Office Treasures Redux

Their CVs tell one story, but the things professors surround themselves with tell another
Diana Bianchi
There are 36 Vermeer paintings in galleries and museums around the world, and Diana Bianchi’s goal is to see each one. Photo: Alonso Nichols
July 2, 2013

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This spring semester, Tufts Now published a series on curios found in professors’ offices. Here it is again, all pulled together in a single piece to kick off the summer.

Seeing Vermeer

Diana Bianchi, the Natalie V. Zucker Professor of Pediatrics and Obstetrics and Gynecology at Tufts University School of Medicine

Diana Bianchi has loved the paintings of the Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer since she was a child. Growing up in Manhattan, she admired them at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has four Vermeers, and the Frick Collection, which has three. She was drawn to the light and color, the hyacinth blues and yellows the painter applied to canvas.

There are 36 Vermeer paintings in galleries and museums around the world, and Bianchi’s goal is to see each one. She’s close—31 and counting.

A geneticist and the Natalie V. Zucker Professor of Pediatrics and Obstetrics and Gynecology at Tufts University School of Medicine, she travels frequently for scientific presentations. Along the way she makes sure to see a Vermeer if it’s at all within range of her destination. She ticks off a few: all four Vermeers in Amsterdam, the three at The Hague and others on display in Berlin, Edinburgh, Vienna and London.

In tribute to her favorite artist, Bianchi has a gallery of postcards of Vermeer paintings above her office computer. On the back of each is the place and date she saw the painting and the name of the exhibition.

What began as a genuine love of the artwork expanded into what Bianchi describes as an interest in “the mysteries of his life.” Little is known about Vermeer: where he got his training or how he managed to support his 10 children and cope with ongoing financial woes.

Bianchi also views the paintings with the eye of a physician-scientist. After noticing that the subject of the painting The Procuress had polydactyly, or a double thumb, she began to wonder what other medical findings she might discover in his brush strokes. She and a Dutch collaborator, Sicco Scherjon, also a physician, took a closer look at two paintings, Woman in Blue Reading a Letter and Woman Holding a Balance, and decided the subjects are pregnant, even though art historians say the women are merely wearing the billowy fashions of the time.

One of Vermeer’s best-known paintings, The Girl with the Pearl Earring, reveals yet another medical condition, Bianchi says. The young woman’s head is wrapped in a scarf, and she has no eyebrows or eyelashes. Bianchi and Scherjon suggest that she may have had alopecia, a disease resulting in the loss of hair on the scalp and other parts of the body.

Bianchi continues her quest to see all the Vermeers and is working with her collaborator to write a paper on what medical findings are revealed in the paintings. Genetics, she says, “is about patterns of recognition and attention to detail. It’s the same with art history—it uses the same skill set. Painters are trying to represent nature, and scientists are trying to better understand nature. I’m interested in that interplay.”

Jumbo Stampede

Photo: Alonso Nichols

Enrico Spolaore, professor of economics in the School of Arts and Sciences

The first was from his wife: a small white ceramic elephant she saw in Venice the summer before he began teaching at Tufts. Later he bought a black elephant, its trunk held aloft. Soon friends, relatives and colleagues began adding to economist Enrico Spolaore’s herd. Now there are more than 50 pachyderms prancing along the shelves of his office, an olio of style, color, shape and geography.

Jumbo the elephant is, of course, Tufts’ mascot. His connection with Tufts dates back to 1885, when circus showman P.T. Barnum, an early Tufts trustee, donated the real elephant’s stuffed hide to the university after the animal was killed in a train accident. Jumbo most likely got his name from jumbe, the Swahili word for chief. The original Jumbo the elephant was popular with children, who eagerly begged to ride him at the Regent’s Park zoo in London, before he embarked on his circus career.

Spolaore’s economics department colleagues keep an eye out for elephants on their travels: Associate Professor Margaret McMillan found one made of wire in Botswana, while Assistant Professor Emilia Simeonova brought him a glass elephant from Sweden, and Associate Professor Edward Kutsoati gave him one from Ghana.

He has elephant instruments: a Peruvian elephant-shaped flute and an orange maraca-like elephant shaker. And there are elephants made of materials you might not expect: a bobble-head elephant made from a coconut shell and a knitted one from Kenya.

“The elephant is a symbol of Tufts, but it also shows Tufts’ global nature,” says Spolaore. “I was just reading a history of the Punic Wars and how Hannibal used elephants in an effort to intimidate the enemy and charge opposing troops. But they are likeable animals, animals for which we can feel affection.”

He treasures every one. “My elephants, well, they’re beautiful,” he says. “Elephants are very strong animals, but they’re not predators. If you leave them alone, they won’t hurt anything.”

Although he sees his collection every day and has even more at home, Spolaore still has one Jumbo wish: “I’ve never seen an elephant in the wild. That’s the one thing I would like to see.”

A New Riff on Math Rock

Photo: Kelvin Ma

Mary Glaser, a senior lecturer in mathematics

It was the early 1990s, and Mary Glaser was living the academic version of la vida loca: teaching a mathematics course at UMass/Boston where she was also pursuing a master’s degree in computer science, schlepping to Tufts to teach two courses—and playing percussion in a band. Now a senior lecturer in mathematics in the School of Arts and Sciences, she laughs about the hectic pace: “In my youth I could do that.”

