Underrated, Overlooked, Forgotten, and Ignored Historical Heroes who Need More Love

Some historical heroes get all the glory and praise even though they didn’t really deserve it. Others perform great deeds but are barely recognized for them for some reason whether it be by race, gender, job, or just that they don’t really fit into the historical narrative. Others are famous for one reason or another but aren’t really fully recognized for their work because they may share some unlikable quality the status quo doesn’t like or their accomplishments just get lost in the historic record. In some ways, history doesn’t do much justice to them either. Here are some of the great historical heroes who need more love. (I’m not including Tesla because he’s on too many lists already.)

1. Frank J. Wilson

His Feats: He was the IRS agent who nailed Al Capone, used the serial numbers on ransom notes to help solve kidnapping and murder of the Lindbergh baby (well, he nailed Bruno Hauptmann), and eventually became head of the Secret Service where he successfully resisted attempts of an FBI takeover orchestrated by J. Edgar Hoover, nearly eliminated the production and distribution of counterfeit money through a nationwide education program, and initiated practices in presidential security which have since become standard procedure, all before retiring in 1947. It’s been said that Al Capone had a plot to kill him which he later cancelled and came to regret.

Why He’s Ignored: Wilson couldn’t bask in the glory of his accomplishments since secrecy was part of his job. Even during his three year investigation of Al Capone, he didn’t even tell his wife about his work if that gives you any idea. So naturally the credit went to Elliot Ness instead.

2. Mary Seacole

Her Feats: She’s best known as a nurse in the Crimean War who used her own resources to set up her own hospital to treat the wounded even though she ended up bankrupt afterwards and her popular made it possible for much of the British public to support her. Known as “Mother Seacole.” Her autobiography was one of the first written by a black woman in Britain as well as successfully combated racial prejudice.

Why She’s Ignored: Well, she’s not actually ignored in Britain and her home country Jamaica, most people in the world have barely heard of her. Also, she was black (though her father was Scottish), not conventionally educated (mostly learned to be a nurse from her mother), and her presence in the Crimean War doesn’t fit well with the Florence Nightingale. Also, Nightingale criticized her for keeping a “bad house” in the Crimea and was responsible for “much drunkenness and improper conduct.” Whether Nightingale was either telling the truth or acting out of jealousy is unclear. Not to mention, there’s some debate over whether Seacole’s achievements were exaggerated for political reasons, especially in recent years. Of course, she’s no Florence Nightingale but even that shouldn’t dismiss her from the history books or even as a pioneer in nursing since she did have an amazing story as well as helped make nursing a more respectable profession . Still, since she was quite popular with the soldiers who were willing to raise money for her, she was certainly no fraud.

3. Helen Keller

Her Feats: Overcame her blindness and deafness after a bout with illness as a toddler as well as graduate from Radcliffe College. Later she became a writer, lecturer, and lifelong activist for the disabled, disadvantaged, women, and ethnic minorities as well as sent money to the NAACP and helped co-found the American Civil Liberties Union.

Why She’s Ignored: Helen Keller isn’t really ignored as a historical figure per se, but almost everything about her and the reason why she’s such an influential figure often is. Of course, this is because to talk about her adult life and how she achieved fame is to acknowledge Keller’s radical politics, namely the fact she had been a Socialist since she was in college. Her radical political views stemmed from her realization of how social conditions had an impact on how likely a person was going to end up disabled. Not only that, but she also knew full well that she was able to receive the guidance she got from Anne Sullivan was because of her privileged background. Her Socialist politics and activities were very well known at the time and she made no secret about them either. If you don’t believe it, here’s a quote of hers from 1911, “The few own the many because they possess the means of livelihood of all … The country is governed for the richest, for the corporations, the bankers, the land speculators, and for the exploiters of labor. The majority of mankind are working people. So long as their fair demands—the ownership and control of their livelihoods—are set at naught, we can have neither men’s rights nor women’s rights. The majority of mankind is ground down by industrial oppression in order that the small remnant may live in ease.” Of course, you’ll never hear that from Helen Keller in elementary school. Of course, many conservative parents wouldn’t really want their children to glorify a Socialist, would they? Still, you don’t make it to the TIME 100 of the 20th Century just by overcoming being blind and deaf.

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4. Clara Barton

Her Feats: Well, she was a teacher who started New Jersey’s first public school, a patent clerk (first female to work in the US government), army nurse, humanitarian, political activist, and founder of the American Red Cross as well as ran the Office of Missing Soldiers.

