On April 3rd, 2016 we learned about

Francesca Caccini’s life as a sixteenth century (female) composer

“What about your girls?” asks Elizabeth, the young pianist in Mr. Bach Comes to Call, “Didn’t you write any music for them?”

The spirit of Johann Sebastian Bach, who has been happily sharing his life story, has to sheepishly explain to his young audience, “Well, Elizabeth, you see in those days, girls were different…” Of course, it would have been much more accurate to say that the way society treated girls was different, especially, in Bach’s case, since his life was actually strikingly similar to one of the Baroque period’s premiere female composers, Francesca Caccini. While Caccini’s music hasn’t been preserved and celebrated as much as Bach’s, she had a long and at times monumental career in her own right.

Born into music

Caccini’s early years aren’t well documented, most likely because most women’s lives weren’t expected to be of historical significance, as the aforementioned spirit of Bach eluded to. Like Bach, Caccini had a musical family, her father being a composer and her mother being a singer. Born in 1587, she appears to have been well educated, and was trained as a singer, keyboardist, guitarist and harpist. Her first performances as a singer were with her younger sister and her stepmother Margherita, who was also a singer.

A composer’s career path in the early 17th century generally revolved around finding a patron to fund ongoing composing, singing and teaching. Caccini started working as part of her father’s ensemble with the Duke Ferdinando I of Tuscany, but was eventually recruited to work for the de’ Medici family. That patronage bestowed a salary and, in a deviation from the experiences of her male counterparts, a dowry, allowing her to marry the singer Giovanni Signorini.

A most inspiring opera

Unfortunately, only one major opera by Caccini has survived the last 500 years, but it was an important piece. La Liberazione di Ruggiero was the first published opera written by a woman, and it was thoroughly appreciated in its own time. The comic opera involving magic and dragons was performed for the visiting Prince Władysław of Poland, who reportedly loved it enough to build a new opera house back home, inviting Caccini to write new music for its opening performances.

Arts to aristocracy

Unlike Bach, Caccini’s relationship with music waned slightly over time. Her daughter with her first husband became a singer, but her mother didn’t want her appearing on stage. After her husband died, she remarried, but to an aristocrat rather than another musician. The family relocated to Lucca, where Caccini had a son. She continued to compose music even after her husband died left her with a comfortable inheritance. However, requests for her daughter to perform on stage were repeatedly denied, as Caccini did not want to risk the family’s reputation with such appearances.

In the end, Caccini slipped out of any remaining limelight. While her life was clearly dominated by writing and teaching music, unlike Bach her death wasn’t directly recorded, much less publicly mourned. We are left to fill in the gaps, with her death likely being correlated to her son becoming the ward of her brother-in-law in 1645, four years after retiring from the de Medici court.

Source: Francesca Caccini, Music Academy Online

On December 23rd, 2015 we learned about

The farmer who found and photographed the shapes of snow

The person who sparked the idea that “no two snowflakes are alike” was not a trained meteorologist or physicist, but a farmer. This doesn’t mean that Wilson Alwyn Bentley wasn’t a researcher, as much of his life was spent studying and carefully documenting the nature of snow crystals, plus hypothesizing about what influenced their size and shape. His work was eventually reviewed and published, not only providing insight into how snow works, but also showing that a degree isn’t strictly necessary to work as a scientist.

At age 15, Bentley’s father gave him a microscope, which he used to view snowflakes in his native Vermont. He sketched what he could, but in 1885 his father bought him a camera, enabling the twenty-year-old to take the world’s first photomicrograph of a snow crystal. This required some technical invention on Bentley’s part, using a variety of tools from pre-cooled slides to turkey feathers to maneuver the delicate snowflakes into position for a photo. Over the years, Bentley refined his technique, even going as far as altering the contrast of images by hand after they were exposed.

Aside from mastering photographic techniques, Bentley also made some analysis based on his observations. He found connections between ambient temperatures and the shape of the ice crystal. These findings were eventually confirmed and published, but not for 30 years after Bentley’s initial work.

Further work and recognition

In the mean time, Bentley did find some notoriety for his photos. They were published in various magazines and newspapers, and earned the farmer the nickname “Snowflake Bentley.” During the summers, he also turned his attention to other meteorological phenomena, namely rain. As with the snow, Bentley found that raindrop size was also influenced by the air’s temperature, as well as the altitude of the storm clouds.

Bentley continued photographing snow until he died in 1931. While his work grew more sophisticated, he always used the same camera he started with as a young man.

Source: Keith Heidorn by The Snowflake Man of Vermont, Public Domain Review

On April 27th, 2015 we learned about

A career spanning puppy teeth to panther fangs

Peter Emily started his unusual career decades ago looking at x-rays of puppy teeth. He had studied human dentistry in the Air Force, but eventually found himself at the forefront of veterinary tooth care. Zoos, circuses and nature preserves wanted his help, letting him now, at age 82, being able to claim that he’s operated on “everything with a mouth.”

A key to Emily’s prominence in this field was was the extra care and effort he put into his work. Early in his career, he was asked by the Denver zoo to help a hyena with a fractured tooth. At this time in the 1970s, veterinary dentistry only had cleaning or removal as possible prescriptions. Emily went the extra mile, creating his own tools appropriate for this special patient, and then performing a root canal instead of just a basic extraction.

Over the years, he’s expanded his scope, even helping animals without teeth, such as when he dabbled as an avian orthodontist, realigning an owl’s beak. He’s written textbooks, advised on products, and in 2005 started the Peter Emily International Veterinary Dental Foundation. The Foundation helps fund the care of animals around the word, with lots of contact with sanctuaries like the Wild Animal Sanctuary in Colorado.

My kindergartner asked: Does he work on regular house cats? It wasn’t explicitly stated, and while animals as small as black-footed ferrets were fitted with a gold tooth, I’m assuming that a regular vet would probably handle animals so commonly in need of care.


Source: The Lion Dentist by Alex Halperin, The New Yorker