(Part 1) 5 Academic Legends & Their Unfortunate Lives — Educitizen

All of us who went through our “emo edgy pre-teen” phase will know what it’s like to romanticize tragedy. Black and white photos, crying into your pillow and pretending you were truly a monster inside that no one understood – was all the rage.

Now, even though we’re all older now and know that sadness isn’t cool – it’s just sad – we’re still a little fascinated by it, aren’t we? It explains why the series A Series of Unfortunate Events (which were books first, of course) is so successful.

On that note aren’t you a little curious to find out about the unfortunate lives of the founding figures of Academia? You’ll hear some wacky stories and learn something new! 

(PART 2)

5. ALAN TURING | Queer War Hero

Alan Turing is a pretty cool guy. The Imitation Game, anyone?

If you still don’t know who this hero is, he was one of the key figures who helped crack decoded German messages in World War II, which ultimately contributed to them losing. (yay) In fact, he ended up saving 14 million lives and shortened the war by 3 whole years!

 If that’s not impressive enough he also helped lay out the fundamentals and groundwork which would one day become the modern computer! Basically, he was able to analyze what it meant for a person to complete a series of tasks or instructions and then using coding applied this to a machine. This later proved useful to Charles Babbage who did make the first digital computer! And, what we do without computers? Definitely wouldn’t have survived 2020. 

What also might shock you is despite growing up to be a renowned mathematician, logician, and cryptographer he actually didn’t do all that well in school. Now, if a guy like him can become wildly successful then all of you out there, do not lose hope! 

Despite him being revered today, he was outed as gay in 1952, much to the public’s horror. Unfortunately, homosexuality was illegal during that time and he was actually convicted for indecency. As briefly mentioned in this week’s quiz it is unsure whether his death was intentional, but it is greatly believed that he deliberately laced an apple with poison and died:

Though his story is tragic, with the change of the times, sixty years later he was “pardoned” and his achievements acknowledged. Despite this good news it is a little too late for Alan Turing.

4. MARIE CURIE | Nobel Prize Hoarder

ca. 1898 — Marie Curie — Image by © Underwood & Underwood/CORBIS

Now you must have heard of Marie Curie: a chemist, a physicist, and a total baddie. She’s most known for her research on radioactivity. Not only was she such a smartie but she was a sneaky one too. It was illegal for women to get a higher education so she and her sister ran off to Poland at a ~ secret university ~ so that they could learn! Kinda makes me feel I should be more grateful for my own uni life!

Her list of achievements is seemingly endless, she:

  • added two elements to the periodic table,
  • made bounding leaps in cancer cures, and
  • was the first person to win TWO Nobel Prizes in separate sciences. 

What is very cool is that her husband, daughter AND son-in-law all won Nobel Prizes too, no pressure for their grandchildren! 

Sadly, one of the reasons Marie Curie is famous is for her tragic end as the amazing scientific work she achieved ultimately was her own downfall. As there wasn’t much previous knowledge about radioactivity (as Marie Curie was the one researching it) she wasn’t aware of how harmful it can be. From years and years of great scientific work, Marie Curie got leukemia from prolonged exposure to radioactivity. 

I don’t know about you but I have the greatest respect for Marie Curie essentially giving her life in the name of science. 

3. NIKOLA TESLA | Pigeon Enthusiast 

Nikola Tesla! The lightbulb guy! And no – he did not make the Tesla cars. Though the cars WERE named after him. Anyway, Nikola Tesla made many breakthroughs on how to conduct electricity.  

If you’re thinking “hold on, isn’t Thomas Edison the lightbulb guy?” then you’re right and wrong. Thomas Edison did contribute to our knowledge on electricity BUT for many years he was given credit whilst Nikola Tesla was not.  They might even be considered rivals! (who do you think is the villain?) One time Edison told Tesla he’d give him $50,000 to improve some of his own work, and once Tesla did that Edison basically said “haha sike, it was just a joke lol” (okay maybe I’m paraphrasing but that’s the gist!)

If you think that’s bad, Nikola Tesla’s life is a treasure trough of wild stories and sad events. On the more wacky side, we have Tesla talking to pigeons, being scared of pearls, and obsessing over the number 3 (to be fair, it’s a good number!). 

On a more serious note, starting with the death of his brother, Nikola Tesla started showing signs of mental illness. Nowadays, it is likely he would be diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder which explains his love of number 3 and his anxiety over pearls. 

2. ADA LOVELACE | Edgy Math Nerd

Now if you’re a cheeky math geek you might want to know about Ada Lovelace (also, what a cool name right? Sounds like she should be in a Cassanda Clare book). She was a british mathematician who wrote an algorithm for a computing-machine. As mentioned in above under Alan Turing, Charles Babbage is credited for the first digital computer – but did you know that Ada Lovelace was actually friends with him? He often showed her his work and ideas: famously one of his articles he shared with Ada was covered in er notes 3 times the length of the original article! No one can deny she was a great help to his invention.

This was quite a feat for her time because just like with Marie Curie, women didn’t typically have the same education as men, so it was a surprise that Ada’s mum insisted she get an education in maths and science that allowed her to understand such complex ideas.

However, Ada Lovelace wasn’t just your typical nerd: not only did she use her mathy brain to help further the world, she also put her mind to calculating how she could best win at gambling! She brought notebooks to horse racing games with details on predicting which horse was likely to win and made very large bets with her friends because she was confident in her analyse.

Now, although that sounds pretty cool – sadly not only was she unsuccessful she 1) lost a lot of money and 2) ended up with a gambling addiction. Bit awkward.

And though not uncommon, I still find this strange and a bit sad to think about, Ada Lovelace died at the young age of 36 because of a variety of illnesses. Shows you time really has changed. 

1. MALALA YOUSAFZAI | The Activist

Hopefully you all know Malala Yousafzai. This is because her academic journey was happening just as ours was! Albeit, with quite a few differences. She is best known as a human rights activist fighting for women’s rights to education in Pakistan. 

Now, she isn’t a “founding figure” in a more common sense but I would consider her a founding figure of modern day academia. I think it’s important to include her because there are still huge academic inequalities in the world, and people are still fighting to change this. Malala could be considered a founding figure of academia for women!

This is because at a young age, the Talbian had taken over her area in Pakistan and forbid all woman to have a formal education. She fought back making anonymous blog posts and speaking publicly. Eventually, the government got the area under more control, freeing women to continue their education.


Sadly, like the others on this list Malala had to have a little bit of tragedy sprinkled in with her achievements. I’m sure you know the story of how Malala was just taking the bus home from school when the Taliban got on the bus, asked for Malala by name and shot her THREE times in the head: obviously furios for her protests about education for women.

Miraculously, Malala lives on and continues to fight for academia for those who need it most. So this doesn’t have a sad ending! She went on to have MANY achievements including:

  • Writing a book
  • Being accepted into Harvard
  • an asteroid named after her
  • “World Malala Day” granted by the UN
  • The youngest person to win a Nobel Prize. 

So I hope you all learnt something about these geniuses. Though they all had suffered in their lives, we are grateful they did what they did, or else the world would be very different from how it is today! 

*We have added another 5 academic legends on the block! You can read it here.

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