6 Nonconformist Innovators Who Changed Our World

Discover freethinkers, heretics, and unappreciated geniuses who revolutionized their fields

By Google Arts & Culture

With content from Barbican Centre, the SF Jazz Center, and more

Marie Curie in her laboratory, located rue Cuvier, circa 1908 (1908) by Henri ManuelMusée Curie

1. Marie Curie

Today, as the first woman to receive a Nobel Prize (and the first person to win two of the coveted awards), Marie Curie is a household name, but the odds weren’t stacked in her favor.

When Curie, née Skłodowska, was a girl in Poland, she excelled at scientific studies, but was prevented from attending a traditional university by the restrictive, sexist educational policies of the occupying Russian Empire.

Rather than accept her fate, however, she enrolled in an illegal underground institution: Warsaw’s Flying University. The informal college was operated in secret, with ever-changing locations to avoid detection. Here, Curie was able to continue the foundations of her education.

Curie, Marie 1867-1934LIFE Photo Collection

The rest, as they say, is history. Curie is one of the most influential scientists in the last 100 years, having discovered radium, polonium, and even coining the term radioactivity.

Modern children stepping into Al-Razi's laboratory, imaginary sceneOriginal Source: 1001 Inventions

2. Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi

Al-Razi was a Renaissance man of the Islamic Golden Age who lived from 854 until 925 CE. He was a pioneering figure in the world of medicine and wrote prolifically on subjects including  alchemy, philosophy, and astronomy.

In addition to his contributions as a doctor, the impacts of his 10th-century scientific studies are pervasive in the 21st century. Al-Razi developed techniques for distillation, without which, we wouldn’t have some of today’s biofuels!

In spite of these successes, his views on religion would be considered heretical. He believed in the power of the human mind and that all people were equal, but his writings on religion were condemned by some.

Galileo Demonstrating the New Astronomical Theories at the University of Padua (1873) by Félix ParraMuseo Nacional de Arte

3. Galileo Galilei

Looking back at the landscape of history, we can easily spot the mountain of accomplishments Galileo left behind: He discovered the largest moons of Jupiter, now named for him, and the rings around Saturn, just to name a few.

His observations of the cosmos are the part of the foundations of modern astrophysics. However, in his own time, the dominant institutions declared Galileo a heretic – his support of the idea that the Earth moves around the sun contradicted the church.

LIFE Photo Collection

He was forced to disavow his views on the nature of the universe and died under house arrest nine years later. In spite of the the recantation, though, some sources quote Galileo as saying, “E pur si muove,” or, “And still it moves.”

Here at the Museo Galileo in Florence, you can see the actual telescopes he used to discover the moons of Jupiter and much more. Click to explore!

WEB DuBois (1919-05-31) by C.M. BatteyGeorgia Public Broadcasting

4. W. E. B. Du Bois

To many, author and civil rights leader W. E. B. Du Bois is an American hero. He campaigned tirelessly for people of color throughout the world and wrote many works integral to the fight against racism. So, how is it that he was indicted by the US government?

W. E. B. Du Bois (c. 1911) by Addison N. ScurlockSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

It was simple: Du Bois supported socialism during McCarthy-era anti-communism. His involvement in denuclearization efforts led to accusations of being a foreign agent, and he was charged when he refused to register with the government.

Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois (1936/1937) by Harmon FoundationU.S. National Archives

Fortunately, a friend offered to act as a character witness. Charges were dismissed when Du Bois’ lawyer told the judge that Albert Einstein would vouch for him. Du Bois wrote Einstein a letter expressing his “deep appreciation” for the offer shortly afterward.

Portrait of Alan Turing (1912/1954)Barbican Centre

5. Alan Turing

English mathematician Alan Turing, whose brilliance is now evident all around us, was persecuted in his own time, and his life was cut short. Watch the video below to learn about his life, work, and legacy.

How Alan Turing laid the foundations for AI: The Turing test explained (2019-05-15)Barbican Centre

Billie Holiday at the Downbeat, NYC (1947) by William Gottlieb. Used by permissionSFJAZZ Center

6. Billie Holiday

The soulful, sultry voice of Billie Holiday still cascades from speakers around the globe. Like the story of many geniuses, however, hers ended too soon. Holiday’s career began in Harlem, but her voice took her all over the world.

Photograph of Billie Holiday (ca. 1940)Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

Holiday cut her first record in 1933 when she was just 18, and was touring with Count Basie just a few years later. As her popularity grew, though, so did the adversity. She was plagued by abusive relationships, addiction, and arrests.

Billie Holiday Singing the Blues (1947) by Jay RobinsonGeorgia Museum of Art

She died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1959. Without Holiday’s cultural contributions, American music wouldn’t be what it is today. Can you imagine all the music she might have made?

Portrait of Thelonious Monk by William Gottlieb by William GottliebSFJAZZ Center

Learn about another American music pioneer, Thelonious Monk, by visiting Monk At 100.

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