugs a lot, ok?).

This persisted until the two World Wars, when German scientific dominance ended. In a footnote to the 1923 edition of his book, Ramón y Cajal notes that other countries had begun, “competing with, and in many cases surpassing, the work of German universities, which for decades was incomparable.” 

One explanation is the obvious one: that the wars destroyed Germany’s ability to do good science. (Also they kicked out all the scientists who were Jewish, gay, communists, etc.) But another explanation is that America began to discover new drugs of her own. 

IV.

There were other drugs of course, to fill the gap between German scientific dominance and the third drug revolution of the 1950s and ’60s. Cocaine had already become illegal in the United States in 1914, so people were on the lookout for alternative highs.

In contrast to his rival Edison, Nikola Tesla doesn’t drink cocaine wine. Tesla didn’t smoke — he didn’t even take tea or coffee. “I myself eschew all stimulants,” he once told Liberty magazine in 1935. “I am convinced that within a century coffee, tea, and tobacco will be no longer in vogue.” Perhaps this was because of his amazing, and apparently substance-unaided, ability to visualize designs in his mind’s eye. Tesla said elsewhere that when he first designed a device, he would let it run in his head for a few weeks to see which parts would begin to wear out first.

Tesla did, however, LOVE to drink. “Alcohol … will still be used,” he said. “It is not a stimulant but a veritable elixir of life.” When Prohibition came around in the United States, Tesla did break the habit, but he wrote that the law would, “subject a citizen to suffering, danger and possible loss of life,” and suggested that damages from the resulting lawsuits against the government would soon exhaust the treasury. 

(And what was the worst of these vices according to Tesla, the one more dangerous than rum, tobacco, or coffee? Nothing less than chewing gum, “which, by exhaustion of the salivary glands, puts many a foolish victim into an early grave.”)

Obviously Tesla was wrong about the cost of reparations from Prohibition. But is it a coincidence that Prohibition was the law of the land for the decade running up to the Great Depression? Was it a coincidence that the Great Depression began to turn around in March 1933, the same month that President Roosevelt signed the first law beginning the reversal of Prohibition? Probably it is, but you have to admit, it fits our case surprisingly well. 

While Alcohol is a depressant, perhaps it stimulates the curious spirit in some number of our fellow creatures, as it seems to have done for Tesla. Again from History House:

Washington’s taste for Madeira wine shows up [in his accounts] with mindnumbing regularity: from September 1775 to March 1776, Washington spent over six thousand dollars on booze. … Revolutionary War-era persons drank a phenomenal amount. We have here an account of a gentleman’s average consumption: “Given cider and punch for lunch; rum and brandy before dinner; punch, Madeira, port and sherry at dinner; punch and liqueurs with the ladies; and wine, spirit and punch till bedtime, all in punchbowls big enough for a goose to swim in.”

The other drug as old as time has also been associated with scientific productivity. One contributor to the 1971 book Marihuana Reconsidered, who wrote under the pseudonym “Mr. X”, said that he often enjoyed cannabis, found that it improved his appreciation for art, and even made him a better scientist. In the late ‘90s, after his death, Mr. X was revealed to be Carl Sagan. On the topic of his professional skills, he said: 

What about my own scientific work? While I find a curious disinclination to think of my professional concerns when high – the attractive intellectual adventures always seem to be in every other area – I have made a conscious effort to think of a few particularly difficult current problems in my field when high. It works, at least to a degree. I find I can bring to bear, for example, a range of relevant experimental facts which appear to be mutually inconsistent. So far, so good. At least the recall works. Then in trying to conceive of a way of reconciling the disparate facts, I was able to come up with a very bizarre possibility, one that I’m sure I would never have thought of down. I’ve written a paper which mentions this idea in passing. I think it’s very unlikely to be true, but it has consequences which are experimentally testable, which is the hallmark of an acceptable theory.

Marijuana doesn’t help everyone be a better scientist — some people just get paranoid, or just fall asleep. But it’s especially interesting that Sagan found it hallucinogenic, because the third drug revolution was all about hallucinogens. 

The history of hallucinogens is pretty weird, even by the standards of how weird drug history normally is. Hallucinogens are relatively common, and in theory we could have discovered them at any point in the past several thousand years. But aside from occasional mishaps involving ergot poisoning, hallucinogens didn’t play much of a role in human history until the middle of the 20th century. 

Like the coca plant, Psilocybin mushrooms (“shrooms”) grow in the dirt and have been around forever. Unlike the coca plant, they grow all over the world, and have always been readily available. Indigenous groups around the world have used them in ceremonies and rituals, but they weren’t used as a recreational drug until 1955

Europeans certainly had access to these shrooms for thousands of years, but the first well-documented report of psilocybin consumption in Europe was a case described in the London Medical and Physical Journal in 1799, of a man who picked Psilocybe semilanceata (“liberty cap”) mushrooms in London’s Green Park and had them for breakfast with his four children. First the youngest child, “was attacked with fits of immoderate laughter, nor could the threats of his father or mother refrain him.” Then the father, “was attacked with vertigo, and complained that every thing appeared black, then wholly disappeared.” Soon all of them were affected. The doctor who made the report didn’t see this as a potential good time, or a way to expand the mind — he refers to the effect as “deleterious”.

