9 Scientists Who Didn’t Get the Credit They Deserved
History is full of scientists who discovered amazing things, and then languished in obscurity, or saw someone else take the credit for their work.
Sometimes they were simply overlooked. Sometimes they were the victims of prejudice and discrimination. In other cases, scientists saw the credit for their discoveries deliberately stolen by others. For many of the scientists below, their work was sufficiently world-changing that it’s been argued that they should have received a Nobel Prize.
In this article, we take a look at the scientists who deserved to go down in history, and why.
1. Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958)
There’s a joke among science nerds that goes like this: “What did Crick and Watson discover? Rosalind Franklin’s notes.” While that’s something of an exaggeration, it’s often held that Franklin should get an equal share of the credit for the discovery of DNA. Even the blue plaque outside the Eagle pub in Cambridge was recently graffitied to include Franklin’s name.
Franklin was a chemist and x-ray crystallographer who was recruited to work at King’s College, London, on the structure of DNA. Her collaborator there was Maurice Wilkins, but the two did not get on. Franklin’s work was shared with Crick and Watson without her knowledge or permission – probably by Wilkins, though the exact details remain unclear – and the data and photographs that Franklin had gathered proved to be vital in Crick and Watson’s discovery of the double helix shape of DNA. When Crick and Watson published their work in 1953, Franklin was given no credit for her contribution.
In 1962, Crick, Watson and Wilkins received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery of DNA; Franklin had passed away from ovarian cancer in 1958; Nobel prizes cannot be awarded posthumously, so she was again passed over for recognition of her work. It was only some twenty years later that Franklin’s role began to be recognised, and there is now a growing number of awards and scientific institutions that bear her name.
2. Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar (1910-1995)
Unlike some of the scientists on this list, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar did eventually get this credit he deserved, winning a Nobel Prize for Physics in 1983 – though it is worth noting he had to wait until he was 73 years old to receive that honour. Chandrasekhar was born in what was then British India, now Pakistan, as the third oldest of ten children. He wrote his first academic paper at the age of 19, and on completing his BSc, was awarded a Government of India scholarship to go to Cambridge and pursue graduate studies there.
At the age of just 20, on his journey to Cambridge, he came with the idea that is now called the Chandrasekhar limit: the concept that above a certain mass, electron degeneracy pressure in the core of a white dwarf star is not enough to counterbalance the gravitational self-attraction of the star. Above the Chandrasekhar limit, stars explode or collapse into a neutron star or black home.
But when Chandrasekhar came to present his findings at the Royal Astronomical Society in London in 1935, he was publicly ridiculed by Sir Arthur Eddington, a world-renowned physicist who had until then acted as a mentor to him. The clash was between an internationally famous physicist and a young Indian student in a hostile environment. It set acceptance of Chandrasekhar’s idea, and by consequence, his career, back by years, and ultimately led Chandrasekhar to leave Cambridge in the hope of finding a better welcome elsewhere. In 1972, the first black hole was discovered, and Chandrasekhar’s theory was finally proven correct.
3. Ida Noddack (1896-1978)
Ida Noddack (née Ida Tacke, and sometimes cited under that name) was denied credit for her achievements twice over. The discovery for which she is known and credited is that of the element rhenium (atomic number 75), which she predicted and later extracted with her collaborator Walter Noddack, who became her husband.
But Ida Noddack had also predicted an element with atomic number 43, which she called masurium, after the region of Prussia that she came from. Unlike rhenium, Noddack was unable to extract masurium. The element was later artificially created by Carlo Perrier and Emilio Segrè using a particle accelerator; they named it technetium and bear the credit for its discovery. Noddack protested, but the scientific community doubted her claims and it cost her credibility.
But it isn’t just masurium for which Noddack deserves to be better known. In a paper on Enrico Fermi’s claims that transuranium elements could and did exist, she suggested that bombarding uranium with neutrons could produce smaller nuclei: the principle behind nuclear fission. In 1938,Otto Hahn and his assistant Fritz Strassmann demonstrated this to be the case, work for which Hahn won a Nobel Prize. Noddack again protested that the idea was hers, but to little avail; her failure to confirm her ideas experimentally in the case of both masurium and nuclear fission had cost her the credit for these world-changing discoveries.
4. Lise Meitner (1878-1968)
Lise Meitner is another researcher who it’s often argued should have shared in the Nobel Prize for the discovery of nuclear fission. With Otto Hahn, she led the research group that also included Fritz Strassmann, having become the first woman in Germany to become a full professor in physics in 1926. But following Hitler’s rise to power, her position as an Austrian Jew became increasingly precarious, and in 1938 she fled to Sweden, ultimately becoming a Swedish citizen.
That meant that when Hahn and Strassman were carrying out the experiments that would provide evidence for nuclear fission in December 1938, Meitner could only contribute through correspondence by letter. When Hahn won the Nobel Prize, Meitner agreed it was deserved. It was only when the Nobel Committee’s deliberations were revealed in the 1990s that it became clear how much Meitner had been overlooked; the Committee had not understood her contribution, and Meitner had received more nominations than Hahn. Hahn himself appears to have been aware of the injustice: he nominated Meitner for a Nobel Prize multiple times in subsequent years, but she never won.
