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Scientists who laboured in comparative obscurity who made a big difference

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michael-flannery-headshot Science historian Michael Flannery kindly writes to offer a list (in case anyone was tempted to measure achievement by invites to yada yada talk shows):

1) Girolamo Fracastoro (aka Fracastorius) proposed a form of germ theory of disease in his On contagion and contagious disease in 1546 over 300 hears before Pasteur.

2) Josiah Clark Nott suggested that malaria and yellow fever were transmitted by an insect vector in 1848, mocked and derided in its day, Nott’s theory was vindicated by Albert F. A. King’s study in 1883. A word on Nott: At first Nott, a polygenist racist, opposed Darwin’s monogenist evolutionary theory but later came to fully accept it as equally supportive of his racist ideas.

3) When Carlos Finley, a Cuban epidemiologist, read his path-breaking paper, “The mosquito hypothetically considered as the agent pf the transmission of yellow fever,” to the International Sanitary Conference in the summer of 1881, it was ignored or viewed skeptically. He got the same response in 1886 when he described the experimental transmission of yellow fever by the bite of the Aedis aegypti mosquito in JAMA. It would take Water Reed to confirm Finley in 1900.

4) Alfred Wegener proposed continental drift theory in his On the origins of continents and oceans in 1915. Alexander Logie du Toit amassed a large amount of evidence in support of Wegener, but both were largely ignored or discounted for years.

5) When the clergyman Cotton Mather recommended smallpox inoculation in 1721 he had a bomb thrown thrown through his window with a message attached: “Cottom Mather, you dog, damn you! I’ll incoulate you with this; a pox to you.” He was opposed by the mainstream medical community led by William Douglass.

6) When the Surgeon General William A. Hammond removed calomel and tarter emetic from the Standard Supply Table in the American Civil War (both were dangerous and over used substances), he received a court martial for his efforts. Although the specific charges were vague and trumped up, it was generally acknowledged that the source of his removal came from his medical colleagues who regarded his action as professional treason. Hammond would later be fully exonerated by Senate investigative committee in 1878.

7) Although modern researchers act like the controlled clinical trial was an invention of the 20th century, the very first one of note was developed by Benjamin Waterhouse to test the efficacy of the newly developed smallpox vaccination. It occurred on Noddle’s Island, a large harbor island in Boston in 1802.

8) Although Laennec invented the monaural stethoscope in 1816, he did not become an instant sensation for its use. Physicians were slow to adopt it even after the binaural improvement by George Cammann in 1856. During the Civil War physicians regarded its use as a novelty, and even as late as 1903, Dr. William Osler noted that most physicians did not use a stethoscope.

9) Constantine Rafinesque (1783-1840) was an eccentric but brilliant medical botanist. He wrote the first extensive medical botany text (Medical flora, 2 vols., 1828-30) while on faculty at the innovative Transylvania Medical College in Lexington, Kentucky. Although many of the medicinal plants Rafinesque described and elucidated can be shown to be still in use today in many international compendia, he died alone and penniless in Philadelphia.

10) Pellagra, a devastating nutritional deficiency disease, became an epidemic in the American South in the early 20th century. The reigning theory of its cause, however, was proposed by the Thompson-McFadden Commission in 1912, pellagra it insisted was infectious. It took Joseph Goldberger and the USPH years to prove its nutritional basis, and, in fact, Goldberger died in 1929 before Conrad Elvehjam proved it was caused by a specific deficiency of niacin in the late 1930s. Also, Alabama physician Carl Grote proved the nutritional basis in an actual community (as opposed to Goldberger’s controlled experiments) and published his findings in 1916, only to be ignored.

In any conflict between fact and spin, if you think facts matter, stick to them, not to the spin.

See also: Science historian: AN Wilson’s Darwin biography contains a baseless charge, factual errors

Don't forget Gregor Mendel and his contribution to evolutionary theory. :) Allan Keith

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