Thanks and Love to the Men who have Broken my Heart

Thanksgiving seems like a good day to post this meditation on love, heartbreak, and gratitude. This was written originally about ten years ago and was just now updated.


From the time of my first sexual and emotional stirrings, I have had a penchant for impossible loves. Not that they never became real romances; most of them did at some time or another, and in some form or another. Indeed, both my husbands were, in their own ways, impossible loves.

In every case, though, there were protracted periods of time during which either my love was not reciprocated, or the relationship was emotionally difficult and painful. I won’t say that my heart was broken more often than I broke others’ hearts. Indeed, I once did a tally of how many men had broken my heart and how many hearts I had broken, and they came out about even. So really, I have been neither victim nor vamp. Nonetheless, from the perspective of a woman approaching her eighties and looking back on a rich and productive life, I would say that many of the best things I have done, and many of the finest experiences I have had, happened because I allowed myself the luxury of impossible love.

The first was a high school crush that felt like love. It was in the throes of this love that I began a journal (then termed a diary) to try to write out my excitement and confusion and to impart some reality to otherwise ethereal feelings. Thus began a record, albeit intermittent, of the hopes, loves, adventures and disappointments of my life that spans more than half a century. This was a gift to me and maybe even to my progeny. Also, because I was then “in love” (however impossibly), I was not susceptible to the charms and persuasions of any ardent others. Thus, upon emerging from the difficult chrysalis of female adolescence, I still had no sexual regrets, and I could go on to college full of hope and expectation.

The second, the “love of my life,” was the impossible love of my college years. Oh, we dated steadily during our freshman year, but he broke it off when we came back as sophomores. Apparently, a hometown girlfriend had snared him over the summer, probably one who put out more than I did. My mother, who had her own experience of the female life-trap, had seriously warned me about the possibility of unintended pregnancy when I had my first period. (“If you screw around, Dear, you’ll probably get pregnant.”) No doubt this kept me chaste more than any religious admonitions could have done. So, because I didn’t have a steady boyfriend, I was free to take full advantage of a Junior Year in France, and that changed my life both inside and out.

Because of that year, I learned another language, I came to appreciate European history, and I experienced one of the most wonderful years of my life—wandering around Paris each afternoon after classes, skiing in the Austrian Alps during Christmas holidays, taking part in a pilgrimage to Italy with French students during the Easter holidays, and spending the summer in a work camp in Germany. That year whetted an appetite for languages and for cultural diversity that has informed the rest of my life.

Yes, after my return as something of a local international celebrity, my impossible love and I began dating again, and we eventually became engaged. When I began talking seriously about going to graduate school, his ardor cooled once more. He didn’t want to be married to an academic woman.

After he broke my heart again, I went on to graduate school and met and married another man. After a couple years of marriage, he became impossible love number three, if only because he, too, eventually wanted to keep me at home and out of academics. Still, we had a daughter, who was one of the best things that has happened in my life. She is still a source of great joy and pride, and she has produced two grandsons who are, in their turn, a source of pleasure and fun.

Liberation from a marriage that had turned sour came in the form of impossible love number four, who encouraged me to return to graduate school, despite my husband’s wishes. After my husband and I separated, I eventually had an affair with this impossible love; it lasted two or three rocky years, perhaps burdened by the guilt—his more than mine— of the marriage breakup. His area was English, in contrast to science, my main focus at the time. Through him and with him, a passion for literature and creative writing took hold of my being and remains with me still.

Graduate school in the late ’60s was a time of liberation on many fronts, so there were other loves, but only one other impossible love, and I broke his heart as much as he broke mine. He was someone so different, culturally and educationally, and yet I loved him so much, that I abandoned all preconceptions about what was important in love and in the person I loved. He became my poetic muse and social conscience, and he still often whispers in my ear. For that I am eternally grateful.

Another impossible love (are we on number six already?!) rescued me from the despair of a dreary two years of post-doctoral research in Philadelphia. But he created his own sort of despair with a type of moodiness that I never could penetrate.

Then I met my second husband in Charleston, SC, and he was the reason I stayed here, despite an intention to leave the city after two years. This has been a wonderful place to spend more than half my life, and I owe that to my husband and to the fact that we developed a settled life here, at least for a time. He eventually became impossible love number seven, but he gave me the gift of a decade of reasonably stable and happy family life, as well as two daughters, both of whom were a great pleasure as children and are mostly a reward as adults. And each of them has had children of her own. So I now have six wonderful grandchildren. My husband provided emotional support during my early career, but after the children came, and as my career consumed more and more time, he began to feel neglected, and he sought solace elsewhere. Nonetheless, he was and is a good man, and I am grateful to him for all that he has contributed to my life and to the lives of our children and grandchildren.

