Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Another mammoth case of plagiarism

Since dealing with my mother's estate, it's taken me a while to get started again working on the mammoth book and related topics. First on the list is finishing the Teutobocus story that I began over a month ago (part 1, part 2). Part three will be here next week and the conclusion soon after. Meanwhile, I'll give you this little tidbit to fill the time.

The original sources for the Teutobocus story are all in French, a language I do not read. My first priority in hunting for the sources has been to find English translations. When that fails, I hunt for French sources and translate them using brute force. (Explaining my method made this post too long, so I pulled that section out to use in another post. Tomorrow, I promise.)

The earliest of the Teutobocus sources was a pamphlet, credited to a monk named Jacques Tissot. This pamphlet was sold as a means of advertising the traveling show that took a set of bones, reputed to have been Teutobocus', on a tour of France in the years following 1613. Luckily for me, the complete pamphlet was republished in a volume of the anthology Variétés historiques et littéraires published in 1859. The editor of the series, Edward Fournier, also provided a commentary on the pamphlet. When I found this volume on line, I copied article and commentary, made a rough translation with Google Translate and set it aside for later polishing whil i looked for some other sources.

I considered myself extra lucky to find an English translation of Tissot's pamphlet in a 1912 volume of a journal I'd never heard of, The Post-Graduate. The translator was an American medical doctor named Charles Greene Cumston. I read over Cumston's introduction and saved it along with his introduction.

Last week I was spending some time on translations and started polishing Fournier's commentary. It looked familiar. A few minutes later, I had my crude translation of Fournier side by side with Cumston's introduction. This is what I found. I'm giving Fournier's french original and my translation, so readers who are comfortable in French can check my translation.

These are the first few sentences of each.
Fournier's commentary: Cette pièce se rapporte à un événement singulier qui intéresse, comme on le verra, plutôt la paléontologie que l’histoire: étrange problème, dont la solution s’est fait attendre plus de deux siècles, de 1613 à 1835, et qui aboutit, en fin de compte, à faire restituer à un mastodonte des ossements que pendant deux cents ans on avoit prêtés à un géant imaginaire!
My crappy translation: This piece refers to a singular event of interest, as will be seen, to paleontology rather than history: strange problem, whose solution has been waiting more than two centuries, from 1613 to 1835, which resulted, the restoration of a mastodon bones that for two hundred years had been attributed to an imaginary giant!
Cumston's introduction: The brochure which I will reproduce and translate, relates to a most singular occurrence and, as will be seen, is a most interesting document bearing on the history of osteology. The problem was very strange, the solution of which remained unsolved from 1615 to 1835, and in the end resulted in the reconstruction of a mastodon, whose bones for two centuries were supposed to be those of an imaginary giant.

Fournier's commentary: La découverte eut lieu le 11 janvier 1613, dans le Bas-Dauphiné, à quatre lieues de Romans. Des ouvriers qui travailloient dans une sablonnière voisine du château de Chaumont, propriété du marquis de Langon, y trouvèrent, à 17 ou 18 pieds de profondeur, un certain nombre d’ossements de grande dimension...
My crappy translation: The discovery took place on 11 January 1613, in the Bas-Dauphiné, four leagues from Romans. Workers who toiled in a sand pit near Castle Chaumont, the property of the Marquis de Langon, found at a depth of 17 or 18 feet, a number of large bones...
Cumston's introduction: The discovery took place on January 11, 1613, in Bas-Dauphiné, four leages from Romans. Some workmen who were digging in a sand pit near the Chateau of Chaumont, belonging to the Marquis de Langon, came upon a certain number of very large bones at the depth of some seventeen or eighteen feet...

A list of the actual bones found follows. The similarity of two lists of the same thing proves nothing. Skipping past the list we find.
Fournier's commentary: La découverte, déjà importante, l’eût été davantage si quelques ossements n’eussent été brisés par les ouvriers ou ne fussent tombés en poussière sitôt qu’ils avoient été exposés à l’air.
My crappy translation: The discovery, already important, would have been better if some of the bones had not been broken by the workers or fallen into dust as soon as they were exposed to air.
Cumston's introduction: The discovery, although important, would have been still more so, had not some of the bones been broken by the workmen or fallen to pieces when exposed to the air.

Fournier's commentary: Aujourd’hui la science ne tarderoit pas à s’emparer de pareilles dépouilles ; alors ce fut l’ignorance et le charlatanisme qui firent main-basse dessus.
My crappy translation: Today science would not delay to take such remains, but then it was ignorance and charlatanism that took over.
Cumston's introduction: Today science would not be long in seizing upon such findings, but at the time of which we speak ignorance and charlatinism (sic) held them in their grasp and soon fables commenced to be carried abroad.

