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

While some people have their names enshrined on a plaque, a statue on a public square, a biopic, and are remembered for generations in the history books, others get barely a footnote in some long history academic encyclopedia. Whether they’re ignored for their race, gender, or other feature that doesn’t fit in the historic narrative or are overlooked in other ways, we have these people who the history books just don’t do justice to. Last October, I compiled a list of forgotten and not so forgotten figures and this time I have an assortment for your pleasure. I’ll only list people who are now dead.

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1. William Parker, 13th Baron Morely, 4th Baron Monteagle

His Feats: English noble and member of the House of Lords. He’s best known for the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot in which a group of 13 Catholics conspired to blow up the Houses of Parliament with 36 barrels of gunpowder in the cellar directly below it during the 1605 opening. Before the fateful 5th of November, he received a mysterious letter, presumably from a fellow Catholic (most likely his brother-in-law Francis Tresham) who wanted to spare his life from the upcoming scheduled terrorist attack. After deciphering the letter, he rushed to Whitehall, showed it to the 1st Earl of Salisbury Robert Cecil. He then joined Thomas Howard where they found a stash of Gunpowder and explosives which resulted in Guy Fawkes and his fellow conspirators arrested, tortured into confession, and executed through being hung, drawn, and quartered. He was rewarded with £500 and 200 acres of land

Why He’s Ignored: Parker was a lifelong recusant Catholic who was in favor with court despite having a checkered past of being linked to Catholic terrorist plots as well as a stint in prison as well as a £8,000 fine. Of course, given the status of English Catholics as a persecuted minority since Elizabethan times (as well as the fact that acts of Catholic terror caused Protestant pressure to crack down on them), putting him in the history books wouldn’t fit with the historical narrative most 17th century English Protestants wouldn’t be happy with. Also, despite the Stuart monarchy being too Catholic friendly for their own good, things wouldn’t get better for the English Catholics in Great Britain after the Gunpowder Plot as priests continued to be expelled, fines were taxed, and the recusant Catholics worshiped in secret. So in spite of Parker basically saving Parliament and the Stuart royal family, his actions didn’t help the persecuted English Catholics in the PR department (then again, Catholic terrorists blowing up Parliament might’ve made things worse). Not only that, now since we have the film V for Vendetta, Guy Fawkes now has his own fanbase (and souvenir mask) despite only functioning in the group as the explosives expert as well as being the first guy caught who ratted out all his fellow collaborators while under torture. Nevertheless, whether Parker wrote the Monteagle Letter or not, he certainly knew about the Gunpowder Plot and acted accordingly. Yet, when it comes to Fawkes and Monteagle, it’s very clear which one should be seen as the hero in the story of the Gunpowder Plot.

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2. Philo T. Farnsworth

His Feats: A self-taught American physicist and child prodigy who built a motor and produced the first electric washing machine his family ever owned when he was 12 years old. At 14, he figured out a way to transmit images electronically. In 1921, he diagrammed and described television in a school science paper. 5 years later he built his first television camera and receiving apparatus. He would build the electronic transmission of television, using a carbon arc projector to send a single line to a receiver in the next room of his apartment.

Why He’s Ignored: Unfortunately for him, the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) owned a patent for television by another inventor. He would spend years embroiled in lawsuits, defending himself from infringement claims, and seeking to guard his own patent rights. In 1939, RCA would finally license Farnsworth’s patents and paid him $1 million. Nevertheless, despite that TV has basically has had a major impact on the lives of billions of people who tune in every day, most people don’t really know the man who invented it. In many ways, just being the inventor of TV alone, Farnsworth should be a household name.

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3. Frank Wills

His Feats: Nighttime security guard at the Watergate Hotel and Office Complex who while on his rounds in the summer of 1972, found a strip of duct tape preventing a door latch from closing all the way. He removed it and continued on his way. 30 minutes later, he returned to the spot and saw that someone reaffixed the tape to the latch. Feeling something suspicious was going on, he promptly called the cops. What he discovered would become front page news as the late night burglary of the Democratic National Convention Headquarters which would lead to a major coverup as well as a series of scandals that led to the resignation of a US president.

Why He’s Ignored: Well, despite being held a hero with a few talk show appearances immediately after the Watergate break-in, he died broke and in obscurity. Once his 15 minutes of fame were up, he had constant trouble finding employment and was unsuccessful. Even Howard University wouldn’t hire him because they didn’t want the government to withhold their funds in retribution. In 1983, he’d be arrested for shoplifting a pair of $12 shoes which led to a year in prison. Still, if he’s ignored for anything, it’s because he was just an ordinary guy doing his job and a reluctant whistleblower, which doesn’t go well with the Watergate narrative. Yet, there are plenty of people who’ve made history every day and Wills is one of them.