Since then, there have been a couple more impossible loves, neither of which blossomed into romance. But each stirred sensitivity to the world around me, as only love can do. Although I haven’t been in love for more than two decades now, the residuum of the loves I’ve experienced, their memories and their magic, vivify my life and spirit, and make me grateful that I have loved often, if sometimes painfully.

Moreover, the experiences and memories of those loves have fueled much of the writing I’ve done throughout my life, beginning with that initial diary, and continuing with poetry and then fiction. Nonfiction writing has been inspired largely by travel and by other cultural dissonances of a long and complicated life. My scientific writing reflects a fascination with objective reality that exceeds even the joys of imagination. This interest was fueled largely by my father, a brilliant and difficult man, whom I have only truly come to appreciate—even to love—since his death.

I sincerely thank the men I’ve loved who have broken my heart—and also those who haven’t.


Humans are hardwired to survive heartbreak


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On Being a Woman: Female Scientist

From the time I was quite young – perhaps ten years of age– I have been enthralled by the way the world works, and I wanted to be a scientist, initially an astronomer. Sometime later – perhaps around age thirteen – I also wanted to become a writer. I struggled with this dual avocation until time to enter college, at which point it became fairly clear that scientists were likely to earn a better income than writers. Since I loved science anyway, I could do that without compromising any inner principles or desires by choosing science over English. Moreover, it seemed that writing could be an avocation, something I might dabble in while working as a scientist.

I did well in science courses in college and received an NIH fellowship to study anatomy at the University of Michigan, where I obtained the M.S. Then the family moved to Syracuse, NY, where my husband had received a stipend to study economics. Eventually, I returned to graduate work in anatomy at S.U.N.Y. Upstate Medical Center and earned the Ph.D. in 1969. I was the only female graduate student in the two departments where I did graduate work. Still, I did well and was respected by peers and most of my professors.

As I was looking for a job during the last year of graduate school, things seemed to become complicated. I only had a couple of interviews, and those were at less prestigious institutions than male cohorts who had not done as well as I had academically, despite the fact that my work was in electron microscopy, the cutting edge of anatomy in the 1960s. One chairman I was introduced to asked bluntly, “What do you think the future of a woman in anatomy would be?” When I replied, “It should be the same as the future of a man,” he snorted and turned away.

I decided to do a post-doctoral fellowship with a research pathologist at Temple University in Philadelphia, investigating the biochemistry of cell replication. So I postponed taking an academic job, hoping that the additional expertise would enhance my value to a future medical school employer.

This training did help me land a job in research pathology, working with Dr. S.S. Spicer, a world renowned histochemist, who had just relocated from NIH to Charleston, SC. The five years in Sam Spicer’s lab were collegial and wonderfully productive. It eventually became clear, however, that unless I found a job in an anatomy department, I would remain a research assistant with little autonomy, regardless of academic title.

By an odd conjunction of circumstances, a job came open in the anatomy department at the medical university, and I was hired by Dr. W. Curtis Worthington, who just yesterday celebrated his 90th birthday. The following is a note of gratitude I wrote to him and inserted into his card.

To W. Curtis Worthington, Jr. on his 90th Birthday

The first few years I lived and worked in Charleston were lucky ones for several reasons. Two of those reasons were the very fine bosses I worked with during that time—Drs. Sam Spicer and Curtis Worthington—men whose character included kindness, integrity, and a love of learning.

I am indeed grateful to Curtis Worthington for hiring me as an Assistant Professor of Anatomy at the Medical University of South Carolina, and for promoting me to Associate Professor the following year. Although Curtis left the helm of the department not long afterwards for duties in upper-level administration, he continued to be involved in departmental functions, including some teaching, as well as its famous Christmas party.

Not too long after I joined the department, Curtis and I created an inter-disciplinary graduate course on the History and Philosophy of Science, sparked by a conversation we had at a meeting of the American Association of Anatomy. The course ran for several years, enjoyed by students and lecturers alike,  both inside and outside the university. This course was an example of a shared impulse: If you see a problem, you should try to fix it. In his manners and his willingness to serve others, Dr. Worthington embodies the best traits of a southern gentleman.

I owe a great deal of my success in research as a histochemist to Sam Spicer, and I credit much of my academic career as professor of anatomy and cell biology to Curtis Worthington. Both of these men were ahead of their time in valuing the contributions of women in the sciences. I will always be grateful to them.


