History doesn’t always distribute recognition equally. For every Einstein and Darwin, there are scores of eminent researchers and downright geniuses whose efforts are largely forgotten. The fickle memory of the public’s hive mind means that numerous brilliant scientists have toiled their lives away in the name of advancing human understanding, only to have the credit swept away from them by official records, the Nobel Foundation or competing researchers in their field. These are ten scientists who made amazing discoveries, performed vital work and formulated ingenious theories, only to be forgotten by the general public.
Alfred Russell Wallace
Wallace devised the theory of evolution by natural selection separately to Darwin, coming up with the idea during a visit to the Malay Archipelago – now Malaysia and Indonesia. The idea was inspired by numerous observations, but largely by the discovery of a rift between different types of species at a division known as the Wallace Line. He co-published the theory of evolution, but largely lost credit to Darwin. A campaign in 2013 (the 100th anniversary of his death) saw his portrait placed in the Natural History Museum alongside the statue of Darwin, although he is still poorly recognised for his outstanding – and correct – theory.
Despite formulating the periodic table of elements, Mendeleev was never awarded a Nobel Prize for Chemistry to commemorate his monumental achievement. The periodic table organises the elements found in nature according to their properties, and Mendeleev originally predicted the existence of three new elements as a result of gaps in his table. These were later discovered and named gallium, scandium and germanium. He never received a Nobel Prize, supposedly because he’d criticised the theory of Svante Arrhenius, who used his position on the Swedish Academy of Sciences to prevent the chemistry prize from going to Mendeleev.
Aristarchus was alive in ancient Greece, from 310 to 230 BC, and correctly reasoned that the Earth revolves around the Sun, and not the other way around. The accepted wisdom was that the Earth was the centre of the universe, but Aristarchus used mathematics to estimate the distances to the Sun and Moon and their relative sizes. Based on these observations, he concluded that the Earth must, in fact orbit the Sun, centuries before Copernicus or Galileo (the more well-known proponents of the idea) were even born.
Nikola Tesla is arguably the most well-known name on this list. In the late 19th century, he was one of the key figures in – and the ultimate victor of – the “war of the currents.” His alternating current (AC) electricity threatened the direct current (DC) championed by Thomas Edison, which was comparatively wasteful and impractical. Later, his discovery of the rotating magnetic field lead to the invention of AC induction motors, which are still used in modern industry. He also invented the basic system of radio, creating the patent and a working prototype device before Guglielmo Marconi made his famous transmission in 1901. Marconi won the Nobel Prize, and Tesla’s true status as the inventor of radio wasn’t established until the year of his death, 1943. As a result, despite some renewed interest in his work, he remains a relative unknown to the wider public.
Alexander Fleming is virtually a household name, widely known for his discovery of penicillin. However, penicillin only works against gram positive bacteria, leaving a huge number of conditions, such as tuberculosis, untreatable in the 1940s. Albert Schatz set about solving the problem, eventually discovering a new antibiotic – streptomycin – in 1943. Despite this equally beneficial discovery, Schatz’s name is far more obscure than Fleming’s.
The Nobel Prize isn’t award posthumously, and this rule essentially struck Rosalind Franklin’s name from the mainstream history of science. She worked alongside James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins, who eventually went on to win the prize for discovering the double-helix structure of DNA. Franklin was tasked with studying the A form of DNA (with Wilkins taking the B form), and also devised an innovative method of separating the two forms to yield interpretable results. She determined that DNA had two strands, as opposed to three, and her data was instrumental in Watson and Crick’s final model. Sadly, she died of cancer before the Nobel Prize was awarded, and as a result her contribution is often forgotten.
Otto Hahn won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1945, but he would have made the discovery without the work of his collaborator of 30 years, Lise Meitner. She studied under Max Planck in the early 20th century, and soon started working with Hahn – offering insight into the physics of radioactive substances while he investigated the chemistry. Following the work of Enrico Fermi, Meitner, Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann set out to investigate the aftermath of neutron bombardment in uranium. These experiments led her to discover nuclear fission, but her pivotal role was misunderstood by the Nobel committee, and she did not receive a share of the prize.
John Bardeen is far from a household name, despite the fact that you’re surrounded by things which couldn’t exist without him at virtually all times. His work on semiconductors led to the development of the transistor, one of the core components of computers and an integral stepping stone in their development. He also explained the phenomenon of superconductivity in 1972, which was a prominent mystery in physics since 1908. He won two Nobel Prizes for his efforts, but still remains an unusually obscure name.
Related: Science's greatest mysteries
Not all contributions to science are exciting discoveries – like Mendeleev, Carl Linnaeus made his contribution by vastly improving scientific classification. His theory of classification is still used today, despite being devised in the 18th century. It simply split nature into plants, animals and minerals, each member of which was then given a class, a genus and a species. This enabled scientists to use descriptive yet simplistic names in place of the previously overly complicated ones. Despite this, Linnaeus is a virtual unknown in the eyes of the public.
A winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1967, Bethe’s contributions to nuclear physics extend well beyond his work on the energy production in stars. He improved on Bohr’s atomic theory, predicted the discovery of the pi meson and offered an explanation for Lamb shift in the spectrum of hydrogen, contributing significantly to the field of quantum electrodynamics. Despite all of these achievements, names like Max Planck and Erwin Schrodinger receive considerably more public attention.
- Access Excellence: Rosalind Franklin
- Mental Floss: 7 geniuses and 1 entire science that never won the Nobel
- Cornell University: Aristarchus
- Fermilab: About John Bardeen
- Natural History Museum: Alfred Russell Wallace
- Natural History Museum: Carl Linnaeus
- Wolfram Scienceworld: Bethe, Hans Albrecht
- NNDB: Dmitri Mendeleev
- Tesla Society: Biography
- Albert Schatz, PhD: Biography