There are some folk in life who are just ahead of their time. Often when this happens, though, those around them take a while to see this, and these people are ridiculed or scorned. In fact, some of history’s greatest minds were initially considered crazy for their forward thinking, only to be vindicated years later. From great scientists and military leaders to incredible inventors, here are 30 influential figures who were once labeled mad — but had the last laugh.
1. General William ‘Billy’ Mitchell
General William ‘Billy’ Mitchell is widely revered today by military experts for his advocacy of air power and aircraft safety. Alas, it wasn’t always so. Mitchell was ahead of his time in highlighting the importance of flying machines in combat, but he encountered scorn and opposition from military officials. He was dismayed by the U.S. not having a strong aerial department, given what he’d experienced in World War I.
Mitchell thus lobbied for expanding this department and U.S. air presence, but was accused of cheating when giving a demonstration of how a plane could sink a German battleship thought to be unsinkable. Worst still, after publicly criticizing military officials for the lack of safety provided for brave airmen, he was court-martialed and accused of insubordination.
2. Alice Evans
Sure, Alice Evans is hailed today for her work in making milk safe to drink. But back in the day, the American scientist was largely scorned for her research and subsequent theory on pasteurization. Evans postulated in her 1917 work that drinking raw milk could lead to undulant fever — otherwise known as brucellosis — in humans, and that it needed pasteurizing for safety.
For over a decade, she was scorned and ignored for this theory by the dairy industry. But they were not laughing by the early 1930s, when they had to concede she was right all along and bring in her advocated measures to make drinking milk safe. Incidentally, Evans herself would become infected with brucellosis in 1922, five years after her report was published.
3. The Wright Brothers
You will likely have heard of the Wright Brothers, the famous inventors of the motorized airplane and the first to take a flight with a heavier-than-air aircraft in December 1903. Although they are now regarded as legendary inventors who changed human life forever, it wasn’t always the case. In fact, the Wright Brothers were ignored by their own government in the U.S. for several years when offering the airplane to them.
But this only, ahem, “propelled” them on. When the French started showing an interest in this previously unfathomable idea of human flight, the U.S. finally got involved in 1908 — over five years after the Wrights’ had successfully taken to the air.
4. Ignaz Semmelweis
It’s one thing to be scorned or ignored for your theories, and quite another to be thrown into an asylum for the insane after years of ridicule for them. Alas, this was the fate that befell the Hungarian physicist Ignaz Semmelweis, who produced a theory from his research about germs and how they could be eliminated by using a hand-washing technique.
Semmelweis discovered that hand-washing with a particular chemical solution saw mortality rates in the hospital he worked in drop dramatically from 18 percent to 1.27 percent when his method was applied. But even though Hungary championed his work, most of Europe did not until several years later. Sadly, Semmelweis went into an insane asylum after years of critiques of him and his work, ironically succumbing to a bacterial infection after being beaten by the guards there.
5. Stella Liebeck
You most likely haven’t heard of Stella Liebeck. So, we will inform you that she was a woman who sued McDonald’s after being burned by the fast-food joint’s hot coffee. Liebeck spilt the coffee down her body, and it caused third-degree burns for which she needed skin grafts. The McDonald’s patron was in hospital for eight days, initially.
At the time, the U.S. media largely made fun of her or outright accused her of exaggerating to bring a lawsuit against the fast-food giant. But Liebeck was proved correct when the courts backed her and enforced that McDonald’s regulate the temperature of the hot drinks they serve. Incidentally, Liebeck only went to court after McDonald’s offered very little in paying for her medical bills related to the burns, which she required care for a further two years from.
6. Alexander Fleming
Alexander Fleming is famous as the man who first discovered Penicillin. He did so at St. Mary’s Hospital, London, back in 1928. But after his discovery, Fleming was largely ignored. He desperately tried to get through to medical bodies about the significance of his finding, arguing that it needed more research and resources directed towards experimenting with it.
