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20 Unsung Heroes from History

Zoë Randolph
Unsung heroes from history.
Unsung heroes from history. / Clockwise from top left: MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0; New York State Military Museum // Public Domain; Ashmolean Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain; Verne, Jules (1878), Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain; Lavinia Fontana, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain; New York Times Co/Getty Images; Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain; Mefman00, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
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History may be written by the victors, but it’s high time some of history’s quieter contributors got the attention they deserve. From medical breakthroughs to fearless adventurers, this group of historical heavyweights all deserve to be household names.

1. Henrietta Lacks // Immortal Cells

Henrietta Lacks died in 1951, but parts of her live on to this day. Since the time they were taken from her (without her knowledge) during a medical examination at Johns Hopkins, cells collected from her cervix tissue have remained alive—and thriving.

Lacks was one of many Black people whose bodies contributed to nonconsensual medical experiments at Johns Hopkins and beyond in the mid-20th century. Cells collected from others had died, but the ones lifted from Lacks’s tissue under the legitimizing sheen of medical treatment proved, shockingly, to divide again and again. The immortal "HeLa cells" have gone on to provide the foundation for two Nobel Prizes, nearly 20,000 patents, and countless medical advances. But it wasn’t until 20 years after Lacks’s death that anyone—including her family—knew they’d belonged to her.

2. Tenzing Norgay // A Climber Above

Before summiting Mount Everest was the pinnacle of every daredevil’s bucket list, a Nepali-Indian man by the name of Tenzing Norgay (born Namgyal Wangdi) became one of the first people to finish the daring trek.

For years, Norgay had served as a Sherpa, aiding in several unsuccessful attempts by British, Canadian, and Swiss mountaineering parties throughout the 1930s and ‘40s to reach Everest's elusive summit. Then, in 1953, he joined the expedition of John Hunt, a British Army officer, and ultimately accompanied fellow expedition member Edmund Hillary (whom Norgay had saved from a dangerous fall in a previous mission) to make the final ascent. Norgay went on to publish several books about his experiences.

3. Virginia Apgar // Better Health for Newborns

Virginia Apgar examining a newborn baby.
Virginia Apgar examining a newborn baby. / Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Despite graduating fourth in her class at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1933, Virginia Apgar faced a host of setbacks in the early decades of her career. She initially worked in surgery, though was discouraged from continuing by the chair. Later, when she returned to Columbia as director of anesthesia in 1938, she had to contend with lower pay and her colleagues’ lack of respect for the then-undervalued field.

By the mid-1940s, however, things began to look up. Anesthesia became better respected, helping propel Apgar to the position of professor at Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons—the first woman to have the job. The work Apgar is best remembered for came in the 1950s when she developed a system for assessing the health of newborns. The Apgar Score is still used to this day.

4. Enheduanna // Tales for the Ages

The daughter of Sumerian royalty, Enheduanna had a busy schedule. In addition to serving as high priestess in one of the area’s most important temples, she also found the time to cement herself as the earliest identified author in the world. Among her writings are 42 hymns and a personal devotion to a goddess (which also features a recounting of her own exile from the ancient city of Ur).

Enheduanna lived in around 2300 BCE, but her return to relevance didn’t come until the 1950s, when the first academic papers drew on 1927 archaeological discoveries during the excavation of Ur to examine her work and legacy.

5. Maurice Hilleman // Vaccine Maven

Ever wondered why you haven’t come down with measles, mumps, or rubella recently? You can thank Maurice Hillerman, a Depression-era farm boy turned virologist who earned a microbiology and chemistry Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1944. For the next 60 years, Hillerman was tenacious in his battle against viruses and his quick work likely helped avert a pandemic in 1957.

In spite (or maybe because) of his brilliance, he wasn’t always one for convention. When his daughter came down with the mumps in 1963, he swabbed her throat and had a vaccine developed just four years later. By the end of his career, he’d developed more than 40 vaccines.

6. Rosalind Franklin // The Third Contributor to the Double Helix

When most people think of DNA, they think of two pairs—the double-helix and Watson and Crick. James Watson and James Crick revolutionized the scientific world when they published their model of DNA. And while the two were duly lauded, few knew that there had been a third (and unwitting) contributor: Rosalind Franklin.

Franklin, as it happened, had also been working to uncover the structure of DNA, and had a now-famous photograph among her research. When an estranged work partner showed Franklin’s unpublished research to Watson and Crick, they ultimately built their final model in part off of her findings. For years afterward, Franklin’s critical contributions were all but erased.

7. Ignaz Semmelweis // Hygiene Pioneer

Wash my hands? Before performing surgery? Hard pass. That was the (paraphrased) reaction to Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis’s 1846 suggestion that maybe, just maybe, his medical colleagues should disinfect their hands and tools between handling cadavers and helping to deliver newborns.