Why She’s Ignored: Well, she’s not really much ignored when it comes to moments of her life such as the Civil War and founding of the American Red Cross. Of course, most people know her for being a Civil War nurse but she wasn’t just that. For one, she started out as a teacher for a dozen years in schools in Canada in West Georgia and was rather successful. She even started a free school in New Jersey which she ended up quitting after being past over for a promotion. After that she worked at the U.S. Patent Office as a clerk, which made her the first woman to hold a job in the US government. After the war, she ran an office to find missing Civil War soldiers whose fate were unknown other than they didn’t come back. Before the Civil War, searching for dead soldiers wasn’t done before even though we take the concept for granted today. The Clara Barton National Historic Site is one of the first national historic sites dedicated to the accomplishments of a woman. However, in American history class, she’s only a footnote.

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5. Helen Hunt Jackson

Her Feats: She was one of the early Native American rights activists who wrote A Century of Dishonor chronicling the mistreatment of Indians that was legally sanctioned by state and federal policy and a novel Ramona. Both books remain in print to this day as she also attracted considerable attention to her cause.

Why She’s Ignored: Well, for one, she was living at a time when Native American rights was a fairly controversial issue (like gun control in some states), especially since the US government’s higher priority was taking land from the Indians and placing them on reservations. Speaking of the US government, she wasn’t well liked by them, the settlers, or the military officers she documented as being corrupt as well as encroaching and stealing Indian lands. Doesn’t fit in the Western movies does it?

6. Dr. Charles R. Drew

His Feats: He was a physician, surgeon, and medical researcher best known for developing techniques for blood storage and applied his expert knowledge in developing large-scale blood banks early in WWII, allowing medics to save thousands of lives of Allied Forces. Also, bears distinction as the first black surgeon selected to serve as ab examiner on he American Board of Surgery.

Why He’s Ignored: Unfortunately the racial politics at the time cost Drew his job after he protested the racial segregation in the donation of blood over it lacking scientific foundation. Also, he was black and most black doctors and scientists weren’t going to be the ones winning the Nobel Prizes in Medicine or be talked about in a school history or science class. I mean most of history was written by white men, right? Then there’s the fact that he’s responsible for saving thousands of lives back in WWII which many white veterans might not even want to admit, especially if they’re from the South. Not to mention, his work in blood storage continues to save people’s lives to this day but not many would want to hear that it was a black man who made that possible.

7. Percy Julian

His Feats: He was a research chemist who pioneered in the chemical synthesis of medicinal drugs from plants. He was first to synthesize the natural product of physostigmine and a pioneer in the large-scale industrial chemical synthesis of human hormones, steroids, progesterone, and testosterone from plant sterols such as stigmasterol and sitosterol. His work would lay the foundation for the steroid drug industry’s cortisone, other cortisteroids, and birth control pills. Later, he started his own company for synthesized steroid intermediates of the Mexican wild yam, greatly reducing the cost of these products to large multinational pharmaceutical companies, helping significantly expand the use of several important drugs. Received more than 130 chemical patents and was the first African American to hold a doctorate in chemistry as well as inducted into the National Academy of Sciences and second African American scientist inducted from any field.

Why He’s Ignored: Still, though Julian’s scientific contributions radically changed the world, perhaps the only recognition he gets nowadays is his own Nova episode called Forgotten Genius. Still, most people outside the black scientific community don’t really know who this guy is. His race has a lot to do with this since any white scientist with a similar list of accomplishments would’ve certainly become a household name. There are other factors in his life that play a role as well. For one, unlike his much more famous counterparts, Julian didn’t spend most of his career at a college but in a corporation (mostly because he couldn’t get an academic position after a scandal got him fired from Howard University. Not to mention, he didn’t have a good chance getting hired anywhere else mostly because he was black and this was pre-Civil Rights Era). Still, working in a corporation isn’t going to help a scientist’s chances receiving a Nobel Prize which Percy Julian certainly didn’t receive (but definitely deserved). Nevertheless, for a man like him to make the kind of contributions he did despite tremendous odds makes him a very significant figure indeed.

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8. James Madison

His Feats: Founding father, “Father of the Constitution,” secretary of state, and 4th President of the United States. He was the first president to lead a nation into war (reluctantly after negotiations and embargoes had failed), first president to face enemy gunfire while in office, and the first (and only) president to exercise his authority as Commander in Chief while in battle. He did all this while presiding over a divided cabinet, a factious party, a difficult Congress, and useless generals. In 1814 as the misnamed War of 1812 continued, he and Dolley were forced to flee Washington while British troops burned down the White House and Capitol. Yet, he still signed a peace treaty with Great Britain later that year, which ended the “Second War of Independence” and resulting in the US losing no territory. Madison miraculously brought peace to America (despite near-treasonous actions by New England), and showed that the new nation still had what it took. Outside the War of 1812, created the Second Bank of the United States, a stronger military, a high tariff to protect the new factories opened during the war, and a federally subsidized road and canal system. When he stepped down in 1817, ex-president John Adams wrote to ex-president Thomas Jefferson (Madison’s former mentor, predecessor, and close friend) that Madison had, “acquired more glory, and established more union than all three predecessors…put together.”