While it has been enjoyed by many people, we can’t find much evidence of mercantile, economic, or scientific discoveries associated with the use of shrooms. This may not be the drug’s fault, since it was banned so soon after being brought to popular attention. 

But there is one major cultural development linked to psilocybin. In his book Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World, Paul Stamets describes a discussion he had with Frank Herbert, author of Dune, in the 1980s. Herbert showed him a new method he had developed for growing mushrooms on newly-planted trees, which at the time everyone thought was impossible. They kept talking, and:

Frank went on to tell me that much of the premise of Dune — the magic spice (spores) that allowed the bending of space (tripping), the giant worms (maggots digesting mushrooms), the eyes of the Freman (the cerulean blue of Psilocybe mushrooms), the mysticism of the female spiritual warriors, the Bene Gesserits (influenced by tales of Maria Sabina and the sacred mushroom cults of Mexico) — came from his perception of the fungal life cycle, and his imagination was stimulated through his experiences with the use of magic mushrooms.

Dune is the best-selling science fiction novel of all time, winner of the Hugo and the very first Nebula award, and one of my personal favorites. Even if this were the only thing shrooms had inspired, it would be a pretty big deal.

The other major naturally-occurring hallucinogen seems to have had a wider impact, and has a laundry list of famous users and associated creations. This drug is mescaline, the active ingredient in peyote cactus. As with cocaine, the Germans were the first to discover mescaline, but unlike cocaine, they didn’t seem to do anything with it. Possibly this was because they thought of it as a poison. The chemist who first isolated it wrote, “mescaline is exclusively responsible for the major symptoms of peyote (mescal) poisoning.” Well, he was almost right.

The first recreational use of the drug we found was from Jean-Paul Sartre, who took mescaline in 1929 while attending the École Normale Supérieure. He had a bad trip, during which he hallucinated various sea creatures. When he came down, he found that the hallucinations persisted, though he didn’t seem to be very worried by this:

Yeah, after I took mescaline, I started seeing crabs around me all the time. They followed me in the streets, into class. I got used to them. I would wake up in the morning and say, “Good morning, my little ones, how did you sleep?” I would talk to them all the time. I would say, “O.K., guys, we’re going into class now, so we have to be still and quiet,” and they would be there, around my desk, absolutely still, until the bell rang.

[Interviewer asks: A lot of them?]

Actually, no, just three or four.

He eventually ended up getting treated for this by Jacques Lacan, who suggested the crabs represented loneliness. When he was feeling depressed, Sartre would instead get the “recurrent feeling, the delusion, that he was being pursued by a giant lobster, always just out of sight… perpetually about to arrive.”

This experience seems to have influenced Sartre’s work — for example, in his play “The Condemned of Altona,” one of the characters claims to communicate with people from the thirtieth century, who have become a race of crabs that sit in judgment of humanity. Is this a precursor to the Carcinization Meme?

are you feeling it now mr krabs

Other authors have had similar experiences, except more positive, and without the crustaceans. Aldous Huxley took mescaline in 1953, and wrote his book The Doors of Perception about the experience. From then on he was a proponent of psychedelics, and they came to influence his final book, Island, published in 1962. Sadly the mescaline cannot be responsible for his most famous novel, Brave New World, because it was published decades earlier, in 1932. It also can’t be held responsible for his 1940 screenplay adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.

But mescaline clearly deserves some credit for Ken Kesey’s 1962 book, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and for Ken Kesey in general. Kesey was working as an orderly at a psych hospital and decided to make some money on the side by testing drugs for the CIA as part of project MKUltra, who gave him both mescaline and LSD (we’ll get to this drug in a second, don’t you worry). The combination of these drugs and his job as an orderly led him to write One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which was an instant smash hit — there was a play the next year, with Gene Wilder in a major role, and the film adaptation in 1975 won five Oscars. 

Ken Kesey went on to basically invent modern drug culture, hippie culture, and Bay Area California. Ken Kesey and his drugs were also largely responsible for Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead, and thus indirectly responsible for the Ben & Jerry’s flavor Cherry Garcia, “the first ice cream named for a rock legend”.

Mescaline was also a force behind Philip K. Dick’s 1974 Hugo- and Nebula-nominated novel, Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said. In a letter that is more than a little reminiscent of the cocaine-driven Robert Louis Stevenson, he says:

At one point in the writing I wrote 140 pages in 48 hours. I have high hopes for this. It is the first really new thing I’ve done since EYE IN THE SKY. The change is due to a change that overtook me from having taken mescalin [sic], a very large dose that completely unhinged me. I had enormous insights behind the drug, all having to do with those whom I loved. Love. Will love.

If you want to REALLY understand this story, you probably have to read Dick’s undelivered speech, How to Build a Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later. It doesn’t mention the mescaline but it certainly captures… something. 

Most of his other famous works — The Man in the High Castle, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (aka Blade Runner), We Can Remember It for You Wholesale (aka Total Recall), Minority Report, etc. — were written before this, and so probably were not affected by mescaline. That’s ok though, because we know that up to 1970 Dick was on amphetamines nearly full-time.

And finally of course there is the great king of the psychedelics, LSD, which started to become prominent around the same time. LSD was actually invented some decades earlier. It was first synthesized in 1938 by Swiss (but notably, German-speaking) chemist Albert Hofmann. He was looking for a new respiratory and circulatory stimulant, but when he tested the new chemical in lab animals, it showed none of the desired effect — though the animals did become “restless” — and was abandoned for five years. 

