1992: Ubykh, from the eastern end of the Black Sea, was one of hundreds of languages that disappeared during the century. Linguists were fascinated by Ubykh’s multitude of consonants and almost total absence of vowels. It was reckoned to have about 84 consonants and two or three vowels – the exact numbers were a matter for debate. Tevfik Esenç, who died on 7 October, was the last native speaker of Ubykh; his death marked not just the passing of an individual human being, but the extinction of a language.
1991: Vicki Childress, from Key West in Florida, kept two items beneath her pillow: an inhaler in case she had an asthma attack, and a .38 revolver to protect against intruders. Just before midnight on 21 October, she needed her inhaler. Half-asleep, she reached under her pillow. You can guess what happened next. The following day she was in hospital recovering well, but with several shattered teeth.
Source: Tampa Bay Times, 23 October 1991
1990: The retired Iowa farmer Charles Osborne finally stopped hiccuping, more than six decades after he had started. The hiccups had begun one day in 1922, when Osborne had been hanging up a hog for butchering. “I picked it up and then I fell down. I felt nothing, but the doctor said later that I busted a blood vessel the size of a pin in my brain.” Once the hiccups started, they wouldn’t stop. For the next 68 years, Osborne hiccuped 20 or even 40 times a minute – several hundred million hiccups altogether.
1989: Spare a thought for Berlin’s bunnies. For 28 years they flourished in the “death zone” on the East German side of the Berlin Wall. Hopping about, nibbling grass, relaxing in the sun. No speeding cars, no farmers with shotguns, no farmers’ dogs. Until November, when hordes of noisy humans came stomping through rabbit heaven.
Source: The New York Times, 24 November 1989
1988: Albania holds the record for the most consecutive Olympic boycotts: four, between 1976 and 1988.
Source: David Wallechinsky, The Complete Book of the Olympics (2004), p. 1169
1987: Japan’s former agriculture minister Hata Tsutomu told a luncheon on Capitol Hill that the United States should not expect his country to suddenly step up imports of American beef.
Hata cited as “fact” that Japanese people find it more difficult to digest beef as they have longer intestines than Americans. Centuries of eating a diet heavily reliant on grains had lengthened Japanese digestive tracts, Hata claimed; consequently any beef consumed would remain in the intestines longer and be more likely to spoil.
1986: The meltdown of a nuclear reactor at Chernobyl, in northern Ukraine, released a cloud of radioactivity that affected not only the nearby human population, but also, indirectly, the stork population. Storks hunted for beetles, grasshoppers, frogs and other small prey in cultivated fields and meadows. When the Soviet authorities ordered the evacuation of residents from a wide area around the power plant, the abandoned fields and meadows became overgrown with tall grass, bushes and saplings. These made it difficult for the storks to forage for food, which in turn led to a decline in their numbers.
Source: Bird Census News (2000)
1985: Photographs of the young Fidel Castro showed him, more often than not, with a haze of cigar smoke wafting round his head from the Cohíba between his fingers. The Cuban leader stopped smoking in 1985, 44 years after he started.
Source: Volker Skierka, Fidel Castro: A Biography (2004), pp. 239–40
1984: Over a five-month period, the Animal Medical Center in New York dealt with 132 cats that had fallen from the city’s windows and roofs.
Wayne Whitney and Cheryl Mehlhaff, who gathered and analyzed data from the clinic, found that the shortest fall was two stories, the average fall 5.5 stories and the longest fall 32 stories. Four of the cats had fallen previously; two cats fell together. Most of the cats fell directly on to concrete but, despite this, 44 of them didn’t need treatment. One-tenth of the cats that did require treatment died, but nine-tenths survived. Treatment was mainly for respiratory problems, facial wounds and bone fractures.
1983: American President Ronald Reagan didn’t mince his words. The previous year, he had predicted that the West would consign Marxism and Leninism to the “ash heap of history”. In March 1983, he labelled the Soviet Union “an evil empire”.
