19 Unsung Scientists Who Didn’t Get Enough Credit

Mental Floss via YouTube
Mental Floss via YouTube / Mental Floss via YouTube

From under-appreciated geologists to the first woman to fly in space, check out a few scientists who didn't get enough credit for their work in this list adapted from an episode of The List Show on YouTube.

1. Alfred Russel Wallace

Another scientist came up with the theory of evolution-by-natural-selection at the exact same time as Charles Darwin. Alfred Russel Wallace was a naturalist who had also studied how plants and animals adapted to their environment so only the fittest survived. While he was in southeast Asia recovering from a bad case of malaria, he sent a letter to Darwin outlining his idea. It spurred Darwin to action. In 1858 both of them had papers on the subject presented before the Linnean Society of London. Then Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, and everybody forgot about Wallace.

2. Lise Meitner

There’s a long tradition of scientists elbowing aside their colleagues when it comes to winning awards, especially for the Nobel Prize. Shortly before World War II, Austrian physicist Lise Meitner collaborated with German chemist Otto Hahn to demonstrate nuclear fission—when a heavy nucleus of a material, such as uranium, is split into two lighter nuclei, releasing a massive amount of energy. The discovery launched the Atomic Age. But Meitner, who was Jewish, had to flee to Sweden when Germany invaded Austria in 1938. As the years went on, Hahn downplayed Meitner’s involvement in their work, and when Hahn won the Nobel Prize in the mid-forties, Meitner’s contributions went unacknowledged.

3. Rosalind Franklin

Rosalind Franklin
Rosalind Franklin / Robin Stott, via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Rosalind Franklin was a British chemist who specialized in taking photos that could show the molecular structure of various compounds. With this method, her lab photographed DNA, which would be critical for the discovery of its double-helix structure. Three other people—James Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins—used Franklin’s findings without her permission. When they won the Nobel Prize in Physiology for their collective work in 1962, Franklin was left out of the honors; she had died in 1958.

4. Chien-Shiung Wu

Chien-Shiung Wu at Columbia University in 1963.
Chien-Shiung Wu at Columbia University in 1963. / Smithsonian Institution, Wikimedia Commons // No Known Restrictions

Chien-Shiung Wu worked on the Manhattan Project, the United States’s secret effort to build nuclear weapons. While the moral implications of the work are debatable, it’s a fact that the world’s leading physicists were involved in its scientific research. Later, Wu designed experiments that disproved a law of physics: the Conservation of Parity. Essentially, parity means that particles that are mirror images of each other will also behave as mirror images. Wu designed an experiment that showed the mirror-image particles don’t necessarily act that way, which contributed to the development of the Standard Model of Particle Physics. But—and you probably saw this coming—her colleagues in the work won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1957. Wu did not.

5. Alice Augusta Ball

Alice Augusta Ball was a brilliant chemist at what’s now the University of Hawaii, and around 1915, she developed a method to make a new, injectable treatment for leprosy. Her invention saved thousands of patients. Tragically, she died when she was just 24—and worse, the president of the university later published a paper taking all the credit for her work. Fortunately, a physician named Harry T. Hollmann set the record straight in a 1922 journal article. He called her discovery “Ball’s method,” thereby recognizing her contribution to medicine.

6. Mary Anning

Mary Anning
Mary Anning / Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Some scientists lived in the wrong time for society to appreciate their talents. Mary Anning, born in 1799, was a British fossil collector who unearthed some of the most important fossils in history, like the first complete skeleton of an ichthyosaur. She pioneered the field of paleontology and upended ideas about how life developed on Earth. But as a self-educated woman, she struggled to make ends meet. Today, the part of southwest England that she made famous as a fossil hotspot—the Jurassic Coast—is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

7. Vera Rubin

As a child, Vera Rubin watched the stars outside her bedroom window and mapped their movement across the night sky. Her hobby grew into a desire to pursue a career in astronomy. In the 1940s, she applied to Princeton but was told that its astronomy program didn’t accept women—the university wouldn’t even send her a course catalog. Rubin earned her degrees elsewhere and eventually embarked on her most important project: discovering why stars on the edge of spiral galaxies spin as fast as those at the center, where gravity is stronger. This observation confounded expectations. The visible mass of such galaxies indicated that they should be unable to keep such fast-moving, distant stars in orbit. After years of observations, it was concluded that the universe must be made chiefly of dark matter whose mass, essentially, holds space together. To honor her groundbreaking find, the National Science Foundation announced that its newest telescope will be named the Vera C. Rubin Observatory.

8. Charles Drew

Charles Drew
Charles Drew / Associated Photographic Services, Inc. and National Library of Medicine, from Moorland-Spingarn Research Center/Charles R. Drew Papers
via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Charles Drew fought against segregation while developing life-saving technology. The innovative African American medical researcher discovered new techniques for preserving and storing blood plasma, and launched a huge network of blood donations to help soldiers on the battlefield during World War II. He even created the system of bloodmobiles we continue to use today. Drew resigned from the armed services in protest, however, when the military insisted on keeping blood donated by African Americans separate from that of whites. Drew argued, “(1) no official department of the Federal Government should willfully humiliate its citizens; (2) there is no scientific basis for the order; (3) they need the blood.”

