In his 2004 biography, Alexander Hamilton, Ron Chernow wrote that Eliza Schuyler Hamilton burned the love letters she wrote to her husband, but claimed that no one knew why. In his 2015 stage adaptation of Chernow’s biography, Hamilton, Lin Manuel Miranda wrote the song ‘Burn’ which inferred that Eliza had burnt her letters in a fit of rage about learning of her husband’s affair with another woman. Eliza declared she was erasing herself from the narrative, stating the public had no right to know the contents of her heart or her bed. Luckily for Alexander, following his death at the hands of political rival Aaron Burr’s bullet, Eliza would defend her fallen husband’s legacy until the end of her days, furiously working to preserve his writings and make sure his story stayed alive and could be known today. The whole of Miranda’s musical biography centres around a cornucopia of themes, but one stands out: that existential threat of legacy and the immortality found in living a life worthy of being told one day as a story.
Not all can be so lucky as Mr Alexander Hamilton. Unfortunately, the erasure from history of many individuals was quite common in the ages before the internet where seemingly everyone has a place to make their mark and set the record straight. Today the hottest non-fiction sellers often follow the untold lives of those almost lost to history either because society could not fathom certain classifications of humans having the capacity for world changing thought (women, minority populations, or the less than rich and noble). A flurry of films have been adapted from these books and the tales, until recently, left untold. Hidden Figures, the 2016 film based on a book of the same name written by Margot Lee Shetterly, follows three African American mathematicians who worked at NASA in the US and played a pivotal role in the space race of the 1960s while confronting the double whammy of racism and sexism. This served as a watershed for a whole host of stories of female scientists (of all ethnic varieties!) on whose backs modern America was constructed, yet their names do not ring out of the heroic tomes of history. In fact, the stereotypical image of a white, balding man in a lab coat wearing horn-rimmed glasses is almost directly contradictory to the image of those who did the maths and science that begot the modern world.
The following list looks at some of the lesser-known instances of those erased from history, covered up, and whose story was stolen by others.
1. Rosalind Franklin
Tragically nicknamed the ‘wronged’ or ‘forgotten heroine’ and the ‘dark lady of DNA’, Rosalind Franklin was a British chemist and X-ray crystallographer whose work was instrumental in our present understanding of the molecular structure of coal, graphite, DNA, RNA, and numerous viruses, including Polio and her last structure, the tobacco mosaic virus. In 1951, Franklin worked at King’s College in London with Maurice Wilkins set on determining the structure of DNA, which had triggered a sort of intellectual race. Franklin’s X-ray analysis not only showed a helical shape, but led her to determine that DNA was actually a double helix. Interdepartmental office politics created animosity and rivalry between Franklin’s colleagues. Max Perutz, without the permission of Franklin, had shared one of her X-ray photos with one Francis Crick at Cambridge who partnered with the American James Watson and also concluded the same double helix structure as Franklin’s analysis had demonstrated. While a collaboration was maintained between Watson, Crick, Wilkins, and Franklin. It would be Watson and Crick whose names would go on the first paper, published in three parts in Nature in 1953, with the acknowledged ‘stimulated by’ credit given to Wilkins and Franklin. Dying in 1958, at the age of 37, from ovarian cancer, Franklin would be left out of the nomination that would win the famed 1962 Nobel Prize Watson, Crick, and Wilkins as the Nobel committee generally does not award prises posthumously. Unlike other members of this list, the three Nobel laureates, particularly Francis Crick have maintained Franklin’s due credit for the pivotal discovery. Franklin has become a cult feminine icon whose justice and name are continuously fought for to this day.