“Woman teaching geometry”

Illustration at the beginning of a medieval translation of Euclid’s Elements (c. 1310 AD)


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Figuring Out Who You Are


Great way to reopen my blogging on this site, by sharing this blog by Fran Moreland Johns, a writer most interested in names and what they signify.

Originally posted on Fran Moreland Johns:

Hand with book“Please don’t call me Doctor Jones,” said an extremely distinguished PhD speaker I met recently; “I’m just a teacher named Joe. I’ve been Joe all my life.” His name is changed to protect the innocent.

Having one name all your life is almost as interesting to some of us… of a certain age… as meeting a prominent multiple-degree lecturer who calls himself “just a teacher.”

Not someone of many degrees, I am nevertheless someone of many names. Maiden name, married name, resumption of maiden name after divorce, brief and ill-fated second marriage (yep, changed my name again,) eventual marriage to my Final Husband, whose name I took on moving across the U.S. nearly a quarter of a century ago. Because I’ve been writing since college (Fran Moreland) I often joke – though this is not a source of pride, only comic relief – that my literary resume reads like an…

View original 207 more words

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Birth Control: Key to Averting Environmental Disaster

This is the last of a three-part series on contraception and women’s health, social well being, and the environment.

The most serious threat to life on Earth is the human population, which has recently surpassed seven billion. SEVEN BILLION. 7,000,000,000. That’s a number the human mind cannot even wrap itself around, although we are physically able to write the digits for it. When I was born, the population was about two billion. It surpassed three billion the year after I graduated from college. And it has been rising steadily since.


When most forecasters of doom and gloom look at potential global disasters, they tend to focus on resource depletion and global warming, or on global war and nuclear disaster. But none of these prospective disasters would be nearly as likely if the world’s human population had stabilized at around one billion. Why was the population at or below a billion for so long? Because the birth rate did not exceed the death rate by much, even after the agricultural revolution some ten thousand years ago.

The major causes of death prior to the nineteenth century were disease, malnutrition and childbirth. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, these threats to human life were tackled and largely conquered, with the consequence that the human population has since exploded, straining the very resources that sustain us. Malthus, who lived at the turn of the nineteenth century, foresaw this population crisis, which he predicted would bring about global human collapse, called the Malthusian catastrophe. His predictions were eerily similar to the four horsemen of the apocalypse:

  • conquest (also translated as defeat, destruction, or pestilence),
  • war,
  • famine, and
  • death.


Several human inventions and interventions of the past century have staved off this apocalypse—increased agricultural yield with modern farming and fertilizers; the growth of cities that absorb population vertically rather than horizontally, and medical interventions that limit disease in such highly crowded populations. It seems obvious, however, that the best solution to a Malthusian catastrophe would be to reduce the population—birth control freely available to every woman (and man) on Earth.

Four items listed prominently in a Wikipedia article on potential Global Catastrophe are:

  • warfare and mass destruction,
  • global warming,
  • ecological disaster, and
  • world population and agricultural crisis.

All of these potential catastrophes threaten the biosphere because of excess human population–more humans in a given area than its resources can sustain. Humans may have wiped out as much as a quarter of the species of land mammals by hunting and environmental destruction. More recently, the human plague has taken the form of pesticides, atmospheric toxins, and pollutants that are poisoning insects (and their bird predators), elevating the global temperature, and displacing species from their natural habitat. Collectively this Earth-altering, human activity has defined what some scientists term the Anthropocene epoch.

It is no surprise that a prevalent contemporary literary genre is the dystopian novel (e.g., Cloud Atlas) and that movies on the theme of environmental collapse are common current fare in cinemas (e.g., Interstellar). Moreover, a common exercise of many contemporary futurists is to estimate the year when the earth will no longer be habitable and the human population will collapse.[1] These writers and artists are the prophets of our time, and they are shouting, “Repent!” But, like prophets of old, they are also largely ignored, and the problems they call out are rationalized by those in power.

So now, the population of this planet is nearly four times what it was when I was born. At that time, we were in the middle of the Great Depression, when everything was scarce and the poor were suffering, as they always do. We were considered poor by our neighbors—we had no running water in the house and had heat only from a wood-burning kitchen stove during those fierce Michigan winters. And my mother had more babies than they could afford or at least than my father wanted; birth control—such as it was—was unreliable at best.

One family in the neighborhood seemed to have enough of everything, and more. The boy had lots of toys and they ate well, and the family even threw food away. I remember wondering as a child if there were enough food in the world for me, and if I should even be alive. I had a little chant for those times when I felt deprived. “There must be enough in this world for me. Look at all that others waste.”