But Hofmann had a “peculiar presentiment” that there might be more to LSD than met the eye, and so in 1943 he synthesized some more. On April 19th, he arranged to take what he thought would be a tiny dose, in case the substance was poisonous, a mere 250 micrograms. Instead, he went on the mother of all trips, and had his famous bicycle ride home. Subsequent tests showed that a fifth of that original dose was sufficient to produce strong trips in lab assistants — LSD had arrived.

The inventor had no question about what his discovery meant, or what it was for. In a speech on his 100th (!!!) birthday, Hofmann said, “I think that in human evolution it has never been as necessary to have this substance LSD. It is just a tool to turn us into what we are supposed to be.” Okie dokie.

For a drug that got only a couple decades in the sun, LSD has a pretty impressive track record. Francis Crick, one of the people who discovered the structure of DNA, probably took LSD and may have been tripping when he was doing some of his DNA work, though this isn’t well-attested. Douglas Englebart, inventor of the mouse and the guy who did The Mother of All Demos, took LSD some time in the early 60’s. Time magazine wrote approvingly of LSD’s ability to treat mental illnesses as early as 1955.

The Beatles were already extremely popular before they first took acid in 1965, but it clearly influenced their music from then on. This in turn influenced much of the music made in the second half of the 20th century. You may be surprised to learn that they took it for the first time by accident; to be more precise, someone dosed them without their consent. You see…

In the spring of 1965, John Lennon and George Harrison, along with their wives Cynthia Lennon and Patti Boyd, were having dinner over their dentist’s house when they were first “dosed” with LSD.

Dentist John Riley and his girlfriend, Cyndy Bury, had just served the group a great meal, and urged their distinguished guests to stay for coffee, which they reluctantly did…

Riley wanted to be the first person to turn on the Beatles to acid, so the couples finished their coffee, and then Riley told Lennon that the sugar cubes they used contained LSD, a powerful new drug with incredible hallucinogenic effects.

Lennon said, “How dare you fucking do this to us!”

As George remembered, “The dentist said something to John, and John turned to me and said, ‘We’ve had LSD.’ I just thought, ‘Well, what’s that? So what? Let’s go!'”

Eventually they escaped their dentist and ended up at George’s house. John “was beginning to reconsider his attitude toward acid,” in part because he was excited that “George’s house seemed to be just like a big submarine.”

Once they came down, John and George decided the other two Beatles needed to try LSD as well. “John and I had decided that Paul and Ringo had to have acid,” said George Harrison, “because we couldn’t relate to them any more. Not just on the one level, we couldn’t relate to them on any level, because acid had changed us so much.” 

This was easier said than done — Paul didn’t want to try it — but they threw a big house party with Peter Fonda, David Crosby, and various others where they all (except Paul) dropped acid, George fell in the swimming pool, they watched Cat Ballou (with a laugh track), they all got in the shower and passed around a guitar, normal party stuff. Paul didn’t take LSD that night but he took it shortly after, at which point he said it “explained the mystery of life.” The resulting insights helped form their next albums: Revolver, and of course, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

The Beatles are just one example, of course. Pink Floyd, the Doors, Jefferson Airplane, and many other bands were all trying out LSD at around the same time. Bob Dylan took LSD (“Who smokes pot any more?” he asked in 1965) and he went on to win a Nobel Prize. The new drug influenced culture in many ways. The real question here is, who has dinner at their dentist’s house?

Another question is, why didn’t we discover how to use psychedelics earlier? Shrooms, at least, have been available for a long time. Why weren’t Leibniz, Galileo, and Shakespeare all tripping out of their minds?

We think there might be two reasons. Unlike stimulants, which have a pretty reliable effect, hallucinogens often have different effects on different people. And also unlike stimulants, it seems you often have to use hallucinogens in just the right way in order to unlock their creative potential. Coffee or cocaine make you more focused and more productive, even more creative, in the moment. But it’s very rare to be able to produce anything while high on psychedelics. 

In an interview in 1960, Aldous Huxley said:

But you see (and this is the most significant thing about the experience), during the experience you’re really not interested in doing anything practical — even writing lyric poetry. If you were having a love affair with a woman, would you be interested in writing about it? Of course not. And during the experience you’re not particularly in words, because the experience transcends words and is quite inexpressible in terms of words. So the whole notion of conceptualizing what is happening seems very silly. After the event, it seems to me quite possible that it might be of great assistance: people would see the universe around them in a very different way and would be inspired, possibly, to write about it.

The same insight was discovered by the Beatles. “We found out very early,” said Ringo Starr, “that if you play it stoned or derelict in any way, it was really shitty music, so we would have the experiences and then bring that into the music later.”

LSD helped Doug Englebart come up with the idea of the computer mouse, but he had the idea when he was down — the only thing he invented while actively tripping seems to have been a potty training tool.

Even CNN Business, the most unlikely of sources, says: “The last thing [a programmer should do] is take LSD and then code. It’s more subtle: ‘if you have issues in your life or anything, you’re going to think about them [while high], and think about them in a different perspective.’”

So much, so usual, right? “Drugs help you be creative” — you’ve heard this one before. By itself, it’s not very original as a thesis.

