Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts

A fish tale: The one that didn’t get away from Professor Dyer

Professor of Biology Betsey Dyer says she won’t eat “presweetened cold cereals, especially of the sort that cause the milk to turn colors.” However, just about everything else (including termites) is on the menu for this adventuresome foodie and scientist who savors experimentation. Her stinky summer snack at the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery in England last summer is just one example.

When I wrote The Field Guide to Bacteria, I strived to acquire firsthand experience with everything I described. I went to Yellowstone for hot spring bacteria, Cape Cod for sulfur bacteria, termite hindguts for spirochetes, and on many more field trips and investigations. Some things were impossible at the time,  such as a deep-sea dive in the Alvin submersible or a trip to the South Pole. However, for the chapters on fermented foods and drinks it seemed like a reasonable project to sample all that I wrote about. And mostly I did, including munsters, lambics, kvass and sour porridge.

A major exception was “surströmming.” I have always felt a bit guilty about the secondhand information that I included about this extraordinary fish delicacy. Surströmming, a specialty of northern Sweden, is one of the many fermented fishes that may be found in cuisines across Asia and northern Europe. The name means “sour herring.” However,  this is no ordinary pickled herring, of which many varieties abound. Surströmming falls into such an extreme of fermentation that putrefied is a more appropriate word.

According to my description in The Field Guide to Bacteria (Cornell University Press, 2003), surströmming is an “extreme example of food enhanced by halophilic bacteria” and the flavor is “so extraordinary” that very little is exported, and only to certain Swedish expatriates. I wrote that a can of surströmming “bulges disconcertingly” because it is packed while still fermenting and producing odiferous gasses.

In July 2010, I was at the Oxford Symposium on Food, the topic of which was “Fermentation.” Renee Valeri (from southern Sweden) presented a paper on surströmming titled “A Preserve Gone Bad Or Just Another Beloved Delicacy?” Like many of the presenters, she promised a tasting at the end of her talk. Upon that announcement,  a frisson went through the audience of 200 or so food enthusiasts (or “foodies”) who had traveled to the symposium from 26 different countries and who presumably were intrepid tasters of pretty much anything declared to be edible. In my immediate section, a whispered conference revealed that very few would be taking up Renee on her offer. Meanwhile, I was feeling a sort of dread at the opportunity at last to sample something I had written about. I knew enough about myself to know that I would be obliged to add that missing item in my repertoire of fermented cuisines.

But first was Renee’s talk, in which she revealed (and depicted) freshly caught (but soon rotten) herring during the year-and-a-half-long process of being putrefied to liquid and slime. Finally, just a hazy fish-like outline remains, composed almost entirely of bacteria and their wastes.

Herring is a staple in traditional Swedish cuisine and often the only protein by which Swedes of old times survived the winter. An abundant summertime catch of herring would be cause for celebration, but then how to preserve it for the long dark months ahead? Why not dry and salt it as many Scandinavians do? Apparently the climate of northern Sweden precludes efficient fish drying as well as sufficient salt production by evaporation. Only a tiny bit of salt could be added to the herring, and this served only to encourage specialized salt-loving “halophilic” bacteria to establish themselves in a roiling culture.


A can of surströmming

Wintertime hunger and most likely near starvation must have been the impetus for the rapid transition of attitudes of the northern Swedes. First, and very briefly, might have come disgust. But that would be quickly followed by gratitude for anything to eat at all in a snowbound and remote village. Finally (and probably soon after, given the human penchant for rationalization), came a sort of connoisseurship of the many nuanced variations of herring putrefication. Indeed, in some modern northern Swedish communities, late August still begins the surströmming celebrations. The European Union periodically tries to regulate and restrict this fermentation. Currently, it is legal to have cans of it, but people are no longer allowed to produce surströmming in wooden casks or by burying it (composting it, actually) in the ground.

Renee, by way of encouraging us to taste, reminded us that powerful off-putting odors (such as those of wonderful surface washed cheeses) often are accompanied by rich, delicious flavors. But she also provided many examples from the surströmming literature on the notorious nature of the putrid smell.

Renee’s talk ended; we could delay the tasting no longer. I began to justify in my mind not eating any. We were about to go to a Szechuan lunch, which was predicted to be exquisite, and I did not wish to destroy my palate. But then the tasting was postponed to tea time (4 p.m.), so I had the rest of the afternoon to think about it, during which time I (and others) wavered.

The can of surströmming, which bulged in a manner that should have made it illegal, was opened outdoors far from the building. Of the 200 symposium participants (all presumably great fans of fermentation), only about 25 got within wind of the table and of these only about a dozen gathered in close, snapping photos like paparazzi. However,  few of those were actually planning to taste and gradually most backed away.

How to describe the smell? It was permeating and pervasive and so overloaded (or confused) the olfactory neurons that mine periodically (and deceptively) ceased to smell anything (as though acclimated). Then, a few seconds later, a jolt of the full stench would be fully noted by the olfactory center of my brain, engendering a primitive flight response, which I resisted. It smelled like the enclosed head of a small fishing vessel in which passengers had been seasick all night long as well as suffering from diverse intestinal ailments, and in which the flushing mechanism had finally broken. But that isn’t all: in that same unfortunate fishing vessel, a lower hatch recently had been pried open, revealing a horrific sight (and odor), a pile of forgotten herring that had been festering warmly for the last few months in a slippery pool of genuine bilge water.

