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How Curiosity Maneuvered Henry Heimlich & Others Into American Culture

They say that curiosity killed the cat. If that’s the case, maybe that’s why a cat has nine lives - to keep on experimenting with this thing called curiosity. And without it, really though, where would we be? Without that spark of intrigue, how could inventors proceed with inventing? A recent Pew study asked over 70,000 American Jews, “What is an essential part of being Jewish”? Close to half of them responded, “Being intellectually curious.” Could that be why we’ve created some of America’s the most inspirational inventions?

Take Henry Heimlich who 42 years ago today published an article in the Emergency Medicine journal outlining a better method for aiding choking victims. The now 96-year-old inventor of the Heimlich Maneuver, who said he was curious about finding a better way of helping choking victims survive, had seen a flaw in the old technique of just slapping a person on the back. He advocated that the best way to dislodge a food blockage was through a technique of abdominal thrusts.

Three months later, the method was dubbed “the Heimlich Maneuver” by the Journal of the American Medical Association. In fact, Heimlich just used his maneuver last month on an 87-year-old woman who was chocking at his senior living center. She had been eating dinner, couldn’t breathe, her face was turning pink so he got up and did a couple abdominal thrusts and out popped a piece of chicken with a bone in it.

The parents of Jonas Salk, the doctor who invented the cure for polio, boasted that their son was one of the most curious children they had ever encountered. Salk knew all to well the devastating results of one of the most dreaded childhood diseases of the 20th century. Polio began to appear in the late 19th century in Europe - it quickly made it’s way to the US. He had seen lives changed and dreams killed. Salk devoted all of his energies into finding a cure and when he did, he refused to patent the vaccine. He chose to save lives rather than make a profit.

Granted, curiosity expresses itself in many forms. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the Atomic Bomb, could not have led the Manhattan Project without it. When he witnessed the first test, he quoted the Bhagavad Gita, “Now I am become Death, The destroyer of worlds.” After WWII, Oppenheimer lobbied against nuclear proliferation and the arms race with the Soviet Union.

Does curiosity have to cut such a dramatic figure? Absolutely not! Hyman Lipman left his mark, literally, by having the patent to the pencil 1858. He could also take the mark away, if he so desired, since his patent included a rubber eraser on its end. The Philadelphian also founded the first envelop company in the U.S. in 1843 so he could address an envelope written with his own pencil and know that he was responsible for the whole process!

Morris Marken from Kalamazoo, Michigan, rolled out his first Checker Taxi in 1923. He was the first white-owned cab company to have African American drivers and to require all drivers to pick up fares of all races.

You might not know the name Ruth Handler, but you certainly know the name of her invention: Barbie. While watching her daughter and her friends play with paper dolls she noticed that their curiosity of life had the girls acting out the future rather than the present with their paper dolls. This inspired Handler to invent a grown-up, three-dimensional doll that went on to become an American cultural icon. She went on to invent the Ken doll, along with co-founding the renowned toy company, Mattel. To this day, the Barbie doll remains one of Mattel’s best-selling products.

And speaking of American icons, what’s more iconic than blue jeans? Levi Strauss, a Bavarian-born dry good merchant, came to San Francisco in 1853 at the age of 24 to open a West Coast branch of his brothers’ New York dry goods business. He worked hard at becoming a well-respected business man as well as a local philanthropist. Along the way he partnered with a local tailor. They needed a durable, riveted piece of clothing for laborers to wear that would last. Strauss owned the denim and together they came up with a plan - and a piece of pure Americana was invented. Jeans have been worn by every facet of American society and exported around the world as an icon of our civilization.

The curiosity factor. There’s no denying that it has shaped American history and culture. As Jews, we were instilled to have a thirst of knowledge: to ask questions and seek answers. That’s how we’ve contributed to society as a whole and to our own community. It will also help us make our way into the future. And to remember that the curious cat always lands on its feet!

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