THEN CAME 1970

… and what can we say, but that science and the economy never recovered? 

The 1970 Controlled Substances Act invented five “schedules” or categories for regulating drugs. The most extreme level of regulation was Schedule I, for drugs that the feds decided had high potential for abuse, no accepted medical uses, and that were “not safe to use, even under medical supervision”. Into Schedule I went LSD, marijuana, mescaline, psilocybin, and many others. 

The next level of regulation was Schedule II, for drugs that the feds felt also had high potential for abuse, limited medical uses, and high risk of addiction. Into Schedule II went cocaine and amphetamines. 

Less exciting (for the most part) drugs went into Schedules III, IV, and V. 

Leaving out caffeine and alcohol was the only thing that spared us from total economic collapse. Small amounts of progress still trickle through; drugs continue to inspire humanity. This mostly happens with LSD, it seems, probably because the potential of that drug has not been as exhausted as the potential of cocaine and coffee. 

Steve Jobs famously took LSD in the early 70’s, just after the crackdown was revving up. “Taking LSD was a profound experience, one of the most important things in my life,” he said. “LSD shows you that there’s another side to the coin, and you can’t remember it when it wears off, but you know it. It reinforced my sense of what was important — creating great things instead of making money, putting things back into the stream of history and of human consciousness as much as I could.” 

Bill Gates has been more coy about his relationship with acid, but when an interviewer for Playboy asked him, “ever take LSD?” he pretty much admitted it. “My errant youth ended a long time ago,” he said in response to the question. “There were things I did under the age of 25 that I ended up not doing subsequently.”

So it seems like LSD had a small role in the lead-up to both Apple and Microsoft. These aren’t just two large companies — these are the two largest publicly-traded companies in the world. Apple is so big it accounts for almost 10% of the GDP of the United States (!!!), and about 7% of the value of the S&P 500. That is very big.

Economic growth is not objectively good by itself. But part of the question here is, “what happened to economic growth around 1970?” When the companies in the global #1 and #2 positions were both founded by people who used LSD, it makes you want to pay attention. It makes you wonder what Jeff Bezos, Larry Page, and Sergey Brin might have tried (though it might not be LSD).

It isn’t just the guys at the top, of course. In 2006, Cisco engineer Kevin Herbert told WIRED magazine that he “solved his toughest technical problems while tripping to drum solos by the Grateful Dead.” According to WIRED, Herbert had enough influence at Cisco that he was able to keep them from drug testing their employees. “When I’m on LSD and hearing something that’s pure rhythm,” says Herbert, “it takes me to another world and into another brain state where I’ve stopped thinking and started knowing.” We’re not sure where he is now, but he was still giving interviews advocating for LSD in 2008.

This is all business, but the impacts are not strictly economic. The big scientific breakthrough made on LSD after the drugs shutdown of 1970 is perhaps the most important one of all, Kary Mullis’s invention of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) in 1983.

PCR is basically the foundational method of all modern biochemistry/biomedicine. The New York Times called it, “highly original and significant, virtually dividing biology into the two epochs of before PCR and after PCR.” The scientific community agrees, and Mullis was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1993 for his invention, only seven years after he originally demonstrated the procedure.

Everyone knew that Mullis was big into psychedelics. “I knew he was a good chemist because he’d been synthesizing hallucinogenic drugs at Berkeley,” said one of his colleagues. And Mullis himself makes it pretty clear that LSD deserves a lot of the credit for his discovery. “Would I have invented PCR if I hadn’t taken LSD? I seriously doubt it,” said Mullis. “I could sit on a DNA molecule and watch the polymers go by. I learnt that partly on psychedelic drugs.” If this is even partially true, most progress in bioscience in the past 40 years was made possible by LSD. It may also have inspired Jurassic Park

(We also want to mention that Mullis was really weird. In addition to being a psychology and sociology denialist, HIV/AIDS denialist, and global warming denialist, he also claims he was visited by a fluorescent “standard extraterrestrial raccoon”, which spoke to him and called him “doctor”. Maybe this is because the first time he took acid, he took a dose of 1,000 micrograms, four times Hofmann’s original monster dose of 250 micrograms and about 10-20 times a normal dose. It really is possible to take too much LSD.)

Drugs continue to influence culture as well, of course, but none of those impacts seem to be as big as the Beatles. Michael Cera is a good actor, but we don’t know if his taking mescaline on-camera for the film Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus counts as a major discovery. We do appreciate that they included a crab, however. 

V.

Some accounts of scientific progress suggest that it happens based on foundational technologies, sometimes called “General Purpose Technologies”. For example, Tyler Cowen and Ben Southwood say: 

A General Purpose Technology (GPT), quite simply, is a technological breakthrough that many other subsequent breakthroughs can build upon. So for instance one perspective sees “fossil fuels,” or perhaps “fossil fuels plus powerful machines,” as the core breakthroughs behind the Industrial Revolution. Earlier GPTs may have been language, fire, mathematics, and the printing press. Following the introduction of a GPT, there may be a period of radical growth and further additional innovations, as for instance fossil fuels lead to electrification, the automobile, radio and television, and so on. After some point, however, the potential novel applications of the new GPT may decline, and growth rates may decline too. After America electrified virtually all of the nation, for instance, the next advance in heating and lighting probably won’t be as significant. Airplanes were a big advance, but over the last several decades commercial airliners have not been improving very much.