Jesus declared that “The poor ye will always have with you,” and those with means should “Give alms to the poor,” Jesus, as far as we know, had no children of his own. In this spirit, the best gift one could give to the poor, and especially to poor women, would be the means of reliable contraception. Childbirth has always been a major cause of death in impoverished women.  Having too many children perpetuates the cycle of poverty and adds to the human destruction of our sustaining mother, Earth.

So, overpopulation could be considered equivalent to matricide. Pope Francis,[2] are you listening? Change that old, ill-advised doctrine of the Catholic Church. Too many children–this is the TRUE plight of the poor, and of the earth itself. Let us save our mothers by offering:


(And to all a good night. And a wonderful holiday)

[1] When I was young, futurists were looking at bright, shiny, exciting futures because they had no idea that resources could become so quickly limited, nor that this shiny future would exact such an environmental cost.

[2] You are my favorite pope. Take this one last step to sainthood and eliminate the church’s doctrine against contraception.

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Thursday Night Dear Colleague Letter

Thursday Night Dear Colleague Letter.

I’m interrupting the series on the value of contraception for women, society, and the environment, to reblog this. The link is to a blog post by a woman scientist, and it offers insight into what women in the sciences must endure regularly. As she says elsewhere, it’s a wonder there are any women in the sciences. I am glad to have taken early retirement and to have had a marvelous second life traveling and writing. If I sometimes seem jaded, the above link should help explain why.

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Contraception and Human Social Well-Being


Not only is contraception good for women’s health, it is good for the health of a society, for the well-being of all its citizens.

Humans are social animals and smooth social functioning requires social structures and behavioral specialization, particularly involving group protection and child rearing. In Paleolithic tribal units, comprising between 30 and 150 individuals, interactions within the group were largely motivated by instinctual impulses and behaviors.

The functions of control and caring, essential to group cohesion, tend to be instinctively assumed by males and females, respectively. The steroid, testosterone, and the neuropeptide, arginine-vasopressin (AVP), usually in higher levels in males, promote aggression and the urge to control. By contrast, the steroid, estrogen, and the neuropeptide, oxytocin (OXY), normally higher in females, promote attachment and care-giving behavior.

Prior to the ready availability of contraceptive methods, the life-long preoccupation of women with childbirth and child-rearing robbed society of the wider civilizing force of female caring. Moreover, prior to the 19th century, with little opportunity for education, women had hardly any chance to contribute to the wider social good through political activity.*

In the 19th century, a few educated women instigated a great many of the unprecedented social reforms that took place at the time. Thus, educated women, often eschewing marriage and freed from the bonds of child-bearing and child-rearing, contributed enormously to social welfare in both America and Europe. We who are alive today can hardly imagine the conditions of life endured by those who lived only two centuries ago.

For example, Clara Barton and Florence Nightingale introduced the modern-day principles of nursing care as a consequence of witnessing the horrors of medicine during warfare. Barton was a field nurse in the American Civil War, and she afterwards established the American Red Cross, one of our most respected social-welfare organizations. Nightingale, a brilliant English woman and a skilled mathematician, cared for soldiers during the disastrous Crimean War, transforming the practice of battlefield care. She also developed mathematical models of epidemiology that improved mortality statistics in battlefield hospitals. She is viewed as the mother of modern nursing, but is less well known for her intellectual accomplishments.

Women were also essential participants in the abolitionist movement, inspired and supported by Harriett Beecher Stowe, Susan B. Anthony, Harriett Tubman, and Lucretia Mott, one of the founders of co-educational Swarthmore College, as well as by two Grimke sisters from Charleston, Sarah and Angelina, who worked with northern abolitionists.

Social reforms of the 19th century, which were promoted primarily by women, but which did not come to fruition until the 20th century, included equal rights for women themselves, such as women’s suffrage, as well as the right to limit pregnancy by means of contraception. A great number of women were involved in these causes—too many to name or number—but some of the most notable included Elizabeth Cady Stanton, one of the earliest suffragists, who wrote the Declaration of Sentiments (modeled on the Declaration of Independence); Sara Josephine Baker, a child-welfare advocate who is said to have saved the lives of 90.000 children in New York; and Margaret Sanger, who actively advocated for birth control and founded the organization that became Planned Parenthood.