9. Francis Beaufort

When Francis Beaufort was the commander of a British naval ship, around 1805, he devised a scale for categorizing wind speeds so sailors could accurately record weather conditions. The Beaufort scale goes from zero, indicating calm, to 12, meaning hurricane force. It’s still used today to describe wind strength.

10. Luke Howard

Speaking of weather, Luke Howard was an early British meteorologist who came up with a naming system for clouds in 1803. He coined the terms cumulus, stratus, and cirrus, which help us describe the appearance of various clouds. His writings may well have inspired a series of cloud paintings by artist John Constable and poetry by Percy Bysshe Shelley.

11. Alexander von Humboldt

German naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt
German naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt / Apic/Getty Images

A name you might have heard, but not know the story behind, is Humboldt. In the early 19th century, German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt explored vast stretches of South America and attempted to summit Ecuador’s highest peak, Mount Chimborazo. On his adventure, he developed a theory of nature as an interconnected web, with forces in one part of the world having effects in others. His bestselling books made him a global scientific celebrity, honored everywhere he went. Plants, animals, geographical landmarks, cultural institutions, towns, and even asteroids were named after him. Humboldt’s philosophy also influenced important thinkers, including painter Frederic Edwin Church.

12. James Hutton

Until Scottish geologist James Hutton came around, most Europeans believed Earth had been shaped by a single biblical flood a few thousand years ago. Hutton attended the University of Edinburgh before moving to his family farm outside the city. There, as he worked in the fields, he observed how wind and rain shaped the landscape. Eventually, he developed his key idea: That Earth’s rocks, mountains, and canyons had been formed by continuous upheaval and erosion over millions of years, a theory called gradualism. In announcing his findings, Hutton debunked existing ideas about the planet’s age and systems, which didn’t make him very popular in the late 18th century. Hutton isn’t a household name today, but the evidence, of course, eventually proved his theory correct.

13. Charles Henry Turner

Charles Henry Turner was a behavioral scientist who published more than 70 papers in the emerging field of insect behavior despite a lack of funding and lab access in the early 20th century. Among his findings, Turner discovered that honeybees can see color and patterns, insects can hear, and roaches can learn from experience and change their behavior.

14. Mary Golda Ross

Mary Golda Ross, who is thought to be the first Native American aerospace engineer, credited the Cherokee tradition of educating boys and girls equally as her launchpad in life. Ross worked for Lockheed’s top-secret think tank—the only woman and only Native person there—and designed concepts for interplanetary spacecraft, Earth orbiters, satellites, and rockets at the dawn of the Space Age. Most of her work is still classified. And as if that isn’t cool enough, Ross co-authored the NASA Planetary Flight Handbook Vol. III, the official guidebook to space; she even crafted potential missions to Mars and Venus.

15. Eunice Foote

You might not know Eunice Foote, but this amateur climatologist developed an experiment in the 1850s demonstrating that water vapor and carbon dioxide influence the effect of solar heat. Observing cylinders under sunlight, she found that a cylinder filled with carbon dioxide got hotter than a control cylinder and took longer to cool down. This wasn’t exactly a demonstration of the greenhouse effect, as is sometimes suggested, but her experiments did foreshadow further study of how CO2 can heat Earth’s atmosphere with dire consequences.

16. Augustin-Jean Fresnel

Augustin-Jean Fresnel also worked with sunlight, but with totally different instruments. Fresnel was an engineer who specialized in optics, or the study of light and its properties. While working for France’s Lighthouse Commission, Fresnel designed more effective, beehive-shaped lenses for lighthouse lamps. Comprised of circular glass prisms, the lenses concentrated the brightness of the light source into a beam, making the warning beacons visible far out to sea. His invention saved countless sailors’ lives and continues to be used in numerous applications today, from traffic lights to overhead projectors to telephoto camera lenses.

17. Benjamin Banneker

Benjamin Banneker also put complicated science into practical use. It’s worth pointing out that verifiable details about Banneker’s life and work are hard to come by. Given his unique place in America’s history, though, and specifically Black history, we wanted to mention him. Born in 1731 near Baltimore, Maryland, he helped survey the land that would become Washington, D.C. The multitalented astronomer and naturalist translated his meteorological observations into a series of almanacs, leading citizens to praise not only his scientific work, but also his advocacy of the abolition of slavery.

18. Caroline Herschel

A portrait of Caroline Herschel at age 92.
A portrait of Caroline Herschel at age 92. / Wellcome Images, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 4.0

Caroline Herschel was only 4-foot-3, but she was a giant among astronomers in the 18th century. While her brother William discovered the planet Uranus (it was previously believed to be a star), Caroline discovered her first comet in 1786. She eventually found seven more, as well as numerous nebulae and star clusters. She also published a massive catalog of stars that convinced the leading astronomy societies to admit her as an honorary member.

19. Valentina Tereshkova

Valentina Tereshkova was the first woman to actually go to space. Before being chosen for the Soviet space program, Tereshkova’s main interest was parachuting. Those skills paved the way for her rigorous training for space flight and her solo mission in 1963 aboard Vostok 6. In her 70-hour, 50-minute flight, she made over 40 trips around our planet. She then parachuted safely down to Earth.