17 Scientists That Were Not Rewarded Fairly For Their Contribution

When it comes to injustice, unfairness, or discrimination, even the field of science is not exempt.

The 19th and 20th centuries witnessed remarkable inventions from gifted minds. However, not every scientist received the recognition and fame they genuinely deserved.

There still exists a gap in acknowledging and rewarding those who advance our understanding. Here, we’ve compiled a list (in no specific order) of scientists whose contributions we still appreciate today, even though they didn’t receive recognition or appreciation during their lifetime.

Did you know? 

Chien-Shiung Wu, a Chinese-American physicist, conducted experiments to disprove the law of conservation of parity. Her male colleagues received the 1957 Nobel Prize for this work, while she was not recognized. 

15. Arthur Eichengrun

Arthur Eichengrun, a German chemist and inventor, gained fame for creating the anti-gonorrhea medicine Protargol before antibiotics became prevalent. After completing his chemistry studies in college, he earned his doctoral degree in 1890 and joined a pharmaceutical company.

During his tenure, he discovered Protargol, which remained in general use until the sulfa drugs. At 41, he left Bayer to establish his own company, Cellon-Werke, in Germany’s capital.

In May 1944, Eichengrun faced his second arrest and deportation to a concentration camp due to issues with his pharmaceutical company.

Contribution: Eichengrun held over 45 patents and made valuable inventions. Interestingly, he claimed to have invented aspirin, but his assertion was overshadowed by the scientific community.

While it is universally acknowledged that Felix Hoffmann, a fellow scientist at Bayer during that period, is credited with inventing aspirin, Arthur Eichengrun later attempted to assert his claim as the true originator of the invention.

14. Rosalind Franklin

Rosalind Elsie Franklin, a British chemist, dedicated her entire academic career to the study of physical chemistry, delving into the complexities of carbon structures. In 1941, she joined Cambridge University and earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry.

Under the mentorship of Ronald Norrish, a Nobel Prize winner in 1967, Franklin also pursued a three-year fellowship at King’s College starting in 1950.

Contribution: Although her extensive works on coal, graphite, and viruses were widely appreciated, Franklin’s molecular structure of DNA is perhaps her greatest invention that was never accepted during her lifetime.

There is pin-point evidence that Crick and Watson used Franklin’s experimental data of DNA, for which they were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1962.

13. Nikola Tesla

This man needs no introduction; he was a Serbian American mechanical engineer. In 1875, Tesla joined Graz University of Technology, Austria, where he studied for one year.

Tesla supposedly possessed an eidetic memory or what we know as a photographic memory. He also claimed that he never used to sleep for more than two hours. He received numerous prizes but was never nominated for any international award.

Contribution: In 1887, Tesla developed the first induction motor running on alternating current, a system that later gained popularity over direct current due to its ability to transmit high voltage over long distances.

In popular culture, Nikola Tesla is often hailed as the greatest geek to have ever lived.

Read: 12 Ingenious Nikola Tesla Inventions In Various Fields

12. Alan Turing

Alan Mathison Turing, born on 23 June 1912 in Britain, was a pioneer of computer science, mathematics, and cryptanalysis. Turing graduated in mathematics from King’s College, Cambridge.

At the dawn of his career, he was victimized by cruel homosexual acts in Britain. He was removed from GCHQ in 1946. On 8 June 1954, Turing was found dead in his room.

Contribution: During the Second World War, he played an important role in decrypting intercepted coded messages, which enabled the Allies to defeat the Nazis in the Battle of the Atlantic. His invention, Bombe (the electromechanical machine that breaks the Enigma code more efficiently), shortened the war in Europe by nearly two years.

Read: 20 Greatest Computer Programmers Of All Time

11. Chien-Shiung Wu

Chinese-born Chien-Shiung Wu is a prime example of relative obscurity in the scientific world. After completing her graduate-level studies at Zhejiang University, she was chosen for advanced studies at the University of Michigan. Later, she decided to pursue her studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

Contribution: She is known for the Wu experiment, which contradicted the hypothetical law of conservation of parity. She earned the nicknames ‘Chinese Madame Curie’ and ‘Queen of Nuclear Research.’

10. Alfred Wegner

Alfred Lothar Wegener, a German geophysicist and meteorologist, conducted extensive polar expeditions alongside obtaining a doctorate in astronomy in 1905. He took part in four expeditions to Greenland, with his final expedition tragically leading to his death.

