Recently I watched a video by comedian Bill Bailey in which he championed the cause of Alfred Russel Wallace. Wallace conceived the theory of natural selection and evolution independently of Charles Darwin. While the two did correspond and the theory was originally published as the Darwin-Wallace Theory, Wallace has since faded into relative obscurity whereas Darwin went on to fame and fortune having a city (Darwin Australia), birds (Darwin’s finches) and a cartoon chimpanzee (in the Wild Thornberrys) named after him. All Wallace got was a Line (the Wallace Line which separates the ecozones of Australia and Asia and runs between Borneo and Sulawesi in Indonesia).
Unfortunately Wallace’s descent into oblivion is not unique. History is littered with characters whose contributions were at least as significant as those of their more famous colleagues but who, for whatever reason, have been forgotten.
Take Watson and Crick for example. While we all know that Francis Crick and James Watson were the first to describe the double helix structure of DNA and received the Nobel Prize for their efforts, who knew that Maurice Wilkins was part of this discovery and received the Nobel Prize along with them? Never mind the fact that Rosalind Franklin also played a key role in this discovery. She was not nominated for the Nobel Prize because she died before the Prize was awarded and it is not given posthumously.
Burke and Wills were two famous explorers who decided to cross Australia from Melbourne in the south to the Gulf of Carpentaria in the north, a journey of 3250 km. While they successfully completed the trip north they both died on the return leg, John King being the only member of the expedition to make it back to Melbourne alive. But who has heard of John King? Australians do seem to prefer their heroic failures. Look at the Gallipoli campaign.
While James Cook is credited as having “discovered” Australia in 1770 (despite the fact that Aborigines had been living here for up to 60,000 years) Dutchman Willem Janszoon arrived here in 1606. He was followed by further Dutchmen, including Abel Tasman who bumped into Tasmania in 1642. Cook was not even the first Englishman to reach Australia. That honour belongs to William Dampier who arrived in 1688. Presumably Cook got the credit because no one had bothered to claim the place until after his arrival.
However, it is not just the worlds of history and science that are littered with the forgotten. Stuart Sutcliffe was one of the original members of the Beatles but left to pursue a career in painting. Now there was a good career move. A similar situation occurred with Syd Barrett and Pink Floyd, except he left the band to go insane.
History, it seems, takes a very subjective view of those who grace its pages, some awarded lasting fame and notoriety, others drifting quietly into anonymity. Unfortunately the category you end up in seems to have very little to do with your actual contribution and a lot more to do with your ability to sell yourself and capture the public’s imagination (VHS v Betamax, IBM v Apple). In the current era where we can all achieve our fifteen minutes of fame and saturate the airwaves with our photos, opinions and antics it will be interesting to see who is remembered in a century from now and who has faded away. Hopefully those who generate lasting achievements will still be lauded while those who clutter up my inbox with cute kitten photos will burn in hell.
Dr. F. Bunny