Fergus M. Bordewich, who writes frequently for Smithsonian about history, takes up the case of extremist abolitionist John Brown, whose fateful raid on a federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, 150 years ago this month exacerbated tensions leading up to the Civil War ("Day of Reckoning,"). The author of a history of the Underground Railroad, Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America, Bordewich says Brown is among the most notable American figures, one whose significance is still debatable: "He has been seen in a remarkable number of ways in different eras, as a saint, a hero, a demon, a traitor, an enlightened forerunner of modern civil rights and tolerance, a troublemaker, terrorist and madman. Even people who admire him are not entirely comfortable." For his part, Bordewich came away from the story surprised by Brown's personal tolerance: "That is to say, he had among his friends and followers people of various religious persuasions, as well as atheists and agnostics. He hated slavery, but he was not a bigoted man."
After senior editor Mark Strauss got word of an extraordinary scientific investigation into counterfeit malaria medicines in Southeast Asia, he called on British freelance writer Andrew Marshall to pursue the story ("Prescription for Murder,"). Marshall says he was stunned by "the sheer awfulness of people making money off a product that can actually kill people. When people buy fake Gucci handbags, they often know they're fakes. But they don't buy fake drugs knowing that they're fake." Marshall says many people in rural Cambodia and Myanmar can't afford treatment, so malaria becomes a way of life. "I spoke to farmers who had had it not just once or twice or three times, but four, five, six, seven, eight times. One of the women I spoke to had obviously been sick for a long time, but she had to continue working while extremely sick just so she could get the money together to seek treatment. To me, somebody who has to do that is both sobering and inspirational."
Time is running out on our 7th Annual Photo Contest, which closes for entries December 1. You can check out our rules at Smithsonian.com/photocontest and view some promising entries under "Editors' Picks." And, in Washington, D.C., don't miss the exhibition of this year's winners and finalists at the Smithsonian Castle on the National Mall, through January 17.