5 Obsessive Weirdos Who Made the World a Better Place
Think back on the biggest obsession of your life. Maybe you had a huge thing for a girl in chemistry, or a huge thing for putting chemistry in a girl (because you're a drug dealer). Whatever your fixation was, you probably outgrew it and moved on to something else. We can't say the same about these guys, because their freakish infatuations changed the world.
The Lunatic Who Wrote the Dictionary
The next time you call someone "cray," which will hopefully be about one year in the past, think of W.C. Minor. (Also know that you sound like a big dumb goofball ding-a-ling when you say "cray.") In 1864, Minor was a surgeon serving on the Union front line when he was given the duty of branding a fellow soldier's face with "D" for "deserter." Now, you and I know that branding another human's face is so nuts that Tarantino is probably already putting the scene in his next Civil War/Bollywood mashup called Djamputeena Uncut. Minor, however, was two steps shy of a nervous breakdown. The act of pressing hot metal onto a fellow man's face was exactly enough to push him over the edge.
Within seven years of the incident, Minor's mental health had deteriorated to the point where he moved from America to England as if he'd never heard of things like barbecue or democracy. Oh, and he straight-up murdered a guy in a delusional fit. Minor was judged insane and committed to an English asylum, but luckily for him, he had money, connections, and a bitchin' beard, so his sentence was more of a mandatory timeout than a prison term. But it's there in that asylum that things get interesting for our crazy murderer.
For starters: BEARD PERM.
All his life, Minor had one obsession: words. Three years before the branding meltdown, he agreed to contribute to a new edition of Webster's An American Dictionary of the English Language by defining words in the natural history category. The problem was that he suuuuuuucked. Minor sucked so hard that his definitions were called "defective" and "inverted," which is 19th century speak for "a diaper full of diarrhea water" and "stanky." One expert published five whole pages cataloging Minor's mistakes. Picture this guy with that "You Had a Bad Day" song playing on a loop, all day, everyday.
So after he did some murder (of a person and the English language), Minor was committed to the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum in 1874. Cut to 1879, when the editor of the yet-to-be-published Oxford English Dictionary put out a call for help. Unlike America's one-volume slapdash effort, the Oxford English Dictionary would use as many volumes as it needed to define every word ever, complete with illustrations and lots of quotes from verifiable sources backing up definitions. Think of the OED as the world's first Wikipedia.
Minus the personal appeals for money.
Guess who took that request for quotations to his murderous heart? Deep behind the walls of Broadmoor Criminal Insane Asylum, W.C. Minor developed a system of poring through his own library in search of illustrative quotes. So let's say the OED was working on defining the phrase "booty meat." Minor would find a sentence like "The knight's booty meat glistened in the sun" from The Canterbury Tales or whatever. Finding words was all the guy did. For two decades. To the point where he ended up supplying 12,000 illustrative quotes in a two-year span and was the OED's biggest contributor. Each definition was marked with the return address "Broadmoor Asylum," and the editors naturally thought he was a doctor in charge, not an American murderer who'd lost it two decades prior.
The Poison Squad Invented the FDA
Let's say you're a parent and you've got a kid who won't stop eating glue, no matter how many times you tell him that it's really pony sperm. A reasonable person would probably just take the glue away and make the kid use tape. If you were chemist Harvey Wiley, you'd systematically feed a team of volunteers glue every day for five years to prove how much glue it takes to poison them. In this analogy, the glue was poisonous additives, the toddler was the American public, and the volunteers were really volunteers. (I dropped out of Analogy School.)
Harvey Wiley dropped out of Reasonable Hand Size School.
In 1902, Department of Agriculture chief chemist Harvey Wiley got $5,000 from Congress to figure out what was up with the preservatives getting stuffed into food. Only a few years earlier, soldiers fighting in the Spanish-American War complained that their tinned beef tasted like embalming fluid and smelled like human cadavers -- and they would know, on both counts. Soldiers suspected that the meat was laced with boric acid to hide the fact that it was as putrid as the word "putrid" when you say it like this: "peeeeewtrid."