2. Bill Finger
Until the last decade, the man who had created one of the most iconic comic book characters of all time had almost been entirely erased from history. Bill Finger was born in Colorado, USA, in 1914 and moved with his immigrant family to the Bronx just in time for the Great Depression. Finger went to high school at DeWitt Clinton High School where he met up with a man named Bob Kane. Finger worked as a part-time shoe salesman while writing comic strips for Kane’s fledgling studio. In 1938, Action Comics No. 1 hit racks nationwide introducing the world to Superman and the great superhero comic race was on. In collaboration Kane and Finger set out on the idea of constructing ‘The Bat-Man’ which led to a rough rendering by Kane that would resemble the 1980s tabloid idol Bat Boy. Finger suggested a cowl and cape and the alter-ego name ‘Bruce Wayne’. Finger also determined that Batman should be a detective with a knack for the hard sciences. While Finger worked out the details, Bob Kane presented the Bat-Man to a comic producer and made a lucrative deal on the spot – without Bill Finger. Finger went on to write many of the first scripts for Batman which premiered in 1939. Finger also invented his arch nemesis the Joker. For a while Kane and Finger had a good relationship, but after Finger’s death Kane would rewrite the history taking most of the credit himself. Kane made another deal to sell the rights for Batman to National Comics (which would become DC Comics in the late 1970s) without Finger, gaining a hefty royalties deal and the mandatory byline which was to be seen on all Batman materials thereafter: ‘Batman created by Bob Kane’. Eventually, Finger would go on to work for DC Comics after leaving Kane’s studio where he created and co-created numerous iconic characters including the Riddler and the Green Lantern. He died from a heart attack in 1974 and his son Fred and Granddaughter Athena would eventually see his name justly given the creator’s credit for the first time in 2015’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
The man known as Onesimus was an Akan born in what is today Ghana turned a Coromantee, an Akan individual sold into slavery, at the end of the seventeenth century. Onesimus would come to be owned by the Puritan minister, Cotton Mather in Boston, USA in 1706. Mather had already been famous for his influential writings that led to the execution of Goody Glover, a Catholic washwoman, for witchcraft. His words would also spark a series of trials in nearby Salem which saw the accusation of hundreds and the hanging of nineteen individuals (fourteen women, five men). As the seventeenth gave way for the eighteenth century, a new century required new threat. With witchcraft being so last century, a new invisible ‘spectre’ was looming in the colonies – smallpox. After being gifted Onesimus, the man would reveal to Mather a vast knowledge of medical techniques being used in Ghana to fight such ailments as smallpox. Onesimus told Mather in particular of a practice where a needle would be inserted into the smallpox pustule of an infected individual and then the needle would be scratched on the skin of young people. The practice would become known as inoculation. When an outbreak of smallpox struck Boston in 1721, Mather hailed the African folk medicine of inoculation as a gift from God to alleviate believers of a disease he saw as punishment for the colonist’s sins. To his credit, Mather did give due credit to Onesimus earning him a lot of controversy and clashes with the prototypical anti-vaxxers, a combination of medical science sceptics and blatant racists. One nay-sayer even threw a grenade through the window of Mather’s house. Mather’s writing to the Royal Society of London and his relaying of Onesimus’s explanation of the variolation method used throughout Sub-Saharan Africa would garner him influence and prompt Bostonian physician, Zabdiel Boylston, to inoculate almost three hundred individuals between 1721 and 1722. In 1716, after saving up enough funds to purchase a replacement slave, Onesimus was granted freedom on the condition that he remain available to work on-call and that he payback a sum that Mather claimed he had stolen. What happens to Onesimus after this is lost to history, but Mather’s diaries seem to point to the reason for Onesimus’s conditional freedom being his inability to get Onesimus to convert to Puritan Christianity. Onesimus’s technique would go onto influence Edward Jenner to develop the first vaccine for smallpox in the 1790s, and in 1980 the World Health Organisation would declare smallpox officially eradicated. In 2016, Boston magazine gave Onesimus the rank of fifty-second on a list of ‘Best Bostonians of All Time’.
4. Margaret Keane
Peggy Doris Hawkins was born in Nashville, USA, in 1927. During a botched jaw operation her eardrum was permanently damaged leading her to read people’s eyes to assist with her communication. Drawing since her tenth birthday, her damaged ear influenced her artistic style. All of her human subjects were given over-exaggerated ‘big’ eyes. She moved to New York City to attend design school and began her career in painting apparel and furniture and then moved on to portraits in the 1950s. At about this time, she took the name Margaret and met the famed real estate mogul, Walter Keane. Walter recounts meeting her in North Beach, captivated by her ‘big eyes’. An affair evolved into a marriage in the 1950s. Walter, now retired from real estate, began selling Margaret’s portraits almost immediately after their marriage. He was able to sell her paintings to high end buyers. The only problem was that he claimed the art was his. Once Margaret learned of Walter’s deception, she was pressured to keep quiet, unsure if her paintings would sell if it was not for her husband’s prestige. In the 1960s, Walter developed a mythology around his and, to a small part, his wife’s art which quickly became some of the most commercially desired art in the country. Even Andy Warhol gave ‘The Painting Keanes’ his blessing. By the end of the 1960s, their marriage had fallen apart and in 1970, Margaret went public on a live radio broadcast claiming her husband did none of the paintings. A reporter for the San Francisco Examiner arranged for a paint-off competition between Margaret and Walter in San Francisco Union Square, but Walter was a no show. The showdown would again be staged in 1986, but this time by a judge when Margaret sued her ex-husband and USA Today for running a story defending Walter. Walter refused to draw, sighting a sore shoulder, but when Margaret was able to recreate a Big Eyes portrait in the court room, in fifty-three minutes, she was awarded $4 million in damages. In 1990, a court upheld the defamation suit, but overturned the damages reward; Margaret was less concerned with the money than the fact that justice was upheld. Margaret Keane’s doll-eyed style would influence countless artist, toy, and cartoon designs. She continues to paint and relax in California, her name and style rightfully hers.
