Katherine Purvis

Freelance journalist and commissioning editor


On this page are the various blog posts I wrote for the Around the Mall blog on Smithsonian.com, during my three-month internship as a Web Intern for Smithsonian Magazine and goSmithsonian in the summer of 2010.

(Click on the dates to be taken to the blog post on the Around the Mall site)

New Arrivals at the Zoo: Japanese Giant Salamanders

July 22, 2010

This week, the National Zoo once again welcomed several new habitants. Four Japanese giant salamanders have arrived as a gift from the City of Hiroshima Asa Zoological Park, and join the lone Japanese giant salamander who already lives on the Asia Trail.
Japanese giant salamanders, or oosanshouo (pronounced OOH-sahn-show-uuh-ooh), can grow up to 5 feet long and weigh up to 55 pounds. The natural home of the reptiles is the cold mountain streams and rivers of northern Kyushu and western Honshu in Japan. Their brown and black skin helps them to blend in with the mud, stones and plants of the streambeds, and their broad, flattened bodies are streamlined for swimming at the bottom of the fast-flowing water.

Although the Japanese giant salamander has no natural predators, they are hunted by local populations for food and much of their habitat is lost to deforestation. As such, the species is listed as ‘near threatened’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and are protected from international trade by the Convention of International Trade of Endangered Species.

The Japanese giant salamander has emerged as the flagship species for salamander conservation as scientists and conservationists struggle to combat a global amphibian crisis. According to the Zoo, “nearly one-third of the world’s more than 6,000 amphibian species are in danger of extinction, resulting in the worst extinction event since the time of the dinosaurs.” The arrival of the reptiles has prompted the opening of a breeding center, where the new additions will live.

Scientists at the Zoo will not only study how they reproduce, they will also learn about the chytridiomycosis (“chrytrid”) fungus that is lethal to some amphibian species, but not to the Japanese giant salamander. Studying the fungus will mean that these salamanders may contribute to the survival of their own species and other amphibians around the globe.

This morning, an opening ceremony at the National Zoo introduced the breeding facility to the media and Ichiro Fujisaki, the Japanese ambassador to the United States. Members of the public had the opportunity to see the young Japanese giant salamanders up close, while the were fed by staff at the Zoo, which, according to Ed Bronikowski, senior curator at the Zoo, is a remarkable spectacle.

This species has not been bred outside of Japan in more than 100 years, but the Zoo is now establishing a long-term breeding program in the United States. In the wild, salamanders begin to reproduce in late August, when females lay between 400 and 500 eggs. Males often compete viciously to fertilize the eggs, with many dying due to injuries from fights. Once the eggs are fertilized, they are guarded aggressively by the male salamanders, until they hatch in early spring. And as for the four new 11-year old salamanders at the Zoo. “They are only just coming into sexual maturity. It may be too early for them this year,” explains Ed Bronikowski. But as for next year? “We’ll see,” he says.

Happy Birthday, Ginger Rogers: The Original Dancing Queen

July 16, 2010

Ninety-nine years ago today, Virginia Katherine McMath was born in Independence, Missouri. At age 9, her mother married John Logan Rogers, after splitting with her husband shortly after Virginia’s birth. Although she was never formally adopted, Virginia took her step-father’s last name. Her cousin Helen had difficulties pronouncing Virginia’s first name, shortening it to Ginga. The result? Ginger Rogers.

Rogers’ mother’s interest in Hollywood and the theatre led to an early exposure to show business. Ginger would often stand in the wings of the Majestic Theatre in Forth Worth, Texas, singing and dancing along to the performers on the stage. Her entertainment career was born by chance one night, when Eddie Foy’s travelling vaudeville group came to the theatre, needing a stand-in to complete their act. After a taste of the limelight, Rogers entered and won a Charleston dance contest, putting her on tour for six months.