I stood several feet from the table, building my courage. It did not help that the woman I was with, an expert on ancient Roman fish fermentations that essentially liquefy fish into a sauce called Garum, was not planning to taste surströmming. I said, “Really? Not even out of scholarly duty?” She was quite sure not!

The crowd had cleared so that I had a view of the bacterial fish remains set out invitingly on plates accompanied by Scandinavian flatbreads. The “pieces” of fish ranged from a sort of liquidy puddle to a clot of slime to something that had a bit of structure, albeit slumped. That latter gave me resolve, along with the fact that the samples were small (so as to provide enough for all).

I placed my surströmming on a fragment of flatbread and, well, I ate it. It was like a very complex cheese (that is, well-rotted milk) with a cascade of front flavors, middle flavors and then several layers of lingering surprises. It was intensely fishy along with being almost canonically cheesy: a fish-cheese. It reminded me of an excessively creative effort in marrying essential flavors by an ambitious young chef of a new fusion cuisine.

As for texture, the tiny bones had mostly decomposed, but a few remained for unexpected resistance. It was tolerable. It was not exactly “good,” but I could imagine myself in a situation (such as August in northern Sweden at a party, at which vodka was being served) of having more than one “piece.”

And, actually, Renee was right; if it were not for the smell, it would be just a notable morsel of very mature pickled herring. When others heard of my feat, they mentioned that I reeked of surströmming. And we were now back in the close, unventilated confines of the lecture hall. One person asked me if I was concerned that it could have gone bad and would there be any way of telling. The heartening news is that it is impossible for the bacterial culture that surströmming is to go bad. It is already there  (having arrived many months ago) and there isn’t any room for further badness. Q

Professor Betsey Dyer’s research interests include symbiosis; termite symbionts; evolution of cells; field microbiology; and genomics. She is part of Wheaton’s Genomics Research Group, which is working on regulatory sequences of the genomes of eukaryotes.

Illustration by David Laferriere

Gaining perspective: Psychology professor takes a closer look at Palestine

Professor of Psychology Gail Sahar went to the Middle East last summer as one of 10 U.S. academics selected for a special program organized by the Palestinian American Research Center and sponsored by the U.S. State Department. Here, she writes about her personal observations and reflects on how the trip connects to her own scholarship.

As the small, dilapidated van careened around the mountainous dirt road, I began to wonder if I had gotten in the wrong cab. Certainly the journey from Ramallah to Bethlehem, two major Palestinian towns, could not be this difficult. I was one of four people crammed into the bench seat of a “shared cab.” It was hot, and the open window seemed to be inviting more dust than cool air into the vehicle.

To my left sat two young Palestinian women, wearing head scarves and Western clothes, and to my right sat a young Palestinian man in stylish jeans and a T-shirt. The young women had gestured for me to sit between them and the young man, presumably concluding that I would be more comfortable sitting in such close contact with him than they would. I had the impression it was unusual to encounter a Western woman such as myself in one of these vehicles and I imagined they were wondering what I was doing there. At that moment, I was wondering the same thing.

The wall erected by Israel and now covered in graffiti in many places.

The wall erected by Israel and now covered in graffiti in many places.

On this particular day, my third to the last in the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt), I was taking public transportation on my own for the first time. Having spent the previous 10 days touring the region with a group of nine other American academics, I was accustomed to letting someone else take charge of making sure our comfortable minibus arrived safely at each destination. Not that traveling that way was always easy, but it felt luxurious compared to this.

I was participating in the first Faculty Development Seminar on Palestine, sponsored by the Palestinian American Research Center and funded by the Educational and Cultural Affairs Bureau of the U.S. Department of State. The seminar was intended to increase our understanding of the region and facilitate connections between American and Palestinian academics. We were based in Jerusalem, but traveled to a different West Bank town each day, visiting universities, touring cultural sites and meeting with fellow academics.

Some months earlier, when a colleague forwarded the call for applications for this seminar, I immediately knew I had to apply. As a political and social psychologist, I had read a great deal about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Much scholarly work on the topic of international conflict cites it as an example—it is the ultimate intractable conflict. But while many American academics have connections with Israeli scholars, there are few with Palestinian scholars. Fewer Americans still have visited the oPt in person to gain firsthand experience with what life is like for Palestinians living under occupation. This aspect of the conflict, the psychological experience of Palestinian day-to-day life, is a relatively neglected piece, one that seems crucial to understand. To many in the West, the Palestinians are associated with terrorism, religious fanaticism and hatred of Israel. But as a psychologist, I found that characterization too simplistic, and I was anxious to gain a more sophisticated understanding of Palestinian life and culture.