5. Margarete Steffin and the Women of Bertolt Brecht
Margarete Steffin was a German actress and writer who had a rough start, getting fired from low level jobs for her Communist political leanings in the Weimer Republic. Her pathway into the theatrical arts began when she took dictation lessons with the famed actress Helene Weigel, the wife of the famed playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht, who would go on to be the revolutionary patron saint of the arts for East Germans. As Weigel and Steffin developed a deeper friendship, Brecht found a muse in Steffin and eventually took her as a mistress. Steffin, adept at writing and editing, was not Brecht’s only mistress, nor muse. According to the American scholar John Fuegi who researched Brecht’s biography, Brecht kept a factory like assembly line of young, attractive women who wrote the great works he would take credit for. Brecht was an ‘ideas’ man who was described as unable to sit still and focus long enough to put a piece together, so instead he would throw out ideas and framings, then leave it to his entourage of literary women to put together and pen the plays and poetry to which his name would be affixed. One of his most prised mistresses was Elisabeth Hauptmann who would even gain a few credits of her own and was offered bylines on some of Brecht’s later works in their most recent editions. It is said that Hauptmann wrote more than 80 percent of The Threepenny Opera which first brought Brecht to fame in 1928. Fuegi dug through the archives and managed to find witness testimony from the descendants of Brecht’s women, that he rarely gave credit to, his factory of editors he controlled using manipulation and sexual politics to maintain competition within their ranks, and prevent anyone from challenging him. A similar model was used to build up the theatre cultures that followed him. With the Nazis coming to power in the 1930s, Brecht was forced into exile first in Denmark, then in Sweden, and finally Moscow waiting for Germany to become his dream of a democratic socialist utopia. Several of his literary women followed him maintaining the machine that kept Brecht producing through the atrocious twentieth century. Margarete Steffin followed Brecht all the way to Moscow where she died from tuberculosis waiting for a visa to the US. Brecht’s plays would go on to influence countless other works of art, music, and film into the contemporary period. He died not knowing the Berlin Wall fell, resting peacefully in a Berlin cemetery with a stake nailed into his heart as per his instruction (as he had a severe fear of being buried alive accidentally). Fuegi claims the reality of Brecht is the best kept secret in German literary circles who maintain the ‘official’ history with mafia-like discipline. The descendants of Brecht’s women fight for their ancestor’s justice in the courts to this day.
6. Margaret Mead and Culture of Samoa
Margaret Mead was a twentieth century American cultural anthropologist whose name is not only synonymous with her field of study, but also with the scepticism she faced over her methods and conclusions of her research. Studying at Columbia University in New York, Mead read under Franz Boas, the German-American anthropologist often given the moniker the ‘Father of American Anthropology’, and the American anthropologist and folklorist Ruth Benedict. Aside from being prominent social scientists in their own rights, Mead and Benedict challenged sex norms by being women working in a ‘man’s world’ particularly in an area overrun with the male perspective and patriarchal vestiges. A young and rising star, Mead set out to Samoa to do fieldwork for her PhD which would lead to the writing of her first and most well-known book, Coming of Age in Samoa: A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilization. The work opened a window into a totally new society diverging from any the Western dominated anthropology of the day had encountered with rampant premarital sex and a new look at social interactions and societal construction. Mead’s work was applauded for diverging from the common genetic based anthropology that dominated the 1930s, where evolution and eugenics overruled the observe and report investigative style Mead used. A couple of problems have since arisen in review of much of Mead’s work. First and foremost, Mead spent very little time within the civilisations she was studying, instead electing to conduct interviews with a few representatives of the culture. Sample size alone calls her conclusions into question, but there is a complication. A common custom in Samoan culture held that the young women Mead interviewed had been joking with her or leading her astray. Some claim Mead was aware of this cultural quirk, but a New Zealand anthropologist Derek Freedman would visit Samoa fifty years later and arrive at vastly different conclusions concerning sexual norms and even tracked down some of Mead’s sources, which she left anonymous for their protection, seeking to debunk her conclusions. A final issue with Mead’s methods is that she had a propensity for challenging Western norms with regards to sexuality and gender and so the question must be asked, did Mead go in with an open mind and draw conclusions or did she have conclusions in mind she was seeking to justify. Debate over the veracity of Mead’s work is still hotly debated to this day but much of it is a fight for all the wrong reasons. However history will remember Margaret Mead, it is ultimately the people as subjects of anthropology who lose out in the end and a major blow is dealt toward higher understanding and the bloody road of anthropology as colonial tool and orientalism is allowed to continue in the wake of such controversy. Anthropologists, both past and present, are bewildered by such episodes.