4. Aryabhata

His Feats: Indian astrologer and mathematician. Said by many to have invented zero and narrow down the value of pie to the correct four decimal places. Studied both lunar and solar eclipses as well as the Earth’s rotation on its axis as well as measured the Earth’s circumference to 99.8% accuracy.

Why He’s Ignored: Well, since history is basically told in the our euro-centric point of view in most western countries, his Indian nationality is certainly an obvious factor. That and imperialism has basically promoted the notion of European supremacy bias. The fact that this Indian mathematician and astronomer existed at all doesn’t suit that narrative.

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5. Subhas Chandra Bose

His Feats: Leader of the Indian National Congress who sought full, immediate independence for India from Great Britain in contrast to Mohandas K. Gandhi’s “passive resistance” methods (though he was a great admirer and called him, “father of our nation” while Gandhi plotted against him). As a statesman and rebel leader, he was jailed as well as wore various disguises while traveling to India and beyond to bolster support for the cause. Was known in India for his decorum and respect as well has had mysterious death in 1945 with rumored sightings of Elvis-like proportions.

Why He’s Ignored: While he’s certainly revered in India, he’s seldom known anywhere else mostly because he courted the Axis Powers during World War II and the fact that Gandhi’s means of peace makes a far more better story in the PR department. Yet, like it or not, Bose’s more aggressive techniques (as those of other freedom fighters) did a far more to bring India’s independence than Gandhi ever did.

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6. Rosalind Franklin

Her Feats: British Jewish scientist who unraveled the structure of DNA with the double helix as well as was part of her team that won the Nobel Prize of 1962. Also helped unravel the structure of the Tobacco Mosaic Virus and RNA.

Why She’s Ignored: Well, three reasons. First, as a female scientist, she wasn’t acknowledged for her work by her male colleagues until 1968 and even since, she’s just a footnote in a high school biology textbook. Second, working in x-ray crystallography that helped her that famous discovery, also lead to her early death from ovarian cancer in 1958 at the age of 37. Third, the Nobel Prize isn’t awarded posthumously, though you’d think they’d make an exception with her. Still, with her work in unraveling DNA, Franklin is possibly the most important female scientist in history.

7. Elijah McCoy

His Feats: Canadian-American inventor notable for 57 U. S. patents most to do with lubrication of steam engines. Born to runaway slaves in Canada and moved to Michigan at the age of 5, he studied as a mechanical engineer in Edinburgh, Scotland. Though he only could find work as a fireman and oiler at the Michigan Central Railroad, he invented an automatic lubricator for oiling steam engines, locomotives, and ships. Also invented the folding ironing board and a lawn sprinkler. Produced more patents than any other African American inventor up to the 20th century.

Why He’s Ignored: To make a short story short, despite having all those patents and debate on how much he revolutionized the railroad and machine industries with his devices, he’s not well known outside of industry and the African American community. This is mostly because he was black as well as the fact he didn’t have the money to manufacture his lubricators in large numbers until close to the end of his life and usually assigned patent rights to his employers investors. Not only that, but racial prejudice in the day was the main reason why he could only find work as a fireman and oiler in the first place, which is why he’s barely mentioned at all in any early 20th century literature at all relating to lubricators.

8. Norbert Rilleaux

His Feats: 19th century Creole African American inventor and engineer. Born in Louisiana and cousin of Edgar Degas, was the youngest teacher at the Ecole Centrale (an engineering school in Paris) at the age of 24 instructing in applied mechanics as well as a competent blacksmith and expert machinist. Best known for inventing the multiple-effect evaporator which was an energy efficient means of evaporating water as well as an important development in the sugar industry. When a yellow fever outbreak plagued New Orleans in the 1850s, he proposed a plan to the city that would eliminate the moist breeding grounds for the mosquitoes that carried the disease by addressing problems in the city’s sewer system and drying swamplands in the area. Though rejected, it was addressed several years later.

Why He’s Ignored: Well, despite helping to revolutionize the sugar industry with his refining contraption, the fact he was black and a Creole of color certainly doesn’t give him much recognition in the history books as well as those of other African American engineers, scientists, and inventors. Also, for many white Southerners of the day, giving credit to a black guy for making a device that helped the growth of the sugar industry is kind of an embarrassment.

