If someone asked you to name one of the most important historians of all time, Anna Komnene probably wouldn’t spring to mind. But maybe she should. Born a Byzantine princess, she watched the First Crusade unfold in front of her, then wrote down what she saw.
Her most notable work, the Alexiad, is filled with vivid accounts of bloodshed, battles, and betrayals stretching from 1081 to 1107. It’s a rare primary source from the period, and it offers a detailed look into her father’s threatened empire and the motley alliance that joined together to fight what they saw as an existential threat to Christianity.
Chances are, though, even history buffs have never heard of her. No matter how brilliant, accomplished, or famous a person was in life, the world has a way of leaving some of its greatest geniuses behind.
Social and cultural biases can play a role in their demise—countless exceptional minds have been downplayed or ignored due to their race, class, or gender. And in many of the cases of lost geniuses who are now being rediscovered, the exact reasons they were forgotten are full of intrigue.
Take Komnene: She was relegated to relative obscurity centuries ago not for simply being a woman, but because of another historian’s family feud. A few decades after her death, a Byzantine official named Choniates wrote his own history of Komnene’s family containing a vicious rumor: The princess, he suggested, was behind a treasonous plot to murder her brother so she herself could be queen.
No matter that Choniates had reason to hate Komnene—he blamed her father for the fall of Constantinople and his own political exile. No matter that he relied on hearsay when he wrote his book. For some reason, the rumor stuck, and grew.
Today, Komnene is still known primarily as a power-hungry, murderous moll, and many people read her account more for signs of her potential bloodlust than her sharp observations of life in the embattled Byzantine court. Only recently have historians begun to reconsider that portrayal, but it may be a while until her reputation gets rehabilitated.
Sometimes, geniuses are forgotten because they have a powerful enemy or a bad attitude. Pierre Louis Moreau de Maupertuis, among the most formidable minds of his generation, had both.
The 18th-century French polymath helped to determine the shape of the Earth and even set the stage for the theory of evolution. But Maupertuis was a prickly sort—he clashed so often with his on-again, off-again best friend Voltaire that an observer noted the pair were “not made to live in the same room.”
In 1751, their difficult relationship burst into full-fledged enmity when Voltaire sided with Maupertuis’ critics. The witty author pilloried Maupertuis’ principle of least action—now considered a pillar of physics—in the papers. Maupertuis was devastated, and today his name is relatively unknown, probably thanks to the verbal fireworks of his more influential friend.
Geniuses can fall victim to personal adversaries, but what happens when an entire society is against you? Spoiler alert: You may not end up in the history books.
Benjamin Bradley invented the first steam engine powerful enough to fuel a naval ship, but he is practically unknown today because he was unable to patent his invention. Bradley was a slave, and at the time, the law considered slaves to be chattel—all of their physical and intellectual labor legally belonged to their owners.
Though Bradley seems to have used the profits from the engine to buy his own freedom, his work was never patented, and he is now largely forgotten. His fate was shared by an unknown number of enslaved people whose contributions will never be acknowledged.
Patents played a role in another case of historical amnesia, that of Jagadish Chandra Bose. In the 1890s, he discovered that galena crystals could pick up radio signals. Bose, though, objected to science for the sake of profit. Though he let a friend persuade him to file a patent for a “detector for electrical disturbances,” he ultimately let it lapse.
While Bose may not have cared about patents, radio innovator Guglielmo Marconi did—and he wasn’t above claiming other people’s inventions as his own. Marconi is thought to have used a Bose-designed device to receive the first transatlantic wireless signal in 1901, an accomplishment that made his name famous worldwide.
Bose went on quietly making advances in radio—and refusing to cash in. “If you had seen the greed and hankering after money in [the United States],” he lamented to a friend in 1913. “Money, money—what a terrible all-pervasive greed!”
Credit theft may also be why Ibn al-Haytham is not a household name. The Arab scholar invented the scientific method in the 11th century. But Roger Bacon laid claim to the method in England in the 13th century, carrying on a grand tradition of the West ignoring the previous achievements of people in Middle Eastern and Asian countries.
And Esther Lederberg might have been known as the mother of microbiology—if not for her inconvenient husband, Joshua.
Esther’s accomplishments were just as impressive as Joshua’s—among other things, she discovered the lambda phage, a type of virus that is still used to study how genes recombine. She also discovered a revolutionary way to duplicate cell colonies on Petri dishes, and she helped her husband figure out how bacteria swap genes.
But at the time, women scientists often worked as uncredited members of their husband’s teams in exchange for the otherwise rare chance to do what they loved. Joshua in turn barely acknowledged his wife’s contributions in public, and for years her pioneering research was all but secret to those who didn’t know to look for the unassuming figure behind the charismatic man.
“She was a low-key presence,” says Pnina Abir-Am, an historian of science who documents the stories of women in the field. Abir-Am, who knew Lederberg, thinks that she spent much of her professional life managing her famous husband’s career and downplaying her own accomplishments.
“A lot of energy, creative and otherwise, was spent on Joshua,” she says. “They were a unit.” However, he alone was recognized with a Nobel prize in 1958.
Not that men always did the overshadowing. Anne Brontë might be celebrated as one of the most important literary figures of the 19th century—if not for her more famous sisters.
“In any other family, she’d be a genius,” says Samantha Ellis, a British author whose recent biography Take Courage: Anne Brontë and the Art of Life is an attempt to give the other Brontë sister her due. Big sister Charlotte downplayed Anne’s legacy, says Ellis—and because the author of Jane Eyre outlived Anne, she may have ruined her sister’s chance at fame.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne’s feminist novel about the ramifications of an alcoholic, abusive relationship, was a bestseller at the time of her death at age 29. But Charlotte wouldn’t approve its republication—perhaps because Anne’s book bore similarities to the real life story of the Brontës’ alcoholic brother. If not for her more famous siblings, Anne’s daring prose might have more 21st-century fans.
When a genius fades from memory, it’s more than a historical oversight—it’s a lost opportunity to honor someone who could keep changing the world by influencing future generations, says Amir-Am.
“We lose all those who remain uninspired and make decisions in their own lives,” she says. “It’s not a service to society—to women or to men.”
Perhaps the saddest stories of all are those of the geniuses we don’t even know we’ve lost. The burden of memory lies with us—and if we commit to recovering and celebrating their stories, we might find that history contains even more great figures than we ever imagined.