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On campus

History team chops away at national myth

Published March 2, 2004

Philip Levy likes to think about what would happen if he and his team of student archaeologists found evidence that a cherry tree once existed at George Washington's boyhood home.

"Of course, there wasn't one," he says. "But we're hoping to find something that looks like a cherry tree, just so we can have a national press release that says, "Well, I'm not saying it is, and I'm not saying it isn't."'

Levy, a history professor at the University of South Florida, is leading a decadelong archaeological dig at the farm in Fredericksburg, Va., where the nation's first president grew up.

"Gradually, piece by piece, we'll plot out the entire plantation," he said. "It's a pretty ambitious plan, but there does seem to be the money and the interest to do it."

The George Washington Fredericksburg Foundation plans to build a museum resembling a reconstructed house based on Levy's research.

He and his partner, archaeologist David Muraca of Fredericksburg, will study Washington's day-to-day life until the age of 17 - a period of time about which not a great deal is known.

Last summer, Levy took a group of history students to Fredericksburg to search for artifacts such as pipe and bottle fragments. Levy and Muraca now are sorting through their initial findings.

More information about Levy's research is available at his Web site,

DOCTORS AT THE MOFFITT CANCER CENTER have received a portion of a $25-million grant from the National Cancer Institute and the National Institute on Aging to study why seniors are more vulnerable to dying from cancer.

Moffitt researcher Dr. Paul Jacobsen is heading the project with help from fellow oncologist Dr. Lodovico Balducci and William Haley, director of the University of South Florida School of Aging Studies.

Among the first topics Jacobsen's team will tackle: Why mortality rates are so much higher among elderly patients than other segments of the population, and how other medical conditions common to seniors impact cancer treatment.

Moffitt and USF will receive $519,000 of the first $5-million allocated, with more funding to come in the future.

MARINE WORMS may hold the key to understanding how, why and at what point certain animals divide into species that can't interbreed.

That's the hope of Dr. Stanley Rice, a University of Tampa marine biologist who is studying marine worms through a $100,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.

Worms from the genus polydora exist all over the world, but at some point in their existence they divided into species that look almost identical yet can't interbreed.

Rice and Steve Karl, a biology professor at USF, are examining the genetic makeup of the half-inch worms and attempting to crossbreed species from different marine sites.

"Nobody can tell them apart except for us," Rice said.

* * *

For Thomas Joiner, suicide isn't a way to die. It's a way of life.

Joiner is Florida State University's resident expert on suicide, having studied mood disorders and hundreds of suicide cases during his six-plus years in Tallahassee.

Suicide is a problem that can be beaten, he says. He believes his work will lead to newer, more effective warning signs.

During an interview with Times staff writer Jay Cridlin, Joiner discussed how his life has been impacted by suicide - including that of his father, who took his own life in 1990.

Here are excerpts:

Suicide is such a touchy subject. How do you study people who have taken their own lives without appearing insensitive to families?

A big reason for doing this kind of work is to demystify and destigmatize suicide. I think if you approach it as a cause of death, like heart attack or cancer - something that's tragic, sudden and very painful - then you get cooperation even from people who are in deep phases of grief.

How did you learn that your father had killed himself?

From a phone call from a family member. It was a very difficult thing to go through.

Had you ever wondered whether your father might be suffering from a mood disorder?

I had not yet started studying suicide at that time, although suicide is a big part of mood disorders. He was a very strong person, the type of person who would try to handle problems by himself. He kept a lot to himself, which is very unfortunate, because had he reached out for more and better help, his death very likely could have been prevented.

What are your thoughts on doctor-assisted suicide?

I don't think it's a good general policy. Mood disorders can masquerade as the decision to die. I think it's very important to make sure that anyone in that situation is extremely well evaluated for mood disorders and well treated before any sorts of decisions are made. I think we just need to have a lot more public discussion and a lot more research done on the topic.

What does the method of suicide say about the person committing the act?

It says a little about where they live in the world. In the United States, by far, the most common thing to do when you die by suicide is self-inflict a gunshot wound, whereas in China or in England, it's much more common to die by self-poisoning. Guns are just more free here.

Statistically, which method is most effective?

The most lethal methods are gunshot wound and hanging. And then the less lethal are things like overdose and cutting. But you can die by any of these things.

Are there aspects of your research that focus on well-known suicides, such as Kurt Cobain's?

I think Kurt Cobain's suicide is actually very instructive. He started off as a very fearful character. He was afraid of needles, afraid of guns, afraid of heights. And then, through his teenage years and then into his 20s, he started to lose that fear. Like with guns - he gradually lost his fear of them. Same with needles - somebody who was initially afraid of needles became a daily self-injecting drug user. Same with heights - he would dangle from scaffolding during concerts. This is, I think, instructive, because in order to die by suicide, you do have to lose fear of it. You have to lose fear of self-injury. And Cobain clearly did that.

Were you a Nirvana fan at all?

Sure. Yeah, I was a fan.

How did you react when you found out Cobain had died?

It was kind of like whenever I found out somebody dies needlessly or suddenly - that it's just a waste. Somebody who had a lot to offer is all of a sudden gone.

Last year, in St. Petersburg, a rock band promised an onstage suicide during a concert. You must have thoughts on this.

I consulted with city attorneys on that case. My testimony was that the concert would have negative public health consequences. Whenever suicide is publicized, there's a chance that it will spur others to do copycat sorts of things. The other issue is, a lot of people decide to die by suicide and then change their minds. This person, though, would have committed to do this in a very public way, and that would made it even harder for them to change their mind should he have decided to do so.

Your research suggests women with breast implants might be more likely to kill themselves. Can you go into that?

There's an association between having undergone breast augmentation surgery and dying by suicide. But an association does not imply a causal relationship. Breast augmentation patients are not representative of the general population of women. They're different with regard to all sorts of factors - like race, for example. Breast augmentation patients are overwhelmingly white, and white people die by suicide at higher rates than non-white people. If you go through a bunch of other risk factors like that, breast augmentation patients have a signature, in terms of demographics and personality and so forth, that puts them at very high risk for suicide.

Having been surrounded by death and depression for so long, have you at any time during your career been depressed, or even contemplated suicide, if just for a second?

No, I've been fortunate to be healthy in that regard. I will say that there's a lot of pain that I witness and know about and see, and the question could be, does that get to me ever? And my answer is no, because I think the things that we're doing here at FSU make me feel good.

[Last modified March 2, 2004, 08:46:02]

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