It is intimidating to write about Palestine. Seemingly simple decisions such as what to call the land or which map one uses to represent it quickly become complex and politicized. Unfortunately, the emotionally charged nature of the conflict sometimes gets in the way of having a rational discussion. My goal here is not to describe the history of the conflict, nor is it to make a judgment about how to resolve it. There are many books and articles that do those things. What I instead hope to do is simply to report what I observed on this extraordinary trip. While I am well aware that a visit to Israel would reveal a different picture of the effects of the conflict, the goal of this seminar was to learn about life on the other side of the wall, a side that most Americans do not see.

On the road to Bethlehem

This photo, taken in th 1930s, shows Gail Sahar'€™s father, with his brother and sister, by his house with the steeple behind them

This photo, taken in th 1930s, shows Gail Sahar's father, with his brother and sister, by his house with the steeple behind them

Finally, the cab arrived at its destination in downtown Bethlehem. Upon the advice of someone in the station, I hailed another cab in search of my father’s house. This journey was personal as well as professional. Although I was born and raised in the United States, my father was born in Bethlehem in 1920 to a Christian Palestinian family. After beginning his college education there, he headed to Milwaukee, Wis., to continue his studies and take advantage of a job opportunity. I had heard the dramatic story many times in my life of my dad at age 25 hopping onto a military plane headed for the United States, only to have it crash upon takeoff. Remarkably, he survived, and despite the pleas of his relatives to take heed of this ominous sign from God and abort the trip, he got onto the next flight and made the long journey. The rest of the tale is like many American success stories. He moved up the ladder professionally, married an American woman, had six children, and ended up as owner of a hotel in the Pacific Northwest, where I grew up. But of course, the story is complicated by his and our identity as Palestinian-Americans. He came from a country that doesn’t really exist as an independent state, and though he arrived in the United States by choice, nearly all of his relatives fled or were expelled from the region at various points. Like most Christian and many Muslim Palestinians, they are part of the Diaspora.

The same steeple as photographed during Sahar’s visit in 2010

The same steeple as photographed during Sahar’s visit in 2010

For me, going to see my father’s family home was a dream come true. All of my life, I had wanted to go to see the place I had heard so much about and to which I felt a strange attachment. I had seen a picture of the house and many more of the large Salesian church that was right next door. I was surprised to discover that despite my clear images of the place, it was not easy to find.

The second cab dropped me off in the center of Bethlehem’s bustling shopping area. After a number of failed attempts at communication, I was directed to a pharmacist who spoke excellent English and knew the area very well. He pointed me in the right direction, and I managed to find  first the church, with its tall steeple, and then the house. I had a feeling of déjà vu, no doubt from having viewed so many pictures of my dad as a boy and then a young man posing in front of these buildings.

Considering its age and what has happened around it, the house was in remarkably good shape, though sadly cluttered with litter like all of the West Bank. The plaque in Arabic on the side was still clear, and I could see the enclosed courtyard where horses and carriages had once pulled up. I refrained from knocking on the door and asking to see the inside. It was getting dark, and I still had to find my way, alone, back to Jerusalem, a short trip by American standards, but one that required passing through Israeli checkpoints. That fact made the duration of the journey completely unpredictable.

Though this day was exceptional because of the personal aspect of it, most of my days in Palestine were similarly poignant. It is a region filled with hope and despair. Everywhere we went, we encountered resilient, inspiring people, but we were also constantly aware of the impact of the occupation on even the most successful of those individuals. Most of the academics I met seemed like my colleagues here.  We shared the typical complaints of college faculty: too many courses to teach, difficulties in getting students to think critically, not enough time for research, struggles to have a balanced life. But despite those similarities, there were stark differences, problems that no American professor would encounter.

The campus of Bethlehem University

The campus of Bethlehem University

One of our first stops was at Bethlehem University, an idyllic campus run by the De La Salle Christian Brothers, where we were given a brief tour by the vice president of academic affairs, an American. We learned that the college had been closed 12 times by the Israeli military, once for a period of three years. He pointed out a large hole made by an Israeli missile fired into one of the main buildings. It was covered in Plexiglas to preserve the memory of the siege on Bethlehem in 2002.

We were told of a student from Gaza, Berlanty Azzam, who was blindfolded, handcuffed, and taken into custody by the Israeli military at a checkpoint in October 2009 and prevented from finishing her final two months of study, despite no record of security violations or other charges (a case that received some international media attention). Ultimately, she was able to finish her studies long distance, and even recently had a “graduation ceremony” in a church in Gaza at which administrators from the university presented her with a degree.

Faculty and administrators at many of the universities we visited lamented the fact that students from Gaza can no longer study at West Bank institutions, which would require permission from Israel. In fact, travel restrictions have turned these institutions into regional colleges, attended almost entirely by local students.

Although there are 12 universities in the West Bank and Gaza, none of them grant Ph.D. degrees.  Palestinians wishing to pursue post-graduate degrees typically travel to Europe, the United States, or elsewhere in the Middle East to do so. This fact causes a number of difficulties. Though many return to Palestine after completion of their studies, a number do not. Academic jobs in the oPt are not exactly ideal, what with heavy teaching loads, little support for research, and low pay.