Unfortunately, at first, his calls fell on deaf ears. But Fleming’s work would eventually be moved from the lab and into the medical clinic, as Penicillin antibiotics became an important treatment in 1941, just as World War II raged and soldiers got bad infections and injuries.
7. Dr. Bennet Omalu
Dr. Bennet Omalu was the doc who made an important discovery about the brains of American footballers. Omalu discovered something related to the brain concussions many had from the brutal sport of gridiron. That thing was chronic traumatic encephalopathy — or CTE, as it is now widely known.
Dr. Omalu was scorned for his work at first, particularly by the NFL who wanted to cover up his damning research. But the scientific community came to realize his findings were on the money. Omalu’s story is covered in the 2015 biopic Concussion, with Will Smith playing the crusading Nigerian-American doc.
8. Dr. Willem Kolff
Dutch-American doc Willem Kolff is credited with inventing both the soft-shell mushroom-shaped heart and the dialysis machine for patients with kidney failure. The genius doc realized that the kidneys’ job was to clean the blood, so what if there was a machine that did that for patients with failed kidneys? Well, Kolff was labeled crazy by some for his wild idea.
But he persevered with it throughout the World War II period, using unorthodox equipment like sausage skins, orange juice cans, and a washing machine. Though patients who would have died anyway passed during the early experiments, eventually Kolff made his idea work. Ever since, people with kidney failure have been kept alive by his ingenious machine.
Galileo is hailed today as one of the founders of modern science. But in his era the Italian genius often wasn’t appreciated, and sometimes he was even considered crazy. One thing Galileo was notably attacked for was his theory that the Earth orbits around the sun. The Vatican in particular, took exception to Galileo’s theory, and in 1633 an Inquisition of the Roman Catholic Church was implemented.
The astronomer was then forced to recant his theory, with the threat of torture and death being very real. Galileo caved in, but reportedly muttered to himself “all the same, it moves,” as he left the courtroom, suggesting he only recanted to avoid an ugly fate. Of course, Galileo was proved right, and even got an apology from the Vatican… some 359 years later.
10. William Harvey
Scientist William Harvey is now widely heralded for being the first in his profession to accurately describe the circulation of blood around the body of humans. He did this way back in 1628, when he published his theory that it passed through the heart. But Harvey’s theory was widely rejected and ridiculed at the time that he lived.
Most biologists erroneously chose to stick to the second-century theory of Greek physician Galen, which claimed blood passed through the liver. Of course, Harvey was eventually proven right, but not before he became a recluse and slightly bitter about it all.
11. Clair Cameron Patterson
Clair Cameron Patterson’s pioneering work led us to a future (largely) without lead. The poisonous substance has been removed from many household items and fuel for vehicles, anyway. But the American Geochemist — who discovered and worked on this problem in the 1950s — got considerable blowback and disdain for his efforts.
Despite his research showing that the atmosphere’s lead concentration was 1,000 times higher than it should be because of human actions, Patterson was attacked by many, including the oil industry. His critics claimed that lead in fuel was, in fact, safe. Almost 30 years later, of course, Patterson was vindicated, and lead began to be removed from vehicle fuel.
12. Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin is world-renowned for his work in biology, namely his theory of evolution and natural selection. But in his lifetime, the British biologist was attacked for his work. After publishing On the Origin of Species back in November 1859, Darwin came in for a lot of flak from both religious folk and academic rivals.
Darwin’s findings provoked much debate, and he was ridiculed and abused. But most people — even many religious types — now accept that his theory of evolution explains how species have changed over time, even if some still think God is responsible for the initial creation of them.
13. John Snow
When a deadly cholera outbreak hit England in the mid-1800s, scientist John Snow worked hard to figure out why it had spread so far so quickly. Snow’s work pointed to contaminated water as the culprit, but he was laughed at by many. Most scientists believed that bad vapors in the air were how cholera was spread. Plot spoiler: Snow was right, and was proved so eventually, despite the initial scorn he received.
