THIS WEEK IN HISTORY: FEBRUARY 21, 1948

NASCAR Founded

nascar-founded-history-daytonaNASCAR (National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing) is the sanctioning organization responsible for the United States’s most popular automobile racing series. Although production automobiles raced long before NASCAR’s incorporation in 1948 and still compete under its auspices, the acronym has come to stand for stock car racing in the United States. From its origins in the South in the 1940s, NASCAR has grown to become the second-most-watched professional sport (after football) with 75 million fans and designs on international growth.

According to popular legend, early stock car racers were bold, fast drivers who worked for moonshiners, outrunning federal agents to deliver untaxed liquor. In their spare time, these drivers began to compete for bragging rights on small dirt tracks throughout the South. The drivers and the spectators were predominantly white working-class men who reveled in the “outlaw” persona of the rough, tough man of honor. Although this image contains a grain of truth, it overlooks the facts that racing in the South crossed socioeconomic lines, and that other regions of the country also had thriving local stock car racing scenes.

Regardless of geography, many local races were organized by scam artists who often changed the rules in order to declare a particular winner and
sometimes absconded with the prize money. Furthermore, every track boasted its own “national champion.” To manage this chaos, a group of 35 drivers, car mechanics and promoters involved in stock car racing met at a hotel in Daytona Beach, Florida, on December 14, 1947. They established guidelines for organizing races as well as a points system for deciding a single national champion and on February 21, 1948, NASCAR was incorporated.

In addition to the codification of rules, two other important decisions were made at that meeting that would contribute to NASCAR’s survival. The first was the election of “Big Bill” France as president and second to race only American late-model passenger cars, rather than the more aerodynamically and technologically advanced racing machines used in “open wheel” racing series, including the Indianapolis 500. France was a mechanic from Washington, D.C., who had moved to Daytona, where he raced and promoted races on the beach. His knowledge of racing and its early personalities, his knack for savvy business decisions and his iron-willed determination enabled NASCAR to weather numerous economic and personnel crises in subsequent decades. It is no exaggeration to say that for its first 25 years, France was NASCAR.

Miller, J. D. (2013). NASCAR. In S. A. Riess (Ed.), Sports in America from Colonial Times to the Twenty-First Century: An Encyclopedia (pp. 757-762). Armonk, NY: Sharpe Reference.


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THIS WEEK IN HISTORY: FEBRUARY 13, 1941

Penicillin First Used in Human

penicillin-week-in-historyOne of the major advances of twentieth-century medicine was the discovery of penicillin. Penicillin is a member of the class of drugs known as antibiotics. These drugs either kill or arrest (bacteriocidal or bacteriostatic effects, respectively) the growth of bacteria, fungi (yeast), and several other classes of infectious organisms. Antibiotics are ineffective against viruses. Prior to the advent of penicillin, bacterial infections such as pneumonia and sepsis (overwhelming infection of the blood) were usually fatal. Once the use of penicillin became widespread, fatality rates from pneumonia dropped precipitously.

The discovery of penicillin marked the beginning of a new era in fighting disease. Scientists had known since the mid-nineteenth century that bacteria were responsible for some infectious diseases, but were virtually helpless to stop them. Then, in 1928, Alexander Fleming (1881-1955), a Scottish bacteriologist working at St. Mary’s Hospital in London, stumbled onto what proved to be a potent antibacterial agent.

Fleming’s research centered on the bacteria Staphylococcus, a class of bacteria that caused infections such as pneumonia, abscesses, post-operative wound infections, and sepsis. In order to study these bacteria, Fleming grew them in his laboratory in glass Petri dishes on a substance called agar. In August, 1928 he noticed that some of the Petri dishes in which the bacteria were growing had become contaminated with mold, which he later identified as belonging to the Penicillum family.

Fleming noted that bacteria in the vicinity of the mold had died. Exploring further, Fleming found that the mold killed several, but not all, types of bacteria. He also found that an extract from the mold did not damage healthy tissue in animals. However, growing the mold and collecting even tiny amounts of the active ingredient–penicillin–was extremely difficult. Fleming did, however, publish his results in the medical literature in 1928.

Ten years later, other researchers picked up where Fleming had left off. Working in Oxford, England, a team led by Howard Florey (1898-1968), an Australian, and Ernst Chain, a refugee from Nazi Germany, came across Fleming’s study and confirmed his findings in their laboratory. They also had problems growing the mold and found it very difficult to isolate the active ingredient.

Another researcher on their team, Norman Heatley, developed better production techniques, and the team was able to produce enough penicillin to conduct tests in humans. In 1941, the team announced that penicillin could combat disease in humans. Unfortunately, producing penicillin was still a cumbersome process, and supplies of the new drug were extremely limited. Working in the United States, Heatley and other scientists improved production and began making large quantities of the drug. Owing to this success, penicillin was available to treat wounded soldiers by the latter part of World War II. Fleming, Florey, and Chain were awarded the Noble Prize in medicine. Heatley received an honorary M.D. from Oxford University in 1990.

