Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Otto's Gangrene

The Plath family doctor brought surgeon Halsey B. Loder to the Plaths' house in Winthrop to examine Otto Plath's gangrenous foot. Gangrene is rotting flesh and looks and smells like it, and hurts so terribly that patients can't bear the weight of a bedsheet. Dr. Loder told Otto's wife Aurelia that to save Otto's life he needed his leg amputated from the thigh.

Aurelia Plath's Letters Home narrative of Otto's decline describes a textbook case of untreated diabetes, two or three miserable years start to finish. Their children barely knew a healthy father. All the same Otto, a biologist, refused to see any doctor until his toes turned gray and black. The amputation was performed at Boston's Deaconess Hospital on October 12, 1940.

Halsey Beach Loder (1884-1966) was a "society surgeon" held in the highest esteem among New England physicians and patients. A visiting and consulting surgeon at nearly every Boston-area hospital, Loder was an employee of none: He was his own boss, in 1939 working 42 weeks. [1] Otto had the best available care. Yet three weeks after surgery Otto had not yet gone home. On Nov. 5 Loder phoned Aurelia to say Otto had died. The final medical bill must have been colossal.

Before Otto left home for the surgery, seven-year-old Sylvia Plath made two haunting pencil drawings of her sick father at home in his bed. Each image centers on Otto Plath's dreadfully swollen foot sticking up from his cover sheet. Sylvia drew the same scene twice and one is more finished. Bonham's auctioned and sold those drawings, not to me, so view them here

Aurelia captioned and dated the drawings (October 7, 1940) and in one of them, traced over Sylvia's outline of the affected foot.

It was Dr. Loder who had said to Aurelia, "How could such a brilliant man be so stupid."

[1] U.S. federal census 1940, Mass., Suffolk, Boston, 15-213.

[Photo] The Boston American, Sept. 18, 1926, p. 2. Caption: "Dr. Loder is the surgeon who amputated the leg of Mrs. Pauline LeRoy French, New York and Newport society leader."

Tuesday, June 11, 2024

"My Mother, a Sea-Girl Herself"

Aurelia Schober, c. 1927

We've all seen photos of Sylvia Plath lounging on the beach, so here is her mother, as 21-year-old college student Aurelia Schober, having her own bathing-beauty moment. Her boyfriend/lover Karl Terzaghi's diary says: "Enjoyed seeing [Aurelia] in bathing suit, well built and very pretty."

Aurelia loved the ocean and beaches, lived in oceanfront Winthrop from 1918 through 1931, and in 1936 persuaded her husband Otto Plath to move their family there. The Plaths would have continued to live in Winthrop, but breadwinner Otto refused health care and died, forcing Aurelia to reconfigure her family and move. 

Source: Sivad yearbook, 1928

Tuesday, June 4, 2024

Plath Family Baby Names

Time was if in the U.S. you heard the name "Sylvia" the next word was "Plath." U.S. Social Security baby-name stats tell us "Sylvia" was never a common name: It peaked in 1937 at #56 on the popular-name list and hit its low in 2003. Since then Hispanic families in particular are restoring "Sylvia" to the top 500 U.S. girl names. The same is true of "Aurelia," currently #371, up 117 places from 2022. "Aurelia" peaked in 1908 and hit its rock bottom in 1999 at position #2,680.

Of course Aurelia Plath, born in 1906, was named not for a fad but for her Austrian-born mother. "Sylvia" was emphatically not a family name but a conscious reference to the natural world her parents Aurelia and Otto Plath hoped to study and write books about. They also made the unusual choice to give Sylvia, born in 1932, no middle name.

That likely avoided a minefield of creaky family names. "Ernestine," Otto's mother's name, means "serious" or "battle to the death." Their fathers were Francis and Theodor; Aurelia was already Aurelia Frances. The most faddish girls' names of the 1930s were Mary, Betty, and Barbara, and Otto's name feminized is "Ottilie" -- none compatible with Sylvia's first name.

"Otto" means "wealthy" and "Emil" means "rival," "industrious," or "to excel." Sylvia as a mother-to-be considered the baby name "Emily" and hoped to name a second daughter Megan (pronounced "meg-un," she told her mother). She liked those names and "Nicholas" twenty years ahead of their mass popularity. "Frieda," Germanic for "peace" or "joy," reached its U.S. peak in 1896 -- the year Sylvia's Aunt Frieda was born in Germany -- and despite a few vogue years in the U.K. the name is currently ranked around #4,000 there and in the U.S.

We do know that Sylvia's brother Warren (meaning "protective enclosure") was named for William Marshall Warren, dean of Boston University's College of Liberal Arts, where professor Otto Plath received the dean's counsel. B.U. had several distinguished Warrens, first names and surnames. As a baby name for boys, "Warren" peaked in 1921 at #24. Surprise, it's on the rise as a gender-neutral name.

I had kind of hoped the "Ariels" I met were named for a book of poems.
Re Sylvia's fictional characters: "Esther" is Persian for "star," but compared with Queen Esther's Hebrew name "Hadassah" it grates on the ear. It's Sylvia's cousin's name. One Bell Jar oddity is that Esther Greenwood has no nickname, even among intimates such as Buddy Willard. "Esther" topped out in 1896 at #31 and sank to its low in 1970. Girls' name "Dody" ("dodo," "doughy," "dowdy") never ranked higher than in 1959 at #2,303. "Dody" seems a very un-Lawrentian name for the Lawrentian protagonist of Sylvia's first, unfinished novel, unless she was referencing "doughty" or "do-or-die."

Pop singers and prominent characters in fantasy fictions and video games are reviving old-man old-lady names, so expect more of the above to catch fire and to meet a young Sylvia soon.

"Johann" and "Ernestine" dominated Prussian baptismal records in 1853.