So Wiley gets his $5,000 and sets up a lab full of chimps to systematically study the effects of eating a diet of food filled with additives. WRONG. He asks a regular crew of volunteers from the Department of Agriculture to ingest poisoned food every day for five years -- just to see what happens. Despite having jobs, salaries, and access to regular not-poisoned food, a dozen otherwise sane men volunteered to eat meals laced with borax, salicylic acid, sulfuric acid, sodium benzoate, and formaldehyde. And the meals were just the beginning of the crazy: Each man also had his poop and pee tested daily to see what was coming out. And each volunteer promised not to hold the government liable, no matter what kind of sludge came out of his tear ducts when he cried himself to sleep at night.
The media ate the story up, every pun intended. Reporters staked out the kitchen to find out what nastiness was on the menu, and a minstrel troupe regularly performed a song called "Song of the Pizen Squad," which was probably the equivalent of getting Konyed at the time.
This is America drinking faulty Chairman Mao juice.
Four years after the experiment began, the Pure Food and Drug Act was passed and the Food and Drug Administration was born. True, other people got on the "What the crap is in our food?" bandwagon in the meantime: Upton Sinclair published The Jungle, and a woman named Alice Lakey spearheaded a national letter-writing campaign to legislate food safety. But the heavy hitter in the fight to regulate food was a guy so crazy that he fed people formaldehyde to prove a point.
The Hater Who Fixed Medical Schools
Imagine you're a mechanic with your own shop. You fix cars day in and day out. One day, a guy with clean fingernails and a clipboard walks in. One look at this joker tells you he wouldn't know an axle from an Axl, and he's condescending to boot. The next thing you know, this guy has published a damning report on not just you, but every single other auto shop in the country, and you're forced to shut down your business. This exact scenario happened about a hundred years ago, but it wasn't auto shops that were shut down, it was medical schools. And all thanks to Abraham Flexner.
Winner of Best White Young Gandhi costume, 1895.
Abraham Flexner was not, repeat, not a doctor. He wasn't even a completer of a post-graduate education. He was an educator who had some innovative ideas about how schools should work, and he published those thoughts in a 1908 book. But he was also kind of belligerent and angry about the subject. He thought lectures were a cheap way to manage a large number of students. American graduates were neither "trained nor serious" workers. Also, where did college entrance exams come from? For real, that was a question he asked in this book. Deans and educators around the country laughed at Flexner's absence of knowledge about higher education. All except for one guy -- the guy who was totally in charge of the Carnegie Foundation, which had been asked by the American Medical Association to totally investigate the nation's medical schools. Dun dun duuuuuuun.
So Abraham Flexner, a non-doctor who wouldn't know what to do with a stethoscope without an Instructable, was sent to judge every medical school in the country. All 155 of them. Guess what? He HATED EVERYTHING he saw. Two-thirds were deemed "utterly hopeless." Chicago's 14 medical schools were described as "a disgrace to the state whose laws permit its existence," "indescribably foul," and "the plague spot of the nation." Flexner recommended shutting down all but 31 of them, including most of the very few schools that admitted women and African-Americans.
The weird part? Everyone did what he said. By 1935, there were only 66 medicals schools left, and most of them were following Flexner's recommendations, which included shutting down the for-profit schools, raising the standards for admittance, and getting students more time in hospitals for practice. The jerky guy who knew nothing about medicine or human communication is actually the reason we don't see complete quacks when we get cancer.
Everything You Know About CSI Came from One Guy
At the same time that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle began thrilling the world with stories of Sherlock Holmes, Alexandre Lacassagne was solving real-world murders in France, including victims of the French equivalent of Jack the Ripper, but double, because this guy killed at least 11 kids to Jack's five. But Lacassagne wasn't a cop or a detective -- he was a doctor. And when he read stories of the world's favorite detective, he asked one question: "But why does he never perform an autopsy?" Lacassagne was stuuuupid into autopsies.
His mustache was into reaching heaven.
