Unreal Heroes Who Died Protecting Precious Knowledge

Dian Fossey's idea of environmental conservation involved pistol-whipping poachers.
Unreal Heroes Who Died Protecting Precious Knowledge

Furthering the depths of human knowledge might be the greatest cause you can sacrifice your life for. (In case you were wondering, "Lion Voltron was the best Voltron" is toward the bottom of that list.) With that in mind, don't think of the following people as victims, but rather as what they truly are: heroes who have sacrificed themselves for the good of humanity.

Khaled Al-Asaad Was Killed By ISIS For Refusing To Lead Them To Hidden Ancient Treasures

Bernard Gagnon / Wiki Commons

Khaled al-Asaad was renowned around the world for his knowledge of the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra. Not only did he know everything about the city's 4,000-year-old history, but he also helped get it recognized as a world heritage site, and even named one of his daughters after a famous Palmyrene queen. To him, Palmyra was his home, his work, his life, his everything.

Museo Nazionale di Damasco

And you do not fuck with a man's everything.

So when ISIS came knocking on Palmyra's doors in May 2015, Khaled knew exactly what to do. Where we would have bought tickets to the geographically-farthest place on Earth, Khaled decided to stay and help supervise the evacuation of the local museum, which housed priceless treasures, from the Palmyra archaeological site.

His friends and family begged him to leave, but al-Asaad knew that if he ran, ISIS would destroy half of the museum's artifacts (which they considered pagan worship) and sell off the rest, because rocket launchers and beard oil cost money. By the time ISIS arrived in Palmyra, most of the museum's collection was safely hidden away, so the jihadists immediately arrested Khaled al-Asaad and "questioned" him for a month, trying to get him to give up the treasures' location.

Unreal Heroes Who Died Protecting Precious Knowledge
Print Collector/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

You know you're a total shitstain when even the statues you're vandalizing give you the stink eye.

Faced with a choice between his life and the sanctity of history, Khaled told ISIS to take a flying fuck at a goat. They held him for what was undoubtedly an unpleasant month, but they couldn't break him. Finally, ISIS took the 80-something historian to a public square, beheaded him, and strung his body up for everyone to see ... how their entire armed force completely failed to best a single octogenarian.

Dian Fossey Was Murdered Protecting Wild Gorillas

Unreal Heroes Who Died Protecting Precious Knowledge
Ian Redmond

Primatologist Dian Fossey studied gorillas for 18 years in the mountains of Rwanda. Her famous book Gorillas In The Mist was the first to portray the great ape as a shy-yet-noble creature that formed families and enjoyed a vegetarian diet, rather than one consisting of blondes and planes. Ironically, her preferred method of protecting the primates was with bouts of ultra-violence.

Unreal Heroes Who Died Protecting Precious Knowledge
Robert I.M. Campbell/National Geographic

"Here's that recipe for poached poacher I've been looking for. Bring your appetite!"

Instead of leaflet campaigns and catchy chants, Fossey's idea of environmental conservation involved pistol-whipping poachers (on whom she put out fucking bounties), kidnappings, and supernatural intimidation. She purposefully built a reputation for herself as an actual witch and voodoo master, and sometimes even wore a gorilla mask to scare people off gorilla territory. She was basically Batman to a Gotham City populated solely by gorillas.

Unreal Heroes Who Died Protecting Precious Knowledge
Warner Brothers Animation

Of course this picture exists.

In late December 1985, someone with an intimate knowledge of her Rwanda camp snuck into Fossey's room at night and hacked her to death with a machete. It could have been a disgruntled employee, a poacher sick of nursing those incessant pistol-whippings, or maybe even a contract killer. But although there were plenty of suspects and some arrests have been made, no plausible culprit was ever produced. But experts agree that if it weren't for Fossey, mountain gorillas would have likely gone extinct a long time ago. Whether it was all worth it mainly depends on your feelings about gorillas and lady badasses. Our official stance is: positively.

Soviet Scientists Died Of Starvation While Guarding A Priceless Collection Of Seeds From Nazis

Unreal Heroes Who Died Protecting Precious Knowledge
popovaphoto/iStock/Getty Images

In the midst of the Second World War, as the Nazi army was marching on Leningrad (modern-day St. Petersburg), a group of scientists at the Institute of Plant Industry refused to run, and instead grabbed a bunch of sharp farming equipment and ... started digging up potatoes.

They were frantically harvesting precious collections of seeds and tubers so they could hide them in the institute's seed bank. But these weren't your ordinary pre-vegetables and grains. They were part of a research effort to curb famine with the help of super crops that were more resilient to diseases, pests, harsh climates, etc. We're talking about the Avengers of crops here.

