Here are some of the greatest scientists in history whose difficult backgrounds made their achievements all the more remarkable.
When Niccolo was six, his father was murdered by robbers, leaving his mother impoverished. When Niccolo was 12, there was a genocidal attack on his city. Niccolo sheltered in the cathedral, but soldiers forced their way in. One attacked him, striking five savage sword blows on the boy’s face and head, leaving him for dead. His mother had no money to pay a doctor. She treated him based on her observations of dogs. With his mother’s loving care, the boy survived.
Niccolo Tartaglia launched the modern science of ballistics and provided general solutions for cubic equations.
When Jacob was four, his father died. His mother remarried, but died when Jacob was nine. He was looked after by his step-father until, at age 12, he moved to live with his alcoholic aunt. He stayed outdoors, avoiding her as much as possible. At age 13, Jacob was admitted to a Cathedral School where he tutored wealthy students to pay for his education and board. He worked on farms during vacations, sleeping in storage rooms. He picked up lice, which the farmer’s wife killed by washing his hair in potassium hydroxide.
Jacob Berzelius was one of the founders of modern chemistry. He discovered three chemical elements, and he was the first person to measure accurate atomic weights for the elements.
Michael was born into an impoversished family. His father suffered poor health and often could not work. At age 13, Michael began working as a delivery boy, leading to work as an apprentice bookbinder. A few years later, fascinated by science books he read in the bookbinding shop, he attended a lecture by the great chemist Humphry Davy. Michael wrote up the lecture, bound it, and sent it to Davy. He became Davy’s scientific assistant and secretary, which he did not enjoy: Davy’s upper-class wife looked down on Michael because of his lowly origins.
Michael Faraday discovered electromagnetic induction; discovered the first experimental link between light and magnetism; discovered benzene; and carried out the first room-temperature liquefaction of a gas.
Mary’s parents had ten children, but the tough conditions they lived in meant only two survived to be adults. At 15 months old, Mary with other children and their carer took shelter under a tree in a rainstorm. A lightning strike killed all except Mary. Her parents rented a cheap house so close to the shore that the sea flooded it when there were very high tides. Mary did not attend school, but learned to read and write at Sunday school.
Mary Anning became the greatest fossil finder of her era, powerfully influencing the new science of paleontology. She overcame a lack of formal education to emerge as one of the world’s foremost authorities on fossils.
James’s parents were poor homesteaders living on rented land. They had four children – two died in infancy, one became a hunchback after an accident. James was sickly as a child and rarely attended school. His life changed when, at age 38, he got a job as a janitor at a college and took full advantage of its well-stocked library.
James Croll devised the concept of ice-albedo feedback. He developed a qualitatively correct theory of why our planet has experienced ice ages, linking climate change to periodic changes in the amount of energy our planet receives from the sun.
When Alfred was born his family was penniless. He was sickly as an infant and survived only because of his caring mother. He suffered ill-health for most of his life. Alfred was educated at a school for impoverished children where there were frequent playground fights. Most pupils were beaten by their teachers every day for any small mistakes.
Alfred Nobel invented and manufactured dynamite, the blasting cap, gelignite, and ballistite. In his last will and testament, he bequeathed over ninety percent of the enormous fortune he made from explosives to fund the Nobel Prizes.
George Washington Carver
George was born into slavery. At a week old, he was kidnapped. His masters paid for him to be returned to his parents. When slavery was abolished in America, his former masters raised George and his elder brother James as their own children, teaching them to read and write. Later, George moved from school to school seeking knowledge, struggling against discrimination. Rejected by universities, he began homesteading.
Eventually he got a loan, and in 1891, he became Iowa State Agricultural College’s first black student. He obtained a master’s degree in Botany and became the college’s first black faculty member.
George Washington Carver improved the agricultural economy of the United States by promoting nitrogen-providing peanuts as an alternative crop to cotton to prevent soil depletion.
Srinivasa was born into a very poor family. As a teenager, he began discovering important mathematical results. He worked with chalk on slate, only transferring the most important results to paper, because he could barely afford any paper. All too often in these early years his stomach was empty. He memorized a huge number of mathematical formulas and constants. He died at age 32, probably of liver parasite infection.
Srinivasa Ramanujan produced almost 4,000 proofs, identities, conjectures, and equations in pure mathematics. His theta function lies at the heart of string theory in physics.
When Harold was six, his father died, and the family hurtled into poverty. After five years of struggle, his mother secured cheap land to rent deep in rural Indiana, where she and her children grew onions to sell. Harold attended high school only because his father’s life insurance policy had set aside money exclusively for his children’s education.
Harold Urey discovered deuterium. He deduced Earth’s early atmosphere was mainly hydrogen, ammonia, methane, and water. These he theorized would react with one another when lightning passed through them. The famous Miller-Urey experiment showed he was right – the sparking produced amino acids, the building blocks of life.
When Linus was nine, his father died. Linus’s mother paid the bills by taking in boarders. She opposed Linus going to college and discouraged his efforts to do well at high school. Linus defied his mother and left high school at age 15 with sufficient credits to go to college. His mother helped him get a well-paid job as an apprentice machinist, hoping this would stop him thinking about college. At age 16, he resigned his apprenticeship and went to college, supporting himself by working a variety of jobs.
Linus Pauling was the sole recipient of two Nobel Prizes – an unequaled achievement – the first for chemistry and the second for peace. He was a founder of quantum chemistry, molecular biology, and molecular genetics. He devised several vital scientific concepts including valence bond theory and electronegativity. He discovered the alpha-helix structure of proteins and discovered that sickle-cell anemia is a molecular disease.
Maurice’s mother died two days after his birth, leaving his father to raise eight children while working on his small farm. Maurice’s aunt and uncle were childless and they adopted the baby Maurice. He grew up helping on their small farm, selling produce and doing a lot of the manual labor. Maurice did well at high school and went to college, graduating at the top of his class. He won a scholarship for graduate school at the University of Chicago, where he lived in a squalid apartment surviving on a single meal each day, losing weight. At 6 feet 1 inch tall, he weighed less than 140 pounds. (185 cm, less than 63 kg.)
Maurice Hilleman invented eight of the fourteen vaccines used in routine vaccination schedules today. He is the most prolific inventor of vaccines in history, inventing over 40 vaccines. Countless millions owe their lives to his work. An even greater number of people have been spared permanent disabilities such as blindness and deafness.
Author of this page: The Doc
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Patrick Joseph Maloney says
I once read of a young boy playing as a street urchin who was picked out as exceptional by a rich patron who befriended him and gave him his chance in life.
The author described it as the most profitable piece of altruism in history because of the discoveries this young man went on to make.
Can anyone help me rediscover who he was?
APURAV MISHRA says
Great and inspiring collection.
BRAJA BANDHU BEHERA says
Wonderful collection Very useful