5. Charles Best (1899-1978), James Collip (1892-1965) and Nicolae Paulescu (1869-1931)
The Nobel Prize Committee’s track record of including some of the people who contributed to a discovery but not others has not solely involved the exclusion of women (though it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that women have been disproportionately excluded). This was also the case for the Nobel Prize for the discovery of insulin in 1923, shared by Sir Frederick Banting and John Macleod.
The disease of diabetes had been diagnosed in some form since the 1600s, and in the 1800s, understanding progressed to the idea that the disease involved problems with the pancreas. From 1914 to 1916, Romanian scientist Nicolae Paulescu performed experiments where he extracted an antidiabetic substance from the pancreas and injected it into diabetic dogs. But the First World War forced him to close his laboratory and he was unable to publish his findings until the summer of 1921.
That same year, Frederick Banting and Charles Best were performing much the same experiments as Paulescu, demonstrating that the substance they had extracted – insulin – reduced the blood glucose levels of diabetic dogs to normal. Macleod supervised the work and provided laboratory space and materials, and Collip purified the insulin for use on humans. In 1922, the team successful injected Leonard Thompson, a 14 year old boy who was dying of diabetes, with insulin, saving his life and gaining Banting and Macleod the 1923 award. Banting was furious, feeling that the award should have been shared between himself and Best, rather than with Macleod. As a result, Banting gave half his prize money to Best and Macleod gave half to Collip – and Paulescu missed out altogether.
6. Chien-Shiung Wu (1912-1997)
Nicknamed ‘the First Lady of Physics’, Chien-Shiung Wu was a Chinese-American experimental physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project. In the 1950s, her colleagues theoretical physicists Tsung Dao Lee and Chen Ning Yang suggested that the existing hypothesis of the law of conservation of parity (very loosely, the idea that a mirrored version of this world would also behave in a mirror-image way) didn’t hold for weak interactions in particle physics.
The idea was largely ignored, but Lee managed to persuade Wu to test it experimentally. Her tests proved that conservation of parity did not apply to weak interactions – and Lee and Yang went on to win the 1957 Nobel Prize for their theory. Wu was disappointed to be excluded; and it’s worth noting that her experience was the mirror-image of Noddack’s, who lost out on a Nobel Prize because her role was theoretical not experimental, while Wu was denied because her role was experimental and not theoretical. As time went on, Wu became an increasing outspoken advocate of gender equality in her profession, campaigning to be paid the same as her male counterparts. In that, at least, she was ultimately successful.
7. Eunice Foote (1819-1888)
Irish physicist John Tyndall is usually credited with discovering the greenhouse effect, publishing results in 1859 that demonstrated that gases such as carbonic acid trapped heat, and that this effect could and did take place in the Earth’s atmosphere, contributing to a changing climate over time.
But his publication came three years after Eunice Foote presented a paper at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which similarly demonstrated the effect of the sun’s rays on different gases, also including carbonic acid, and similarly theorising that this had taken place in the Earth’s atmosphere to affect its climate. As a woman, Foote had not been permitted to read her own paper; it was read for her by Professor Joseph Henry of the Smithsonian Institution, who started by protesting that science should not discriminate on the grounds of gender. But it was nonetheless the case that Foote’s paper was not widely published and after its reading, she vanished into obscurity.
8. Nettie Stevens (1861-1912)
For most of human history, it’s been a mystery as to what determines whether a pregnancy produces a boy or a girl. Theories abounded that it was a result of nutrition, or different body temperatures, or assorted other things. But that was disproven by Nettie Stevens. She was a secondary school teacher who decided in her late 30s to go to university, where she completed a BA, then an MA, then a PhD in genetics.
In her studies of mealworm beetles in 1905, she noticed that a female mealworm’s 20 chromosomes were all of a similar size, while male mealworms had 19 large chromosomes and one smaller one. She realised that this difference could be traced back to male sperm, with the sex of the mealworm being determined by the chromosomes of the fertilising sperm. This was not only a hugely significant development in its own right, but also helped prove the theories of Gregor Mendel, which had only come to light in 1900. But Edmund Beecher Wilson, Stevens’ colleague, is more often credited with the discovery. It’s true that he published first, but this may have been only after seeing Stevens’ results. He also held that environmental factors were also involved in sex determination, while Stevens correctly identified that it was solely down to chromosomes.
9. Jocelyn Bell Burnell (1943-)
Jocelyn Bell Burnell made one of the most significant astronomical discoveries of the 20th century while still a PhD student. She worked on the construction of a radio telescope and ran an experiment monitoring quasars, when she noticed an unexpected pattern of regular radio pulses. She consulted her supervisor, Anthony Hewish, and after overcoming his reluctance to investigate further (believing that the pattern was the result of interference) the two of them and their wider team investigated further, ultimately discovering pulsars. They published a paper with five authors, of which Bell Burnell was the second; but when the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded for the discovery in 1974, it was given to Hewish and Martin Ryle, another co-author, excluding Bell Burnell.
The omission of Bell Burnell for the Nobel Prize was widely criticised by top astronomers, but Bell Burnell herself did not complain, maintaining that although it had been her work, “it is the supervisor who has the final responsibility for the success or failure of the project”, and that it would demean Nobel Prizes to award them to students. She said, “I am not myself upset about it – after all, I am in good company, am I not!”
Looking at the rest of this list, she wasn’t wrong.
Images: rosalind franklin; subrahmanyan chandrasekhar; ida noddack; lise meitner; banting and best; chein shiung wu; greenhouses; nettie stevens; jocelyn bell burnell; scientists in a lab; scientists in discussion