5 People Who Succeeded At The One Thing They Couldn't Physically Do
If you were to wake up tomorrow and find someone had chopped off your hands, that would be a bit of an inconvenience. Really, it might spoil your whole day. Your life wouldn't be over of course, but you might have to revise your plans to lead your team in the NBA Finals.
Unless, that is, you decide you'd play in the finals anyway, and you win. Then, you might end up on today's article.
The Violinist With No Arms
Carl Herman Unthan was born in 1848 in East Prussia, which is sad way for anyone to start their life. Also, he was born without arms. The expected way for someone without arms to get by in those days was to wear prostheses, which did exist even back then. Unthan never did, and since he went on to be pretty famous and to speak to amputees on how to live, his choice raised some controversy.
Unthan did everything with his feet. He could shoot a rifle with his feet, aiming at tiny targets. He could uncork a bottle and serve wine with his feet, which is surely someone's fetish. He could sew with his feet, which was just showing off, because he had a wife, and most married men at the time never learned to sew at all. Oh, and he played the violin.
Let's elaborate a little on why that's so hard. Playing the piano or xylophone with your feet would be hard (Unthan played both), but you can picture how that boils down to hitting the right keys. Playing a guitar would be a lot harder—one foot must strum, while the other would handle what we normally call fingering. But at least with a guitar, the string presses down on frets, those metal bands across the neck. You don't have to press one exact part of the string; you can press anywhere between two frets and the string will play the same note. A violin has no frets. Your fingering (toeing) must be precise, and even the width of the digit you use can totally change the instrument's sound.
The first time Unthan played the violin for an audience, one of the strings broke. He stayed on the stage and mended the violin, replacing the string with a new one. Possibly, this feet feat demanded less skill than actually playing the instrument well, but the audience, who expected nothing like this, found repair work the most impressive part of the performance. So after that, Unthan made it a point to break a string every night, this time on purpose, so he could replace it while the crowd cheered.
A Painter Without Arms Or Legs
What's harder than having no arms? Having no arms or legs of course, like Sarah Biffin, born with a condition called phocomelia, which you might know best as the one hitting thalidomide babies. Lacking any working limbs as part of a family of farmers in the 18th century, Biffin's prospects weren't high. When she was 13, her family "apprenticed" her to a "conductor" named Emmanuel Dukes, which is to say that they gave her up to be exhibited in freak shows.
Besides just being there to be stared at, she carried out tasks the one way she could—using her mouth. As the audience watched, she wrote and (hey, this trick again) sewed. Then Dukes offered her a paintbrush, and she really showed some skill. Here are a couple paintings of hers, which may not conform to traditional art styles but clearly show some creativity:
Wait, no, sorry. Those are actually paintings done by Bini, a bunny with its own YouTube channel. Sarah Biffin, despite having a name that makes her sound like a bunny, painted a lot better than that. Below is a self-portrait she did in 1830:
Biffin is 44 in the above painting, but she spent several years painting while still under contract to Dukes, advertised with tasteful handbills like this one:
At 26, she became a free woman, and her painting career took off. She opened up her own studio. The Royal Family hired her repeatedly, and she painted Queen Victoria. Charles Dickens namedropped her in three separate novels.
We figure no painter will ever again overcome exactly what Biffin did, simply because lacking arms or legs will never again be the same handicap that it was in 1784. Back then, they didn't even have motorized wheelchairs, as steam-powered chairs were deemed "too cool to exist." Mouth painting's still a thing today, though. Here's one painting by Netta Ganor, an Israeli artist largely paralyzed from the shoulders down since the age of 15:
There's an entire Association of Mouth and Foot Painting Artists now. People who are already artists when they become paralyzed are sometimes surprised by how easily mouth painting comes to them. Think about it: The difference between someone who can paint and someone who can't isn't their hands' physical capacity. The good painter has no more muscles and or nerves than anyone else. The skill comes from the signals their mind sends toward the hand (or mouth), telling it which way to move and when to start and stop.
The Singer Who Couldn't Exhale
Moving forward in history now, let's talk about Curtis Mayfield, who sang in the '60s, and '70s. Even without the big accident that I'm going to talk about in a second, he'd have gone down in history for his music. Rolling Stone calls his song "People Get Ready," by The Impressions, the 24th-greatest song of all time. More impressive still, it's the second-greatest song called "Get Ready" by a '60s R&B group called The Abstract Nouns.
In 1990, Mayfield was still just 48 and was going to play at a Brooklyn concert organized by Marty Markowitz, who was a New York State Senator and would go on to become the president of Brooklyn (yes, that's an actual title). Heavy winds struck the park, which isn't great when a bunch of equipment is loosely strapped together for a temporary installation. The wind blew so hard, it suddenly knocked the hundreds of people in the front few rows out of their seats. Markowitz, onstage, probably should have addressed this, maybe by saying "nobody panic," or alternatively "everybody panic." Instead, he said, "Ladies and gentlemen, Curtis Mayfield."
Mayfield came onstage. The wind tore down the lighting rig from above. One of the heavy stage lights separated from the truss and landed on his neck, smashing a couple vertebrae. The truss itself fell a short distance away, smashing a drum kit. It might have killed him had it hit him. As it was, the spinal injury paralyzed him from the neck down.
He'd never play the guitar again, and though the nature of the paralysis let him go on speaking, singing was a different story. In 1995, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammys, and people saw him sing "People Get Ready" with Bruce Springsteen and Bonnie Raitt, but those other voices were necessary—he could no longer exhale hard enough to really sing.