Penicillin. (2007). In B. W. Lerner & K. L. Lerner (Eds.), World of Microbiology and Immunology. Detroit: Gale.


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THIS WEEK IN HISTORY: FEBRUARY 8, 1828

Birth of Jules Verne

jules-verne-week-in-historyAt the age of thirty-five, Verne had found his life’s work. In his remaining forty-two years, he would write more than sixty “scientific romances,” averaging two books per year and winning the reputation of the founder of science fiction. Verne drew on two of his major loves in the writing of science fiction: geography and science.

Though he seldom traveled, Verne was an avid reader of travel books and was recognized as an accomplished amateur geographer. Early in his career, he wrote a popular history of geographical exploration from the Phoenicians to the nineteenth century, La Decouverte de la terre (1878; The Discovery of the Earth, 1878), while he also collaborated on an illustrated geography of France. This fascination with a sense of place gave Verne the ability to provide intimate and convincing details in his novels, even those set in remote places in the Americas and the Pacific. Of seafaring stock and as an accomplished yachtsman, Verne filled his novels that were set on the oceans with compelling data that would normally be known only to a sailor. Verne’s feeling for locale was consistently persuasive.

Although he was not an inventor, Verne was an avid reader of scientific literature and had the gift to see the technological application of many of the great discoveries of the nineteenth century. Verne’s writing anticipated that of science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke in this respect, for there is always a hard core of scientific fact inside his fantastic tales. Late in his life, when someone dared to compare his writing to that of the British author H. G. Wells, Verne protested, insisting, “I do not see the possibility of comparison between his work and mine … his stories do not repose on very scientific bases … I make use of physics. He invents.”

As an author, Verne was a world celebrity within his own lifetime. As a French citizen, he was awarded the Légion d’Honneur in 1870. As a resident of Amiens, he was active in municipal government. As a lover of the sea, he was a skilled yachtsman who sailed to Britain, Scandinavia, the Baltic Sea, and the Mediterranean Sea until that activity was prevented in 1886 through a wound inflicted by a madman, his nephew Gaston, who shot Verne in the foot at point-blank range. Later in life, Verne, an authentic workaholic, suffered from arthritis, blindness in one eye caused by a cataract, and increasing struggles with depression. His death on March 24, 1905, deprived the planet of a prophet and master storyteller, but Verne’s ability to entertain continued, for a number of successful motion pictures have been based on his movies, including Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1916, 1954, and 1997), The Mysterious Island (1929 and 1961), From the Earth to the Moon (1958), Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959) and perhaps the most popular of all, Around the World in Eighty Days (1956 and 2004).

Fry, C. G. (2016). Jules Verne. Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia.


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THIS WEEK IN HISTORY: FEBRUARY 1, 1884

The Oxford English Dictionary Debuts

oxford-english-dictionary-week-in-historyOn this day in 1884, the first portion, or fascicle, of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), considered the most comprehensive and accurate dictionary of the English language, is published. Today, the OED is the definitive authority on the meaning, pronunciation and history of over half a million words, past and present.

Plans for the dictionary began in 1857 when members of London’s Philological Society, who believed there were no up-to-date, error-free English dictionaries available, decided to produce one that would cover all vocabulary from the Anglo-Saxon period (1150 A.D.) to the present. Conceived of as a four-volume, 6,400-page work, it was estimated the project would take 10 years to finish. In fact, it took over 40 years until the 125th and final fascicle was published in April 1928 and the full dictionary was complete — at over 400,000 words and phrases in 10 volumes — and published under the title A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles.

Unlike most English dictionaries, which only list present-day common meanings, the OED provides a detailed chronological history for every word and phrase, citing quotations from a wide range of sources, including classic literature and cookbooks. The OED is famous for its lengthy cross-references and etymologies. The verb “set” merits the OED’s longest entry, at approximately 60,000 words and detailing over 430 uses. No sooner was the OED finished than editors began updating it. A supplement, containing new entries and revisions, was published in 1933 and the original dictionary was reprinted in 12 volumes and officially renamed the Oxford English Dictionary. Between 1972 and 1986, an updated four-volume supplement was published, with new terms from the continually evolving English language plus more words and phrases from North America, Australia, the Caribbean, New Zealand, South Africa and South Asia. In 1984, Oxford University Press embarked on a five-year, multi-million-dollar project to create an electronic version of the dictionary. The effort required 120 people just to type the pages from the print edition and 50 proofreaders to check their work. In 1992, a CD-ROM version of the dictionary was released, making it much easier to search and retrieve information. Today, the dictionary’s second edition is available online to subscribers and is updated quarterly with over 1,000 new entries and revisions. At a whopping 20 volumes weighing over 137 pounds, it would reportedly take one person 120 years to type all 59 million words in the OED.


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