Letters to the Editor - May 2012
A selection of readers' correspondence with the editor, Paul Lay.
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A Doctor Writes
In his article Who Killed Alexander the Great? (April 2012) James Romm mentions the possibility of natural causes, but states: ‘Alexander felt a stabbing sensation in the back after downing the cup [of wine] and cried aloud … A stabbing pain following a drink of wine would clearly suggest poison.’ Maybe to a non-medical mind but, to a general practitioner with over 30 years experience, this is a description of symptoms that immediately bring to mind the possibility of either dyspepsia (indigestion) or, in a person rapidly becoming seriously ill, as in Alexander’s case, either a perforated gastric or duodenal ulcer, or acute pancreatitis.
Although indigestion commonly produces ‘heartburn’ (a pain below or behind the breast bone), the pain frequently travels through the chest and produces a sharp stabbing sensation between the lower shoulder blades. Acute pancreatitis in a relatively young individual is classically associated with a high alcohol intake and the pain is usually described as radiating through to the back.
Although nowadays a perforated peptic ulcer is considered a surgical emergency with a fairly good prognosis, in the pre-surgical era mortality was approximately 50 per cent. Pancreatitis, too, carries a high mortality and its natural history includes a fever, peritonitis and the development of circulatory shock, resulting in the individual gradually lapsing into a coma. Peritonitis makes any movement of the body extremely painful and causes the individual to lie still in case involuntary movement of the abdominal muscles causes pain.
It seems that either of the above scenarios are equally, if not more, likely to be the cause of Alexander the Great’s demise than poisoning.
Dr Niall Ferguson (not the Professor of History at Harvard)
Frank Prochaska is right to observe that the American Constitution is a flawed, anachronistic instrument that has nevertheless attained iconic status and has thereby helped to preserve national unity (Flaws Across the Pond, March 2012). He is unwise, however, to advocate its replacement.
In the first place America’s present-day polarised society is unlikely to support the necessary consensus for a new constitution. Moreover any consensus that did emerge would be skewed even further to the right than the original one and would be too fragile for the replacement instrument to attain anywhere near the iconic status of its predecessor. The consequences for national unity, indeed for national survival, are frightening to contemplate. One civil war was enough.
Professor Martin Margulies
Quinnipiac University School of Law, Hamden, Connecticut, USA
I very much enjoyed Patrick Bishop’s piece on the Tirpitz (Churchill's Magnificent Obsession, March 2012), but he buys into the myth that the Tirpitz was a super-battleship, ‘faster, better armoured, and carry[ing] bigger guns than her British counterparts’. He suggests that, despite the best efforts of the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy, the Tirpitz was almost unsinkable. In that same vein he cites Tirpitz’s sister ship Bismarck and her technical superiority to HMS Hood, which was true insofar as it goes. What Bishop doesn’t mention is that both battleships had several severe design flaws. First, their armoured decks were too low in the hull to be truly effective. Second, they carried not just primary and secondary batteries like US and British battleships but also useless tertiary batteries that added a lot of weight and took up a great deal of space without adding measurably to their defensibility. Third, their fire-control systems were antiquated. Fourth, perhaps worst of all, their stern sections were structurally weak. And Bishop’s statement that Tirpitz was ‘better armoured’ than her opposite numbers seems particularly misleading. She was not sheathed in Germany’s legendary Wotan hard-steel, but in a more conventional structural steel.
Underwater photographs of the wreck of the Bismarck taken a few years ago reveal that the stern separated from the rest of the hull under heavy shelling and that British shellfire did indeed penetrate her armour belt, turning the interior into an inferno and letting tons of seawater in long before she was torpedoed by HMS Dorsetshire. The Tirpitz would have suffered the same fate if she had taken on the Royal Navy.
Neither German battleship could compare to the US Navy’s South Dakota class ships or to the best of the King George V class. The myth of their near invincibility came from Nazi propaganda, aided and abetted by overactive imaginations in the British Admiralty. There has always been a worshipful fascination with Nazi weaponry, whether it be jet aircraft, the V weapons, main battle tanks or, in this case, capital ships. If it fought under the swastika it had to be superior to anything that the Allies possessed, which is rubbish.
Professor Richard Selcer
Fort Worth, Texas, USA
Ahead of His Time
Tim Stanley (The Contrarian, March 2012) accuses Theodore Roosevelt of several flaws. One is shooting ‘endangered’ animals. In 1909 it is unclear that any of the animals were endangered, as proved by the fact that he shot so many. What is clear is that he was the father of the conservation movement that saved the American bison. He may have had racist attitudes but he invited Booker T. Washington to the White House for dinner, for which he was widely criticised. I think he was ahead of the curve on both issues. I would suggest one of the few things that history does teach us is that politicians without sufficient ‘thirst for power’ are ineffective, sometimes catastrophically so.
Natural History Lesson
Alex Keller’s article Keen Sighted as the Lynx (March 2012) was interesting, but his knowledge of the current habitat of lynxes in Europe is uncertain. Lynxes were reintroduced into eastern France in 1983 and have since spread southwards.
Hindered by Hindsight
When we discuss the Treaty of Versailles (Germany: A New Carthage?, January 2012) we have to avoid hindsight. The statesmen of the western democracies had to answer to their electorates (limited though they may have been). They had in mind the indemnity that Prussia/Germany had inflicted on France after the war of 1871. They also knew what the Germans had proposed as peace terms in 1915 – among them the annexation of a large part of Belgium – and so had a good idea of the terms had Germany won the war. Except, perhaps, for Wilson they can be forgiven for asking for just as much. If France had annexed the Rhineland and filled it with Frenchmen it might have been better in the long run. Napoleon, after all, had been offered the Rhine frontier; though it was not enough for him.
Auckland, New Zealand
Not So Wild West
While I agree with Martin Jenkins’ criticism of Fredrik Heffermehl in relation to the Nobel Peace Prize (Letters, January 2012) his description of the American Civil War as ‘the bloodiest and most destructive conflict which occurred in [Nobel’s] lifetime’ exposes a sadly western-orientated view of history.
The Taiping Rebellion?
Coorparoo, Queensland, Australia
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