Contribution: In 1922, Wegener proposed the Continental Drift theory, which gained full acceptance only in the 1950s. Subsequent discoveries, such as paleomagnetism, provided evidence of continental drift in Earth’s past. It is Wegener’s Continental Drift theory that modern Plate Tectonic theory is based upon.

9. Thomas Edison

We all probably know who Thomas Alva Edison is and what he did in his life. Despite lacking formal schooling, he primarily learned through classical methods and emerged as a prolific inventor with over a thousand patents.

Contribution: His first notable invention was a Phonograph in 1877. He developed a system of electric power generation and distribution to homes and factories. In 1879, Edison developed an electrical bulb to compete with the oil-powered lighting system.

Read: 11 Thomas Edison Inventions That Everyone Should Know

8. Satyendra Nath Bose

Born on 1 January 1894, in West Bengal, Satyendra Nath Bose was one of the biggest masterminds that India has ever produced. In his illustrious educational career, he went to Presidency College, where he received his MSc. Bose joined the University of Calcutta, where he did extensive studies in the theory of relativity.

Contribution: Satyendra Nath Bose is majorly recognized for the Bose-Einstein statistics (a principle followed by every boson). While a Nobel Prize was awarded in the field of Bose-Einstein condensate and bosons, Satyendra Bose himself was not honored with one.

7. Fritz Zwicky

Fritz Zwicky, a Swiss astronomer who immigrated to the USA in 1925 and spent most of his career at the California Institute of Technology, made significant contributions to theoretical astronomy.

Contribution: Fritz Zwicky was the first to apply the virial theorem to prove the existence of unseen matter in interstellar, which he called Dunkle Materie (dark matter). He also made significant contributions to Ionic crystals and electrolytes.

6. Jocelyn Bell Burnell

The first radio pulsars were discovered in 1967 when two scientists from Cambridge University accidentally spotted it while looking for sources of radio radiation in the sky. Susan Jocelyn Bell Burnell was one of them.

Born in Northern Ireland, she graduated from the University of Glasgow. Following her influential tenure at Cambridge University, she also served as President of the Royal Astronomical Society from 2002 to 2004.

Contribution: During her post-graduation, she, along with her colleague Antony Hewish, discovered the first radio pulsars (highly magnetized, rotating neutron stars).

However, when the Nobel Prize was awarded for the discovery of radio pulsars in 1974, Anthony Hewish and Martin Ryle were the recipients, and Burnell was excluded. This exclusion has remained a point of controversy ever since.

Read: 15 Famous Female Engineers Who Revolutionized Technology

5. Henrietta Swan Leavitt

Henrietta was an American astronomer who commenced her career at the Harvard College Observatory in 1893. She played a vital role as one of the human “computers” tasked with measuring and cataloging the brightness of stars.

Contribution: During her work at Harvard College Observatory, she discovered the relation between the luminosity (total amount of energy emitted by a star) and the period of Cepheid variable stars. She used photographic plates in order to examine the brightness of stars. Her discovery enabled scientists and astronomers to calculate interstellar distances on a stellar parallax.

4. Lise Meitner

In 1905, Lise Meitner became the second woman to get a doctoral degree in physics at the University of Vienna. She was also the first woman professor in physics at the University of Berlin.

Born Jewish, Meitner converted to Christianity and was baptized in 1908. Despite her significant accomplishments, Meitner’s contributions were notably overlooked by the Nobel Prize Committee.

Contribution: In 1935, alongside Otto Hahn, she conducted research on “transuranium elements,” an experiment that resulted in the discovery of the nuclear fission of uranium and thorium.

However, when the Nobel Prize was awarded in 1944, she was excluded from the nomination, and it went to Otto Hahn. Despite being nominated 49 times for the Nobel Prizes in Physics and Chemistry, she never secured a win.

3. Ida Tacke

Ida Tacke was born in Wesel, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany, in 1896. In Germany, she was the first woman to study Chemistry. She also received her doctorate from the University of Berlin.

She was also a physicist and the first to propose the concept of nuclear fission. Following her marriage, she became Ida Noddack, joining her husband Walter Noddack. Together, they discovered element 75, rhenium. She was nominated for the Nobel Prize three times.