Even when his work proved that the deaths of around 500 people in a town were linked to drinking water from a particular pump — and the nearby prison had no cases due to having its own well — he still wasn’t believed. Not before the leaky cesspool near the pump was discovered, anyway.
14. Barry Marshall
Who was Barry Marshall? Well, he was the fellow who discovered Helicobacter pylori and how it contributed to painful and potentially deadly ulcers in the stomach. He later received the 2005 Nobel prize for physiology and medicine, but he wasn’t believed for his work on the bacterium at first. Marshall — who researched the topic with pathologist Richard Warren — was actually scorned by the medical orthodoxy for his findings.
The science community believed stress caused stomach ulcers. But the madcap Australian was so sure of his research that he did something incredible. In 1984 he drank the bacteria in a cocktail to give himself gastritis, before using antibiotics to clear it up. Still, it wasn’t until 1994 that the World Health Organization acknowledged his theory was correct.
15. Henry Freeman
A lifeboatman from the coastal town of Whitby in the north of England, Henry Freeman championed the use of cork lifejackets. But until tragedy struck, he was sadly ridiculed for his ideas. Then, one year a great storm hit, and Freeman’s lifeboat was sent out to help the struggling sailors and their vessels.
The date was February 9, 1861, and on the fifth rescue launch, Freeman’s lifeboat capsized in the cold sea. Sadly, only Freeman would survive out of the crew — due to his cork life jacket. Not surprisingly, Freeman’s particular jacket became the norm for lifeboatmen after that tragic event.
16. Greg LeMond
Greg LeMond was a fine cyclist in his own right, winning the Tour de France on three occasions. But the American was largely ridiculed or scorned for his attacks on his fellow American cyclist Lance Armstrong, who had seemingly sped past LeMond to become the new American hero in cycling by the late 1990s. LeMond was convinced that Armstrong was cheating — the heartwarming story of a determined man coming back from testicular cancer to win the Tour de France multiple times seemed too good to be true.
LeMond stated this back in 2001, and it hurt him financially as businesses dumped him and his image was trashed. “Sour grapes,” many suggested. Of course, LeMond was vindicated 12 years later, as Armstrong finally admitted to Oprah that he had been a key part of a sophisticated doping program in the US Postal/Discovery team.
17. Joseph Lister
Dr. Joseph Lister is renowned today as the founder of antiseptic medicine. But it wasn’t always like that for the British scientist and surgeon. In fact, for many years, Lister was thought to be kind of crazy for his belief that contaminated equipment — and not bad air — was responsible for the infections and deaths of surgical patients.
Lister’s fellow doctors slammed and were offended by his work — how could they be responsible for the infections their patients got? But years later, it was deemed undeniable that unsterilized and germ-heavy equipment caused such infections, and Lister belatedly got his due.
18. John Yudkin
Back in 1972 British scientist John Yudkin proclaimed that it was sugar and not fat that was the leading cause of obesity and heart disease. He detailed his theory in a book entitled Pure, White and Deadly, but was ridiculed in the scientific community for years. He was widely dismissed as a crank, his research was laughed at, and his reputation was left in tatters.
Yudkin’s book could hardly even be found in a library! But eventually it became clear that he was right all along. Though eating excessive fats is not great for you, sugar is a much bigger danger. Yudkin always believed the sugar industry demonized fats, and so it proved.
19. Rachel Carson
Marine biologist and writer Rachel Carson is now highly thought of as the person who helped bring about a ban on damaging pesticides like DDT. She had discovered in her research that the pesticide DDT — which was widely used in the U.S. in the 1950s — was having a shocking and damaging effect on the environment. In particular, she learned that DDT was weakening bald eagle egg shells, and leading to a decline of America’s most iconic bird. But, of course, Carson was attacked for her research, which was detailed in the 1962 book Silent Spring.