So, Palestinian universities rely heavily on visiting faculty from other countries. However, that path, too, is difficult to navigate. Visitors can generally only get 90-day visas, a period slightly shorter than the typical teaching semester. At Birzeit University, much of my conversation with faculty about the possibility of my teaching there for a semester was dominated by the question of how to extend my visit long enough to allow me to finish the term.

I was astounded by the amount of energy that must be directed at solving even the more minor problems posed by the conflict. For example, the existence of the separation wall erected by Israel and the now hundreds of checkpoints Palestinians must go through to travel from one place to another means that one can never know how long even a short journey will take, or even if it will be possible at all. People spoke of appointment times as tentative for that reason. (Israel maintains that the wall was built for security purposes, though many Palestinians argue that it was intended to annex more of their land.)

Even we Americans experienced unpredictable delays. Though our American passports typically allowed us to be waved through relatively quickly, there was one evening in which we were turned away at two checkpoints before finally being allowed to pass through a third. There is no explanation given for not being allowed to pass; there is just an order to turn the bus around. At many checkpoints, a young Israeli soldier, machine gun in hand, would board the bus and walk up and down the aisle. On this particular night, we were ordered to disembark and walk through on foot. There was a long line of Palestinians in a maze of metal turnstiles being ordered by guards. Besides the checkpoints, Palestinian roads are mostly in terrible disrepair, and we learned that Palestinians cannot use the freshly paved settler roads. When we finally arrived at the Jerusalem restaurant for dinner, the Palestinian colleagues we were scheduled to meet were unsurprised by our lateness.

Hope and despair

In spite of the difficulties of life in the oPt, we saw many signs of hope. For example, one of our stops on our visit to Ramallah was to a music school called Al Kamandjati, which means “the violinist” in Arabic. The school was founded by a young man named Ramzi Aburedwan, who grew up in a refugee camp near the city.  On the wall, we saw a poster with a picture of him as a young stone thrower in the camp superimposed onto a more recent picture of him playing the violin. Aburedwan was only 9 years old when he began throwing stones at the Israeli military after seeing a schoolmate shot and killed. He seemed headed down a path of violence and imprisonment when, at the age of 17, he was discovered by a music teacher who saw that he had a gift for playing classical music.

The tile work at Cinema Jenin

The tile work at Cinema Jenin

Remarkably, he eventually received a scholarship to study music in France at the National Conservatory in Angers. Upon completion of his training, he returned to Palestine to start a music school for the children of the refugee camps. The school now enrolls 500 students at various locations. Aburedwan’s goal is to give these children hope and an escape from the harsh realities of their lives. As we sat waiting to speak with him, a boy of 17 came into the room and spontaneously began singing. He was soon joined by another young man, who accompanied him on the drum. We were all transfixed by the impromptu performance, seeing the joy music brought to these individuals.

The school is part of a bigger cultural movement in Palestine that includes The Freedom Theatre, another stop on our tour, which is directed by Juliano Mer Khamis, an Israeli Jewish man. The goal of the project is to expose children of the Jenin refugee camp to theatre and the arts and allow them to safely express themselves. During our visit, we stopped into an ongoing theatre class. One young man in the group, in halting English, told us of the personal transformation that led him to use art rather than arms as a method of resistance. He said, “I am putting down the gun, and I am picking up the guitar.”

Also in Jenin, we visited Cinema Jenin, which was just reopened after being closed in 1987, during the First Intifada. The inspiring story of the renovation began in 2005, when 11-year-old Ahmed Khatib was playing outside with a toy gun and was shot by Israeli soldiers who said they mistook him for a militant. The boy’s father, Ismail Khatib, chose to donate Ahmed’s organs at the Israeli hospital, and they were given to six Israeli recipients. The story of Ahmed and his father so moved German filmmaker Marcus Vetter that he produced a documentary about it called Heart of Jenin. When Vetter learned that there was no local movie theatre in Jenin while on a visit there in 2007, he and Ismail Khatib took on the project of reopening Cinema Jenin. The recently reopened theatre will include a film school, as well as an outdoor café and performance area.

We saw less room for hope in some Palestinian towns, such as the town of Hebron, which we toured with an official observer from Temporary International Presence in Hebron. Hebron, a city with deep roots for Christians, Jews and Muslims,  was once characterized by peaceful coexistence between a Muslim majority and Jewish minority. It is home to the Ibrahimi Mosque/Cave of Machpela in which Abraham, his wife Sarah, son Isaac and grandson Jacob are said to be buried.

Hebron is now a divided city, and the tension between Palestinian residents and Israeli settlers was more palpable than in any other place we visited. Settlements are built directly over Palestinian markets, which are covered with wire fencing to prevent litter from hitting the Palestinians below. A once vibrant Palestinian market is nearly abandoned. Pictures of both Palestinians and Israeli settlers killed in the conflict decorate many of the walls.

It would be easy to think of this conflict as simply about religion. But at nearby Hebron University, we were cautioned from doing so. The chairman of the board of trustees there emphasizes the importance of thinking of the human rights implications of the current situation. The university is focused on making education available to all Palestinians, regardless of their ability to afford it.

