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.