2. Esther Lederberg

Esther Lederberg, an American microbiologist, pursued her higher studies at Stanford University and the University of Wisconsin. Throughout her life, she confronted various challenges related to gender discrimination.

Contribution: She was a popular microbiologist specializing in bacterial genetics. Among her notable discoveries are the Lambda phage virus and the transfer of genes between bacteria through specialized transduction. She also discovered a bacterial fertility factor, F plasmid.

Esther passed away at the age of 83 in 2006.

1. Nettie Stevens

Nettie Stevens was an American geneticist. She received her B.A. (in 1899) and her Master’s (in 1900) from Stanford University. Stevens is responsible for the discovery of the chromosomal basis of sex. A person’s sex is determined by a pair of chromosomes: X and Y.

Despite her outstanding contributions to the field of biology, Nettie Stevens was not awarded a Nobel Prize. After her death, her successor, Thomas Hunt Morgan, characterized her as more of a technician than a scientist in a post in the Journal Science.

Honorable Mentions 

16. Ignaz Semmelweis

Ignaz Semmelweis is best known for his advocacy of handwashing as a means to decrease the transmission of infectious diseases, a practice that is now standard in healthcare settings.

Despite his numerous contributions, Semmelweis faced strong opposition from the medical community. His methodologies challenged the prevailing beliefs of the time, which didn’t recognize the role of germs in the spread of disease. In fact, his work was not fully recognized until after his death. 

17. Gregor Mendel

Gregor Mendel discovered the principles of heredity, laying the foundation for genetics. Between 1856 and 1863, he conducted groundbreaking experiments by carefully cross-breeding different pea plant varieties and studying inheritance patterns in successive generations.

His work was initially published in 1866 in the “Proceedings of the Natural History Society of Brno,” but it went largely unnoticed at the time. 

It wasn’t until the early 20th century, several decades later, that the scientific community recognized the significance of his contributions. Today, Mendel is commonly known as the “father of modern genetics.”

More to Know 

Are there ongoing efforts to address disparities in scientific recognition?

Yes. The scientific community has become increasingly aware of the need for inclusivity and fairness in acknowledging contributions. Many scientific organizations are working to 

  • implement diversity and inclusion initiatives to address issues related to gender, race, and ethnicity,
  • increase transparency in the evaluation processes for awards, grants, and promotions,
  • identify and understand patterns of recognition disparities,
  • update their award criteria to ensure they align with contemporary standards of excellence.

Furthermore, the recognition of open science practices like data sharing and collaboration is also gaining traction. Acknowledging researchers who contribute to open-source platforms promotes a more inclusive scientific culture.

Examples of scientists who eventually received recognition after initial oversight 

There are many researchers who, despite initial oversight, eventually received recognition for their work. For example, 

  • Fridtjof Nansen, a Norwegian scientist and explorer, was overlooked for the Nobel Prize despite his pioneering work in neurology. In 1922, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his humanitarian work, especially for his efforts in aiding refugees after World War I.
  • Tu Youyou played a key role in discovering artemisinin and dihydroartemisinin, potent antimalarial drugs that saved millions of lives. However, she didn’t receive the Nobel Prize until 2015. 
  • Peter Higgs proposed the Higgs boson theory in 1964, but recognition was delayed for several decades. In 2013, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics together with François Englert for their theoretical discovery of the Higgs mechanism.
Can scientists receive recognition posthumously for their contributions?

Yes. In several cases, the significance and impact of a scientist’s work become more evident and appreciated over time, leading to posthumous acknowledgment.

Sometimes, their contributions are not immediately recognized due to various factors, such as lack of awareness, the complexity of the work, and prevailing scientific paradigms. 

Examples of posthumous recognition include the cases of Alan Turing, Gregor Mendel, Rosalind Franklin, and Ignaz Semmelweis, among others.  

Read More

12 Youngest Nobel Prize Winners In The World

13 Different Types Of Scientists

Written by
Varun Kumar

I am a professional technology and business research analyst with more than a decade of experience in the field. My main areas of expertise include software technologies, business strategies, competitive analysis, and staying up-to-date with market trends.

I hold a Master's degree in computer science from GGSIPU University. If you'd like to learn more about my latest projects and insights, please don't hesitate to reach out to me via email at [email protected].

View all articles
Leave a reply