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Unsettling new findings from out of left field


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Left Foot Forward

One would think that the enlightenment toward lefties might have begun in the New World, along with the religious tolerance and respect for the commonalty of mankind that arose there. But such is not the case. Immigrants to these shores usually brought their bigotry with them, and the bigotry against left-handers was no exception.

The first cracks in the shell of fear, hatred and ridicule that encompassed lefties actually began in Vienna when Helmut Schlosstein, an Austrian Jew, began to study the physiological relationships between functions of the brain and accompanying motor activity. The young Sigmund Freud was a protege of Schlosstein (1801-1879), and it is thought the older man was a possible inspiration for that great psychoanalyst's choice in career.

Schlosstein never achieved the title of "doctor," his education being mediocre at best. He was left-handed, himself, and throughout his schooling had to endure the taunts of schoolmates and teachers at Vienna's Österreicher Hebraik Institut, where he was considered a linkishziffern duncenkömpf, or "left-fingered idiot."

But Schlosstein was far from being an idiot. His revelations on the left-hemisphere/right-hemisphere architecture of the human brain were groundbreaking, and his conclusion that being either right- or left-handed had nothing to do with superstitions or curses--that it was as innate a condition as skin pigmentation or gender--is now seen as the beginning of the end to centuries of ignorance, prejudice and persecution.

Schlosstein's discoveries were made long before such modern medical marvels as computed axial tomography (CAT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), innovations that would have made his research much easier. Instead, he made inventive use of an eclectic mix of equipment and procedures--e.g., rubber mallets, opium, what we now call "Chinese finger-cuffs," electro-stimulation and discreet, lightly anesthetized surgeries in different areas of condemned prisoners' brains--to conduct his researches.

As Freud's renown grew, he spoke little of his mentor Schlosstein, whom he referred to as "that old vivisektor schlingel" (vivisecting rascal). Freud also seemed to have little concern with whether left-handed orientation was natural or deviant. Still, in 1931, not long before his own death, he penned a monograph for Der Verrückten in which he observed that individuals he had studied for a variety of mental health issues, and who had been forced in childhood to convert from left hand to right, were always left-handed in their dreams, no matter how old they came to be. (Freud's only footnoted comment on that observation was, "Hmmmmm.")

Throughout the 1930s--until World War II interrupted scientific pursuits in most non-war-related subjects--there was, both in Europe and the United States, an intense concentration in both university medical research facilities and theory of education circles to demonstrate the natural condition of being born left-handed. As strange as it may now seem, until 1937, no one had ever performed a dependable survey on what percentage of humans are left-handed. In that year, Dr. Glenn Scofield of the Pittsburgh University Department of Psychology began an exhaustive study to determine that ratio. It took him four years and he visited more than 70 countries to learn that in virtually every culture and population on Earth, lefties number between 12 and 13 out of every 100 people.

(Sadly, Dr. Scofield was near to finishing up his report in Osaka, Japan, in December 1941. As soon as the attack on Pearl Harbor was announced, he handed the entire study--859 pages of notes, graphs, charts, interviews and commentary--over to the Brazilian skipper of an out-going tramp steamer with instructions to get it back to Pitt U., and then was never heard from again. What happened to Scofield and why he didn't board the steamer himself and escape Japan is a mystery. It's also likely that the study would never have found it's way home had not that ship's captain been a lefty who had gone to sea in his teens to escape the ridicule his kind was subjected to in most Latin American countries.)

By the 1950s, attitudes were changing--not quickly enough for the likes of Nicky Records in Kenosha or the left-handed students of Sister McMoore in Baton Rouge--but in less provincial areas of America, and in Western Europe, the shift away from left-to-right conversion was well under way. Even more important, the general population was slowly abandoning cultural prejudices against lefties. By 1980, except for isolated pockets of particularly superstitious people--the Arabian peninsula, for one, along with the more rural Philippine islands and remote herding societies of Central Asia--the "curse" of being left-handed had, at last, been lifted.