These geniuses all waited years to get their due
The scientific world had a long history of skimping on credit.
For a bunch of smarties, the scientific world isn’t always quick to recognize genius. Take Louis Pasteur, mocked for concluding that microbes—like the ones he had already discovered could sour wine and beer—were the source rather than symptoms of disease. We now appreciate that Pasteur proved germ theory. Rosalind Franklin led the lab that first visualized DNA’s structure—only to have colleagues James Watson and Francis Crick crib her notes and take credit for confirming the double helix. She died young, while the two men went on to share a Nobel Prize. She didn’t even get a mention in their acceptance speeches. Now that the scientific community (mostly) recognizes Franklin’s integral efforts, she’s become something of a patron saint for victims of research misconduct. But not every maligned genius got such a clear redemptive arc.
Alice Augusta Ball 1892-1916
Discovery: The first woman (and African-American) to get a master’s from the University of Hawaii, she developed an injectable leprosy treatment using chaulmoogra oil.
What happened: After Ball died, university head Arthur L. Dean published her work—and passed it off as his own.
Lifesaving legacy: The treatment improved the lives of thousands. Dean came clean, and in 2000, the University honored Ball with a plaque—on a campus chaulmoogra
Alice Catherine Evans 1881-1975
Discovery: While working as a microbiologist at the USDA in 1917, she found that raw milk contained dangerous germs.
What happened: The scientific community ignored the troubling results (at least in part because Evans was a woman without a doctorate degree) until others confirmed them.
Pasteurization: In 1928, the Society of American Bacteriologists elected Evans its first female president. Two years later, the U.S. required milk pasteurization.
Charles Drew 1904-1950
Discovery: He figured out how to stabilize plasma, making it possible to store blood and create a national bank.
What happened: Drew later resigned as medical director of the American Red Cross in protest of the organization’s policy of segregating blood from black people.
Bank on it: The Red Cross changed its policy the same year Drew died. Since the 1960s, nearly two dozen schools and medical centers have been named in his honor.
Yamagiwa Katsusaburo 1863-1930
Discovery: By applying coal tar to rabbits’ ears, he proved chemicals can cause cancer.
What happened: The Nobel committee instead awarded someone who thought parasites were the culprit behind cancer. This has since been debunked.
A noble effort: The Nobel committee never did give him a call, but he won the Japan Academy Prize in 1919—and gets credit in many modern textbooks.
Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin 1900-1979
Discovery: Her 1925 doctoral thesis correctly concluded that the sun was made mostly of hydrogen.
What happened: Her thesis reviewer told her to walk back the findings because they bucked conventional wisdom. Of course, he later got the same results—because she was right.
Her Harvard triumph: She was proved correct, and went on to become Harvard’s first female tenured professor—and, in 1956, its first female department head.
Barbara McClintock 1902-1992
Discovery: She identified transposons—segments of DNA that can jump around the genome, causing mutations.
What happened: The research community did not understand her work. So many colleagues responded with hostility that she stopped publishing on the topic altogether.
No-duh, Nobel: When the rest of the science world caught up, McClintock became the first woman to win an unshared Nobel Prize for medicine in 1983.
Lynn Margulis 1938-2011
Discovery: She came up with endosymbiosis: Bits of our cells were once independent bacteria, but larger single-celled organisms picked them up in a symbiotic partnership.
What happened: Fifteen scientific journals rejected her 1967 paper on the subject, and the idea was largely ignored.
Cellular powerhouse: Her theories were controversial until two other scientists proved them in 1978. Five years later, she was elected to the National Academy of Sciences.
This article was originally published in the Spring 2018 Intelligence issue of Popular Science.