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June 5, 2000

Let’s say you spotted a copy of “The thermodynamics of pizza~” at a garage sale and couldn’t resist. You wonder about the author of the appealing essays–a biophysicist named Harold J. Morowitz.

You think, ‘I’ll go to the library and look him up in their new ANB.” The ANB is American National Biography, 24 volumes with 17,435 biographies of notable men and women of national significance.

However, you won’t find Dr. Morowitz in the ANB. That’s because he’s still alive. But don’t worry–he’ll make it into a supplement one day. The criterion of death before 1996 may seem unfairly arbitrary, but it is unequivocal. I’m sure it simplified the editors’ gargantuan task.

One of Dr. Morowitz’s favorite American scientists is in there–Josiah Willard Gibbs–whose name you might know if you had to study thermodynamics or otherwise look up Gibbs Free Energy. He was a quiet man who led a quiet life in New England more than a hundred years ago, but his intellectual accomplishments will continue to shout for some time. The ANB is full of such lives.

John Adams, second president, is in there. John Adams, known as Grizzly, is also there. Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy, is followed by another Jefferson Davis, who was an accomplished Civil War officer of unsavory character.

Don’t worry. Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin are in there. Sylvia Plath, Ayn Rand, Dorothy Day.

No Donlan is listed. However, there is a Doolin, which was a common misspelling of my name in high school. Bill Doolin was a cowboy and bank and train robber in the late nineteenth century. “He was considered to be a fine rider, an excellent shot, and a natural leader …” Well, I can see there’s no relation.

Doolin fell into a life of crime when constables at a Fourth of July celebration tried to confiscate his party’s beer. Alcohol and guns, oh dear. He joined the Dalton gang, which dissolved after a disastrous raid, and Doolin re-emerged as the leader of a new and more fearsome gang.

After a period of considerable success, violence escalated as pressure from authorities increased. The gang members were eventually killed or went into hiding. Doolin suffered from rheumatism by then and sought relief at Eureka Springs, Arkansas. Marshal Bill Tilghman found him there. Here I feel something in common. This would be my demise, to be soaking–ahh–in a hot spring and open my eyes to find a grinning marshal standing over me.

Doolin escaped again and hid on the Cimarron River near his wife and boy, but he ended his days by walking into the waiting posse of Marshall Heck Thomas. “Marshal Thomas eventually collected only $1,435 of the promised reward ($5,000), a sum that did not cover his expenses.” Not only that … Tilghman got the biography in ANB, not Thomas. Life is hard; then you die. With luck, you make the ANB. Fascinating history.


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