Also in March, Reagan proposed the Strategic Defense Initiative, intended to protect the United States from attack by strategic nuclear ballistic missiles. In April, the United States Navy conducted a large fleet exercise in the northern Pacific. An important NATO exercise was planned for Europe in November, around the same time that Pershing II medium-range ballistic missiles were to be deployed in West Germany.
Viewed from Moscow, all this bellicose rhetoric and activity was highly alarming. Was it the prelude to a sneak attack on the Soviet Union?
1982: Culinary debut of the year: ciabatta, invented by an Italian miller named Arnaldo Cavallari.
Source: Gillian Riley, The Oxford Companion to Italian Food (2007), p. 128
1981: Alexander Haig announced that the United States was in possession of “physical evidence” that the Soviet Union was supplying its Southeast Asian allies with biological warfare agents for military use against their opponents. According to the Secretary of State, the Soviet Union was providing Laos and Vietnam with mycotoxins – poisonous compounds synthesized by fungi.
The “physical evidence”? Hmong villagers, refugees from fighting in Laos, had seen low-flying aircraft spraying what the Hmong called “yellow rain”, an oily liquid that left a residue of yellow spots on leaves, rocks and rooftops. Villagers caught in these chemical showers exhibited symptoms that included blurred vision, breathing difficulties and skin burns. Between 10 and 20 per cent of victims died.
1980: Joanne “Jo” Rowling celebrated her 15th birthday on 31 July, which by coincidence was the day Harry Potter was born.
1979: Idi Amin’s increasingly rickety rule of Uganda came to an end. In exile in Saudi Arabia, the deposed dictator put his bloodthirsty, allegedly cannibalistic, ways behind him and became a fruitarian. His appetite for oranges earned him the nickname “Dr. Jaffa”.
Source: Adam Leith Gollner, The Fruit Hunters: A Story of Nature, Adventure, Commerce and Obsession (2009), p. 98
1978: The October issue of National Geographic magazine carried an article by Francine “Penny” Patterson about Koko, a female gorilla whom Patterson had taught to use sign language. Koko knew the signs for hundreds of words (“smile”, “lollipop”, “belly button”) and was clever enough to combine them in phrases (“damn me good”, “fine animal gorilla”). She had invented some choice insults (“rotten stink”) and was not averse to the occasional lie. When she plumped herself down on a kitchen sink and dislodged it, she blamed Patterson’s assistant Kate Mann: “Kate there bad.”
1977: Names that make you smirk: Splatt and Weedon, co-authors of a paper on urinary difficulties.
Source: British Journal of Urology, April 1977
1976: While his compatriots had to put up with empty bellies, the former Cambodian monarch Norodom Sihanouk complained that he was running short of the rum needed to create bananes flambées.
Source: Norodom Sihanouk, Prisonnier des Khmers Rouges (1986), p. 155
1975: On 16 January, the kabuki actor Bandō Mitsugorō VIII died from tetrodotoxin poisoning. The actor, designated a “living national treasure” by the Japanese government, ate four servings of puffer fish livers in the apparent belief that his body would tolerate the highly toxic organs. He was wrong. Hours after the meal in a Kyoto restaurant he died of convulsions and paralysis.
Source: The Japan Times, 17 January 1975
1974: The Swiss astronomer Fritz Zwicky, who had posited the existence of neutron stars and dark matter, died at the age of 75. Not the easiest of people to get on with, Zwicky allegedly described his fellow astronomers as “spherical bastards”. Why “spherical”? Because, he said, they were bastards whichever way you looked at them.
Source: Richard Preston, First Light: The Search for the Edge of the Universe (1998), p. 149
1973: In extreme cases, Cushing’s syndrome, caused by hyperactive adrenal glands, can be treated by removal of the glands. Surgery is seldom performed, however, since removal of the glands may in turn cause Nelson’s syndrome, a disorder characterised by darkening of the skin.