When he implemented this simple requirement in his Vienna hospital department, death rates among new moms plummeted. Germ theory hadn’t yet been established, which meant Semmelweis couldn’t explain why his practice worked, only that it clearly did. Despite the dramatic results, doctors didn’t take kindly to the implication that they were to blame for patients’ deaths, and Semmelweis’s pugnacious attitude didn’t win him many allies. Eventually, he lost his job, and his former staff abandoned the practice.

8. Ibn Battuta // “One of the Greatest Travelers of All Time”

No one can say for sure exactly how many places Ibn Battuta visited, but all can agree on one thing: It was a very high number. Battuta got the travel bug in 1325, when he set off from his hometown of Tangier on a pilgrimage to Mecca. Along the way, Battuta made pit stops in Egypt and Syria and dropped by some of history’s most famous cities, including Alexandria and Jerusalem.

After his pilgrimage was over, he decided it wasn’t time yet to return home. He set out instead through the Middle East and India, and later sailed the Red Sea and saw the Horn of Africa. He may even have spent time in China (where he saw the Great Wall), as well as Spain and Mali, and even crossed the Sahara Desert. Home in Morocco after 30 years of adventure, he told his story to a poet, who turned it into the Rihla, which has become an invaluable historical text for modern scholars.

9. John Tradescant // Collector of Oddities

John Tradescant was a public museum pioneer.
John Tradescant was a public museum pioneer. / Ashmolean Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Over the course of his career gathering seeds and bulbs for his work as a gardener to English nobility, John Tradescant acquired a host of oddities ranging from exotic animals like salamanders and pelicans to mythological artifacts like the egg of a dragon.

In 1628, Tradescant opened his home to the public, charging them sixpence to enter and see his curiosities. It quickly became a must-see London attraction, and ultimately gave rise to the modern Ashmolean Museum in Oxford—the world's first public museum.

10. Bayard Rustin // Civil Rights Leader

Long before the Civil Rights movement began gaining steam in the late 1950s, Bayard Rustin had already gained the attention of federal authorities over his demands for equality. As early as the 1930s, he was protesting the racial segregation in the U.S. military and traveled the country making speeches. In 1963, Rustin and A. Philip Randolph teamed up with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to plan the March on Washington.

Though many of his contemporaries became household names, Rustin often stayed behind the scenes, in part because he was a gay man. In the 1980s, however, Rustin began to speak openly about his sexuality and advocate for gay rights.

11. Alexander Fleming // Discovery of Penicillin

While serving in the Army Medical Corps during World War I, Scottish physician and scientist Alexander Fleming watched as soldiers died as a result of infected wounds. His observations led him to write an article on the topic that went unaccepted in the journals of the day.

In 1928, he inadvertently discovered a bacteria-killing mold after leaving a Petri dish uncovered near an open window. After determining it was part of the Penicillium genus, he published a 1929 paper about the discovery he’d since named penicillin. Initially largely ignored, penicillin caught the attention of two scientists in 1940, who began mass-producing it during the Second World War. “I did not invent penicillin. Nature did that,” Fleming later said. “I only discovered it by accident.”

12. Mildred and Richard Loving // Fighters for Interracial Love

Mildred and Richard Loving’s 1958 marriage was entirely normal, except for the fact that it happened to be illegal in Virginia, their home state. The problem? Richard was white, and Mildred was Black and Native American, which violated the states’ so-called Racial Integrity Act. After being arrested just five weeks into their marriage, the couple was told they could either go to prison or stay out of the state for the next 25 years.

But the couple wanted to live at home, so after trying to create a new life in Washington, D.C., they contacted the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and sued the state. After multiple appeals, the case landed in the Supreme Court of the United States. In 1967, the justices announced a unanimous decision that made the Virginia law (and with it, laws on the books in 15 other states) unconstitutional.

13. Wendell Smith // Pioneering Black Sportswriter

Wendell Smith grew up wanting to play sports, not write about them. But despite attention from a scout from the Detroit Tigers, being a Black man in the 1930s meant a career as a major league ballplayer was out of the question.

Instead, Smith went to college and became a sportswriter for the Pittsburgh Courier, at which he made a splash after interviewing more than 50 white players and managers about baseball’s color line. Smith used his findings (75 percent said they’d welcome Black players) to pressure the MLB, and ultimately connected Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey with Jackie Robinson. Once Robinson was signed, Smith stayed with him to support his transition, all while continuing his writing career. Smith went on to become the first Black sportswriter at a white newspaper.

14. Alexander Mackenzie // The First European to Cross the North American Continent

More than a decade before Lewis and Clark’s famous cross-continent trek, another European explorer claimed the title of first to cross North America (north of Mexico). In 1788, Alexander Mackenzie replaced Peter Pond as head of operations for the fur-trading North West Company. Pond had theorized that Cook’s River ultimately emptied out into the Pacific, and Mackenzie decided to test this hypothesis in the hopes that it would open up new trade routes.

