Great-but-uninfluential scientists?

In the comments on a recent post over at Crooked Timber, John Holbo remarks that Dr. Seuss hasn’t had much influence as an illustrator. His visual style is instantly recognizable, but hasn’t been much imitated. At least, according to Holbo, but I’m happy to take Holbo’s word for that since I don’t know anything about the history of illustration and he does. Assuming he’s right, it’s very surprising, given Dr. Seuss’ massive popular success. How can someone so successful and widely admired be uninfluential?

Which got me to wondering: are there great uninfluential ecologists? Or uninfluential scientists more broadly? By “great” I don’t mean undiscovered or underappreciated people. And I don’t mean people who were influential for a time but aren’t any more. I mean people who are/were very widely known in their field and have/had massive professional success–but yet no one ever followed in their footsteps.

My first instinct is that we’re looking for geniuses famous for unusual, “one-off” ideas or discoveries. Discoveries that are both famous, and hard to follow up, because something about the discovery, or the approach that led to it, places it far outside the mainstream. For instance, Solomon Feferman refers to Philip Davis’ “Paradox of Irrelevance”: many of the most famous mathematical theorems of the 20th century led to little if any subsequent research building on them. Feferman cites Gödel’s incompleteness theorems as prime examples of the paradox of irrelevance. Thus arguably making Gödel himself an example of a great-but-uninfluential mathematician, at least within pure mathematics itself.

I guess Lynn Margulis might be a candidate from evolutionary biology? Her hypothesis of endosymbiosis made her famous after it was confirmed by the endosymbiotic origins of chloroplasts and mitochondria. But as far as I know no other organelles have been shown to be of endosymbiotic origin, and there’s not much research pursuing her broader claim that “symbiogenesis”, not evolution by natural selection, is the “creative” force in evolution.

6 thoughts on “Great-but-uninfluential scientists?

  1. I’m not sure the analogy really holds. Dr Suess was *commercially* successful; I cant think of too many scientists in that vein, at best Sagan and Stephen Jay Gould?

    Norman Rockwell was also commercially successful but never taken seriously as an artist.

    • The analogy is fine. Dr. Seuss’ field was commercial illustration. Commercial illustrators absolutely do influence one another. Click through and read the linked post for a discussion of illustrator Art Young’s influence on Seuss.

  2. I wonder if Stanley Miller (Miller-Uray origin of life experiment) qualifies? Maybe not, because he did not come up with the primordial soup idea. Also, there seems to have been a couple of follow up experiments over the years, but I’m surprised it is not totally mainstream. Maybe taking it further than complex organic molecules is just too much of a jump?

  3. Via Twitter, a suggestion of Alfred Russel Wallace, because his ideas were only influential via Darwin:

    Clever suggestion. Not at all the sort of case I was originally thinking of, but I’ll allow it. 🙂

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