5 People Who Changed the World and Got Jack Squat for It
Everyone, at least before the indignity and weight of time sets into their mind and body, dreams about changing the world. Doing or making something that has an effect on the entire globe through the annals of time. Becoming the sort of historical figure that’ll decorate school projects in a century, maybe even get a Google doodle.
So it must be a massive slap in the face to be somebody who actually achieves that lofty goal, and for whatever reason, gets forgotten anyway. That’s not how it’s supposed to work. You’re supposed to invent something like the zipper and then be showered in cash and praise and Ivy League admissions for every future descendant. It’s supposed to earn you a lifetime of sipping gin and lemonade out of fine crystal in the sunshine behind your estate.
But here are five people who changed the world and got jack squat for it…
Today, most anyone who hasn’t slept through the entirety of the science curriculum in elementary school could probably draw a basic representation of DNA if asked. Heck, it’s practically school notebook doodle royalty, up there with eyes and the “cool S.” Even if there was anyone who still didn’t know what it looked like, Jurassic Park stepped in to embed it into pop culture.
Before 1953, though, the structure of DNA was unknown, until the now ubiquitous double-helix structure was modeled by James Watson and Francis Crick. If you know any names related to the study of DNA, it’s most likely theirs. It’s helped by the fact that “Watson & Crick” is a name combo so catchy it sounds like a storied menswear brand. Whether they came to that conclusion on their own is a much more hotly debated topic, most notably when it involves the research of Rosalind Franklin, which was shown to Watson and Crick without her knowledge. Watson and Crick did admit that solving DNA’s structure without the Franklin data would have been “unlikely, if not impossible,” but apparently putting her name at the top of the paper was a step too far.
Some people changed the world and got roundly ignored. Ignaz Semmelweis forever changed the field of medicine, has saved countless lives, and people called him an asshole for doing it. “Why are you booing me, I’m right?” energy decades before that meme ever existed. So what was Semmelweis’ incredible, world-changing medical discovery? It was that doctors should maybe start washing their hands.
More specifically, he linked a massive mortality rate in the childbirth wing of his hospitals with the fact that doctors were performing autopsies and then walking over and delivering babies without so much as sniffing a sink in between. He required that doctors start washing their hands in-between procedures, and the mortality rate fell by a massive amount. The problem was, this intimated that the doctors were the ones killing the mothers (they were), and that coupled with what was apparently a less than sunny disposition led to them mostly telling Semmelweis to fuck off, results be damned, and eventually firing him altogether. He eventually ended up in a mental institution, where, as one final cruel joke, he died from an infection on his hand.
When you think of a central figure related to McDonald’s, you might think of the founder, Ray Kroc, or more likely, a fictional and mildly unsettling clown. A name that’s not likely to garner recognition from even the most seasoned Mickey D’s diner, though, is Michael Delligatti. But the owner of franchises including one in Uniontown, Pennsylvania is responsible for maybe the most iconic menu item of all time: the Big Mac.
You may have assumed the Big Mac was cooked up in some secret burger laboratory deep beneath McDonald’s HQ. In reality, it was Delligatti who suggested a two-patty burger and developed the special sauce, an idea that McDonald’s hated at first. It was only after his persistent badgering, and recruiting a local bakery in secret to produce the special three-bun system, that McDonald’s let him try it out on the menu. The rest is history. So what did Delligatti get for forever changing the cholesterol levels of the human race? The ultimate bare minimum: a plaque.
If you’re born with a name like Philo Farnsworth, you basically have two viable career paths: some sort of strange preacher, or a brilliant inventor. In his case, he pursued the second, and was astonishingly good at it. He racked up numerous patents for different products throughout his life, but the one that you’re likely most familiar with is the electronic television. He invented a prototype and received a patent for his television in 1927, at the age of 21.
If you invent the television at 21, that must be the first entry in a long life’s work full of success and acclaim, right? It’s like throwing a touchdown on your first NFL snap as a quarterback. Not so much for Farnsworth. RCA, a name you probably do associate with televisions, were pursuing the same thing around the same time, and attempted to buy out Farnsworth’s patent. He refused, and they promptly sued him instead, a case which he won. Not so easily defeated, and with significant coffers to pump into legal fees, RCA continually sued him for the rest of his life, while his own television company failed, and he died penniless in 1971. If only he could have seen Breaking Bad.
Even if they never got greater recognition, at least the other people on this list got the satisfaction of seeing their developments change the world. Henrietta Lacks never got that chance, as she was dead and buried before she would change the field of medicine. When I say that “she” changed medicine, I mean that in the most literal sense: Modern doctors and scientists owe an incredible debt to her cells, which were harvested without her consent in 1951.
For whatever reason, her cells reproduced at an unbelievable rate, and “HeLa” cells have been used in research ever since. She did finally get a book and a movie in which she was played by Oprah, but she and her relatives got a whole lot of absolutely nothing for years after her death.