December 2001


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Breathe Deeply
The Architect of Resuscitation

During a distinguished career in medicine, Peter J. Safar says he took up a professional hobby that was “a little unusual.” In fact, resuscitation isn’t really all that unusual. It’s very much part of the anesthesiologist’s training.

However, what Safar, founding chairman of Pitt’s Department of Anesthesiology & Critical Care Medicine, did that was a little unusual was take his “hobby” from the operating room to the streets, and in the process revolutionized the way emergency medical care is provided. His experiments in getting air into the lungs of people who were not breathing, for example, revolutionized rescue practices worldwide.

“I have a feeling that I have made use of my life,” the 77-year-old Safar says with a wry smile.

Safar’s unusual hobby began in 1950, a year after arriving in the United States as a “chance survivor of World War II.” Modern anesthesiology was barely two decades old. Safar, who was born in Vienna and evaded service to the Nazis, realized that life support skills, such as maintaining the patient’s airway, were key to saving critically ill people. The insight led him to experiment with better ways of get air into the lungs of people who were not breathing.

Perhaps nowhere have the effects of his unusual hobby had a bigger impact than Pittsburgh, where he arrived on May 20, 1961. The death of former Pittsburgh Mayor David L. Lawrence would be the catalyst for what would become the city’s first EMS system. In October, 1966, Lawrence collapsed after giving a speech in Oakland and was rushed to the hospital where Safar treated him. Lawrence’s heart and breathing were restarted, but the severely brain-damaged Lawrence never recovered.

His death sparked public debate about the city use of inadequately trained police officers to provide medical care. The result was Freedom House Enterprise in 1967, the city’s first ambulance service staffed by paramedics. Safar and the department of anesthesiology provided oversight—without charge. After Freedom House disbanded in 1975, the city took over the EMS system.

As testament to Safar’s stature, the Wood Library and Museum of Anesthesiology recently published his memoirs. The 380-page book is the fifth volume in Wood’s Careers in Anesthesiology series. But Safar’s book dwells less on anesthesiology than on where insatiable curiosity and the study of resuscitation took him as a young doctor. Safar provides a first-person account of how anesthesiology evolved because he was there—testing rescue techniques, teaching, and searching, always searching for ways to save lives while preserving quality of life.

His efforts continue. As founder of the Center for Resuscitation Research at Pitt, now named after him, he is involved in developing bold new and promising therapies. For instance, 40 years of research into the mechanisms of death and life-saving techniques has brought him back to an idea ignored since the 1950s—therapeutic lowering of body temperature. Hypothermia has great promise in the treatment of stroke, cardiac arrest, brain trauma, and other problems.

That kind of research may require Safar someday to add a second volume to his memoirs. —Kris B. Mamula

Family Tree
Linking Human Evolution

T o the casual observer, it was a skull like any other skull. People had scrutinized and measured and pondered it for 150 years, and Jeffrey Schwartz wasn’t completely sure the fossil, unearthed in Gibraltar in the 1800s, would offer any new secrets about human evolution.

Then Schwartz, a University of Pittsburgh physical anthropology and history professor, looked inside the nasal cavity and made a discovery: a bony protrusion shared only by other Neanderthals.

You probably didn’t hear about Schwartz’s find on the evening news. But his research isn’t about finding high-profile pieces of man’s past. It’s more about identifying bones that provide links in human evolution.

For eight years, Schwartz and Ian Tattersall, curator of anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, where Schwartz also serves as research associate, have traveled the world to study the entire human fossil record. No small undertaking.

When completed, their photographs and descriptions will be published in a three-volume reference set—the first of its kind. It has taken years to document everything for Volume I, Homo: Europe, which will be published this year. The dense work will include thousands of fossils, detailed descriptions of each fossil, the archaeology and geology of the site where it was found, and experts’ opinions about the site.

Schwartz says he was trained as a systematist, someone who interprets the evolution of specimens without bias toward their age or their relationship to other species. “I’m someone who looks at hominids totally differently,” he says.

Historically, humans have regarded their own evolution as a linear progression from ape to caveman. Anthropologists simply studied each new discovery long enough to place it neatly in the timeline, says Schwartz, who went to Columbia University in the 1960s to become a psychiatrist. He changed career plans after taking anthropology courses taught by renowned anthropologists Margaret Mead and Harry L. Shapiro.

Schwartz and Tattersall have been to China, Africa, Israel, Indonesia, and Europe in their quest to compile a broad and unbiased account of our human fossil record. They still have to dig. “You spend a lot of time planning, finding out who has what, if you can see and photograph it, and do you have to pay them a fee, above or under the table,” says Schwartz. Eight years ago, the idea of taking two or three or four trips a year to look at one fossil in someone’s attic seemed like fun. “Now it’s just exhausting,” he says.