A study in contradictions

As I reflect on my experiences on this truly transformative trip, I am struck by the many contradictions of the place. On one memorable night, we were hosted at the beautiful home of two members of the Palestinian intellectual elite. We leaned on lovely Palestinian tapestry pillows, sipping our drinks, and had witty conversation with fellow academics, human rights advocates, and other accomplished professionals. One colleague whispered to me that she felt like she was in a Palestinian Woody Allen movie! The next day, we were touring a refugee camp, where impoverished children played with sticks amid crumbling buildings covered in graffiti. And yet, there was a remarkable consistency in what I observed in everyone I encountered. The Palestinian people, despite the generally negative stereotypes used to portray them in the United States, are like all human beings. I saw people who want an education, food on the table, freedom of movement, a place to call home. I saw people who want Americans to understand what they are experiencing.

Gail Sahar (in green shirt) in Palestine the day the group toured the Old City of Jerusalem with a guide.

Gail Sahar (in green shirt) in Palestine the day the group toured the Old City of Jerusalem with a guide.

As a social and political psychologist, I should not have been surprised to find that what I observed in the oPt did not match up to the image most of us Americans have come to accept. Studies in “social cognition” or how we think about the social world consistently reveal that human beings need to simplify the complex input they must process. We are constantly confronted by so much information that we would be paralyzed if we did not take mental short cuts (termed heuristics) and use simple categories (such as stereotypes) to evaluate people and make quick decisions.

One of the most common of these quick judgments is to assume people do what they do because of who they are—that is, their behavior is caused by something about them, such as their individual traits or character. We blame the individual, not the situation. This tendency toward “dispositional attributions” is so common that it has been named “the fundamental attribution error.”

We may be particularly likely to blame individuals when we do not wish to acknowledge their suffering or when we see them as different from ourselves. Of course, in this case, our judgments about Palestinian individuals are also influenced by the ubiquitous media images of the “Palestinian terrorist,” and we quickly jump to the conclusion that all Palestinians can be represented by this portrayal.

This amazing trip allowed me to directly observe the complexity of the people and the situation. There was no excuse for taking mental short cuts. What I saw was a group of people who are trying to live normal lives and even thrive in incredibly difficult circumstances. They could be you or me.

Professor of Psychology Gail Sahar’s research focuses on attribution theory, ideology and attitudes, and her teaching interests include social and political psychology.

Code breakers: The secret service

In the 21st century, there seems to be no such thing as keeping a secret—not even during a war. For example, last fall WikiLeaks released 391,832 secret documents related to the war in Iraq, revealing unprecedented detail about the treatment of detainees, civilian deaths, field operations and how the war is being conducted. It’s hard to imagine a time when “secret” meant secret. Wheaton College Archivist Zephorene Stickney takes us back to that time with her look at the critical role some of our students played in helping to decode enemy communications during World War II—in secret.

We live in a world in which the revelation of secrets dominates the news—WikiLeaks, former CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson, Watergate.

But step back in time to the world of the 1940s and World War II. Wool skirts and cardigans, up-dos and victory rolls, ankle socks and saddle shoes. At Wheaton, 68 faculty members, most of whom lived in Norton, taught fewer than 500 students. With a student-faculty ratio of seven to one, everyone knew everyone on campus. Along with the faculty, students attended morning chapel and then rushed to the post office (not the Internet) for mail. The class schedule included Saturday mornings. “Rings and Bells,” a regular column in The Wheaton News, announced engagements and weddings, while the back-page ads featured airmen, soldiers and sailors smoking Chesterfield, Camel or Pall Mall cigarettes. If students broke social rules, they were “campused.”

Could anyone keep a secret in such a close-knit community?

Ask Charlotte Covell Leach, Class of 1943. She took a “Naval Communications” course that was so secret that no grade or enrollment lists, descriptions or records of it survived. A course so secret that the students enrolled in it were told not to discuss it, not even with each other. So secret that all references to it were placed in war activities and war courses files marked highly confidential, and never transferred from the President’s Office to the Wheaton archives—except for a few oblique mentions by then Wheaton President J. Edgar Park about “cryptoanalysis” and “secret projects…operating on the campus under the auspices of the military and naval authorities” in a Wheaton in Wartime newsletter. And then, of course,  there are the memories of Charlotte Covell Leach ’43.

Charlotte Covell 1943

Charlotte Covell Leach '43 was part of WWII messenger service, pictured above, and a code breaker while a student at Wheaton.

Charlotte was one of the first students recruited for the course. During her senior year, then Associate Professor of History Ralph Hidy approached Charlotte about an opportunity to train in cryptology (the science of secure communications). He invited her to discuss it further, but emphasized that she should avoid taking a direct route to their meeting. After meandering around campus, she was surprised to find that her roommate, Marion Black Kennedy ’43, had also appeared at the designated location! Professor Hidy had recruited both of them, and several other seniors, including Elinor Wilbur Gould and Dorothy (“Dottie”) Reed Williams, both of whom are now deceased.

