“Great bodies die but great minds don’t die! Inside the tomb of great men lay dead body’s
but at the library of great men lay the living minds of dead bodies!”
― Ernest Agyemang Yeboah
How it happened that some of the greatest minds in history have gone unrecognized? If someone asked you to name some of the most important scientists of all time the names below probably wouldn’t spring to mind. Despite their names remain unknown we have to remember these people have contributed a lot to the science as we know it today.
1 – Ibn al-Haytham (965 – 1040 AD)- Inventor of the modern scientific method
Born around a thousand years ago in present day Iraq, Al-Hasan Ibn al-Haytham (known in the West by the Latinised form of his first name, initially “Alhacen” and later “Alhazen”) was a pioneering scientific thinker who made important contributions to the understanding of vision, optics and light. His methodology of investigation, in particular using experiment to verify theory, shows certain similarities to what later became known as the modern scientific method. Through his Book of Optics (Kitab al-Manazir) and its Latin translation (De Aspectibus), his ideas influenced European scholars including those of the European Renaissance. Today, many consider him a pivotal figure in the history of optics and the “Father of modern Optics”.
Ibn al-Haytham was born during a creative period known as the golden age of Muslim civilisation that saw many fascinating advances in science, technology and medicine. In an area that spread from Spain to China, inspirational men and women, of different faiths and cultures, built upon knowledge of ancient civilisations, making discoveries that had a huge and often underappreciated impact on our world.
2 – Anna Komnenev (1083 – 1153 AD) – World’s first female historian
Anna Comnena was a Greek princess and scholar who wrote the ‘Alexiad’, an account of her father’s—Emperor Alexios I Komnenos of Byzantium—life and reign. She is considered the world’s first female historian and her work is a valuable source of information about the early Crusaders as she described in detail the daily life at court, her family life, and the political and military history of the Byzantine Empire. She was the eldest of her parents’ children and received a loving though disciplined upbringing. Being a Byzantine royal woman she received a good education and was tutored in literature, philosophy, medicine, astronomy and history among other subjects. A very intelligent and ambitious woman, she managed a large hospital and orphanage that her father had built for her to administer. She also taught medicine at the hospital and was well-known for her medical knowledge; in fact she even treated her own father during his final illness though she was unable to save his life. Initially she harbored the ambition of succeeding the throne after the death of her father, but was not supported in this endeavor by her husband. Thus she retired from court life and entered a monastery where she dedicated her time to studying philosophy and history.
3 – Pierre Louis Moreau de Maupertui (1698-1759) – Father of modern genetics
Maupertuis was a French mathematician and philosopher who had diverse interests. He theorised about aspects of physics, geology, mathematics and biology.
Although Maupertuis did not directly believe in evolution (a concept which did not exist in his time), he did have interesting ideas related to the theory we understand today. In particular, he proposed an early theory related to genetics as a way of understanding the inheritance of physical traits.
He suggested that traits from both mother and father determined the ultimate combination of traits that we find in individual members of a species. This powerful idea forms the basis of modern genetics.
In addition, Maupertuis had an understanding of genetic fitness, the idea that only those traits that offered advantages would be passed on from generation to generation.
Writing in Vénus Physique (The Earthly Venus), he said: “Could one not say that, in the fortuitous combinations of the productions of nature, as there must be some characterised by a certain relation of fitness which are able to subsist, it is not to be wondered at that this fitness is present in all the species that are currently in existence?”
He realised that all living creatures have traits that aid their survival, without which they could not have possibly existed. More than 100 years later this idea was echoed by Darwin who, in On the Origin of Species, said: “Any variation, however slight and from whatever cause proceeding, if it be in any degree profitable to an individual of any species […] will tend to the preservation of that individual, and will generally be inherited by its offspring.”
Maupertuis also realised that the extent of human knowledge was severely limited when it came to natural history. “The species we see today are but the smallest part of what blind destiny has produced.”
He truly was a man ahead of his time.
4 – Benjamin Bradley (1830 – 1897) – Inventor of a steam engine for a war ship
Benjamin Bradley invented the first steam engine powerful enough to fuel a naval ship, but he is practically unknown today because he was unable to patent his invention. Bradley was a slave, and at the time, the law considered slaves to be chattel—all of their physical and intellectual labor legally belonged to their owners.
Though Bradley seems to have used the profits from the engine to buy his own freedom, his work was never patented, and he is now largely forgotten. His fate was shared by an unknown number of enslaved people whose contributions will never be acknowledged.
5 – Jagadish Chandra Bose (1858 – 1937) – Created a device to receive the first transatlantic wireless signal
The first person to prove that plants also have the ability to feel pain and affection, Jagadish Chandra Bose was an Indian polymath whose research has extensively contributed to the fields of botany, physics, archeology and radio science. Bose is considered to be the first modern scientist of India for the recognition he received from the Royal Institution, London, where the most prominent British scientists of those days gathered and discussed their latest discoveries and inventions. He is credited to have laid the foundations of experimental science in India and was a pioneer in the area of microwave optics technology. He designed a galena receiver which was amongst the earliest examples of a lead sulphide photo conducting device. From a young age he displayed a keen interest in science and set his eyes on becoming a doctor. But he could not pursue a career in medicine due to some reasons and therefore shifted his focus to research. A very determined and hardworking person, he immersed himself deeply into research and made his findings public for the benefit of scientific development. Along with being a scientist, he was also a talented writer who set the precedence for Bengali science fiction writing.
6 – Esther Lederberg (1922 – 2006) – Mother of microbiology
Esther Lederberg, emeritus professor of microbiology and immunology at Stanford University, who has died aged 83, developed basic techniques that have enabled generations of researchers to elucidate how genes work. Her work helped her first husband, Joshua Lederberg, to win the 1958 Nobel prize for physiology or medicine. She was not mentioned in the award.
Brilliant, charming, popular, witty and with encyclopaedic knowledge of her subject, Esther Lederberg made her way in science when it was almost a men-only occupation and fought for women’s recognition in US scientific circles. She could hold an audience captive with stories about the way important discoveries happened, which was generally very different from the formal accounts in the scientific literature.
7 – Anne Brontë (1820 – 1849) – English novelist and poet
Anne Brontë might be celebrated as one of the most important literary figures of the 19th century—if not for her more famous sisters – Emily Brontë and Charlotte Brontë.
“In any other family, she’d be a genius,” says Samantha Ellis, a British author whose recent biography Take Courage: Anne Brontë and the Art of Life is an attempt to give the other Brontë sister her due. Big sister Charlotte downplayed Anne’s legacy, says Ellis—and because the author of Jane Eyre outlived Anne, she may have ruined her sister’s chance at fame.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne’s feminist novel about the ramifications of an alcoholic, abusive relationship, was a bestseller at the time of her death at age 29. But Charlotte wouldn’t approve its republication—perhaps because Anne’s book bore similarities to the real life story of the Brontës’ alcoholic brother. If not for her more famous siblings, Anne’s daring prose might have more 21st-century fans.
When a genius fades from memory, it’s more than a historical oversight—it’s a lost opportunity to honor someone who could keep changing the world by influencing future generations, says Amir-Am.
“We lose all those who remain uninspired and make decisions in their own lives,” she says. “It’s not a service to society—to women or to men.”