He has been funded, in part, through a research development grant from Pitt. The University Center for International Studies and Nationality Rooms have also lent financial support.

The finished reference may help anthropologists take a fresh look at our beginnings, especially in light of recent discoveries that point to the possibility that multiple species of humans, like any other animal, lived at the same time. “We need to start looking at human fossils in a less myopic way, and in different ways,” says Schwartz. “Then we’ll be better able to deal with the theoretical aspects of our methodologies, not issues of who’s right or wrong.” —Emily Tipping

Words at Play

Michael West is not a man who suffers abuse of the Queen’s English gladly. Confronted with a student’s tortured syntax, the veteran English professor is likely to save the offending passage for use in class. “I try to get students to laugh at their mistakes,” West says. “It motivates them to pay more attention to their writing.” When it comes to picking nits, he admits, “I am known to be nitsier than many faculty members in the English department.”

West’s eye for detail served him well as he wrote Transcendental Wordplay, a study of puns and bon mots in the works of 19th Century American authors. Ohio University Press recently published the 500-page book. Transcendental Wordplay begins by describing attempts by Noah Webster and other early etymologists to ferret out the origins of English words and grammar. West then analyzes the work of American writers like Henry David Thoreau, Washington Irving, and Walt Whitman.

About one-third of the book deals with those “cranks, crackpots, punsters, and theologians” that West refers to as “the pee-wees.” This group, which includes the anonymous authors of bawdy joke books, is important, West says, not because they were profound, but because they were so widely distributed. As for the textbooks, their emphasis on rote memorization inspired subversion of the language, he argues.

Early textbooks—one written by Webster himself sold 75 million copies—included lengthy lists of words that students memorized even if they didn’t know their meanings. “Webster was mad about proper spelling,” West says. “In the 19th Century, correct spelling became a kind of craze.” Spelling bees, virtually unknown in Europe, “were essentially the only form of recreation” on the American frontier, he says.

Americans developed the idea that grammar and words were themselves an immutable truth rather than a means of communication. “It bred a kind of rebelliousness,” West says. In the case of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, puns allowed the author to relate tales of pastoral life while simultaneously poking fun at the English language. West counts 200 puns in Walden, an average approaching one per page.

Many of the Walden wordplays escape notice because they are puns on the derivations of language. “Most people think of Thoreau as a nature writer,” but he studied languages intensively, including Latin, German, Spanish, Greek, French, and Italian, West says. Thoreau was punning “for himself a good deal of the time, or for the minority of the readers who were intelligent enough to grasp what he was driving at.”

West’s own double meanings and humorous asides are sprinkled throughout Transcendental Wordplay, giving it a jocular, conspiratorial tone, and making it surprisingly accessible to casual readers. One reviewer found West’s style inappropriate in scholarly work. “Much academic criticism of literature is not well written,” West counters. “It has a debilitating effect on students who are taught to parrot this jargon.”

So far his collection of contemporary puns is restricted to unintentional examples culled from student writing. “I'd welcome any elegant current puns that former students want to share with me,” he says. “Maybe they can convince me that the Victorian era was not the high-water mark for sophisticated wordplay after all.” —Jason Togyer

Breakthroughs in the Making

Top Rankings: Pitt’s Department of Physical Therapy finished third among physical therapy departments nationwide, according to US News and World Report’s 2002 annual graduate school ranking guide. Two programs under the department of Communication Science and Disorders—Speech and Language Pathology and Audiology—were ranked 18th and 23rd respectively. The Department of Occupational Therapy was ranked 17th.

Zoom Lens: A NASA satellite launched in 1999 is collecting helpful information about volcanic activity on Earth, according to Michael Ramsey, director of Pitt’s Image Visualization and Infrared Spectroscopy Laboratory and associate professor of geology and plantetary science. Ramsey is part of a team of researchers that evaluated the first images generated by NASA’s Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer Satellite. As it orbits, the satellite takes “snapshots” of the Earth once every five days.

Contraception Findings: Contraception doesn’t reduce a woman’s risk of pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), according to a study led by the Graduate School of Public Health. Principal investigator Roberta Ness says the risk of upper genital tract infection was not reduced by any contraceptive method among women in the study. Women with PID have elevated rates of infertility, ectopic pregnancy, and chronic pelvic pain.

Fully Charged: Excess electricity generation capacity in Pennsylvania will prevent the kinds of power shortages and price hikes seen in California, according to Pittsburgh Economic Quarterly. Of the nine top states in power use, researchers for the Pitt Center for Social and Urban Research journal found that Pennsylvania has the biggest excess capacity. Both California and Pennsylvania have deregulated the electric utility industry.

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