Chemical companies in particular, were keen to label her crazy and “hysterical,” launching a slander campaign to protect their own industry. She was even labeled a communist who was trying to destroy American free enterprise. But Carson’s findings would eventually be proven true, ultimately leading to a ban in America on DDT and other harmful pesticides.
20. Marie Curie
Marie Curie is one of the most celebrated scientists in history today. But the Polish genius had to overcome a lot of opprobrium and laughter for large parts of her career, not least for being a woman in a male-dominated field. For instance, when she went public with the fact she had uncovered a new element she called radium, and that radiation could enable us to see inside the human body, there was an outpouring of laughter.
Curie was eventually proved right about all these things, of course. Her research was always painstaking, and her critics should’ve known that Curie wouldn’t have gone public with it if she wasn’t sure it was right. We also have Curie to thank for the knowledge that unchecked radiation can lead to the onset of cancer.
21. Ernest Hemingway
Prior to his death by his own hand in July 1961, novelist Ernest Hemingway had gone public with claims that the FBI was following him. Many laughed at the writer of classics such as For Whom The Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea, and they called him paranoid or crazy. A later documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick also dismissed Hemingway’s claim as paranoia. But eventually, it came to light, through declassified documents, that Hemingway was indeed right about the FBI being on his case.
The J. Edgar Hoover-led organization had been keeping tabs on Hemingway since the 1930s, due to his support for the anarchist Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War. That interest in him was further enhanced by a meeting Hemingway had with Cuban leader Fidel Castro, a sworn U.S. government enemy whom they planned to assassinate or overthrow. It is now believed the FBI following Hemingway may have contributed heavily to his suicide.
22. Will Rogers
A famous actor and humorist in the early 20th century, Will Rogers actually predicted an economic dogma almost 50 years before it was implemented. Rogers wrote in a regular column mocking Republican Herbert Hoover’s presidential campaign about “trickle down” economics, suggesting it would actually “trickle up” and make the rich richer and the poor even worse off than before. Rogers was widely slammed by a lot of Republicans. But around 50 years later, Ronald Reagan was elected President and implemented what is often called neoliberalism.
Reagan claimed that economic gains that benefited the wealthy — namely businesses, entrepreneurs, investors — would “trickle-down” to the poor, creating new opportunities for them to achieve a higher standard of living. Years later, the IMF seemed to confirm this was baloney, and Rogers was vindicated with his joke.
23. Harry Markopolos
Harry Markopolos is the man who investigated Bernie Madoff’s wealth management business and warned it was a ginormous Ponzi Scheme. Financial fraud investigator Markopolos took his findings to the Securities and Exchange Commission in 2000, 2001, and 2005, but was rebuffed and largely dismissed every time. Was he simply crazy? Well, turns out Markopolos was spot on.
Madoff was running a Ponzi Scheme, the biggest in history, and it all collapsed in December 2008 amid the financial crisis, when his sons contacted the FBI after their father finally confessed to them about it. Madoff got 150 years in prison in 2009, and a year later Markopolos had a book on the scandal published, fittingly titled No One Would Listen: A True Financial Thriller. He later told The Guardian he feared for his life before the Madoff Ponzi Scheme finally unraveled.
24. Robert Goddard
When we nostalgically think of space travel, the Russian Sputnik satellite of 1957 and American Moon landing in 1969 immediately come to mind. But did you know there was an American physicist envisaging human space travel back in the 1920s? His name was Robert Goddard, and he saw the potential of a liquid-fueled rocket reaching space an astonishing four decades before it happened. Sadly, Goddard was widely laughed at and scorned for his ahead-of-the-time thinking, which was first published in Popular Science in 1920.
The New York Times wrote that Goddard “does not know the relation of action to reaction, and of the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react — to say that would be absurd. Of course he only seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools.” Of course, Goddard would be proven right in time, but not before his reputation was in tatters.