Rogers moved to New York City when she was 17 years old, earning several singing jobs on the radio and landing her Broadway theatre debut in the musical Top Speed in 1929. Two weeks after the opening of Top Speed, she was chosen to star in Girl Crazy, a new musical by George and Ira Gershwin. At the tender age of 19, her appearance in this show made her an overnight star.

Following her stint in Girl Crazy, Rogers moved to Hollywood, where she made a series of films with several motion picture companies such as Universal, Paramount and RKO Pictures, the last of which paired her with Fred Astaire for the first time. Astaire and Rogers went on to make nine musical films together at RKO, including Roberta (1935), Top Hat (1935) and Follow the Fleet (1936).

In early 1942, Rogers commissioned the Japanese-American artist, Isamu Noguchi, to create a sculpture of her. Shortly after Noguchi made the initial sketches, he was forced to relocate by the United States government. But Noguchi took his work with him, even having the pink marble he used to create the piece sent from Georgia to his internment camp in Poston, Arizona. Ginger kept the sculpture in her home until her death in 1995, when it was bought by the National Portrait Gallery, where it is still on view today. Amy Henderson, a cultural historian at the gallery says that it is wonderful to have the sculpture on display: ‘We’re very proud to have it, because it was such a favourite of this iconic figure,’ she explains.

During Roger’s long career, she made a total of 73 films and in 1941, she won an Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in Kitty Foyle. But it is for her partnership with Fred Astaire and the glamour they brought to Depression-era America that she is best known. To celebrate her life, head to the Portrait Gallery to see the Noguchi bust and watch the clip below of Astaire and Rogers at their best.


Live Aid: 25 Years Later

July 13, 2010

Twenty-five years ago today, on July 13, 1985, more than 170,000 music fans descended on Wembley Stadium in the UK, and the John F. Kennedy Stadium in Philadelphia, PA., to experience Live Aid – a 16 hour-long, multi-venue concert, organized to raise money for relief of the 1984-1985 famine in Ethiopia.

The brain-child of musicians Bob Geldof and Midge Ure, Live Aid was conceived as a follow-on project to the successful charity single of the previous year –  ”Do They Know It’s Christmas,” which was performed by a group of British and Irish music acts, collectively billed as Band Aid. The song went straight to the No.1 spot of the UK Singles Chart and stayed there for five weeks, ultimately selling more than 3 million copies. To this date, it is the second best selling single of all time.

The UK concert of Live Aid featured monumental performances from Queen, U2, Elvis Costello and The Who while the audience in Philadelphia were treated to appearances from Bob Dylan, Madonna, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath.

The sister concerts were shown live in 110 countries to an estimated 2 billion viewers. Using 13 satellites and 22 transponders, it was the most ambitious international satellite television venture that had ever been attempted and it remains one of the largest television broadcasts of all time. Hal Uplinger was the producer for the television broadcast in the United States and was responsible for the international satellite transmission and distribution around the world. In 1989, he was awarded a Smithsonian Computerworld Award in the Media, Arts and Entertainment category for his role in Live Aid. During an interview with Smithsonian Oral Histories in 1993, Uplinger explained how he initially got involved in the groundbreaking broadcast.

Even 25 years later, money is still being raised to aid famine relief throughout Africa, all thanks to Bob Geldof’s initial idea. In November 2004, an official four-disc DVD of the Live Aid concerts was released. On July 2, 2005, a series of music events, entitled Live 8, were held in London, Edinburgh, Cornwall, Berlin, Paris, Rome, Philadelphia, Barrie, Moscow, Chiba and Johannesburg – to coincide with the G8 summit of that year and the 25th anniversary of the original concerts. And in 1989 and 2004, the charity single, “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” was re-recorded by popular artists of the time and released, reaching the No.1 spot both times.

More than £150 million ($283.6 million) has been donated as a direct result of the landmark event, far exceeding the initial target of £1 million.


