PBF: June 2016

Party Banter Friday:   In Which A Librarian Provides You With An Interesting Fact to Make You More Popular During Weekend Socializing

War. Huh. What is it good for?

Well, actually quite a lot it turns out if you look at it as a catalyst for scientific advancement.

Mary Roach’s latest book, Grunt: the Curious Science of Humans at War, just hit our shelves and I had to be the first person to read it. I love Mary Roach’s books. Well researched, quirky, and often darkly hilarious, her books simmer in the science of the human experience. Her books about death (Stiff: the Curious Lives of Human Cadavers), sex (Boink: the Curious Coupling of Sex and Science), food (Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal), and spirituality (Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife) along with her latest about war could be gathered into one compendium called Life: the Human Experience.

Roach always focuses on the science behind these mundane elements of life on Earth.  There is surprising science all around us and she drives that point home in the first chapter by examining something so seemingly mundane it probably never crossed your mind: the science of fabrics. Nantick Labs in Massachusetts tests and develops everything the army eats, sleeps in, carries, and wears. They think of everything. A cloth is fire resistant but is it toxic? Will it wick away moisture? Can it be easily printed on or dyed? How many washes will it stand up to? Does it itch or retain body odor?

Amazingly, the army employees fashion designers to come up with solutions to other problems like snipers lying on their stomachs for hours at a time or the tear of Velcro giving away a solider’s position.


Mary Roach’s books are great for amazing facts that broaden your understanding of the world. For instance in WWII, the British Army were so beleaguered by disease spreading flies that each man had a quota that everyone was to kill 50 flies a day! The Allies and the Axis powers all waged war on pests on the battlefields and the home front. During the Spanish-American War of 1898, the illustrious  Walter Reed was called in to investigate a typhoid outbreak. He noticed flies transferring lime from latrines and graves onto food and the war on flies began for the American Army. This discovery created an occupation called military entomologist, which still exists today.


Flies, however, come with a positive side. The use of maggots to clean away necrotic flesh has be recorded as far back as the Maya and Aboriginal Tribes of Australia.  Baron Dominique Larrey, Napoleon’s personal surgeon, recognized that solider’s whose wounds were colonized by maggots had lower morbidity ratres as did Joseph Jones during the American Civil War. Maggots were officially approved to treat wounds in 2007 by the FDA.

Medically, the army has always been on the cutting edge of wound care and trauma. World War I saw the invention of reconstructive plastic surgery credited to New Zealand surgeon Harold Gillies. Walter Yeo, a sailor who lost his eyelids in the battle of Jutland, is often described as the first to benefit from advanced plastic surgery.

[Photo of Petty Officer Yeo redacted due to high probability of squeamishness bordering on nightmarish terror. If you would like to see how the first recipient of plastic surgery fared, photos are available on Google images, good luck!] 

More soldiers ever are surviving dramatic wounds from the most powerful explosives in human history. Living after having your leg or arm blown off takes a lot of adjustment, but what if a more sensitive part of the body is lost forever? Roach’s focus on human relationships and intimacy leads to a heart breaking chapter about the army’s attempts to reconstruct and, if need be, replace genitals. Though the first penis transplant happened only a month ago at Massachusetts General Hospital and was done for a cancer survivor, John Hopkins has been working on transplants for veterans for years.

With war a seemingly constant topic of discussion among humans in every country on the planet, it is nice to look at it from an objective and largely unemotional place. These interesting facts can take any war conversation from the political to the material in just a few seconds. Roach really explores the humanity behind war and the scientist trying to keep soldiers alive and as happy as possible as they try to kill one another.

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