… [An] alternate perspective sees general technological improvement, even in such minor ways as ‘tinkering’, as more fundamental to the Industrial Revolution – and progress since then – as more important than any individual ‘general purpose’ breakthroughs. Or, if you like, the General Purpose Technology was not coal, but innovation itself.

So the foundational technologies driving innovation can be either literal technologies, new techniques and discoveries, or even perspectives like “innovation.”

When we cut off the supply and discovery of new drugs, it’s like outlawing the electric motor or the idea of a randomized controlled trial. Without drugs, modern people have stopped making scientific and economic progress. It’s not a dead stop, more like an awful crawl. You can get partway there by mixing redbull, alcohol, and sleep deprivation, but that only gets you so far.

There have been a few discoveries since 1970. But when we do develop new drugs, they get memory-holed. MDMA was originally discovered in 1912, but it didn’t start being used recreationally until about the mid-1970s. Because of this, it originally escaped the attention of the DEA, and for a while it was still legal. By 1985, the DEA made sure it was criminalized. 

Of course, people do still do drugs. But the question is who can do drugs, and who has access to them. When coffee was introduced, any student or lowlife in London could get a cup. Cocaine was more expensive, but doctors seem to have had relatively easy access, and Vin Mariani made the substance available to the masses. LSD has always been pretty cheap, and otherwise broke grad students seem to have had no trouble getting their hands on literally mindbending amounts. For a while, the CIA was paying people to take it!

Now that drugs are illegal, only a small percentage of the population really has reliable access to them — the rich and powerful. This is a problem because drugs only seem to unlock a great creative potential in a small number of people. “I don’t think there is any generalization one can make on this,” said Aldous Huxley. “Experience has shown that there’s an enormous variation in the way people respond to lysergic acid. Some people probably could get direct aesthetic inspiration for painting or poetry out of it. Others I don’t think could.” If we want drugs to help drive our economy and our scientific discovery, we need to make them widely available to everyone, so anyone who wants to can give them a try.

Not everyone needs drugs to have great breakthroughs. “I do not do drugs,” said Salvador Dalí, “I am drugs.” (Though Freud was one of his major influences, so drugs were in his lineage nonetheless.) Einstein doesn’t seem to have done drugs either, but like Dalí, he probably was drugs. 

But right now, we are losing the talent of people in whom drugs would unlock genius. A small number are still rich enough and privileged enough to both take drugs and get away with it. Anyone who has that potential, but who is currently too poor or too marginalized, will never get access to the drugs they need to change the world. Even the rich and well-connected may not be able to get the amount of drugs they need, or get them often enough, to finish their great works. Not everyone is Kary Mullis, able to synthesize their own LSD. Who knows what discoveries we have missed over the last 50 years.

We’ve heard a lot of moral and social arguments for legalizing drugs. Where are the scientific and economic arguments? Drugs are linked with great scientific productivity. Genome sequencing is the last big thing to happen in science, and it happened courtesy of LSD.

Drugs are also an enormous market. Commodity trading in drugs was so important to the origin of modern investing that today the ceiling of the New York Stock Exchange is decorated with gold tobacco leaves. Right now the markets for illegal drugs are not only unregulated, they’re untaxed. They’re probably immensely inefficient as well. We can more or less guarantee that your new cocawine startup will have a hard time getting VC backing. 

“It’s very hard for a small person to go into the drug importing business because our interdiction efforts essentially make it enormously costly,” said conservative economist Milton Friedman in 1991. “So, the only people who can survive in that business are these large Medellin cartel kind of people who have enough money so they can have fleets of airplanes, so they can have sophisticated methods, and so on. In addition to which, by keeping goods out and by arresting, let’s say, local marijuana growers, the government keeps the price of these products high. What more could a monopolist want? He’s got a government who makes it very hard for all his competitors and who keeps the price of his products high. It’s absolutely heaven.”

We’ll also note that America’s legal system is infamously slow and backed up. It’s easy to imagine that this is because the legal system is choking itself, trying to swallow all these drug cases, leaving no room to deal with anything else. In 1965, annual marijuana arrest rates were about 18,000. By 1970 they had increased tenfold, to 180,000. By 2000 the number was about 730,000 annually. As a result, we no longer have a functioning legal system. 

So maybe things began to crawl in 1970, when we began to take the steam out of our engine of progress. The first big shock was the Controlled Substances Act, but it wasn’t the last. 

VI.

Above, we quoted economist Tyler Cowen on foundational technologies. “The break point in America is exactly 1973,” he says elsewhere, “and we don’t know why this is the case.” Well, we may not know for sure, but we have a pretty good guess: The Drug Enforcement Administration, or DEA, was founded on July 1, 1973.

Before the DEA, enforcement of drug laws was sort of jumbled. According to the DEA’s own history of the period, “Previous efforts had been fragmented by competing priorities, lack of communication, multiple authority, and limited resources.” Nixon called for “a more coordinated effort,” and a few years later the DEA was born. Now there was a central authority enforcing the new laws, so perhaps it is not surprising that 1973, rather than 1970, was the break point. 