What did these students have in common? Apparently, it was a facility with languages and mathematics. Charlotte was a French major and minored in math; Marion majored in math, while Elinor majored in history and economics. Other students in the class were history majors. “All concerned [were] bound by an oath of secrecy not to divulge anything to the general public about the matter,” according to minutes from the Board of Trustees meeting of Nov. 9, 1942.

Charlotte Covell Leach '43

Charlotte Covell Leach '43, above with her husband, Myron in a recent photo. Photo by Paul Blackmore/Cape Cod Times

In the fall of 1942, staff at the Boston Navy Yard approached President Park about sponsoring the cryptography course at Wheaton. Professor Hidy, who recruited the students for the first course in the spring of 1943, had been called to active service by the Navy Reserve in August 1941 and was stationed in Boston, but continued to live in Norton with his wife Muriel, a professor in the economics department.

Before they could enroll in the course, the recruited students and their families had to pass a military security check. In a recent telephone conversation, Charlotte recalled being asked if she “talked in her sleep,” although having her roommate, Marion, in the course solved that potential problem.

Dorothy recalled that “federal agents” interviewed her hometown neighbors, family and friends. According to archived faculty file notes, it was important for the government to know that each candidate possessed “the integrity, reliability and loyalty to the United States necessary for a position directly concerned with the defense of this country and the prosecution of the war.”

Reed and Perry

Dorothy Reed Williams '43 (left), a student representative on the Committee for Defense, with Lt. Louise Gifford Perry '23, as Perry explains incendiary bombs in a course on civilian defense. Perry was in the Massachusetts Women's Defense Corps, and the manager of the Wheaton College bookstore.

Twice a week, in the late afternoon, 10 cryptography students would make their individual circuitous routes to Mary Lyon Hall. According to Dorothy, federal agents, probably Navy cryptologists, taught the spring 1943 offering, with training in “cryptic analysis…to crack secret German codes.”

The participants were sworn to secrecy about the contents and nature of the course. According to Charlotte, the teachers “told us to forget everything that had happened once we left the classroom.” Homework consisted of fractured sections of messages to decode. Charlotte and Marion would close their door and spend hours looking for patterns in long lists of number groups. While their work was not graded, it constituted a fifth college course. No one person received an entire message, no one ever talked about the course or their assignment. And their friends never asked why Charlotte and Marion closed their door when everyone else left theirs open. The course probably improved the students’ problem-solving skills by teaching them to think analytically, keep an open mind, and avoid automatic assumptions.

More than 30 colleges and universities, including Mount Holyoke, Smith, Vassar, Wellesley and Princeton, offered secret cryptology courses during World War II. While many of the students majored in languages, the professors themselves would have been carefully chosen, and were a diverse group from many different departments—from astronomy to philosophy, noted Craig Bauer, a professor at York College of Pennsylvania, in a prepared talk about cryptology on campuses during the war.

In May 1943, President Park reported to the trustees that eight seniors had been offered appointments in the Navy “as a result of work done under the auspices of the Navy on the Wheaton campus.” Those who had excelled in cryptology were offered civilian or Navy positions in the U.S. Navy’s cryptoanalytic group in Washington, D.C.

The enormous Allied code-breaking efforts received various nicknames. “Ultra” was the name given to the project to crack Germany’s military code, which was itself nicknamed “Enigma” by the British, while “Magic” denoted the project to decrypt Japan’s military code, nicknamed “Purple” by the U.S. military.

“Put in the simplest possible terms, the operation called ‘Ultra’ involved intercepting enemy signals that had been mechanically enciphered, rendering them intelligible, and then distributing their translated texts by secure means to appropriate headquarters…. Exact and utterly reliable information could thus be conveyed, regularly and often instantly… to the Allied commanders. The key concept was that of security: this whole operation trembled on a razor-edge,” wrote Ronald Lewin in Ultra Goes to War: The First Account of World War II’s Greatest Secret Based on Official Documents (McGraw-Hill, 1978).

The thousands of codes being received every day required hundreds of people trained in cryptology for decoding, assembling and analyzing their import. It would have been disastrous to the Allies if Germany or Japan had discovered the vulnerability of their codes.

After graduating from Wheaton, Charlotte, who decided not to marry her fiancé until after the war, and several of her classmates moved to Washington, D.C., to work for the Navy. She achieved the rank of lieutenant, junior grade. Marion, who became a mathematician and computer programmer, served in Washington in a different capacity. Dorothy married a Navy man.

In Washington, D.C., Charlotte’s team was responsible for deciphering the principal Japanese naval code, a feat that enabled many Allied victories in the Pacific. Each morning she donned her uniform, slipped her ID around her neck, walked through the gate in two high barbed-wire fences surrounding a large school building, saluted her superiors, and spent the day scanning for five-digit numbers divisible by three.

As at Wheaton, decoders were given only sections of messages. But Charlotte particularly remembers the phrase shogo ichi, “noon,” or known position, reported by captains of Japanese merchant, fishing and naval vessels. After she had decoded her portion, the messages were sent to the next room for further work before they were forwarded to American commanders.

