5 unsung heroes of science you should know about

27 Jan 2023

Image: © Es sarawuth/Stock.adobe.com

We consulted a variety of individuals working in science and technology about who they consider to be ‘unsung heroes’ of science, those who are under-recognised for their specific scientific contribution to the world.

When you think of notable figures in the world of science, many well-known names come to mind. The likes of Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Nikola Tesla and Isaac Newton are but a few of the world’s most famous scientists, who have each become household names.

But what about those who are overlooked despite their significant contributions? Countless individuals responsible for substantial advancements in science and technology are neglected in terms of widespread recognition. These people are the driving force of our development as a species. No matter how considerable the impact of their work is, they are all worthy of acknowledgement.

We asked several researchers about who they consider to be unsung heroes in this noble field. Their answers ranged from political leaders to heads of ground-breaking research programmes and acclaimed authors.


Dr David Madden, who we previously spoke to regarding the ‘age of digital chemistry’, selected US president John F Kennedy as an unsung hero of science. While JFK may not be predominantly remembered for his scientific activities, Madden explains the impact he ultimately had on science in the US.

“On the 12th of September 1962, JFK stood before a packed crowd at Rice University and declared that before the decade was out that NASA would put an astronaut on the moon. This became one of the largest projects ever in terms of science and engineering, employing roughly 400,000 people and costing 2.5pc of US GDP annually over a 10-year period. The results included six moon landings, a space station launch, the development of the space shuttle programme and over 6m patents.

“The research performed changed science, engineering, physics, mathematics and computing and a lot of the technologies we are using in this day and age stems from the work done in the 1960s. I admire this bold move by JFK as it will take a similar level of leadership and government commitment to address the climate crisis in the coming decades. With leadership and commitment, we can overcome all challenges facing humanity.”

Dr Henry Plummer

When we asked Prof Derek O Keeffe, who talked to us last year about high tech healthcare, who he considers to be an unsung hero of science, he chose Dr Henry Plummer.

“I have always been impressed by the impactful work of Dr Henry Plummer (1874-1936), a physician with engineering/scientific acumen from the famed Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, US. He was a practicing medical clinician, as well as a pioneer in laboratory medicine and x-ray diagnostics. He was a noted inventor of knee-operated sinks for surgical preparation, pneumatic tubes for hospital sample transportation and he developed one of the first hospital HVAC systems.

“He is known for several eponymous clinical phenomenon that he first described such as: Plummer Vinson Syndrome, Plummer Nails, Plummers disease, Plummers sign, etc. He is known as the architect of modern medical practice with his practical invention of the medical record – a harmonised dossier of each patient’s clinical history, with a unique ID for rapid retrieval. Most impactfully he realised the importance of an integrated medical practice consisting of general and specialised clinicians working together to improve patient care. He was an excellent teacher, architect and an exemplary scholar, so much so that one of the founding members of the Mayo Clinic, Dr Will Mayo, famously said that hiring Dr Henry Plummer was the best day’s work he ever did!”

Dr Richard McElreath

According to Maynooth University’s Amin Shoari Nejad, author Richard McElreath is a clear choice for an unsung scientific hero.

“I would have to say Richard McElreath, author of Statistical Rethinking. He is able to explain complicated statistical concepts through simple stories making them much more accessible. His work is so engaging, and I think he has had a very positive impact on a lot of researchers and deserves to be praised for his contribution.”

McElreath, a professor of anthropology and a director at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig University, was universally praised for Statistical Rethinking. The book was critically acclaimed for the engaging way it delves into statistical modeling.

Dr A P J Abdul Kalam

Dr A P J Abdul Kalam was smart wearables expert Dr Rupal Srivastava’s choice of unsung hero.

“He is the motivation behind a majority of the current Indian generation working in science and technology. He was an aerospace scientist and the 11th president of India. Not many outside India know of his greatness. Not only did he have a pivotal role in the development of the defense technology of the country, but he was also a public speaker and motivator.

“Born into a poor family, he used to talk about his struggles and how his zeal for education and research always kept his spirits high. Given the life he led as a researcher, a president, and a hero of the people, he was awarded the highest civilian honour of India – The Bharat Ratna. He passed away in 2015 at the age of 83, doing the thing he loved the most, interacting with students at a college event. In my view, a hero of science is not only someone who does great research but someone who also builds a generation of motivated students to continue the excitement and impact that science and research bring. And Dr A P J Abdul Kalam embodies this definition.”

Prof Donal O’Shea

Dr Andrew Hogan, an expert in metabolic immunology, highlighted his colleague Prof Donal O’Shea as his personal unsung hero of science.

“I am biased but my unsung hero is Prof Donal O’Shea, who established and has led Ireland’s obesity clinical and research programmes for over 15 years, despite the chronic lack of funding, understanding and empathy. I have often wondered how he has managed to stay so motivated and so driven in the face of unrelenting stigma, criticism and failed promises from the powers that be. His sole goal is to improve the quality of life for those living with obesity, which I think is core to being a health-related researcher.”

The work of Hogan and O’Shea intends to achieve an understanding as to how and why obesity disrupts the immune system, and the effects this has on the development of serious diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer.

10 things you need to know direct to your inbox every weekday. Sign up for the Daily Brief, Silicon Republic’s digest of essential sci-tech news.

Colin Ryan is a copywriter/copyeditor at Silicon Republic