The river, it transpired, actually went north, and after a brief detour to the Arctic Ocean, Mackenzie came home and decided to try again. In 1793, he set out on a different route alongside a party that included both fellow members of the North West Company and First Nations advisors. Miraculously, the group made it to the Pacific Ocean in one piece and successfully returned home. While it was too treacherous for a trade route, his resulting maps vastly improved global understanding of North American geography.

15. Karl Schwarzschild // Physics from the Battlefield

When Albert Einstein published field equations of general relativity in 1915, he didn’t expect to live to see them solved. But apparently, even geniuses are wrong once in a while.

In the very same year, one Karl Schwarzchild, a Jewish-German army lieutenant who’d volunteered to fight in World War I (he was 40 at the time) somehow found the time to publish not one but three scientific papers. The two that covered general relativity included the first exact solutions to Einstein’s field equations. Sadly, what more Schwarzchild could have achieved remains a mystery: He died only a year later.

16. Lavinia Fontana // Europe’s First Professional Female Painter

Lavinia Fontana's Self-Portrait in the Studio, 1579.
Lavinia Fontana's Self-Portrait in the Studio, 1579. / Lavinia Fontana, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Born in 1552 to a painter in Bologna, Lavina Fontana displayed artistic promise from an early age. Her father spotted her talent and even used her earning potential as a way to evade paying a dowry in her marriage to a wealthy merchant.

When she wasn’t busy birthing 11 children, Fontana established herself as Europe’s first professional female painter, becoming a coveted portrait artist for the noblewomen of the age. As her fame grew, so did her client list, which eventually included the Catholic Church and the king of Spain. In 1603, she was inducted into an all-male Academy of St. Luke.

17. Louis Braille // Making Reading Possible for the Blind

Just 12 years after accidentally blinding himself at the age of 3, Louis Braille developed a system of writing for the blind made up of raised dots. Five years later, he published a book on the subject (in Braille, of course).

Braille went on to have a successful career in education, teaching algebra, grammar, music, and geography at the New School for the Blind in Paris and becoming its first blind full professor.

18. Andrée Borrel // Fearless Resistance Fighter

Andrée Borrel began World War II as a nurse, but when her hospital closed in 1941, she and her coworker, Maurice Dufour, went into a more dangerous line of work. Near the border with Spain, Borrell and Dufour began operating Villa Rene-Therese, the last safe house in a network that helped people at risk escape Nazi-controlled France.

When the network was compromised, she escaped to England, where she joined the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in 1942. After training, she parachuted back into France (the first woman to do so) and worked there as a courier for resistance networks, as a saboteur, and more. In 1943, she was arrested by the Gestapo but refused to talk under interrogation. A year later, she was executed in Germany.

19. Private Henry Johnson // Forgotten War Hero

The American military had little use for the Harlem Hellfighters (otherwise known as the 369th Infantry Regiment). They were an all-Black division, which in World War I meant the Army paid little interest in them. But France badly needed soldiers, so Private Henry Johnson and the rest of the regiment were shipped overseas, where they received French gear and served under French authority.

One night, when Johnson and another man were stationed on middle-of-the-night guard duty, a group of German forces attacked. When his fellow soldier went down, Johnson was left alone to fend off the growing group of enemies descending upon him. Once he used up his available grenades and ammunition, he resorted to a bolo knife, with which he somehow managed to kill four Germans and injure between 10 and 20 others, all while sporting bullet wounds in his head, side, hands, and arms.

For his bravery, Johnson was awarded the highest honor in the French military: the Croix du Guerre. Despite his French accolades, he received few honors at home and was unable to take advantage of veteran programs made available to white soldiers. He soon found himself unemployed and died young. Johnson finally received a posthumous Purple Heart in 1996 and the Medal of Honor in 2015

20. Sarah Breedlove (a.k.a. Madam C.J. Walker) // The First Black Woman Millionaire

Born to formerly enslaved parents, orphaned at the age of 6, married at 14, and widowed by 20, Sarah Breedlove had no obvious avenues to success. With her 2-year-old in tow, she worked as a laundress and took classes at night school.

Then, Breedlove developed the “Walker system” (named after her soon-to-be second husband, Charles J. Walker), an approach to Black hair care inspired by her own scalp disorder. What began as selling homemade products directly to other Black women soon grew into a massive business.

In 1908, she opened a beauty school and a factory for her products, and her success propelled her to become (likely) the first self-made woman millionaire. In New York, she hosted many members of the Harlem Renaissance in her home and directed much of her fortune back toward organizations including the NAACP, Tuskegee Institute, and various educational charities.

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