Monday, July 4, 2016

Google Outs a Family Secret

Victorian doctors prescribed morphine like today's doctors do hydrocodone, especially to young middle- and upper-class women. As a result, thousands were committed to "the shadows of addiction."

George Sand, Louisa May Alcott and Mary Todd Lincoln were all morphine addicts. So was playwright Eugene O'Neill's mother, as depicted in Long Day's Journey Into Night. My own maternal grandmother was one.

Family secrets have always been hard to keep, but Google's made them harder.

Researchers at Rutgers University used Google to unearth the long-buried fact that Thomas Edison's first wife died in 1884 of a morphine overdose, even though "congestion of the brain" was recorded as the official cause of death.

Here's how:
  • Using Google, they first found an article in an unidentified newspaper that said Edison had tried to revive his comatose wife with electric shocks. Edison was an expert in electricity.
  • Using, the researchers next found another (unsigned) article alleging Mary Edison was a morphine addict who died of an overdose. They also found an interview Mary had given the same paper, and concluded the same reporter who conducted the interview wrote the story about her death.
  • Using Google Books, the researchers then discovered “congestion of the brain” was a Victorian euphemism for "overdose." They also discovered electric shock—Edison's expertise—was prescribed in medical books as a way to revive victims, and concluded Mary indeed OD'd.
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