25. Barbara McClintock
Now regarded as a very important scientist, Barbara McClintock was initially mocked by elements of the scientific community for her theory of transposons in DNA. The American would go on to win the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1983 for her work, but a decade before that, she was widely ignored or ridiculed for what some saw as crackpot theories.
Anyway, McClintock’s work on transposons would later be vindicated, as they were found to exist in the way she postulated. McClintock was so ahead of her time that it took a while for more run-of-the-mill scientists to catch her up. Luckily, she believed in herself and the evidence she had discovered, and she never gave up.
26. Mikhail Bakunin
You may not have heard of Mikhail Bakunin, but the Russian anarchist thinker made some incredibly prophetic predictions about what form Marxist regimes would take, earning him the ire of Karl Marx himself. In particular, Bakunin lambasted Marx for his idea of a transitional period of “dictatorship of the proletariat,” before communism would theoretically see the state wither away. Bakunin was certain that such a phase would only lead to a centralized “red bureaucracy” and state tyranny.
As a result of his feud with Marx and his attack on the “dictatorship of the proletariat” concept, Bakunin was largely ostracized from the mainstream socialist movement of the time. But the anarchist’s predictions would be pretty much spot on, as Marxist regimes such as the Soviet Union and China turned out to be one-party, totalitarian regimes in which the state did not wither away into communism, as Marx had insisted would happen.
27. Sherry Rowland
F. Sherwood “Sherry” Rowland is a name you might have heard of. Rowland was a man who, after years of research on the subject with colleague Mario Molina, vociferously raised concerns about the damage CFCs were having on the environment, and most notably, the ozone layer. This was way back in 1974.
Rowland called for CFCs to be banned but was largely ignored by his own government, or lambasted as a crank by some in his own profession. He was also attacked by those who stood to benefit from CFCs — a $28 billion a year industry back then according to the Los Angeles Times. Rowland was eventually vindicated years later, and CFCs began to be phased out entirely.
28. Roger Boisjoly
A mechanical engineer, fluid dynamicist, and aerodynamicist for NASA, Roger Boisjoly raised strong objections about the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger before its launch. That was back in winter 1985, and Boisjoly’s objections — based on his belief that the rocket boosters’ O-rings would fail if the shuttle was launched in cold weather — fell on deaf ears.
Boisjoly was willfully ignored or lambasted, and even shunned by his peers. But we imagine he got absolutely no satisfaction in being proven right, given the fatal consequences. Everything he predicted would happen sadly came true, and the Space Shuttle Challenger was lost in January 1986, all of its crew perishing with it.
29. Al Gore
Al Gore is known for being Vice President of the United States for eight years from January 1993 to January 2001, and for running for President himself in 2000. But since then, Gore has become best known for his environmentalism and warnings about climate change, which were detailed in the 2006 documentary film An Inconvenient Truth. In the film, Gore suggested that climate change was a real and immediate danger to mankind and Earth.
If man did not act on climate change immediately, Gore argued, they were in danger of making the Earth uninhabitable. Still today, climate change deniers and other critics scoff at his alarmism. But the majority of the scientific community stand behind Gore’s assertions, and the effects of climate change are being seen, with record-breaking temperatures every year along with extreme weather events and wildfires.
30. Arsene Wenger
In September 2002 Arsenal FC’s manager Arsene Wenger told the press that his team could potentially go unbeaten for a whole Premier League season. Wenger told the English press, “It’s not impossible to go through the season unbeaten and I can’t see why it’s shocking to say that. Every manager thinks that but they don’t say it because they’re scared it would be ridiculous.”
For context, only one team in top-flight English soccer history had ever done it: Preston North End, way back in 1888-89. That was only 27 matches, though, and Wenger was widely mocked in the press or derided as arrogant for his prediction of going 38 games without loss. But the Frenchman had the last laugh, leading Arsenal to the title in the following season, with a record of 26 wins, 12 draws and zero defeats. Wenger’s 2003/4 team would earn the nickname “The Invincibles” and a place in English soccer folklore.