When Rita Hoefling, a white woman from Cape Town, began to suffer from Nelson’s syndrome, she became the hapless victim of South Africa’s apartheid system. She was shunned by the white community and even by her own family. After her father died, her mother refused to allow her to attend the funeral: “I do not want to be embarrassed by your black body at Daddy’s grave.”
Source: Armand Marie Leroi, Mutants: On the Form, Varieties and Errors of the Human Body (2003), pp. 263–5
1972: On the evening of 27 May, the Duke of Windsor’s doctor was surprised to see that the duke’s favourite pug, which had seldom left its master’s bed during the previous few weeks, had moved on to the bedroom floor. Early next morning, the duke died.
Source: Michael Bloch, The Secret File of the Duke of Windsor (1989), pp. 425–6
1971: Swiss women gained the right to vote at national level – 123 years after Swiss men.
1970: The East German state used a carrot-and-stick approach to nurture athletic excellence among its children. Budding champions were forced to adhere to rigid training regimes and to meet strict sporting and academic targets. Those who succeeded might be rewarded, for example, with the right to have a teddy bear.
Source: Mihir Bose, The Spirit of the Game: How Sport Made the Modern World (2011), p. 243
1969: Perhaps anticipating the tedium of a long-haul flight, astronaut Neil Armstrong took along as his soundtrack for the trip to the moon Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9, “From the New World”, and Harry Revel’s album Music Out of the Moon.
Source: Andrew Smith, Moondust: In Search of the Men Who Fell to Earth (2005), p. 304
1968: In contrast to the effusive manner of other winners at the Oscar ceremony, the director Alfred Hitchcock ambled into view, took his award, leaned towards the microphone, and simply said:
Source: Donald Spoto, The Life of Alfred Hitchcock: The Dark Side of Genius (1983), p. 499
1967: A prayer for dieters:
I promise not to sit and stuff
But stop when I have had enough.
Source: Louise Foxcroft, Calories & Corsets: A History of Dieting over 2,000 Years (2013), p. 180
1966: In the middle of the Cold War, New Zealand fruit exporters got round the political touchiness of the name “Chinese gooseberry” by devising a new name: the “kiwi fruit”.
Source: John Ayto, Twentieth Century Words (1999), p. 416
1965: Toy maker Mattel gave Barbie a spacesuit 18 years before NASA put the first American woman in space.
Source: Marco Tosa, Barbie: Four Decades of Fashion, Fantasy, and Fun (1998), p. 116
1964: The Pentagon, worried about nuclear proliferation, set up a small-scale experiment to find out how easy it would be for a country starting with no relevant expertise to build a nuclear bomb. The Nth Country Project chose two scientists to represent the attempts of the fictitious country to produce such a device. The scientists held doctorates in physics, but, crucially, their knowledge of nuclear physics was limited and they had no access to classified information. After 2½ years, they came up with a feasible design. Their bomb was powerful enough that it would have produced an explosion similar in size to the one dropped on Hiroshima, yet simple enough that it “could have been made by Joe’s Machine Shop downtown”.
Source: The Guardian, 24 June 2003
1963: They were once close comrades, but by 1963, François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, Haiti’s dictatorial president, and Clément Barbot, his thuggish henchman, had become deadly enemies.
Duvalier went gunning for Barbot, and Barbot for Duvalier. Tontons Macoutes combed the shantytowns of Port-au-Prince and the surrounding countryside for Barbot, who responded with bombings and ambushes.
Duvalier’s gunmen thought on one occasion they had trapped Barbot in a hideout. They riddled the house with bullets, but when they kicked down the front door, a black dog ran out. Perhaps Barbot possessed the voodoo power to turn himself into a black dog, Haitians thought, and it was rumoured that Duvalier ordered all black dogs to be shot on sight.
Source: Bernard Diederich and Al Burt, Papa Doc: Haiti and Its Dictator (1970), p. 222