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March 26, 2012 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

Unknown Names in Science


These three men were the axis of the team at Bell Labs that created the first transistor in 1947. Their work enabled the technological revolution. Previously, computers had been huge, clunky machines relying on the use of fragile vaccuum tubes for switches. The transistor transformed the electronic landscape–thanks to them we now have everything from mobile phones and pocket calculators to Cray supercomputers. While Shockley—the supervisor of the team— perfected the version of the transistor that we use today, Bardeen and Brattain did the research and developed the idea. Shockley later did his best to take credit for all of their work. Bardeen and Brattain did go on to win the Nobel Prize in physics–but considering the impact of their work, it’s hard to give them enough credit.

John Stapp

In 1946, Stapp, a researcher working for the US Army Air Forces Medical Corps, embarked on a project to reduce the rate of deadly crashes among Air Force pilots. He soon realised that he needed to test the effects of rapid deceleration on the human body, and that most people wouldn’t want to volunteer for that sort of thing so he tested them on himself. During the process he suffered many cracked ribs, two broken ribs, temporary blindness and innumerable bruises, but in the end his research paid off—safer ejection seats, even for supersonic pilots, and much of the theory that underlies modern aeronautics. He later moved on to improve safety in cars.

Rosalind Franklin

Generally speaking, Watson and Crick are the names that we associate with the discovery of the structure of DNA. However, that’s not the whole story. What went on politically and scientifically between the scientists of King’s College is murky, but what has come to light since Watson and Crick published their paper is that they had a good deal of help from Franklin. Some people attest that Franklin, who was working with x-ray diffraction techniques to get a picture of the structure of DNA, showed her images to Watson and Crick, who used them as a basis for their now-famous model; however, most now believe that Watson looked at the images without Franklin’s approval. More importantly, Franklin also submitted a paper on the structure of DNA only one day before Watson and Crick came up with their model. Unfortunately for Franklin, her paper was published third in a series on the structure of DNA, and Watson and Crick significantly downplayed the role she had in developing their model. For many years she remained a supporting figure in the story of DNA, but she has since been posthumously recognised for her contributions.


150 years ago, scientists had no idea that bacteria even existed, let alone that they caused disease. Ignaz Semmelweis was one of the first proponents of the germ theory of disease, although he referred to it as ‘cadaveric contamination’ because, in his case, medical students doing dissections (and later helping deliver babies) in the clinic which he supervised were one of the main causes of deadly infection in women who had recently given birth. He instituted a policy that students at his clinic must wash their hands in a bleach solution before examining patients, causing the death rate there to drop from 18 per cent to 1.5 per cent.

Semmelweis published his findings, but was met with hostility from the scientific community, who were very secure in their belief that disease was caused by ‘ill humours’. He soon descended into mental illness and after his death, his clinic went back to their old ways, completely undoing his work.


About the Author ()

Salient is a magazine. Salient is a website. Salient is an institution founded in 1938 to cater to the whim and fancy of students of Victoria University. We are partly funded by VUWSA and partly by gold bullion that was discovered under a pile of old Salients from the 40's. Salient welcomes your participation in debate on all the issues that we present to you, and if you're a student of Victoria University then you're more than welcome to drop in and have tea and scones with the contributors of this little rag in our little hideaway that overlooks Wellington.

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