7. Stephen Glass
Stephen Glass is a name often synonymous with the death of journalistic integrity, back when it was blatant and not the sham we see today in the age of post-truth. Between 1995-1998, Glass worked for the progressive political magazine The New Republic which declared its creed as ‘a liberalism centred in humanitarian and moral passion and one based in an ethos of scientific analysis’. During his time at The New Republic, it was determined that twenty-seven of his forty-one articles contained fabricated elements. It began as minor complaints from organisations Glass had demonised in articles including the drug awareness advocacy group D.A.R.E., the College Republican National Committee, and the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a Washington-based watchdog organisation. Adam Penenberg, a writer for Forbes, served as the tipping point as he tried to follow up on a lead in a famed article by Glass, ‘Hack Heaven’, about a fifteen-year-old ‘hacker’ who made a lucrative deal with a made-up tech company whose security he had breached. Glass attempted to claim that the alleged ‘hacker’ had tricked him into the story but when the hacker, the tech company, and the convention he was supposedly attending, all turned out to be completely made up, he had been found out. A 2005 film, Shattered Glass, dramatises the events around the scandal. Following the scandal, Glass elected to start anew and attended Georgetown University Law Center, graduating magna cum lade with his JD. Despite passing both the New York and California Bar Association examinations, he was refused certification. Moral fitness and ethical concerns were cited as reasons for his denied certification. The California Bar Association found in their investigation into his application that a total of thirty-six articles written for The New Republic, three for George, two for Rolling Stone, and one Policy Review article were in one way or another fabricated by Stephen Glass.
8. Henrietta Lacks and the Unknown Other
1951 began with Henrietta Lacks going to Johns Hopkins, the only hospital in the area that would treat black patients, with what she referred to as the pain of a knot in her womb following the birth of her last son. By the end of the year, the cervical cancer that had caused the pain had metastasised and she would die in the hospital after numerous blood transfusions and treatments. She would be buried in an unmarked grave that remains a mystery to date. It is believed she was buried near her mother at Lackstown, the name given to the land that used to belong to the slave owning family of Clover, Virginia who owned Lacks’s ancestors. While metaphorically she lived on in the memories of her children, physically she wasn’t exactly gone either. While she was being examined, two samples of her cervical tissue were taken without her permission or knowledge. The samples, one cancerous and one not, were given to George Otto Gey who cultured the tissue and created the HeLa immortal cell line, well known in biomedical research. At the time Lack’s cancer cells were of the fastest growing cells known. And eventually the HeLa line would become widely available and used in labs around the world. Shortly after Lack’s death, her cell line was used to help in developing a treatment and the eventual eradication of polio. Her name faded until in 1974, when Michael Rogers with Rolling Stone stood at a urinal in a San Francisco medical school library bathroom and saw “Helen Lane Lives!” written in felt pen on the wall in front of him. This led him down the rabbit hole to eventually learn that Helen Lane was a misnomer accidentally leaked from a confidential medical file for Henrietta Lacks. Rogers would travel to Baltimore and learn the story of the HeLa cell line and even trace down Lack’s husband to learn that the same medical hospital had been unethically taking blood samples from Lack’s family to build an entire genome in the hopes of answering the question as to why Henrietta’s cancerous cervical cells grew so fast and continued to live to this day. Rogers wrote a bittersweet peace for Rolling Stone in 1976, but the story went cold shortly after. It wouldn’t be until the 1990s, when medical institutions began recognising Lacks for her contributions to science. In 2010, a colleague of George Gey would donate a headstone to commemorate Lacks. Throughout the early 2000s, Rebecca Skloot began researching the history of the HeLa cell line and eventually wrote the book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks which would be adapted into a film in 2017. Today she is receiving the credit due to her, but the tale of her, her family, and her cells exists as another sad chapter of unethical medical practice, particularly between the medical establishment and the black community of the US, echoing of the Tuskegee Syphilis experiments and numerous experiments conducted in the name of science that began with slaves as subjects and has continued uncomfortably to today creating a major trust deficit between medical professionals and the black community that shows in numerous statistics. This apartheid in medicine, as the American medical ethicist Harriet A. Washington refers to it, is on the same level as genocide throughout history. Perhaps less blatant and slower in its delivery, but no less bloody or wrong. Erasure is not a historical problem, but a problem occurring at this very moment. Most readily seen in history as the plight of the indigenous peoples of the Americas to today with Palestine or with the Uighurs in China and the Rohingya in Myanmar, the stealing of one’s biography, one’s name, or one’s life is not always the act of one dastardly moustache twirling villain, but in its most real and terrifying form, the social ignorance of the masses, implicit in its perpetration and unaware of what is being lost. It is up to us the story tellers, the speakers and writers of words to make sure that the great story lives on and all stories have the right to be told.