As you go through life you realize that there are many people whose contribution to the world is rarely known. These are our unsung heroes. I was reading about some of them and I have personally picked four of them who I thought had left imprints on the sands of time.
Henrietta Lacks (1920-1951)
When Henrietta Lacks (1920-1951), an African-American mother of five who migrated from the tobacco farms of Virginia to poorest neighborhoods of Baltimore, died at the tragic age of 31 from cervical cancer, she didn’t realize she’d be the donor of cells that would create the HeLa immortal cell line — a line that didn’t die after a few cell divisions — making possible some of the most seminal discoveries in modern medicine.
Though the tumor tissue was taken with neither her knowledge nor her consent, the HeLa cell was crucial in everything from the first polio vaccine to cancer and AIDS research. To date, scientists have grown more than 20 tons of HeLa cells.
Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459)
Bracciolini is the most important man you’ve never heard of.
One cold winter night in 1417, the clean-shaven, slender young man pulled a manuscript off a dusty library shelf and could barely believe his eyes. In his hands was a thousand-year-old text that changed the course of human thought — the last surviving manuscript of On the Nature of Things, a seminal poem by Roman philosopher Lucretius, full of radical ideas about a universe operating without gods and that matter made up of minuscule particles in perpetual motion, colliding and swerving in ever-changing directions. With Bracciolini’s discovery began the copying and translation of this powerful ancient text, which in turn fueled the Renaissance and inspired minds as diverse as Shakespeare, Galileo, Thomas Jefferson, Einstein and Freud.
Fred Harvey (1835-1901)
Without Harvey, modern life would be devoid of such staples as Starbucks, Yelp, Top Chef, and even dating — for Harvey pioneered the restaurant chain in North America and thus elevated the restaurant itself from a small-town business to a formidable industry. From his first eating houses along the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad to his eventual Harvey House empire of restaurants, lunch rooms, dining cars, hotels, and souvenir shops, the cunning entrepreneur and marketer inspired the iconic Judy Garland musical The Harvey Girls (which might, in fact, disqualify him from the “unsung” game) and embodied the spirit that makes America America.
Mary Anning (1799-1847)
British fossil collector and paleontologist Mary Anning was only twelve years old and the child of a poor family when she made her first seminal discovery. While fossil-hunting on the cliffs of Lyme Regis, England, she found the first dinosaur skeleton, that of an ichthyosaur. Until her landmark discovery, animal extinction was believed to be impossible.
The great Stephen Jay Gould, arguably the most beloved popular science writer of all time, famously called Anning “probably the most important unsung (or inadequately sung) collecting force in the history of paleontology” — indeed, her work ignited a fundamental shift in scientific thinking about prehistoric life in the early 19th century.
Anning inspired a popular piece of folk poetry, the tongue-twister “She Sells Sea Shells by the Seashore.”