Nowadays life is calmer. Glaser still teaches math, but only at Tufts, and still plays percussion, but is selective about the gigs she chooses. In the 1980s and ’90s, she and friends from Dartmouth, where she earned a Ph.D. in mathematics, played in a band they called Lost Time, and later Right Time, which performed an eclectic mix of dance music, reggae, funk, jazz and pop.

Glaser had studied percussion as a child and later played percussion in the orchestra at Smith College, where she earned her undergraduate degree. At Dartmouth she expanded her percussion collection to include congas, timbales, electronic drums and a variety of hand percussion.

A close-up of the album Right Time was together for about a decade and released two albums. “One year we all left our jobs to try to make a go of it,” she recalls. It worked for a while: Right Time gigged 15 nights a month at such venues as the Channel, the Western Front, the Paradise and other clubs in and around Boston, as well as in Vermont. They even had a following. “You know the band Phish?” she asks. “Some of those guys would come to hear us when they were in college in Vermont.”

Glaser hadn’t completely let go of her day job, though, continuing to teach part-time. But soon “people were getting married and having families, and we got tired of making $15 a night, though we were having fun,” she says.

Today she’s a popular teacher—she made the Princeton Review’s best 300 professors list in 2012—who still plays. She performs with singer/songwriter Susan Cattaneo and also with Hipsocket, a local band whose website describes her this way: In her moments away from the groove, Dr. Glaser teaches advanced mathematical concepts; onstage she teaches us all about keeping it On The One. Not only does she bring texture and excitement to the rhythm section, she brings sequins—and we are honored to have her sit in with us.

And those albums displayed in her office? Once in a while students will notice the covers and ask about them. She’ll tell them about her musical life, and for students of the download generation, she patiently explains just what an album is.

No Horse Thievery Here

Photo: Kelvin Ma

Michael Roberts, a lecturer in Tufts’ Boston School of Occupational Therapy

Its members include popes, most of the American presidents, George Armstrong Custer and Mikhail Gorbachev—and Michael Roberts, a lecturer in Tufts’ Boston School of Occupational Therapy. Roberts and his more famous brethren are members of the Society in Dedham (Mass.) for Apprehending Horse Thieves, and he has a certificate on his office wall to prove it. Founded in 1810, the organization bills itself as “the oldest existing horse thief apprehending organization in the United States.”

How exactly was Roberts able to join such an august group? Anyone, it turns out, can apply. Membership, which over the years has numbered some 10,000 people, is approved by the majority of those attending the organization’s annual meeting—and it’s no problem if an applicant doesn’t even know that he or she has been nominated. “You can be admitted even if you have no idea the organization exists,” offers Roberts to explain how all those aforementioned notables got in.

The certificate in question. Photo: Kelvin Ma

A must for local politicians and business people, the annual get-togethers at a local restaurant are lively events. There are plenty of speeches and bad jokes, as well as generous amounts of food and drink.

Members are asked to pay $10 for a lifetime membership, with the money going into an account established in 1838 at the Dedham Savings Bank. The society uses the money for expenses and also makes charitable donations. It is believed to be the oldest private bank account used continuously in the United States.

Roberts, who is his department’s academic fieldwork coordinator, lives in Dedham and decided to join two years ago, thinking it would be a good way to get involved in the community.  

While the annual dinners are now a humorous affair, the origins of the organization were quite serious. At the turn of the 19th century, Dedham struggled with a missing-horse problem, the modern equivalent of a rash of stolen motor vehicles. On June 4, 1810, “in an expression of public outrage,” according to the society’s website, a number of Dedham citizens assembled at Marsh’s Tavern to combat horse thievery.

If your horse was stolen 200 years ago, Roberts says, “you were in dire straits, as it could be crucial to your livelihood as a farmer or provide you access to trade. There hasn’t been a horse stolen in Dedham in 100 years, and I think the society is a big part of that.”

The society is very New England, he notes. “It’s got history and shows a community taking care of itself. I picture a bunch of village men in the early 1800s sitting around a tavern, pounding tankards on a table, demanding something be done.”

Despite allusions to “villains” who continued to perpetrate “the atrocious practice” of horse thievery, meetings were apparently quite dull until the turn of the 20th century, when a local veterinarian, Edward Knobel, took the reins of the organization and transformed its mission into a social event.

The society has turned down some applicants, most notably the Ayatollah Khomeini, whose name was put forth unsuccessfully by one member, and Robert Ripley, whose membership was suggested years ago at a time when there were geographical requirements. “Dear Mr. Ripley,” the clerk treasurer wrote then, “Since you are not a resident of Dedham (or Norwood or Westwood, or Dover or Norfolk County) you cannot join our Society. Believe it or not, Charles Gibson.”

Geographical constraints exist no longer, and Roberts says he hopes more of his friends and neighbors join, “because if a horse does get stolen in Dedham again, we’ll need as many hands on deck as we can get.”

Marjorie Howard can be reached at marjorie.howard@tufts.edu.