He couldn't exhale hard enough solely on his own power, that is. He found that he was able to exhale hard enough with a little assistance from gravity. If he lay flat on his back, inhaled, and then sang while gravity helped push his chest and abdomen back down, he could sing—for a couple lines at a time, then he had to rest.
He recorded an album this way in 1996, New World Order. It was a full-length album, not a gimmick recording. It spanned over a dozen tracks, averaging four or five minutes long each. This record was a collaboration between himself and grandmaster Isaac Newton.
Writing A Whole Book Using Only Your Eye
Today, we've had you picture yourself losing your arms, all limbs, then more. Let's go further.
In 1995, French journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby had a sudden stroke at the age of 43. His coma lasted three weeks, and when he regained consciousness, he did not regain motor control. He was paralyzed from the neck down and also from the neck up. It's what we call pseudocoma, or locked-in syndrome—the patient is able to perceive the world around them but cannot move at all.
The one exception to this total paralysis is the eye. The patient can move their eye up and down and move their eyelid too. That's because the brain (the midbrain tectum) has a special connection to the eye independent of the entire rest of the nervous system. It is possible, however, for the eye to close, the patient to be unable to open it again, and for no doctor to think of trying to open it for them.
That last part didn't happen to Bauby, but he had a different issue. Before his stroke, Bauby had had a book deal. The plan was to write a sort of modern update to The Count of Monte Cristo—a book that, coincidentally, features a character named Noirtier who's totally paralyzed and communicates using only his eye. Well, if Nortier could communicate with just his eye, Bauby figured he could too. In fact, he'd write that book after all.
He worked with a speech therapist and an editorial assistant from his publisher. Today, we're working on brain interfaces that can let fully paralyzed people communicate electronically, but at the time, this was their best option: Bauby would blink once for A, blink twice for B, and so on, until he spelled a word, and then a sentence. Or rather, he'd blink once for E, twice for S, going through the letters ordered by how frequently they're used in French, instead of arbitrary alphabetic order.
He wrote his entire book this way, working for hours every single day. Instead of the Monte Cristo update, he wrote about his condition, for more than 100 pages. The book was called Le Scaphandre et le Papillon (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), and maybe you've heard of the 2007 movie adaptation.
Two days after the book was published, Bauby died, having written one more book than most people who enter adulthood planning to be a writer.
Getting Pregnant And Giving Birth Without A Vagina
Before I tell you this last story, which is quite different from all the previous ones, I want to tell you a different one, one that isn't true.
The way the story goes, during an 1863 Civil War battle, a bullet struck a soldier in the scrotum and carried away one of his testicles. The bullet hit a bystander in the abdomen, impregnating her. She gave birth nine months later, and doctors extracted the bullet from the newborn. They extracted the bullet from the newborn's scrotum, in fact, depending on what version of the story you hear.
I saw that story in a book called The Book of Lists 2. I read that book from cover to cover—or rather, from the front cover to two-thirds into it, which was where my torn paperback copy of The Book of Lists 2 ended. And I said to myself, "One day, I would like to write list articles for the internet, should that ever become a thing."
And yet, even The Book of Lists 2 did not outright claim the story was true. It cagily just said the story had been published "as true" somewhere or another. The story was not true; a journal had printed it as a joke all the way back in 1874, and it had taken off from there. If they'd waited a little longer, the authors of that 1983 Book of Lists 2 could have covered a different virgin birth, one that's very nearly as strange as the tale of the ballistic testicle.
This happened in the early '80s but only made it into the British Journal of Obstetrics And Gynecology in 1988 after years of follow-ups. A 15-year-old bartender entered the Mafeteng Districts Hospital in Lesotho, quite obviously pregnant. She claimed never to have had sex, to which the doctor probably said, "Yeah okay, I've heard that one before." But an examination supported her claim, because the girl had no vagina. The doctor observed the urethral opening and labia but saw just a shallow indentation where the vagina should be.
Some 280 days earlier, the hospital had admitted the girl for knife wounds. Hospital records noted how a blade had penetrated her gastrointestinal tract and described other injuries as well and the treatment she received. Now, the girl gave more information about what had happened that day. She'd performed fellatio on her boyfriend (full-on intercourse was impossible, she'd already realized), then an ex had caught them and attacked. The ensuing fight had landed all three of them in the hospital, as the previous hospital records already attested.
Doctors concluded that the boyfriend's sperm had survived ingestion, as the stomach contains little acid when empty. The stabbing had let the sperm travel from the digestive system to the reproductive system. That's scientifically possible. In fact, in the '80s, fertility doctors were experimenting with injecting semen randomly into patients' abdominal cavities instead of near the cervix or into the uterus. Women artificially inseminated this way got pregnant.
Today, here's why some people refuse to believe in this Lesotho case. If the girl lacked a vagina, she should have had issues long before becoming pregnant, thanks to menstrual fluid pooling inside her with no way to escape. To explain this, the paper documenting the case suggests that she got pregnant from her very first ovulation. That would be a bit of a coincidence but far from the craziest thing about this pregnancy.
The doctors delivered the baby—via Caesarean, of course. The paper then goes into some detail about the teams' attempts to construct an artificial vagina for the mother, and when these failed, they prescribed drugs for some years to prevent all periods, until she finally opted for a total hysterectomy. The baby was still alive at the age of five when the case got published.
By this point, he resembled his father. This man had never agreed to be a father and never got to have sex with the mother but instead just got stabbed right after a blowjob (possibly stabbed in the dick). Still, he agreed to pay the mother's family something for the child's upkeep. That may be the most surprising part of the story.
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Top image: Sarah Biffin, Netta Ganor