Why He’s Ignored: As a founding father, Madison is very well known since he’s the one delegate from the Constitutional Convention who devised much of the system of the US government as we know today. As president though, he’s best known as Dolley Madison’s husband. And though Mrs. Madison might have had plenty of contributions of her own such as stopping Congressmen from killing each other, playing hostess, saving critical memorabilia from the British, and set precedent for the role of First Lady, Mr. Madison is continually placed on the lists of Top 10 US presidents by academics. Also, the War of 1812 isn’t a significant war on the American radar mostly because it lasted less than 3 years, didn’t have Americans fighting each other or abroad, was fought at a time before photos and film documentation, and didn’t result in the loss or gain of any territory. Not to mention, it only comes up when we talk about “The Star Spangled Banner,” Tecumseh, the Battle of New Orleans (fought two weeks after the war had ended due to slow communication), and Dolley Madison’s heroic actions as the White House burned.

9. Elizabeth Kenny

Her Feats: She an unaccredited Australian nurse who devised a controversial new approach for the treatment of polio before Dr. Jonas Salk developed the vaccine which eradicated the virus in most countries. Her findings ran counter to conventional medical wisdom, which demonstrated the need to exercise the muscles affected by polio instead of immobilizing them. Her principles of muscle rehabilitation would become the foundation of physical therapy. Polio survivor and actor Alan Alda basically stated that she was his main reason for being a feminist since his mother used her methods for treating him.

Why She’s Ignored: Her idea of physical therapy to combat polio though successful stirred significant controversy in the medical community, especially in her own country who questioned her results and methodology. Also, she wasn’t formally trained as a nurse (and might have learned her craft from a midwife.) Then there’s the fact she’s a woman whose methods challenged conventional medical wisdom. Not to mention, her treatments weren’t always successful. Even so, they helped improve the quality of life of thousands of people who probably would’ve ended up paralyzed otherwise and her methods nowadays are considered medical gospel.

10. Beulah Henry

Her Feats: Known as “Lady Edison” she had a role in over 100 inventions though she was more of a visionary who relied on model makers and engineers to bring them to life since she lacked the technical knowledge. Of her many inventions lists the vacuum ice freezer, the “protograph” (a primitive photocopier), the inflatable doll, the can opener, hair curlers, the “Latho” (a sponge that held a bar of soap in the center), and an umbrella with a snap-on cloth cover that allowed it to be color coordinated.

Why She’s Ignored: For one, she’s a woman at a time when the most famous inventors were men. Also, she only took 49 patents while many of her male counterparts took way more for things they weren’t totally their own ideas (I’m talking to you Edison).

11. Walter Reuther

His Feats: Labor activist, trade unionist, and helped make the United Auto Workers a force to be reckoned with as well as helped legitimize the presence of unions as a method of leverage for employers and a powerful political force. He successfully led major strikes against Ford and General Motors during the 1930s and 1940s. Founded Americans for Democratic Action in 1947, negotiated a merger that formed the AFL-CIO, marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, and the list goes on.

Why He’s Ignored: Well, to put it this way, politics. Although Reuther’s union activism was responsible for improving the lives of millions of Americans, he’s not a kind of guy Red State school board would want to see in an American History textbook. Also, the fact he was a Socialist in the 1930s and spent a stint in the Soviet Union don’t help his case either along with a 200 page FBI file. Not to mention, how unions continue to decline in power since the 1980s. I mean conservatives don’t like him at all.

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12. Frances Perkins

Her Feats: First US female cabinet member who served as Secretary of Labor under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. She played an essential role in the New Deal program as well as the second-longest US cabinet member in history. Not only did she help pull the labor movement into the New Deal coalition, she also championed many New Deal aspects like the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Public Works Administration (succeeded by the Federal Works Agency and the labor portion of the National Industrial Recovery Act she also played a role in). She helped established unemployment benefits, elderly pensions, welfare,minimum wage, overtime laws, and defined the standard of the 44 hour workweek. She pushed to reduce workplace accidents and helped craft laws against child labor as well as formed policy dealing with labor unions and alleviating strikes through the US Conciliation Service. The US Labor Department building is named after her in her honor.

Why She’s Ignored: Well, there was a recent scandal involving a mural depicting her in the Maine Labor Department Headquarters, which the governor wanted removed. The claims were that he received complaints from state business officials and an anonymous fax charging it was reminiscent of “communist North Korea where they use these murals to brainwash the masses.” He also ordered that the names of seven conference rooms in the state’s labor department be changed, including one named after Perkins. If that gives you any idea why she’s seen as a token cabinet member in a U.S. History book, then here it is.

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