What about other countries? The trends since 1970 are global, not limited to the US. It’s not like the DEA is running around the rest of the world enforcing our drug laws on other countries, right? Well, first of all, the DEA is running around the rest of the world enforcing our drug laws on other countries.

Perfectly normal US law enforcement agents in… Afghanistan

Second, the rest of the world has largely followed the United States in criminalizing recreational drug use. This is regulated by a number of United Nations treaties. As a result of these treaties, most of the drugs that are illegal in the US are also illegal in most members of the United Nations.

Cocaine is illegal in most countries, including Canada, New Zealand, China, India, Japan, and Thailand. In Saudi Arabia, you can be executed for it. In Singapore, importing or exporting many drugs carries a mandatory death sentence.  

Friendly Singapore warning card about the death penalty for drug traffickers!

LSD was made illegal by the 1971 UN Convention on Psychotropic Substances, and it remains illegal in all 184 states that are party to the convention. 

The Netherlands has a reputation for being very drug-friendly, but this is largely undeserved. While they do tolerate some drugs (a policy known as gedoogbeleid), most drugs technically remain illegal. “Soft drugs” like marijuana, hash, and “magic truffles” (NOT shrooms — apparently these are different) are tolerated. Note the exact wording from this government website, though: “Although the sale of soft drugs is a criminal offence, coffee shops selling small quantities of soft drugs will not be prosecuted.” 

“Hard drugs”, including cocaine, magic mushrooms, and LSD are still very much illegal. Even for soft drugs like marijuana, however, you can’t possess more than a small amount for personal use. Producing any amount of any drug — including marijuana! — remains illegal. So even in this notorious drug haven, most drugs are still illegal and heavily restricted.

Any country that broke from this pact and really legalized drugs would see an explosion in their economy, and soon we expect, breakthroughs in their arts and sciences. But the UN wouldn’t like that, and you might wake up to find the DEA burning product in your backyard. So for now, with a small number of exceptions, these substances remain illegal. 

VII.

We hear a lot of talk these days about decriminalizing marijuana. This is the right thing to do, but it won’t be enough. Legalizing marijuana is not going to cut it.

Legalizing other drugs is more like it. When asked how he thought America would change if drugs were legalized, Milton Friedman said:

I see America with half the number of prisons, half the number of prisoners, ten thousand fewer homicides a year, inner cities in which there’s a chance for these poor people to live without being afraid for their lives, citizens who might be respectable who are now addicts not being subject to becoming criminals in order to get their drug, being able to get drugs for which they’re sure of the quality. …

I have estimated statistically that the prohibition of drugs produces, on the average, ten thousand homicides a year. It’s a moral problem that the government is going around killing ten thousand people. It’s a moral problem that the government is making into criminals people, who may be doing something you and I don’t approve of, but who are doing something that hurts nobody else. 

Friedman was a conservative’s conservative. He was an advisor to Reagan and to Thatcher. You can hardly get more impeccable conservative credentials than that! But when he looks at drug prohibition, he literally calls it socialism.

Everyone knows that hippies love drugs and want to legalize them. That much is not surprising. What is surprising is that conservatives are so firmly against drugs. It just doesn’t make any sense. Judge Juan Torruella of the First Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals was appointed by Ronald Reagan in 1984. In 1996, he said:

Prohibition’s enforcement has had a devastating impact on the rights of the individual citizen. The control costs are seriously threatening the preservation of values that are central to our form of government. The war on drugs has contributed to the distortion of the Fourth Amendment wholly inconsistent with its basic purposes. …

I detect considerable public apathy regarding the upholding of rights which have been cherished since this land became a constitutional Republic, when it comes to those accused of drug violations. Now I will grant you that people that sell drugs to children and the like are not very nice people, and I do not stand here or anywhere in defense of such heinous conduct. However, we must remember that we do not, and cannot, have one constitution for the good guys and another for the bad ones.

Paul Craig Roberts, an economist who served as Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Economic Policy under Reagan, said in The Washington Times in 2001:

The conservatives’ war on drugs is an example of good intentions that have had unfortunate consequences. As often happens with noble causes, the end justifies the means, and the means of the drug war are inconsistent with the U.S. Constitution and our civil liberties.

Think about it. In the name of what other cause would conservatives support unconstitutional property confiscations, unconstitutional searches, and Orwellian Big Brother invasions of privacy? …

It is a personal tragedy for a person to ruin his life with alcohol, drugs, gambling or any other vice. But it is a public tragedy when government ruins the lives of millions of its citizens simply because it disapproves of a product they consume.

The “war on drugs” is, in truth, a war on the Constitution, civil liberties, privacy, property, freedom and common sense. It must be stopped.

Legalizing drugs is the right thing to do — from a moral point of view, from an economic point of view, from a scientific point of view. But legalizing drugs won’t be enough. We need new drugs. We need to taste drugs that no one has ever heard of, mysterious new combinations of drugs that no one’s ever tried before. Scientific and economic progress — great discoveries and major companies — comes on the heels of drug discovery. 

Is the Controlled Substances Act really responsible for the general decline since 1970? We’re not sure, but what is clear is that drugs are foundational technologies, like the motor, combustion engine, semiconductor, or the concept of an experiment. New drugs lead to scientific revolutions. Some of those drugs, like coffee, continue to fuel fields like mathematics and computer science, even some hundreds of years later. With apologies to Newton, “If I seem higher than other men, it is because I am standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Investigation: Were Polish Aristocrats in the 1890s really that Obese? by Budnik & Henneberg (2016)

I. 

