Freethought of the Day

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There are 3 entries for this date: Alexander von Humboldt , Margaret Sanger and Ivan Pavlov
Alexander von Humboldt

Alexander von Humboldt

On this date in 1769, Alexander von Humboldt, who would come to be known as one of the greatest explorers of his time, was born in Berlin. Humboldt and his older brother, Karl Wilhelm, were educated by private tutors in the classics, French, mathematics, philosophy, politics and law. Botany quickly became Humboldt's favorite subject and, even at an early age, he collected and classified insects and plants at his family's estate in Tegel, near Berlin. At 16 years of age, Humboldt attended physics lectures at a physician's home, learned of Benjamin Franklin, and ultimately installed a lightning rod on Castle Tegel, which the local orthodox clergy deemed "blasphemous." In 1792, at 22 years of age, Humboldt completed his studies in geology (a new science at that time), became an inspector of mines and, later, an advocate for the welfare of miners. Humboldt was introduced to Goethe in 1794, and the two became close friends and intellectual comrades. Goethe reportedly said that he could learn more in one hour of conversation with Humboldt than in a week of reading books. Restless and curious about the world, Humboldt resigned from the mining business, traveled around Europe (developing revolutionary theories on the geological structure of Spain), and, in 1799, embarked on an expedition of scientific discovery. He traveled for 5 years, visiting and exploring the Americas, where he became horrified by the practice of slavery. On this voyage, in addition to establishing the foundations of geography and meteorology, Humboldt met Thomas Jefferson, and was deeply impressed by his enlightened political views but could not reconcile that he nevertheless owned slaves. While in South America, Humboldt contracted malaria and was nursed back to health by cannibals. He wrote with dismay about their treatment by the Jesuits and remarked at their deep sense of humanity.

Upon his return to Europe, Humboldt published writings of his travels and scientific discoveries, which brought him fame throughout Europe. He became an active voice in politics, supporting the 1848 revolutions, universal political rights, the emancipation of the Jews, and championing the rights of poor artists and scientists that faced persecution. In 1845, at 77, Humboldt wrote Kosmos: Entwurf einer physischen Weltbeschreibung, hailed as one of the century's most extraordinary scientific works. Kosmos attempted to explain the unity of the Universe with naturalistic (rather than spiritual) laws, easily understandable to the public. It was never finished but it was an encyclopedic treasure of all that was known of the physical sciences in the mid-nineteenth century. Among Humboldt's other achievements, he was the first to raise anthropologists' awareness of the neglected Inca, Maya and Aztec civilizations; he was the first in astronomy to observe a meteor shower with scientific instruments; for the field of botany he collected over 60,000 plants and identified 3,500 new species; his maps of Central and South America were the first for geographers; and in geology, he was the first to accurately understand volcanic activity. Humboldt died at age 89 in the same year The Origin of Species was published. A state funeral was held for him with more than 600 people (including many students) in attendance. He was buried in Tegel next to his brother. D. 1859.

“One of the most encyclopedic scientists of the time, Humboldt was a Pantheist like his friend Goethe, and a contemptuous anti-clerical like his friend F. Arago . . . His letters use very strong language about the Churches to the end of his life. He calls Luther ‘that diabolical reformer.’ ”

—Joseph McCabe, A Biographical Dictionary of Modern Rationalists 1998, p. 367

Compiled by Bonnie Gutsch

© Freedom From Religion Foundation. All rights reserved.

