Fancy Footwork

John Harvard two-ounce, 56-cent stamp from 1986, honoring University’s 350th anniversary

The (biomechanical) mind at work. The late Thomas A. McMahon, McKay professor of applied mechanics and professor of biology, was described in colleagues’ Memorial Minute as animated by “an unusually eclectic array of research activities.” Indeed. Drawing on mathematical techniques and historical rowing data, he established “the connection between the speed and the class of rowing shell”—a problem in biomechanics if ever there were one. And he performed “classic work on the growth and shape of trees.”

More broadly, “In 1976 Tom was approached by the Harvard track coach, Bill McCurdy, to provide advice on the design of a new indoor track. The coach was hoping for a track that would reduce the…injuries, such as shin splints, that plague runners. Tom took up the challenge. Not long afterward his colleagues were surprised to find one of his post-doctoral students running around the perimeter of his office floor, which was covered with pillows. More sophisticated experiments, combined with insights derived from his locomotion models, enabled Tom to design a track with ‘tune’ compliance that did indeed bring about a significant reduction in injuries and…increased the average running speed by nearly three percent. As Harvard’s fast track was replicated around the world, Tom applied his methods to the design of fast running shoes.”


Cambridge Climate Change. How warm was it during this past, protracted New England autumn? On December 13, during an exam-week visit to the office and stroll across campus, Primus was surprised to find the crackerjack grounds crew mowing the Harvard Yard lawn just beyond Mass. Hall (or at least using mowers to collect the still abundant fallen leaves). Mowing, a dozen days before Christmas.


John Harvard, the Stamp. Now that we are in the era of the 58-cent first-class stamp, Michael Devney, of Cambridge, who worked at the University for more than 30 years, including long service in the recording secretary’s office, reminds this department of the 56-cent three-ounce John Harvard stamp issued in 1986, commemmorating Harvard’s 350th hoopla (22 cents for the first ounce, plus 17 cents for each additional one). According to the National Postal Museum’s excellent description (, the stamp, in the Great Americans Series, issued in Cambridge on September 3 of that year, depicts the “seventeenth-century American colonist and philanthropist.” The design was, obviously, taken from the Daniel Chester French statue.

Devney maintains that a 22-cent, one-ounce issue was the plan, but it was hatched too late, and so the three-ounce edition resulted.

Two questions: Should Harvard invest now in lots of first-class “Forever” stamps in the hope that they will appreciate as postal costs inflate rapidly by 2036 (but they might become worthless because there will be no physical mail by then)? And has anyone thought to apply now for a standard Harvard stamp in time for the quadricentennial, just 14 years hence?


Campaign quips. The day after Mehmet Cengiz Öz ’82—television’s Dr. Oz—declared his candidacy for the Republican nomination to a Pennsylvania U.S. Senate seat on November 30, assailing the country’s response to the pandemic (“[T]he arrogant, closed-minded people in charge…shuttered our schools, shut down our businesses, and took away our freedom”), humorist Andy Borowitz ’80 (profiled in “April Fool Every Day,” May-June 2009, page 34) weighed in. Writing about the younger graduate, he analyzed the news thus:

“Explaining his decision to enter the political sphere, Dr. Mehmet Oz said that he hopes to oust Rand Paul as the biggest quack in the United States Senate.

“Oz said that Paul, a former ophthalmologist, has shown an impressive obliviousness about medicine while serving in Washington, but added, ‘I think I can out-quack him.’

“‘In the many times he’s grilled Dr. Fauci, has he ever asked him about the health benefits of magic coffee beans or umckaloabo-root extract?’ Oz said. ‘I think America deserves a senator who will ask those tough questions.’”

Senator Paul, Borowitz levelly “reported,” confessed his “‘respect [for] Dr. Oz as a fellow-charlatan, and the competition can only light a fire under me to become a bigger charlatan myself.’” 

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