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9. Oscar Micheaux

His Feats: Born to a former slave father in Illinois and to a family of 13 children. Moved to Chicago at 17 in which he had several different jobs from working in stockyards and steel mills to setting up his own shoeshine stand and working as a Pullman porter. He then became a homesteader in South Dakota with all white neighbors who wouldn’t let him eat at their tables and started writing articles for the press. Wrote 7 novels based on his experiences and the failure of his first marriage as well as had his stories revolve around the theme of African Americans realizing their potential and succeeding in areas from which they were previously excluded. When his 1918 book The Homesteader was being planned for a feature film, negotiations between him and producer, he decided to form his own book and film company in Chicago and made the adaptation himself. He would go to collaborate in over 40 films focusing on contemporary African American life, black and white racial relationships, and blacks trying to achieve the American Dream in a larger and segregated society. He’d also use his films to counter white portrayals of African Americans and inferior black stereotypes. He was perhaps the most successful black filmmaker in the early 20th century and gave a lot of opportunities to African Americans in the film business. Once said, “My results…might have been narrow at times, due perhaps to certain limited situations, which I endeavored to portray, but in those limited situations, the truth was the predominate characteristic. It is only by presenting those portions of the race portrayed in my pictures, in the light and background of their true state, that we can raise our people to greater heights. I am too imbued with the spirit of Booker T. Washington to engraft false virtues upon ourselves, to make ourselves that which we are not.”

Why He’s Ignored: Outside of film buffs and the African American community, most people don’t really know who he was. Of course, the fact that Hollywood and mainstream US History tends to downplay the achievements of African Americans so we shouldn’t be surprised. Not to mention, the fact that Hollywood tends to take movies made by blacks less seriously than whites is also a factor as well as the fact that some of Micheaux’s films are now lost. Yet, as his tombstone reads, this pioneer in African American cinema was certainly, “A man ahead of his time.” Still, when it comes to the history of film and Hollywood, you can’t really ignore this man who’s certainly a historical hero indeed.

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10. Mary Anning

Her Feats: 19th century British fossil collector, dealer, and paleontologist known for the important finds she made in the Jurassic marine beds in the cliffs along the English Channel at Lyme Regis. Discoveries included the first correctly identified ichthyosaur skeleton she found at the age of 12, the first two plesiosaur skeletons, and the first pterosaur skeleton located outside Germany, and important fish fossils. Her observations played a key role in the discovery that coprolites were fossilized feces and that belemnite fossils contained fossilised ink sacs like those of modern cephalopods. All this despite having almost no formal education and barely enough money for journal subscriptions as well as collected fossils during landslide season which was very dangerous and killed her dog.

Why She’s Ignored: As a woman from a poor family of religious dissenters who lost her cabinetmaker dad at eleven, she was screwed by the British scientific establishment from the get-go. Also, she was only published once in the scientific press in which she wrote a letter to the Magazine of Natural History disputing the “discovery” of a new genus prehistoric shark based on her own findings. Still, this didn’t stop other British scientists from wanting to talk shop with her.

11. Rabban Sauma

His Feats: 1200s Turkic/Mongol Nestorian monk turned diplomat who traveled in places such as Mongol controlled China, Baghdad, and Europe where he met with many of the monarchs and the Pope. He then chronicled his lifetime of travel which is of unique interest to modern historians giving a picture of medieval Europe at the end of the Crusading period painted by a keenly intelligent, broadminded, and statesmanlike observer as well as provides a viewpoint of East looking West.

Why He’s Ignored: Let’s just say that people may find it hard to believe that a Turkic/Mongol managed to write anything about the Crusades and medieval Europe. Yes, Western Eurocentric history, indeed.

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12. Nicholas Steno

His Feats: Danish Catholic Bishop and major figure in the Catholic Counter-Reformation (enough to make him headed for sainthood) as well as tutor to the de Medici family and scientific pioneer in both anatomy and geology (that a device is named after him). In 1659, he resolved not to accept anything simply written in a book and decided to do the research himself. This self-study led him to become the father of geology and stratigraphy. Responsible for the recognition of geological strata and the theory that successive layers of geologic transformations (strata) contained a fossil record of life in chronological order.

Why He’s Ignored: Despite his many great achievements, he’s largely unknown which may be due to his religious zeal and the fact that the Catholic Church in the 17th century is best known for the Galileo Affair. Yet, even when his theological studies and religious duties caused him to put his natural science studies in the back seat, he never totally abandoned them and no one in the Catholic Church saw anything wrong with it. Still, his story doesn’t go well with some people’s point of view with the science vs. religion debate because Steno didn’t see such a conflict at least when it came to the his relationship with the Catholic Church in his later years. Was said to be a decent bishop though.

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One response to “More Underrated, Overlooked, Forgotten, and Ignored Historical Heroes Who Need More Love

  1. You are right, I never heard of these brilliant people, except for Roslyn Franklin. I guess we know who has been writing the history books.

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