Rather like in a grad-school experience, these recent college graduates worked under professors from various universities, among others who had been chosen, according to Charlotte, for their “ability to recognize number and word patterns, and put words together.” Two of Charlotte’s D.C. housemates had been German majors at Bryn Mawr, so she assumed that they were deciphering the German Enigma codes, but they never spoke about their work. If anyone asked about their jobs (and few did), they explained how “bored they were, pushing numbers around all day.”

Elinor, salutatorian of her Wheaton class and a member of Phi Beta Kappa, graduated with honors in both history and economics. She joined the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Services) and moved to Washington, D.C. There she lived and worked with 10 women in the Naval Communications Annex, decoding Japanese messages. Elinor’s unit was given a secret presidential citation, but the women did not reveal their activities for more than 45 years.

Eunice Work, Wheaton professor of classics from 1925 to 1955, appears to have been recruited to teach the cryptography course beginning in the fall of 1943. She taught it until December of 1943, when she left for Washington, D.C., to participate in a Navy languages program described as of  “a highly secret confidential nature.” As a civilian employee of the Navy’s communication section, she worked with regular Navy personnel, as well as with Reserves from universities in California, Chicago and Wisconsin. She remained on leave to the U.S. Navy throughout 1944 and 1945.

What was her preparation for teaching cryptology? Perhaps it was her reading knowledge of Russian, which she had improved with Army-Navy courses at Columbia and Cornell that introduced her to the vocabulary of science, economics, politics and war.

Neva Upp '44

Neva Upp '44

Maud Marshall, then Wheaton assistant professor of chemistry, finished the fall 1943 course and taught it in the spring of 1944. Among the students recruited to take the course that year was Neva Jane Manock Upp ’44, who majored in English and minored in history. She also took classes in French and mathematics.

“If you didn’t have graduate school or a career lined up, you did what you could to help” the war effort, Upp said in an article in The Hutchinson News in 2005. “During World War II, servicemen and women put their own careers and family plans on hold in order to serve where needed to keep America free, and put down the threats from Germany and Japan.”

After graduation, Neva Jane joined the WAVES, achieving the rank of lieutenant. She moved to Washington, D.C., where she specialized in communications and intelligence, decoding portions of Japanese messages. Like Charlotte, Neva Jane passed several security checkpoints to get to her office, had a password that changed monthly, and remained “tight-lipped” about her job. Decoders labored around the clock to handle the thousands of messages intercepted each day. They often went to work during the wartime blackouts, and frequently transferred from bus to bus so no one would detect their work location.

Shortly after the war ended, Neva Jane met U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Robert Upp, who had been serving on an attack transport in the northern Pacific. One of Charlotte’s or Neva Jane’s decoded messages may have saved his life. “You never know,” he told The Hutchinson News.

Government records on breaking the Enigma and Purple codes were declassified in 1974. But sworn to secrecy, most civilian and Navy decoders did not reveal their contributions to the war effort. After the war, many wanted only to move on with their lives. They married, had children, and died believing that even their children would not be interested in their war stories.

In 1993, during the 50th Reunion of the Class of 1943, when the women revealed their participation in the cryptology class, their classmates were stunned, and marveled “that there never was a leak—even a rumor” during 1942 or 1943, despite the usual campus gossip.

Author’s note: I want to thank Sandra Zommer, former Wheaton archives assistant, and Professor of History Emeritus Paul Helmreich for the background research they provided on Wheaton’s code breakers.

Photos from the Marion B. Gebbe Archives

The beat of her own drum: Katharine Boyce ’71 builds practice in tribal law

Kate Boyce '71As a law partner at Patton Boggs LLP in Washington, D.C., Katharine Boyce’s days are not typically punctuated by the shake of a feather-tufted spear or the clink of beaded clothing.

Yet, on one extraordinary occasion in the early 1990s, there she stood amongst a whirlwind of color, feathers and tassels. In a circle of spectators, she stood awed as men danced—crouching, stamping, spinning, driven by a current of undulating voices and the thump of drums.

Boyce had arrived in Tahlequah, Okla., headquarters of the Cherokee Nation, for the groundbreaking of a new tribal health clinic and was then invited to this powwow, a tribal celebration deep with tradition, by Principal Chief Wilma Mankiller as a nod of thanks. Boyce had been instrumental in securing the federal funding for the new clinic, as well as funding to survey Arkansas riverbed lands so that the tribe could claim clear title and protect valuable oil, gas and other resources from trespass and theft.

She is the longest-serving female partner at Patton Boggs, now one of the largest law firms in the country. Her work with Indian tribes and other Native American organizations is a central part of a career that largely has been devoted to promoting and defending the interests of indigenous peoples. The roots trace back to Wheaton.

She came to Wheaton already politically active. Her mother was a passionate Democrat, and Boyce wore buttons and stuffed envelopes for John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign as a sixth-grader.

Her interest in politics and women’s rights found a catalyst at Wheaton. Government 101, taught by Professor of Political Science Jay Goodman, inspired her to pursue a major in government. After graduation, Boyce moved to Washington, D.C., where she worked for Congressmen James O’Hara and Brock Adams, gaining valuable legislative experience at a young age.