Looking Back at Wimbledon: Althea Gibson Wins Big

July 6, 2010

From Isner and Mahut setting a new record for the longest professional tennis match to previous champions Venus Williams and Roger Federer crashing out in the quarter-finals, Wimbledon 2010 was an exhilarating tournament to watch. But this year’s competition is not the only one to have delivered shocks, unexpected results and landmark events.

Fifty-three years ago today, on July 6, 1957, Althea Gibson became the first African-American to win the ladies’ singles title at Wimbledon. Gibson, who had won the women’s singles tournament at the French Open the previous year, beat fellow American, Darlene Hard, in straight sets to take the championship title.

The National Museum of American History possesses a sizable collection of Gibson’s trophies and other possessions. And at the National Portrait Gallery, a heartwarming photograph by Genevieve Naylor, shows Gibson teaching Harlem children how to hold a tennis racket. The image appeared in the recent show “Women of Our Time.”

Although born into a poor family in the 1920s, Althea Gibson was fortunate to come to the attention of Dr. Walter Johnson–a physician from Lynchburg, Virginia, who was active in the black tennis community. Johnson soon became her patron and under his guidance Gibson improved her game, while he sought out ways to propel her into the recognized tennis scene.

Throughout her amateur career, Gibson won a staggering 56 singles and doubles titles, including 11 major titles in the late 1950s at championship tournaments such as the French Open, the U.S. Open and Wimbledon. She was ranked the top U.S. tennis player in 1957 and 1958, and was the first black player to be voted Female Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press in those same two years.

But her achievements do not stop there. During her retirement from amateur tennis, Gibson wrote her autobiography entitled I Always Wanted to Be Somebody, and released an album, Althea Gibson Sings. And as if mastering the art of professional tennis was not enough, in 1963, Gibson became the first African American woman to play in the Ladies Professional Golf Association.

For many, Gibson is remembered as the Jackie Robinson of tennis, for overcoming barriers of race and colour at a time when segregation was rife. Billie Jean King, winner of 12 Grand Slam titles, once said of Gibson, “If it hadn’t been for her, it wouldn’t have been so easy for Arthur Ashe or the ones who followed.”


Another Birth to Celebrate at the National Zoo

June 25, 2010

Last week the National Zoo welcomed another baby animal to their steadily increasing brood. On June 16, Shama and Tate, a pair of red pandas, became proud parents to a single cub: a tiny, sandy-haired creature that will achieve its full adult fur and coloring when it is around 90-days old. The birth is a first for both Shama and Tate, and is the first red panda birth at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. in fifteen years.

The cub’s parents were introduced 18 months ago, when Tate came from the Nashville Zoo to breed with the then 2-year-old Shama. The pair did not waste any time and displayed typical reproductive behavior within seconds of their meeting. But, like giant pandas, red pandas only have the opportunity to conceive once a year, and for this inexperienced pair, it took a couple of attempts before they were successful.

The birth of this new club not only represents a triumph for the National Zoo, but also for the entire conservation community. At present, there are fewer than 2,500 red pandas left in the wild and due to habitat loss, they are considered an endangered species. The director of the Zoo, Dennis Kelly, explains that, “As red panda numbers decline in the wild, a healthy, thriving captive population will become more and more important to the survival of the species.”

The presence of the new arrival indicates that the red pandas are comfortable and well adjusted to their home here, which is characteristic of their natural habitat of the cool bamboo forests in Asia.

Scientists and biologists at the Zoo have a history of studying the reproduction of red pandas and the new cub, who is yet to be named, will become an important part of their work. Tom Barthel, curator of the Asia Trail says, “We are excited about the opportunity we’ll have to watch and learn from the interactions between the red pandas as Shama raises the cub.”

To ensure that Shama and her new cub benefit from the peace and quiet they need to bond, the red panda section of the Asia Trail has been closed off. Once keepers determine that Shama has adjusted to her new life with the cub, the area will reopen and visitors will have the chance to view the newest furry inhabitant at the Zoo.


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