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During the early 1900s, some men of science provided Napa County residents with educational opportunities to learn more about the advances in those scientists’ chosen fields.

The Napa Weekly Journal newspaper editions issued between 1903-1912 documented three outstanding examples.

In 1912, Dr. Benjamin Alden, a former Napan, stunned both the medical community as well as the general populace when he performed his own appendectomy. The purpose of this extreme demonstration was to prove the merits of a new, but untested and untried, anesthesia.

Alden was the chief surgeon at a San Francisco hospital where, surrounded by nurses, attendants and two other doctors, he performed “an astounding surgical experiment. Dr. Alden started the operation and almost finished it.”

The Journal continued, “The only reason why he allowed his colleagues to complete the task being because he yielded to the entreaties of Dr. Mardis, who, feared that the whole thing might end in a tragedy.”

Alden was able to perform the operation on himself due to the use of a spinal anesthesia. Alden said during his speedy recovery, “It was to strengthen the argument for this anesthesia that I attempted the operation on myself. I think the incident has demonstrated everything I have claimed.”

In addition to proving his medical hypothesis of the merits of spinal blocks, Alden also rid himself of his troublesome appendix.

In April 1906, a long-time Napan, William Appleby published his book, “The Physical Construction of the Sun.” A review of the book by A. J. Hull of Napa was printed in the Journal.

Apparently, Appleby was of a differing opinion from the conventional theorists of his field regarding the composition of the sun. In 1906 the general consensus was that the sun was “a collection of luminous clouds heavily impregnated with intensely hot gases, and generally termed the nebulous theory,” Hull wrote.

The review continued, “There are other opinions, however, in regard to the matter, the most remarkable and logical one having recently been promulgated by our so well and favorably known neighbor, William Appleby, which will doubtless be read and discussed by many people throughout the entire world, and should, as a matter of course, be of special interest to all residents of Napa and vicinity...”

Appleby’s concept required numerous column inches to detail. Based on Hull’s lengthy review, it seems Appleby’s hypothesis regarding the sun’s composition was similar to the contemporary scientific beliefs, but it also held some significant differences. As for the 1906 review, Hull concluded it by deeming Appleby’s manuscript to be well written and documented, easy to read and understand as well as “a truly wonderful book.”

The third and final account of an unconventional man of science was reported in a springtime 1903 Journal article titled, “The Wonders of Science.”

According to that article, a Professor W.B. Patty “gave a lecture and demonstration on the possibilities of liquid air and wireless telegraphy” at the Napa Opera House. In the opinion of the Journal, that Monday evening presentation “was a most interesting and enjoyable one.”

Following the introduction of all the basic details and properties of liquid air, the article reported, “numerous experiments were performed to show its effects as a freezing agent.” Patty also demonstrated the highly explosive nature of the compound. The Journal added, “the audience was entertained for an hour with this wonderful substance.”

The early 1900s program also offered demonstrations of state-of-the-art technology to the Napa audience. According to the newspaper, Patty explained and demonstrated the workings of the Marconi system of wireless telegraphy. The Journal added, “It is quite as wonderful as the liquid air but not as capable of so many entertaining experiments.”

While Patty was essentially an educator lecturing at a local entertainment venue, he along with Appleby and Alden were men of science. Through their cutting-edge endeavors, they helped to broadened the knowledge of Napa County residents while daring to challenge the conventional wisdom of their professional peers.

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Email Rebecca Yerger at yegerenterprises@yahoo.com.

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