7 Scientists Who Never Got the Credit They Deserved

September 16, 2015 | Gillian Burrell

Lise Meitner and Otto Hahn in their lab. Black and white photo.
Photo credit: Wilhelm Institute, Berlin. Image has been cropped.

If you think the telephone was invented by Alexander Graham Bell or that Darwin came up with the theory of evolution, think again.

1.   Alfred Russel Wallace – The Theory of Evolution

The theory of evolution by natural selection has been attributed time and time again to Darwin – so much so that the theory is even named “Darwinism” in his honor. But the truth is, many scientists had been developing the idea of evolution even before Darwin was born.

Alfred Russel Wallace had his eureka moment independently of Darwin, but before going public, Wallace sent his ideas to the older, well-respected naturalist. Later that year, they each presented nearly identical ideas to the Linnaean Society on exactly the same day. You have to wonder, if Wallace had had more confidence in himself, would we be discussing “Wallacism” today?


2.   Rosalind Franklin – The Structure of DNA

Watson and Crick went down in history as the co-discoverers of DNA’s helical structure, but few know about the “little burglary” that led to their infamy.

Back in the fifties, four scientists were working hard to determine what DNA looked like: James Watson and Francis Crick in Cambridge, and Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin in London. It was Franklin who produced the x-ray image that revealed DNA’s true structure, but her monumental contribution was only vaguely referenced in Watson and Crick’s famous report. In personal letters recently made public, Watson and Crick admit to a “little burglary” and Wilkins refers to Franklin as a witch.[1]

In his book The Double Helix, Watson admits freely that his dislike for Franklin was based purely on her sex. Expressing his distaste for her lack of make-up and unfeminine wardrobe, he writes “Clearly Rosy had to go or be put in her place… the best home for a feminist was in another person’s lab.” And if you think that comment was out of line, you haven’t heard Watson’s opinions on the intelligence of Africans.

In 1962, Wilkins, Watson, and Crick were awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for their DNA-related work. Franklin had died a few years early, and the prize is never awarded posthumously. But even if she had survived long enough, would a woman have received the credit she deserved?


3.   Lise Meitner – Nuclear Fission

Without Lise Meitner’s contributions to science, we wouldn’t have nuclear power or the atomic bomb. But you’ve probably never heard her name because sexism and racism kept Meitner’s name off the Nobel Prize.

Meitner collaborated for more than 30 years with chemist Otto Hahn, whose experiments made nuclear fission a reality. But it was Meitner, not Hahn, who figured out how nuclear fission works. Unfortunately, as a Jew in the early 20th century, Meitner didn’t want her name on the paper. Later, when their work was up for a Nobel consideration, a Nobel committee member actively and successfully kept her name off the prize. Only Hahn is recognized for the discovery of nuclear fission, even though the war had already ended and Nazi Germany was no more.


4.   Jocelyn Bell Burnell – Pulsars

Another scientist, snubbed for being a woman is Jocelyn Bell Burnell. At the age of just 24, Burnell discovered pulsars — small, incredibly dense stars that are created after larger stars turn supernova. Her work required a massive amount of time and effort, including analyzing 3 miles of paper readouts from a radiotelescope. Because of her gender, the Nobel Prize for pulsars was awarded to Anthony Hewish, Burnell’s supervisor and his colleague, Martin Ryle.

In a 2013 interview with National Geographic, Burnell points out that sexism towards women in academia continues to this day. Throughout her career, most of the jobs she was offered were teaching or administrative positions, not research jobs.


5.   Hans Lippershey – The Telescope

But didn’t Galileo invent the telescope? A year before Galileo built his first telescope, a Dutch spectacle maker named Lippershey was experimenting with glass. He called his instrument a kijker (“looker”) but was unable to secure a patent for the invention. Upon hearing about the device, Galileo Galilei immediately built his own telescope and the rest is history.


6.   Margeurite Perey – Francium

Marie Curie was undoubtedly one of history’s greatest minds, but equally great minds also developed in her shadow. In addition to her husband, Pierre, the Curie lab hired lab technicians including Margeurite Perey. Like Marie Curie, Perey discovered an entirely new element — Francium, named for her home country. Both Curie and Perey died gruesome deaths from radiation exposure in the lab. Unlike Curie, however, Perey did not go down in history as a brave scientist who sacrificed her life in the noble pursuit of knowledge.


7.   Antonio Meucci — The Telephone

In 1871, Meucci announced his invention of a talking telegraph (or “telectrophone”), which he used to communicate with his bedridden wife from his workshop. But when the caveat expired, Meucci couldn’t afford to renew it.  Five years later, Alexander Graham Bell patented his version of the device, forever securing himself as the man behind the telephone.


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