Johns Hopkins Magazine - April 1996 Issue

Academic, My Dear Watson

By Sue De Pasquale
Two years ago, when I first heard about an intriguing cache of 18th-century letters that economics professor Francois Velde had stumbled upon, I could hardly wait to go talk to him. To my delight, his story turned out to have all the makings of a classic detective story: mystery, royal intrigue, a headstrong Italian heroine, and, most important of all, a mild-mannered sleuth (aka Velde) intent on cracking the case.

You may remember the resulting feature that appeared in our April 1994 issue, "The Case of the Duplicitous Duchess." It's a story that basically wrote itself, the kind all writers love to have fall in their laps. I figured I'd probably never be so fortunate again. That I'd made my one--and only--contribution to the academic mystery genre a la Johns Hopkins.

But Hopkins humanities professors have a way of upsetting your assumptions.

Earlier in the winter, I learned that history professor Richard Goldthwaite has been sleuthing away at a fascinating mystery that began on a drizzly night in Florence 15 years ago. His quest has taken him from one side of the Atlantic to the other, and has been hurtled along by an amazing series of coincidences. (The kind that have left people shaking their heads and saying, "I don't believe it!" when I've casually offered up a brief sypnosis of the piece to friends and family) Without giving anything away, I can tell you that Goldthwaite's detective work has shed new light on the fascinating past of the Villa Spelman, Hopkins's idyllic hilltop retreat in Florence, Italy. To find the full account, turn to page 54 for "The Case of the Pencil Box Ledgers." The opening artwork may seem familiar, and that's intentional. Because of this story's parallels to "The Duchess," we commissioned the same photographer, Steve Spartana, and asked him to use a similar treatment. We're taking the precautionary measure of billing this story as the second in an ongoing series of academic mysteries.

The detective story buffs among you will be happy to know that we've got two other conundrum-solving stories in this issue. In "Icy Enigma" (p. 20), senior writer Elise Hancock lays out all the evidence that Professor Steve Stanley used to come up with his new theory about what caused the Ice Age. Try solving the challenge yourself before turning the page for his solution. And in "Dear Dr. Zebra," (p. 25) a fictitious diagnostician fields letters from "readers" suffering from a panoply of unusual medical problems.

With this issue of the magazine, we bid a fond farewell to Alumni Notes editor John Schmidt 'XX, who has been capably handling the Notes since they first began appearing in the magazine back in 1985. We wish him the very best in his retirement. Please continue to send us your news, addressing it to our new Notes editor, Julie Snyder. Julie has the experience needed for the job: as an undergrad at Boston University, she worked in the alumni office and helped out with editing class notes for Bostonia magazine.

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