Unreal Heroes Who Died Protecting Precious Knowledge
Global Crop Diversity Trust

They let the Hawkeye crop wither and die decades ago, because it's the Hawkeye crop.

So when the Germans implemented a blockade on the city, the scientists remained with their hidden scientific bounty and waited for help. Unfortunately, the siege of Leningrad would end up lasting more than two years, and if you're wondering how much non-scientifically-priceless food the scientists had with them in their pantry bunker, the answer is "not enough."

Let's be clear: The scientists had enough potatoes and rice with them to commit suicide by carbs, but to them, that would have been like eating the Mona Lisa. These seeds and samples, many of which weren't found anywhere else in the world, were meant to save millions of lives -- not just a few dozen. In the end, nine botanists died of hunger in a warehouse housing tons of food.

Unreal Heroes Who Died Protecting Precious Knowledge
N.I. Vavilov Institute Of Plant Genetic Resources

Their leader, Nikolai Vavilov, starved to death in prison -- no less terrible, though far less ironic.

Unreal Heroes Who Died Protecting Precious Knowledge

Walter Huchthausen And Ronald Balfour Died Recovering Art Stolen By Nazis

Unreal Heroes Who Died Protecting Precious Knowledge
Monuments Men Foundation

The Monuments Men was the colloquial name for members of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program. They were an Allied Forces unit created during WWII to help rescue artwork that the Nazis wanted to blow up, keep for themselves, or perhaps merely teabag (they were jerks, after all).

Unreal Heroes Who Died Protecting Precious Knowledge
National Archives and Records Administration

"Counterpoint: We weren't Nazis."

The program consisted of a ragtag group of men and women who would sooner be found in a library than a war zone, including British historian Ronald Balfour and American architect Walter Huchthausen. But academia and crazy badasses are not mutually exclusive. Balfour, for example, spent years traveling across Europe, sometimes having to hitchhike from site to site to save the continent's cultural heritage. In fact, he had just saved an archive dating back to the 14th century, and was in the process of moving parts of a medieval altarpiece from behind enemy lines, when he was killed by a shell burst.

Unreal Heroes Who Died Protecting Precious Knowledge
King's College Archive Centre

His heroism was forever immortalized by George Clooney cutting him out of the goddamn movie about his heroism.

Huchthausen met a similar fate when he dashed ahead of American forces in Germany in order to save a newly-discovered cache of priceless art, and was met with a wall of machine gun fire. After his death, soldiers were able to use information he had previously gathered to locate crates filled with paintings by Dutch masters and the original manuscript of Beethoven's Sixth Symphony.

Unreal Heroes Who Died Protecting Precious Knowledge
University Of Minnesota

Which you'll sit down and listen to right now.

Robert Landsburg Used His Own Body To Protect Priceless Footage Of An Erupting Volcano

Unreal Heroes Who Died Protecting Precious Knowledge
United States Geological Survey

On May 18, 1980, Mount St. Helens, a volcano located in the state of Washington, erupted.

Unreal Heroes Who Died Protecting Precious Knowledge
Austin Post / United States Geologial Survey

Not the sweet Van Halen kind. The people-killing kind.

A few miles away stood photographer Robert Landsburg, who'd spent the last couple of weeks documenting the site. He witnessed firsthand as the initial landslide -- the size of two city blocks -- crumbled away from the mountainside and dropped into the lake below, creating 600-foot waves. Landsburg pointed his camera upwards to capture an ash plume rising 15 miles above the top of the mountain, blocking out the Sun and turning day into darkness. Sweeping clouds of molten rock, lava, and ash tore down the face of the mountain at 670 mph, obliterating everything in their path. That's right about when Landsburg realized that something that could so easily destroy a mountain could probably destroy a Landsburg without much difficulty.

Unreal Heroes Who Died Protecting Precious Knowledge
National Geographic

He couldn't even walk toward the light, because the smoke snuffed it all out.

Coming to terms with the fact that he couldn't outrun a volcano, Landsburg decided to make his last moments on Earth count. He documented the eruption until the last possible second, then carefully rewound his film, placed his camera in his backpack, and lay down on top of it, shielding the equipment from the encroaching shower of magma and ash with his own body. Seventeen days later, Landsburg's body was found with his film still intact. His photographs were published, and have since provided geologists with valuable information about the historic eruption.

Unreal Heroes Who Died Protecting Precious Knowledge
National Geographic

Their biggest discovery: Landsburg's balls.

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