Catching Up on Stuff You Missed In History Class

Stuff You Missed in History Class, a podcast supported by HowStuffWorks.com and hosted by Sarah Dowdey and Deblina Chakraborty, is my favorite podcast ever.  If you have any interest in history at all, I would suggest this highly entertaining, intellectually absorbing, and extremely informative series of historical snippets.  Some of my favorites from my listening tonight:

"Who was the Indiana Jones of Botany?" 10/8/11

Nikolai Vavilov was a Soviet scientist who spent his life collecting and studying plants and the genetic and geological history of agriculture.  Vavilov was pretty much a botany superhero, saving Russian soldiers in Iran from poisonous crops while on his travels and developing the world’s most diverse and exhaustive collection of plant genetic material in the world.  Tragically, Valilov fell out of political favor and starved to death in a prison camp in 1943. 

His work lived on in the form of his collection in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), which survived Hitler’s siege of the city through the courageous and self-sacrificing actions of the staff scientists there.  Russian authorities didn’t view the seed bank as an important resource, but Hitler certainly did, and reportedly sent special forces to capture the facility.  During the siege of Leningrad, nine scientists died of starvation protecting the agricultural future of their nation from rats, hungry Soviet citizens, German invaders, and themselves.  Imagine having such dedication. 

To put this in perspective, Russia had been in a food crisis since the Revolution and Vavilov’s work in the seed bank had produced new strains of crops that had high yield or a resistance to extreme cold.  This was meant to save the lives of Soviets in the future.  The bank also contains early, more wild and primitive strains of crops, which could function as a sort of backup in the event of a worldwide disease wiping out our newer, more artificial crop species. Thank you, Vavilov.

"5 Historical Hoaxes" 8/17/11

In 1917, two young girls, Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths, took photographs of themselves with cutouts of fairies in an attempt to convince Elsie’s father that their encounters with fairies were real.  Elsie’s father immediately discounted the photographs and dismissed the girls’ story as an outright falsehood.  Not everyone remained unconvinced: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, at the time a noted spiritualist and great believer in the supernatural, latched on to the photographs as proof of fairies’ existence.  The girls later admitted that most of the photographs were fakes, and even confessed to being embarrassed that so many people saw the photographs and assumed they were real.  Interestingly enough, however, the girls never claimed that their encounters with fairies were false, and Frances claimed even to her deathbed that the fifth and final photograph taken by the two girls was genuine.  I have to say, the girls’ photography skills on display here are creative and quite impressive for their young age.

"The White Ship and Empress Matilda" 8/22/11

William, the firstborn son of Henry I (son of William the Conqueror), and most of his siblings (and the children of many other important nobles) embark on the White Ship headed home to England after a trip to Normandy.  This pleasure cruise ends in shocking tragedy when the ship sinks just offshore and almost all of the royal family’s heirs die. The aftermath of this terrible accident results almost immediately in a Game-of-Thrones style smackdown, as only one legitimate heir, a woman named Matilda, is still living. 

Adelaide, later known as Matilda, had lived in Germany most of her life, and was made Empress after the death of her husband Heinrich, the Holy Roman Emperor.  Matilda was summoned back to England by Henry I to ensure his family’s succession. She married and had a son, but was later forced out by Stephen of Blois.  Political and military intrigue abound at this point, with betrayals and shocking twists at every turn.  Neither Matilda nor Stephen were great politicians, and made many enemies.  There’s Empress Matilda vs. Other Matilda, escapes over frozen rivers with loyal knights, and uprisings of Londoners.  It all ends a bit happily for Matilda’s family, as her son Henry II succeeds the throne and founds the 300-year-old Plantagenet ruling line.