A friend recently sent us a chapter by Alicja Budnik and Maciej Henneberg, The Appearance of a New Social Class of Wealthy Commoners in the 19th and the Early 20th Century Poland and Its Biological Consequences, which appeared in the 2016 volume Biological Implications of Human Mobility.

A better title would be, Were Polish Aristocrats in the 1890s really that Obese?, because the chapter makes a number of striking claims about rates of overweight and obesity in Poland around the turn of the century, especially among women, and especially especially among the upper classes.

Budnik & Henneberg draw on data from historical sources to estimate height and body mass for men and women in different classes. The data all come from people in Poland in the period 1887-1914, most of whom were from Warsaw. From height and body mass estimates they can estimate average BMI for each of these groups. (For a quick refresher on BMI, a value under 18.5 is underweight, over 25 is overweight, and over 30 is obese.) 

They found that BMIs were rather high; somewhat high for every class but quite high for the middle class and nobility. Peasants and working class people had average BMIs of about 23, while the middle class and nobles had average BMIs of just over 25.

This immediately suggests that more than half of the nobles and middle class were overweight or obese. The authors also estimate the standard deviation for each group, which they use to estimate the percentage of each group that is overweight and obese. The relevant figure for obesity is this: 

As you can see, the figure suggests that rates of obesity were rather high. Many groups had rates of obesity around 10%, while about 20% of middle- and upper-class women were obese. 

This is pretty striking. One in five Polish landladies and countesses were obese? Are you sure?

To begin with, it contradicts several other sources on what baseline human weight would be during this period. The first is a sample of Union Army veterans examined by the federal government between 1890-1900. The Civil War was several decades before, so these men were in their 40s, 50s, and 60s. This is in almost the exact same period, and this sample of veterans was Caucasian, just like the Polish sample, but the rate of obesity in this group was only about 3%. 

Of course, the army veterans were all men, and not a random sample of the population. But we have data from hunter-gatherers of both genders that also suggests the baseline obesity rate should be very low. As just one example, the hunter-gatherers on Kitava live in what might be called a tropical paradise. They have more food than they could ever eat, including potatoes, yams, fruits, seafood, and coconuts, and don’t exercise much more than the average westerner. Their rate of obesity is 0%. It seems weird that Polish peasants, also eating lots of potatoes, and engaged in backbreaking labor, would be so more obese than these hunter-gatherers. 

On the other hand, if this is true, it would be huge for our understanding of the history of obesity, so we want to check it out. 

Because this seems so weird, we decided to do a few basic sanity checks. For clarity, we refer to the Polish data as reported in the chapter by Budnik & Henneberg as the Warsaw data, since most (though not all) of these data come from Warsaw.

II.

The first sanity check is comparing the obesity rates in the Warsaw data to the obesity rates in modern Poland. Obesity rates have been rising since the 1890s [citation needed] so people should be more obese now than they were back then.

The Warsaw data suggests that men at the time were somewhere between 0% and 12.9% obese (mean of categories = 7.3%) and women at the time were between 8.8% and 20.9% obese (mean of categories = 16.2%). In comparison, in data from Poland in 1975, 7% of men were obese and 13% of women were obese. This suggests that obesity rates were flat (or perhaps even fell) between 1900 and 1975, which seems counterintuitive, and kinda weird. 

In data from Poland in 2016, 24% of men were obese and 22% of women were obese. This also seems weird. It took until 2016 for the average woman in Poland to be as obese as a middle-class Polish woman from 1900? This seems like a contradiction, and since the more recent data is probably more accurate, it may mean that the Warsaw data is incorrect.

There’s another sanity check we can make. Paintings and photographs from the time period in question provide a record of how heavy people were at the time. If the Warsaw data is correct, there should be lots of photographs and paintings of obese Poles from this era. We checked around to see if we could find any, focusing especially on trying to get images of Poles from Warsaw.

We found a few large group photographs and paintings, and some pictures of individuals, and no way are 20% of them obese.

We begin with Sokrates Starynkiewicz, who was president of Warsaw from 1875 to 1892. He looks like a very trim gentleman, and if we look at this photograph of his funeral from 1902, we see that most of the people involved look rather trim as well:

In addition, a photograph of a crowd from 1895:

And here’s a Warsaw street in 1905: 

People in these photographs do not look very obese. But most of the people in these photographs are men, and the Warsaw data suggests that rates of obesity for women were more than twice as high. 

We decided to look for more photographs of women from the period, and found this list from the Krakow Post of 100 Remarkable Women from Polish History, many of whom seem to have been decorated soldiers (note to self: do not mess with Polish women). We looked through all of the entries for individuals who were adults during the period 1887-1914. There are photographs and/or portraits for many of them, but none of them appear to be obese. Several of them were painters, but none of the subjects of their paintings appear obese either. (Unrelatedly, one of them dated Charlie Chaplin and also married a Count and a Prince.)

If rates of obesity were really 20% for middle and upper class women, then there should be photographic evidence, and we can’t find any. What we have found is evidence that Polish women are as beautiful as they are dangerous, which is to say, extremely.

Anna Iwaszkiewicz with a parrot in 1914

III.

