Put on a funny costume. Make people laugh. Fire up the crowd to cheer on the team. Sounds easy, right? Try doing it beneath a blanket of fake fur. That’s what those who volunteer to be the Wheaton mascot, the Lyon, have to do. Paul Fineman ’11 tried it for one event, and Jacob LeBlanc ’06 was the Lyon his freshman, sophomore and senior years at more than 75 athletic games and 100 other events. So, what’s it like be the Lyon?
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.
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.
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
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 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.
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.”
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.
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