Fournier's commentary: Les fables commencèrent à circuler; on parla d’un tombeau où les ossements auroient été découverts, mais dont on ne retrouva jamais la moindre trace; de médailles de Marius mêlées aux débris, et enfin d’une inscription sur pierre dure portant ces mots: Theutobochus rex.
My crappy translation: Stories began to circulate, they spoke of a tomb where the bones were found, but we never found the slightest trace; medals of Marius were mixed with debris, and an inscription on stone takes on these words: Theutobochus rex.
Cumston's introduction: A tomb in which the bones were found was talked of, but no trace of this was ever found; likewise medallions of Marius were said to have been unearthed with other debris, and lastly, it was rumored that an inscription had been found on stones, bearing the words: Theutobochus rex.

Fournier's commentary: Deux individus qui s’étoient tout d’abord donné un intérêt dans l’affaire: Mazuyer, chirurgien à Beaurepaire, ville des environs, et David Bertrand ou Chenevier, qui y exerçoit les fonctions de notaire.
My crappy translation: Two individuals who had first expressed an interest in the case: Mazuyer, a surgeon from Beaurepaire, and David Bertrand (or Chenevier), who exercised the functions of notary the area.
Cumston's introduction: Two individuals who were first to interest themselves in the affair, to wit, Mazuyer, a surgeon of Beaurepaire, a nearby town, and David Bertrand or Chenevier, a notary of the same place.

There should be no doubt in anyone's mind, at this point, that Cumston was a plagiarist. Was this a one time slip up or was Cumston a hardened serial plagiarist? I don't know. I'd never heard of Cumston before this, but a glance at Google Books reveals that he wrote dozens of books and articles on various aspects of medicine during the early twentieth century and that he was quite prominent in a number of learned medical societies. After WWI he quit practicing medicine and taught the history of medicine in Geneva.

Thomas Mallon's entertaining study of plagiarism, Stolen Words, points out that, counterintuitively, the great plagiarists are neither lazy nor unimaginative. They are often people who have already produced admired works. When exposed, their associates are baffled because they seemed the last people who would need to plagiarize. But it is their very success that makes them plagiarize. They feel pressure to keep producing in order to maintain their position of respect. Once they discover how satisfying it is, they act like a television serial killer, growing bolder and taking greater risks, daring the world to discover them. I don't know if that describes Cumston, but he leaves a tantalizing clue in this article.
Fournier's commentary: Tout cela, selon nous, impliquoit un doute indirect.
My crappy translation: All this, in our view, implied indirect doubt.
Cumston's introduction: To my mind, all this implies an indirect doubt.

Cumston has not only appropriated Fournier's work, he has attempted to absorb Fournier's person at the same time. He has taken taken the most personal part of Fournier's writing, a casual opinion delivered in the first person, and called it his own. This is the hubris of the plagiarist.

If there was any reason to doubt that Cumston was a plagiarist, and not simply sloppy with his attributions, this should settle matters. Cumston managed to repeat a semi-error of Fournier's.
Fournier's commentary: Ce détail, que nous trouvons dans la Vie de Peiresc, par Requier (1770, in-8, p. 144), n’a pas été connu de M. de Blainville.
My crappy translation: This detail, which we find in the Life of Peiresc by Requier (1770, in-8, p. 144), was not known to M. de Blainville.
Cumston's introduction: This detail, which was unknown to de Blainville, is to be found in Requier's Life of Piersec, published in 1770.

While Requier does indeed mention the detail that Fournier and Cumston say he does, but what neither mentions is that Requier's 1770 account of the Teutobocus story is drawn almost word for word from an account by Pierre Gassendi published in 1641. In the introduction to his book, Requier is very explicit in his indebtedness to Gassendi. In fact, parts Requier's book (including the Teutobocus story) so closely follow Gassendi's that I could make a strong case for calling Requier a plagiarist, except for the fact that he acknowledged Gassendi as his source. If Cumston had really done is own research, it's highly likely that he would have noticed Requier's bow to Gassendi and looked at that source. Gassendi's book was not obscure, after the 1641 Latin edition was published, it was translated and republished several times (including an English edition of 1657).

As I said, Cumston wrote many books and articles. I have no plans to pour over the rest of his oeuvre any time soon. If anyone has a free month or two to waste, I'll let them do it. For now, the lesson is simple: some crimes come and go and are forgotten, but plagiarism is forever.

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