History loves a winner. And in the field of science, the big winners are generously rewarded with Nobel Prizes, lucrative patents and international acclaim. Those who lost out in the quest for scientific recognition sometimes waited too long to publish a theory, or perhaps didn’t follow the right procedure in applying for a patent. But sometimes, these historic also-rans did everything right, were the first to make a major discovery and still didn’t receive the credit they deserved. Here are five such scientists who made important breakthroughs but have been overshadowed in the history books.
5. The Battle to Patent the Telephone
Every elementary student in America learns that Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. But what’s lesser known was that Bell was competing with Elisha Gray to invent the first “harmonic telegraph,” and that they both filed paperwork for the invention of the telephone on the same day, Feb. 14, 1876. This was almost a month before Bell actually got his device to work on March 10, with his famous transmission of “Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you.” Bell was awarded the patent, although Gray and his attorneys would challenge that decision in court several times before Bell was finally declared the legal inventor of the phone. To this day, some historians believe Bell or his patent attorneys “borrowed” several ideas from Gray after allegedly bribing a clerk to get access to Gray’s paperwork at the patent office. Many observers have noted the similarities between Bell’s notebooks and Gray’s work. Bell, of course, would grow rich off his telephone patent, but Gray didn’t exactly fade into obscurity. He did quite well financially as the founder of Western Electric Manufacturing Co., which became the current Western Electric Co. He also continued inventing things, with his most notable invention being the “telautograph,” a primitive forerunner of the modern fax machine.
4. The Splitting of the Atom
Sometimes, the politics of the day assures that a scientist will work in obscurity. In the first half of the 20th century, scientists raced to unlock the secrets of the atom, a competition that climaxed during World War II as the United States and Nazi Germany both sought to build the first atomic bomb. And while the names of Ernest Rutherford and Niels Bohr became well known, one woman’s contributions remain largely forgotten. Lise Meitner worked with physicist Otto Hahn to classify and describe the menagerie of daughter isotopes created by nuclear decay, work that would eventually win Hahn the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1944. Meitner’s name was left off the original paper due to Nazi discrimination of “non-Aryan academics,” which forced Meitner to flee Germany in 1938. It is ironic that the very fact that the Nazis did not pursue the path of Meitner’s work doomed their atomic bomb project almost from the start, leaving the United States and the Manhattan Project to discover the decay process that led to weaponized plutonium. Although Meitner never got the Nobel she deserved, she did get recognition on the periodic table in the form of the element meitnerium.
3. The Discovery of DNA
In 1953, one of the great scientific breakthroughs of the 20th century occurred when James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the famous double helix structure of DNA. They did this utilizing the work of the pioneering crystallographer Rosalind Franklin without her consent or knowledge. “My jaw fell open and my pulse began to race,” noted Watson upon seeing the now-famous “Photo 51” taken by Franklin. Watson even went to great lengths to distance himself from Franklin, calling her “hostile and unimaginative” in his memoirs. Friends describe her as brilliant at the new field of X-ray photography and its interpretation but unwilling to invite controversy, which may have led to her downfall. Watson and Crick shared the 1962 Nobel in Physiology and Medicine for the discovery, while Franklin had died of ovarian cancer in relative obscurity four years earlier at the age of 37. It’s worth noting that Nobel Prizes are not awarded posthumously, and there is speculation that had Franklin been alive she would have been honored along with Watson and Crick.
2. The Discovery of Pulsars
In 1968, a young post-graduate student named Jocelyn Bell Burnell working at a radio observatory based at Cambridge brought a curious set of pulsating signals to the attention of her supervisor, Anthony Hewish. Hewish dismissed them as simply manmade static, until Bell Burnell’s further research demonstrated that the source was indeed extraterrestrial. In fact, the sources were known for a brief time as LGMs, for “Little Green Men.” Today, we understand pulsars as a naturally occurring phenomenon, a dense and rapidly spinning neutron star that is a remnant of a supernova explosion. Bell Burnell’s discovery was truly epic — a couple of years later, Josif Shklovsky, one of the preeminent astronomers of the era, told her, “Miss Bell, you have made the greatest astronomical discovery of the 20th century.” Despite her contributions, Bell Burnell did not receive recognition in the 1974 Nobel for Physics shared by Hewish, despite astronomer Fred Hoyle’s condemnation of the affair.
1. The Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection
Naturalist Charles Darwin advanced one of the foremost tenets of modern biology with his 1859 publication of On the Origin of Species. Darwin’s research on the book dated to a journey a quarter-century earlier aboard the HMS Beagle. That trip to South America and the Gallapagos Islands convinced Darwin of the reality of geographic speciation and survival of the fittest via natural selection, yet Darwin was reluctant to publish his theory, for fear of offending the Victorian mores of the day. But by the mid-1850s, a young naturalist named Alfred Wallace working in the Malay Archipelago began reaching similar conclusions, that the engines of sex, death and time drove the evolution of life. Wallace even began corresponding with Darwin. The letters between the two are enlightening; Wallace used much of the same phrasings that are apparent in Darwin’s work. Perhaps it was Wallace’s reluctance to give up the prevailing theories of the day that brought Darwin’s bolder ideas to the fore. Darwin remarked in a letter to Wallace that, “without speculation there is no good and original observation …” and further states that, “I go much further than you.”
At one point, Darwin was quite surprised to receive a package including Wallace’s theory on evolution. By 1858, it was decided both Darwin’s and Wallace’s evolutionary theories would be jointly outlined in a presentation to a British scientific society. So why do we remember Darwin today, while Wallace is a footnote to history? Wallace’s competing theory prompted Darwin to quickly publish his groundbreaking book, On the Origin of Species, in 1859. Interestingly, little mention is made in that book about human evolution; that would come later in Darwin’s 1871 work, The Descent of Man. It’s also intriguing that right around the same time, another scientist, Gregor Mendel, labored in relative obscurity to build a theory that would give us key insight into the mechanism of evolution; that of genetics and inheritance. Both Darwin and Wallace saw the engines of selection at work, although it would be nearly a half century before Mendelian genetics would be rediscovered and for the phenomena of random mutation (what Darwin termed as “monstrosities”) to be understood.
As for Wallace, he held no bitterness that Darwin received the majority of the credit for a theory he had also suggested. Wallace even wrote a book, Darwinism, in which he defended Darwin and his theory. Wallace remained a highly regarded member of the scientific community until his death in 1913.