If you are a murderer with a time machine, the era right before Lacassagne joined the Forensic Medicine Department of Lyon University is the place to be. Only two things could get you into jail: a forced confession or witnesses who saw you do the deed. Plus, the prevailing theory of the day was that you could spot a criminal by the shape of his forehead and the length of his arms. So if you didn't go around looking like an ape-man, you could probably get away with murder. Lacassagne disagreed. While treating soldiers during military service in Algeria, for example, the doctor decided that tattoos gave insights into the criminal mind -- so he collected and categorized 2,000 images. Can you imagine what he could have done with Instagram? This guy was so into criminals that he actually invented the field of forensic psychiatry, which is basically just the simple idea of asking "Why? Why would someone slit this person's throat and then pee on him?" No one thought to ask the hard question of "why" before Lacassagne.
More importantly, Lacassagne wasn't afraid to look at dead bodies, no matter how horrifyingly disgusting they were. By studying the movement of insects on a dead body, for example, he could figure out how long the deceased had been decaying. He was the first to realize that blood splatter at the scene of the crime could tell you about the victim's injuries. He was the first to figure out that you could totally put a gun or knife in a dead man's hand before the rigor mortis set in, so the old "make it look like suicide" trick wouldn't work on him. He asked criminals to write about themselves from prison so he could study their minds. Then when they died, he LITERALLY studied their minds.
So when authorities finally caught their "French Ripper," Lacassange was asked to analyze him. Was he too insane to go to the guillotine? Nope, said Lacassagne of the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad man. This guy was what we would now call a psychopath, someone who was totally aware of his actions but lacked empathy or remorse. Only they didn't have a word for psychopaths then, because it didn't exist, so he invented it. Standard scientific procedures for autopsies -- all Lacassagne.
Superhero capes? Lacassagne.
Finally, one year before he died, Alexandre LaKickASSange campaigned for an international agency to work on unsolved crimes. And he got it: It's a little agency called Interpol.
The Failed Adventurer Who Stole Rubber
For most of the people on this list, their obsession was something they were insanely good at, like researching words or farting on throw pillows, assuming that entry doesn't get cut. For 19th century British adventurer Henry Wickham, however, failure was a way of life. He was like your weirdo uncle who never quite decided what he wanted to be when he grew up, so he tried everything. One day he's a Foot Locker salesman, the next he's a truck stop hooker with a meth habit and a cabaret gig on the side. The only things Wickham knew for sure were that he didn't want a desk job and he didn't want to live in England. So he tried everything and lived everywhere else.
Including inventing mustache pencil holders.
For example, Wickham wanted to be an adventurer/plantation owner, so he moved his whole family to Brazil in 1871. Not only did his sugar, manioc, and tobacco crops fail as hard as a white girl attempting cornrows, but his workers abandoned him. Oh, and his mother, sister, and brother's mother-in-law all died of jungle disease. He went on to fail at raising sponges, coconuts, cultured pearls, and a fiber called arghan in places as diverse as Australia, New Guinea, and Honduras. After a lifetime of not succeeding, you'd think the guy would have started over and gone to graduate school. His wife even gave him an ultimatum: He had to stop chasing terrible dreams in hot places or she'd leave him. Henry Wickham chose his dreams, and she never saw him again.
So why was this perpetual farmer of failure awarded a knighthood and the acclaim of the British Empire at the end of his life? Because of one big heist that had nothing to do with skill. In 1876, Wickham managed to smuggle 70,000 rubber tree seeds from the jungles of Brazil to the Royal Botanical Garden of London. Of the 70,000, only 1,919 arrived in good condition. Those seeds were cultivated and replanted in rubber plantations all over warmer parts of the British Empire. For the next 37 years, Wickham continued to suck at everything, while those rubber plants grew.
How did this picture of a milk tree get here?
Beginning in 1913, Britain's rubber yield took over the market, making the haphazard wild trees of the Amazon irrelevant and the rest of the world completely dependent on England's supply to keep the industrial age going. We needed rubber for tires and gaskets and rain boots and rubbers. Who would give us rubbers if not for rubber? To this day, most of our natural rubber comes from the Brazilian rubber tree, but it was harvested from plantations in Asia and stolen by a guy who couldn't grow anything that wasn't on his own face, as hard as he tried.