If we’re skeptical of the Warsaw data, we have to wonder if there’s something that could explain this discrepancy. We can think of three possibilities. 

The first is that we have a hard time imagining that whoever collected this data got all these 19th-century Poles to agree to be weighed totally naked. If they were wearing all of their clothes, or any of their clothes, that could explain the whole thing. (It might also explain the large gender and class effects.) 

Clothing weighed a lot back then. Just as one example, a lady’s dolman could weigh anywhere between 6 and 12 pounds, and a skirt could weigh another 12 pounds by itself. We found another source that suggested a lady’s entire outfit in the 1880s (though not Poland specifically) would weigh about 25 lbs.

As far as we can tell, there’s no mention of clothes, clothing, garments, shoes, etc. in the chapter, so it’s quite possible they didn’t account for clothing at all. All the original documents seem to be in Polish and we don’t speak Polish, so it’s possible the original authors don’t mention it either. (If you speak Polish and are interested in helping unravel this, let us know!)

Also, how did you even weigh someone in 1890s Poland? Did they carry around a bathroom scale? We found one source that claims the first “bathroom” scale was introduced in 1910, but they must have been using something in 1890. 

Sir Francis Galton, who may have come up with the idea of weighing human beings, made some human body weight measurements in 1884 at London’s International Health Exhibition. He invited visitors to fill out a form, walk through his gallery, and have their measurements taken along a number of dimensions, including colour-sense, depth perception, sense of touch, breathing capacity, “swiftness of blow with fist”, strength of their hands, height, arm span, and weight. (Galton really wanted to measure the size of people’s heads as well, but wasn’t able to, because it would have required ladies to remove their bonnets.) In the end, they were given a souvenir including their measurements. To take people’s weights, Galton describes using “a simple commercial balance”.

Some of the “anthropometric instruments” Galton used.

Galton also specifically says, “Overcoats should be taken off, the weight required being that of ordinary indoor clothing.” This indicates he was weighing people in their everyday clothes (minus only overcoats), which suggests that the Polish data may also include clothing weight. “Stripping,” he elaborates, “was of course inadmissible.”

Card presented to each person examined. Note “WEIGHT in ordinary-in-door clothing in lbs.” in the lower righthand corner.

Also of interest may be Galton’s 1884 paper, The Weights of British Noblemen During the Last Three Generations, which we just discovered. “Messrs. Berry are the heads of an old-established firm of wine and coffee merchants,” he writes, “who keep two huge beam scales in their shop, one for their goods, and the other for the use and amusement of their customers. Upwards of 20,000 persons have been weighed in them since the middle of last century down to the present day, and the results are recorded in well-indexed ledgers. Some of those who had town houses have been weighed year after year during the Parliamentary season for the whole period of their adult lives.”

Naturally these British noblemen were not being weighed in a wine and coffee shop totally naked, and Galton confirms that the measurements should be, “accepted as weighings in ‘ordinary indoor clothing’.” This seems like further evidence that the Warsaw data likely included the weight of individuals’ clothes. 

Another explanation has to do with measurements and conversions. Poland didn’t switch to the metric system until after these measurements were made (various sources say 1918, 1919, 1925, etc.), so some sort of conversion from outdated units has to be involved. This chapter does recognize that, and mentions that body mass was “often measured in Russian tsar pounds (1 kg = 2.442 pounds).” 

We have a few concerns. First, if it was “often” measured in these units, what was it measured in the rest of the time? 

Second, what is a “Russian tsar pound”? We can’t find any other references for this term, or for “tsar pound”, but we think it refers to the Russian funt (фунт). We’ve confirmed that the conversion rate for the Russian funt matches the rate given in the chapter (409.5 g, which comes out to a rate of 2.442 in the opposite direction), which indicates this is probably the unit that they meant. 

But we’ve also found sources that say the funt used in Warsaw had a different weight, equivalent to 405.2 g. Another source gives the Polish funt as 405.5 g. In any case, the conversion rate they used may be wrong, and that could also account for some of the discrepancy.

The height measurements might be further evidence of possible conversion issues. The authors remark on being surprised at how tall everyone was — “especially striking is the tallness of noble males” — and this could be the result of another conversion error. Or it could be another side effect of clothing, if they were measured with their shoes on, since men’s shoes at the time tended to have a small heel. (Galton measured height in shoes, then the height of the heel, and subtracted the one from the other, but we don’t know if the Polish anthropometers thought to do this.)

A third possibility is that the authors estimated the standard deviation of BMI incorrectly. To figure out how many people were obese, they needed not only the mean BMI of the groups, they needed an estimate of how much variation there was. They describe their procedure for this estimation very briefly, saying “standard deviations were often calculated from grouped data distributions.” (There’s that vague “often” again.) 

What is this technique? We don’t know. To support this they cite Jasicki et al. (1962), which is the book Zarys antropologii (“Outline of Anthropology”). While we see evidence this book exists, we can’t find the original document, and if we could, we wouldn’t be able to read it since we don’t speak Polish. As a result, we’re concerned they may have overestimated how much variation there was in body weights at the time.

These three possibilities seem sufficient to explain the apparently high rates of obesity in the Warsaw data. We think the Warsaw data is probably wrong, and our best guess for obesity rates in the 1890s is still in the range of 3%, rather than 10-20%.