Margaret Sanger

Margaret Sanger

On this date in 1879, Margaret Sanger (née Higgins), was born. Watching her mother die at age 48 of tuberculosis after bearing 11 children changed not only the course of Margaret's life, but world history. As a young child, Margaret was introduced to the power of the Catholic Church when the local priest locked the doors of the town hall to prevent agnostic Robert Ingersoll from speaking in Corning, N.Y. Margaret wrote in her autobiography of the spellbinding experience of hearing Ingersoll speak in the woods instead. She herself would later personally repeatedly experience being locked out of public halls, even countries, under Catholic pressure. Her experience doing obstetrical nursing of the poor in New York City as a young mother herself galvanized her conviction that women had the right to control fertility. Sanger's turning point was witnessing the death of patient Sadie Sachs from a second illegal abortion. When the 28-year-old mother had pleaded with her doctor for birth control, he had responded: "Tell Jake to sleep on the roof." Sanger researched contraception (coining the term birth control), while editing a monthly newspaper, The Woman Rebel (1914). Its purpose: to challenge the 1873 Comstock Act classifying contraception as "indecent articles" and preventing dissemination of contraceptive information. Facing 45 years in prison when indicted under the Act, Sanger fled the country, leaving behind a book, "Family Limitation." It sold 10 million copies while Sanger continued research in England and the Netherlands. When she returned to the United States, she was rearrested. Then her young daughter, Peggy, died of pneumonia in November 1915. Devastated, Sanger went on a headline-making speaking tour to challenge the charges, which were dropped in 1916. She opened the first birth control clinic that year, which was raided, and spent the next two decades educating physicians about birth control and overseeing the creation of birth control clinics around America. In 1934, she brought the lawsuit that finally overturned much of the repressive Comstock Act. Over her lifetime, she was jailed eight times, brought diaphragms to the United States and distributed them, helped develop contraceptive jelly, founded Planned Parenthood, and commissioned the creation of the birth control pill. Doing more to free women than any other individual, she was hailed as the "heroine" of history by H.G. Wells and named "Woman of the Century" by a U.S. magazine the year of her death. D. 1966.

“No Gods—No Masters”

—Motto of Margaret Sanger's newspaper, The Woman Rebel. For more about Sanger and her views on religion, see ks&ID=FB8

Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

© Freedom From Religion Foundation. All rights reserved.

Ivan Pavlov

Ivan Pavlov

On this date in 1849, Ivan Petrovich Pavlov was born in Ryazan, Russia. He enrolled in Ryazan Ecclesiastical Seminary in the 1860s. In 1870, he dropped out in order to study natural sciences at the University of St. Petersburg. He graduated in 1875, and went on to attend the Academy of Medical Surgery. Pavlov became a professor of pharmacology at the Military Medical Academy in 1890 and director of the department of physiology at the Institute of Experimental Medicine in 1891, where he studied the physiology of the digestive system, often using dogs as research subjects. He wrote books about his research, including Work of the Digestive Glands (1897), Psychopathology and Psychiatry (1962) and Conditioned Reflexes (1960). In 1904, he earned the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for his work with digestive organs. Pavlov married his wife, Serafima, in 1881.

Despite Pavlov’s influential research on the digestive system, he is most famous for his discovery of classical conditioning: teaching an animal to associate a reflex with an unrelated stimulus. Pavlov made the discovery while researching the salivary glands of dogs, after he noticed that dogs salivated when they anticipated food in addition to when they began eating. This led Pavlov to condition the dogs to begin salivating when they saw or heard a variety of stimuli – most famously, bells. He accomplished this by ringing a bell every time he fed the dogs, making them associate bells with food.

Pavlov described himself as an atheist who lost his faith when he was a seminary student. “In regard to my religiosity, my belief in God, my church attendance, there is no truth in it; it is sheer fantasy,” Pavlov told his student Evgenii Mikhailovich Kreps in the 1920s, according to the article “Pavlov’s Religious Orientation” by George Windholz (published in Vol. 25 of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 1986). He continued: “I was a seminarian, and like the majority of seminarians, I became an unbeliever, an atheist in my school years.” Windholz also quoted Pavlov as saying, “There are weak people over whom religion has power. The strong ones – yes, the strong ones – can become thorough rationalists, relying only upon knowledge, but the weak ones are unable to do this.” D. 1936

“Humans saved themselves by creating religion, which enabled them to maintain themselves somehow, to survive in the midst of an uncompromising, all-powerful nature. It is a very basic instinct that is thoroughly rooted in human nature.”

—Ivan Pavlov, quoted in “Pavlov’s Religious Orientation” by George Windholz (published in Vol. 25 of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 1986).

Compiled by Sabrina Gaylor

© Freedom From Religion Foundation. All rights reserved.

Freethought of the Day

Would you like to start your day on a freethought note? "Freethought of the Day" is a daily freethought calendar brought to you courtesy of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, highlighting birthdates, quotes, and other historic tidbits.

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