Continuing her education, she enrolled in law school at the Catholic University of America. Toward the end of her first year, she received a call from O’Hara, who had returned to the private sector as a partner at Patton Boggs. The firm was seeking a law clerk with legislative experience, and Boyce fit the bill. Juggling full-time work and school, she earned her J.D. in three years.

In 1979, she became an associate at Patton Boggs, focusing on public policy. Early in her career she developed an expertise in political and federal election law. By 1985, she had gotten involved in an area of law that changed her career focus.

Patton Boggs, which had previously represented the Navajo Nation, was hired by the defense contracting company owned by the Cherokee Nation. Boyce worked on several projects with the company’s CEO, who introduced her to then Deputy Chief Wilma Mankiller. Patton Boggs began a long-standing relationship with the tribe (the second-largest in the United States, after the Navajo) after Mankiller was elected principal chief and retained the firm. Boyce served as Mankiller’s Washington counsel for the eight years she was in office.

Developing additional tribal clients, Boyce founded Patton Boggs’s Native American law practice, which has since expanded into one of the leading Indian law practices in the country. For Boyce, the last 25 years of immersion in this unique legal field have been challenging and exciting.

“Many people don’t have a grasp of what tribal sovereignty is,” says Boyce, who has also represented the governments of Spain and Pakistan, among others. “The tribes are sovereign nations whose rights as sovereigns are recognized in the U.S. Constitution, treaties and statutes.”

The complex legal circumstances surrounding tribal rights and interests trace back to the early history of the United States. While tribes enjoy sovereign rights and the inalienable possession of their reservation lands, they struggle constantly to protect their lands or to develop them, notwithstanding rigid, paternalistic regulations, Boyce says.

“Lots of statutes and regulations that were intended to preserve tribes’ rights are old, sometimes vague and cumbersome, and always hard to change,” she says. Quality of life and economic opportunity remain elusive on most reservations, many of which are among the poorest areas of the country.

Much of Boyce’s work with Native American clients has focused on economic development and infrastructure on tribal lands. Her efforts have secured appropriations for new health clinics, water and sewer systems, road expansion, and incentives for Indian contractors. A favorite longtime client is the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development, which operates assistance centers that help Native American and tribal-owned companies start and expand businesses.

Her initiatives have even gone beyond American tribes; she has worked on a pro bono basis with indigenous tribes in Panama to clarify their legal rights. She is also assisting a client on a project that will help native Panamanian Kuna Indians harvest timber—from beneath the surface of a lake.

Pro bono work is a tradition in law, but those who know Boyce say her interest in public service comes naturally.

“For Kate, charity and goodwill is an instinctive part of her professional and personal life,” says Tom Donaldson, president of the National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (NOFAS). Long the chair of the NOFAS board of directors, Boyce became involved in the 1990s because of the incidence rates on some Indian reservations. NOFAS works to prevent birth defects resulting from alcohol consumed by the mother during pregnancy, which the organization says is the nation’s leading preventable cause of developmental disabilities.

According to Donaldson, Boyce has organized many teams of Patton Boggs lawyers to assist NOFAS, including filing an amicus brief for NOFAS in support of a petition before the U.S. Supreme Court. The petition challenged the death sentence of a defendant who suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome. The defendant, Brandy Holmes—so named by her mother after her favorite drink—suffered from severe mental disabilities as a result of her condition. While the petition was denied, the NOFAS amicus brief helped bring attention to the serious impact of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. It was just one of the ways that Boyce has contributed to NOFAS’ cause, according to Donaldson.

“It’s her passionate dedication to the NOFAS mission that leads the organization, attracts others to the cause, and makes a difference to the individuals and families living with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders,” he says.

Boyce became a partner at Patton Boggs in 1987. It is an achievement that she is proud to have accomplished without losing sight of her first priority—her family. She says she wants her four daughters and other women she has mentored to recognize that there are many career opportunities available for women, without sacrificing a family life—even within the tough and complex area of Washington law and politics.

“I wanted to become the first woman partner at Patton Boggs who stayed and built an enduring practice,” Boyce says. “Yet, when I came up for partnership, I was married and had three kids. To juggle family responsibilities and maintain a practice was really a challenge.”

She attributes much of her own success to her Wheaton education.

Professor Goodman, who has stayed in touch with Boyce over the years, says, “It’s no surprise that she has accomplished so much, and her friends at Wheaton also have done well. It was pretty clear that she was very smart.”

At Patton Boggs, her office is a testament to a varied, fascinating career in full swing. The walls and nearly every flat surface are crowded with artifacts from the countries and peoples she has represented. One item she proudly displays is a photograph of herself with Chief Mankiller. (The iconic Cherokee leader and Medal of Freedom winner died last year.)

“It was very satisfying representing the Cherokee Nation and particularly working with Chief Mankiller,” Boyce says. “She was a wonderful role model and humanitarian.”

As much as Boyce was honored to work with Mankiller, it was the chief who honored Boyce that day at the powwow in Tahlequah.

To Boyce’s surprise, Mankiller called her out of the ring of spectators. In her hands, the chief held forth a gift—a white shawl with long tassels, patterned with blue doves.

“It was beautiful and so unexpected,” Boyce says.