Unsung Heroes

January 17, 2010 at 4:32 pm (Good Science) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

In science and pseudoscience, some figures are much better known than others – but fame is not necessarily closely related to merit. I think the balance needs to be redressed somewhat.

When I wrote about epidemiology, I mentioned Richard Doll and Austin Bradford Hill as examples of prominent figures in the field. Others might have thought first of John Snow. One person I would not have thought to mention was Janet Lane-Claypon. For the simple reason that I had never heard of her.

Janet Lane-Claypon was “an English physician and one of the founders of the science of epidemiology, pioneering the use of so-called cohort studies and case-control studies.” Lane-Claypon did us all a service in developing the case-control study and cohort studies but, despite her ground-breaking work, is rarely mentioned (at least in comparison to Doll, Bradford Hill, and Snow).

The medical historian Warren Winkelstein has argued that part of the reason is that shortly after publication of her breast cancer study, Lane-Claypon married a colleague at the Ministry of Health, whose ban on married couples working together compelled her to abandon her career and become a housewife until her death almost 40 years later. [Janet Lane-Claypon]

In the field of nutrition and diet, I suspect that few members of the general public will have heard of Professor Tom AB Sanders BSc PhD DSc RPHNutr, a Professor of Nutrition & Dietetics. Many, though, will know the names of McKeith, Holford, and Briffa.

Then there’s “the sadly neglected Dame Harriette Chick or any other of the outstanding researchers that made the UK so respected for dietetic research in the twentieth century” (the work of McCance and Widdowson is also referred to here).

Still on the subject of diet and nutrition, one might also mention Lucy Wills – who gave her name to a vitamin and a disease. Wills “recommended that Marmite be used prophylactically and therapeutically in pernicious anemia of pregnancy” and Wills’ factor became a synonym for folic acid, while Wills’ anemia was used as an alternate name for nutritional macrocytic anemia.

DNA. Everyone has heard of Crick and Watson, but I would hazard a guess that not quite so many people are aware of Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin. Wilkins, like Crick and Watson, received a Nobel Prize for the double-helix model of DNA in 1962 (four years after Franklin’s death), yet is not as well-known as either of his fellow prize-winners.

Franklin played an important part in the discovery of the structure of DNA, but her premature death meant that she could not be considered for the Nobel Prize shared by Crick, Watson, and Wilkins. Nobel Prizes are not awarded posthumously: Nobel FAQ. It could be argued that having missed out on a Nobel Prize, Franklin also failed to receive her fair share of the acclaim accorded to the scientists who discovered the structure of DNA.


  1. jdc325 said,

    Here’s another: Lise Meitner.

  2. Evidence Matters said,

    Thank you: this is a welcome compilation of unsung researchers and academics to whom we owe so much.

  3. Zoe Bremer said,

    How about Alexander Bain, inventor of the fax machine.

  4. Zoe Bremer said,

    Here’s another along the same lines: Rudolf Hell, inventor of the Hellschreiber: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hellschreiber

    If you contact the Narrow Bandwidth Television Association, http://www.nbtv.org, you should be able to find someone who can show you how to make your very own Hellschreiber.

  5. jdc325 said,

    Thanks for the suggestions Zoe. I’ll read up on Bain and Hell later.

  6. The Year In Nonsense. And Stuff. « Stuff And Nonsense said,

    […] blogpost on unsung heroes of science such as Lucy Wills and Janet Lane-Claypon was, perhaps ironically, read by very few people. There […]

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