5 Scholars Whose Legacies Were Torn to Shreds After They Died
You’d think that, if you’re a scientist or scholar who manages to finally crack some curiosity of the world, your place in history is pretty set. You figured out how light works, or cooked up some top-notch algorithm, and now you’re forever enshrined as one of the world’s Smart Guys. Unfortunately, not all discoveries are left untouched, given that scientists are a notoriously nitpicky and doubtful bunch. Plenty of them age about as well as sushi in a car console.
Best case, your contribution still exists as a valuable bedrock with a couple future tweaks. Worst-case scenario, though, suddenly that plaque with your name on it is yanked from a place of prominence and deposited squarely in the mud. Maybe even dragged a bit, for good measure. It’s unfortunate, given that you might have done the best you could with the information you had, but especially if your discovery led to some seriously unpleasant consequences, you’re going to end up with a significantly tainted legacy.
Here are five scholars whose death didn’t save them from disgrace…
A popular mention on this site and others whenever looking at the modern world’s most severe scientific fuck-ups is Thomas Midgley. Tragically, he died at the age 51, in a twisted sequence of events involving a device he’d designed to help him out of bed after losing the use of his legs thanks to polio. A thoroughly dark cloud that you’d expect to be completely bereft of any possible silver lining, but one thread-thin one existed: He never lived to see how destructive two of his discoveries would be to the entire world.
The two in question were both considered godsends when they debuted. One in the world of automobiles; the other a massive boon to the development of efficient refrigeration. Unfortunately, as soon as I tell you what they were, you’ll probably immediately recognize both for much less positive reasons. Midgley was responsible for both leaded gasoline and chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs. What he thought were his magnum opera were instead a one-two punch to the health of both the world’s population and the planet itself.
For a certain generation of scientists, in addition to whatever solid, lasting progress they made, there was also a fascination with a certain, dead-end interest: alchemy. Now squarely existing in the realm of anime and spooky stories versus any sort of reputable science, at the time, it hadn’t been completely written off. It’s an attractive pursuit to be sure. Manage to crack it, and you’ve immediately unlocked some deity-adjacent powers.
How an interest in alchemy affected your legacy somewhat fell to how kind future writers’ pens were about your squelchy magic side-hustle. Isaac Newton, for example, was an avid alchemist, but he managed to dodge the stink and come out as, mainly, the gravity guy. One who wasn’t able to shake the reputation of the occult was Theophrastus Bombastus Von Hohenheim, (thankfully) better known as Paracelsus. On one hand, he was incredibly forward-thinking, championing the use of chemistry in medicine that echoes modern treatment. Unfortunately, he was also trying to create homunculi out of horse shit, and that tends to stick in people’s minds. Now, you’re more likely to hear his name in the context of history’s greatest weirdos instead of medical masterminds.
Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons
Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons might be the premier duo to point to when it comes to the value of checking your work. A forever reminder that before you decide to publish scientific findings, you better be damn sure they’re not bullshit, especially if they have the potential to be world-changing. Unfortunately, what they thought could save the world instead sank their reputation in the form of cold fusion.
Cold fusion refers to the ability to generate nuclear energy at room temperature. If it was real, it would have been an immediate revolution in how the world generated its energy. At first, people believed it was, given that reputable scientists Fleischmann and Pons had announced that they’d achieved it. Unfortunately, a lapse in scientific rigor meant that their proud, world-shattering news had to be almost immediately retracted after it crumpled at the first attempt at scrutiny or recreation. To this day, their greatest almost achievement is basically a scientific punchline.
Franz Joseph Gall
Physiologist Franz Joseph Gall could have rested comfortably on his laurels as a visionary in the human understanding of anatomy. When he theorized that the human brain’s different sections handled different functions, he was far ahead of his time. Localization of function in the brain is now widely accepted, something that was a massive step forward for the study of the mind, and a massive step back for Phineas Gage’s personal relationships.
Unfortunately, Gall had taken one too many steps forward of his own based on his ideas. He’d taken his thinking of different areas of the brain controlling different facets of human thought and extended that out, literally, to the human skull. What he ended up with was becoming the father of the disgraced and racist pseudoscience of phrenology. If he’d just stopped while he was ahead, he would have been celebrated. Now, his legacy is questionable vintage wall art.
J. Robert Oppenheimer
Maybe in possession of the single largest asterisk ever applied to a scientific career is J. Robert Oppenheimer. Nobody can possibly argue in good faith against his scientific genius or capability, but his most significant achievement will forever be saddled with, well, a pretty big but. If his participation in the development of the atomic bomb landed him toasting away in hell, at least he can say he got portrayed by Cillian Murphy in a movie with a surprising amount of sex scenes.
Eli Yudin is a stand-up comedian in Brooklyn. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @eliyudin and listen to his podcast, What A Time to Be Alive, about the five weirdest news stories of the week, on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever else you get your podcasts.