Many of these women were both educated and celibate. Others intentionally limited the number of their children as best they could. It could be argued that the education of women in the nineteenth century catalyzed the wide-spread social reforms of the past two centuries.

posted by Planned Parenthood

Here are some interesting facts:

  • The first birth-control clinic in the U.S. was opened in 1916 by Margaret Sanger, who was almost immediately arrested and went to trial. She was convicted of running “a public nuisance” and the trial judge ruled that “women did not have the right to copulate with a feeling of security that there will be no resulting conception.”
  • It required a Supreme Court ruling in 1965 (Griswold vs. Connecticut) to overturn state laws prohibiting the use of contraceptives by married people.
  • Roe vs. Wade, the Supreme Court ruling overturning state laws prohibiting abortion during the first trimester, occurred in 1973, a mere four decades ago.
  • U.S. law does not allow birth-control information to be included in government-sponsored or government-funded aid to overpopulated, starving, and disease-ridden foreign countries.

Women, their concerns, and their value structures, are largely left out of political decision-making, even today.

Still, the virtues of caring and cooperation are at the very core of any civilized culture. Indeed, recent evidence suggests that civilization may have become possible, at least in part, because of decreased human male testosterone levels.** Anthropological evidence indicates that this occurred in humans following the Neolithic revolution, as agriculture came to contribute increasingly to human nutrition. The resulting decrease in male competition allowed the rise of large aggregates of cooperating people–a phenomenon we call civilization.

Because women tend to be more naturally empathetic than men and less prone to violence, their influence serves as a civilizing force on those cultures in which they are allowed power. We currently need more women in decision-making positions.

The very survival of civilization depends on it.


*A few notable exceptions were female monarchs, who ruled during the Age of Enlightenment. I plan to address the extraordinary influence of these women on European and world culture in another blog.

**The evolutionary selection pressures favoring increased socialization and decreased testosterone would make interesting speculation.

The final post in the series is on contraception and environmental preservation.

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Contraception and Women’s Health

The debate over contraception and abortion has raged around moral issues such as whether or not destruction of a conceptus (a fertilized ovum) is equivalent to destruction of a human life, and whether or not the use of contraception promotes promiscuity in women. I have yet to see the issue of promiscuity in men addressed except as it relates to rape; I have never seen it referenced in any contraception discussion I have read, heard, or watched.

Several issues of major human concern, which I have never seen addressed by those who are anti-choice or against birth control, and which are seldom considered even by pro-choice advocates, include:

  1. women’s physical well-being,
  2. human social well-being, and
  3. environmental well-being (quality of life on this planet).

In the next three blogs, I will address these three issues, which are effectively at the ethical core of the debate over contraception and abortion. These are larger issues about long-term human survival, unlike the false debate about whether a cell (or a cluster of cells) with 46 chromosomes is a human being.

First of all, it’s important to acknowledge up front that the reproductive system, unlike all other bodily systems, is NOT designed for the preservation of the individual. All other systems of the body—for example, gastrointestinal, endocrine, and urinary systems—contribute to the maintenance and well-being of the person in whom they are found.

The function of the reproductive system, by contrast, is procreation and preservation of the species. It does not contribute to homeostasis; indeed, it frequently throws off the metabolic balance of the individual. A pregnant woman may develop gestational diabetes, for example—or osteoporosis, or circulatory problems, or pelvic floor damage, or lower back problems. So whatever else a pregnancy does, it takes a serious toll on the body of the woman carrying it, which can lead to long-term health problems.

Indeed, under circumstances “in the wild,” where no medical care is available, the likelihood of a woman dying in child-birth over her lifetime is about one for every seven to ten women. This dismal maternal death rate persists in many parts of Africa.

Comparable maternal mortality was also the case in the U.S. in the 1700s and early 1800s. Oddly, in the late 1800s, childbirth death rates actually increased substantially, largely because physicians replaced midwives as childbirth assistants. “Doctors” were often ill trained, were inclined to use instruments, and did not use aseptic technique. So the incidence of puerperal (childbirth) fever rose alarmingly, in some places as high of 40% of all deliveries.


Figure: Annual death rate per 1000 total births from maternal mortality in England and Wales (1850-1970)

J R Soc Med. Nov 2006; 99(11): 559–563.

These figures fit well with information from my own family history. My great-grandfather, an immigrant from Cornwall to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in the late nineteenth century, had a total of twenty one children, with three (sequential) wives, two of whom died in childbirth. And only seven of the children survived to adulthood, one of which was my grandfather.

So it certainly was dangerous to be a woman prior to the mid-twentieth century. And the past high mortality among women may account for much of our culture’s patriarchy; it has always been debilitating and/or limiting to carry, bear, and care for children.

Along with improved medical care, the availability of birth control has enhanced the health and productivity of women in this and all other modern nations. Those who wish to limit women’s access to birth control apparently do not care about women’s health. To try to turn back the clock on the past century’s improvement in the well-being of women is cruel, unthinking, and barbaric.

The next in this series in on contraception and social well-being.

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