(Part 2) 5 Academic Legends and their Unfortunate Lives — Educitizen

Welcome back to our 2nd instalment of Unfortunate Lives of Hidden Academic Legends (read Part 1 here)! Buckle up because there are 5 more brilliant minds to uncover. You’ll learn something new about the lives of these famous academics and read their unfortunate tales along the way. 


Image from History-biography

If this name rings a bell, that means you were paying attention in maths class! Pythagoras of Samos was many things including:

  • A Philosopher 
  • An Astronomer
  • A Mathematician

Unlike the founding figures of Academia mentioned in the first article, Pythagoras goes way back. He lived in 570 BCE! That’s so far back we can’t even comprehend it. That also explains why he had so many achievements, there was so much that needed discovering back then! 

Let’s break it down into his THREE different fields of expertise throughout his career. 

Philosophy: Pythagoras believed life is very structured and numbers make up the basis of everything! If you’re a math nerd you might get it. Lots of his ideas about how the world works later influenced a different famous philosopher, Plato!

Astronomy: He was one of the first people to teach others that the Earth is round! He also identified the Planet Venus (also called the morning and evening star). That’s pretty big stuff in the star world. 

Mathematics: Probably most importantly and famously, Pythagoras invented the pythagorean theorem. If you need a little refresher on what that is here it is:

Image from Pythagoras.nu

Pretty straight forward right? The reason why this was so important is because it helped prove the existence of numbers that weren’t rational. Also, it helps us establish distance! Yay maths!

Now, here’s the unfortunate part: No one knows how Pythagoras died, but all the theories are pretty tragic. Pythagoras taught many people his philosophies and ideas. In fact, this was considered a Brotherhood — a cult-like group for devoted mathematicians. Those who wanted to join, but couldn’t attack during one of their meetings and set the building on fire. Some say he died there, while others say he escaped and later died of starvation. It is also said his “brothers” helped him escape and after committed suicide from the guilt.  We have also read that Pythagoras died because he valued beans so much he refused to trample on them! Even to escape death. We may never know what happened to Pythagoras of Samos. 


Image from The Hindu

Another great mathematical mind! What is honestly the most impressive about this great mind is that he had no mathematical training at all. He was self-taught and still managed to completely inspire, and shock mathematicians around the globe — during his time (late 1800s to 1900s) and ours. 

His genius was recognized when he sent a letter to a British mathematician who was thoroughly impressed by his work and invited Ramanujan to leave his village in South India (where he’s from) and work on maths with him in London — which he did. 

But what were some of the shocking mathematics he did? Well, Ramanujan was great with equations. He just had a natural ability to understand maths and the world around him and make equations to understand them!

For example:

He realized if you add all the natural numbers to infinity it will equal to -1/12. This is called the Ramanujan Summation. It looks like this:

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A theory to calculate the infinite numbers of! Now this one looks even more complicated:

There are numerous other equations he created that we can’t even begin to understand. This all allowed people to use his formulas for years to come! 

Unfortunately, he died at the very young age of 32 and wasn’t able to explain the majority of his excellent work. In fact, he left notebooks full of indecipherable equations. Even 100 years later academics are astounded by what he has written and can’t even comprehend how he was capable of figuring out so much about the mathematical world. For more on this amazing man’s accomplishments, do watch the movie The Man Who Knew Infinity, a biography covering Ramanujan’s journey, with Brit actor Dev Patel playing the late mathematician.


Image from Tina McManus

Moving on from maths, we have Ignaz Semmelweis — a Hungarian physician and scientist. But what he’s most well known for is his discovery in the medical field. He discovered the importance of disinfecting your hands! Basically is hand washing. That might sound silly, especially in the times of COVID-19 where we all have been using hand sanitiser constantly. But discoveries have to start somewhere, and before people knew you could wash away bacteria they…didn’t. They just wouldn’t wash their hands when they definitely should be. 

Semmelweis discovered this by realizing that puerperal fever (childbed fever) in mothers significantly dropped when doctors washed their hands before helping mothers in labour! Before that doctors in training would be working with DEAD BODIES and then go help women give birth. No wonder they were getting sick!

Semmelweis saved loads of lives and is actually known as “The Father of Infection Control” (kinda a gross name though). 

Sadly, many people thought his idea was ridiculous and completely dismissed what he said! He had a nervous breakdown as was committed to an insane asylum. If that wasn’t bad enough, two weeks later he was beaten by guards and died. That is truly awful, especially since a year later other scientists began backing his idea and washing your hands became a norm! (Thank goodness). 


Image from Photo Researchers/Science Photo Library

Here we have another physicist: Ludwig Boltzmann from Germany. Despite learning (briefly) about the laws of thermodynamics in school we have not heard of this scientist, though maybe we should have! 

Ludwig Boltzmann greatest achievements include:

  • The development of statistical mechanics! He investigated and predicted how the properties of atoms were able to determine the visible properties of matter.
  • Most famously, he provided statistical evidence for the second law of thermodynamics. In case you don’t remember it is:

“The state of entropy of the entire universe, as an isolated system, will always increase over time.”

He also helped create a number of formulas and helped provide insight for the meaning of temperature. Sounds pretty smart!

Because of his great work he:

  • Become a member of the Imperial Austrian Academy of Sciences 
  • Became the President of the University of Graz. 
  • Was elected a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

You’d think someone with such great achievements in their life might be free from criticism, but alas he was not. Just like many of the great minds in this article there were people who didn’t believe and ridiculed these founding figures of Academia. This affected Ludwig so much that at the age of 62 he hung himself as he was too demoralized by all the critiques. 


Image from Vittoria Luzzati/National Photography Gallery

Rosalind Franklin was a strong, intense woman (according to her colleagues) who was a chemist and an X-ray crystallographer — what a cool title for a resumé and LinkedIn profile!

(Crystallographer is someone who studies and examines the molecular and atomic structures of crystal forms of materials). 

Most significantly Rosalind Franklin along with her partners got the first x-ray images of DNA. They were the ones that discovered that DNA was a double helix. Even if you didn’t study a huge amount of chemistry or biology at school we are sure you recognize this picture of a double helix structure:

Not only that but she also did lesser known research into RNA (ribonucleic acid), viruses, coal and graphite. 

Here’s where it gets both exciting and sad: Rosalind’s partners Francis Crick, James Watson, and Maurice Wilkins won a Nobel Prize for their work regarding the double helix DNA structure. However, she had died 4 years before the award was given and therefore never received it as apparently Nobel Prizes don’t go to dead people. 

NOT ONLY that, later Aaron Klug continued her research on the molecular structure of viruses and ALSO won a Nobel Prize! This means just like Marie Curie and her work that won two Nobel Prizes! Only… she didn’t actually get either of them. At least today she is acknowledged for the great scientific advancements she made in chemistry and X-ray crystallography.

We hope you learnt something new (we sure did). If you haven’t already, go check out the first part and find out something new, and unfortunate! — about some of the greatest academic minds in history. 

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