Throughout The Greatest Scientific Feuds history, the world of science has been marked by lively debates and clashes of ideas. While these intellectual battles have often contributed to significant discoveries, they’ve also sparked intense feuds among some of the most brilliant minds in the field. Whether arising from collaborations that became too close for comfort, conflicting theories about a specific concept, or personal differences that escalated, certain feuds took on a life of their own.
Interested in exploring the major scientific feuds that have left their mark on history?
Isaac Newton vs. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz on Calculus Invention
Many people think that Isaac Newton was the only person who came up with calculus, but that’s not true. There is evidence that Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, a scientist, also came up with ideas for calculus. But he did it after Newton, and he didn’t find out about it until after the fact.
Leibniz’s work on calculus came out first, and Newton was sure that he had been copied. Leibniz went to the Royal Society for help, but they sided with Newton. The fight went on for a long time, until Leibniz died in 1716.
Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse versus Thomas Edison on AC/DC
After leaving Thomas Edison’s laboratory in 1885, Nikola Tesla brought his creation of the alternating current (AC) electrical system with him. Direct current (DC), which Edison invented, was envisioned as the future of electricity. However, when Tesla sold the AC patents to businessman George Westinghouse, competition emerged.
The “war of the currents” began when Edison launched a smear campaign against Tesla and Westinghouse, which lasted for almost ten years. Despite Edison’s efforts, AC eventually overtook DC as the predominant system in the US thanks to Westinghouse and Tesla.
Barry Marshall vs. Gastroenterology on Stomach Ulcers
Barry Marshall and Robin Warren were awarded the 2005 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for identifying Helicobacter pylori as a contributing factor to peptic ulcer disease. Marshall had to travel far to get there, though.
Warren found out in 1979 that H. pylori could take over a person’s gut, and Marshall took the bacteria from ulcer patients and grew it in a lab. He found that this bacteria could cause ulcers and stomach cancer, and that antibiotics could cure it. Marshall tried to get the word out, but gastroenterologists argued that ulcers were caused by stress and turned down the idea.
Grover Krantz vs. other Anthropologists on Bigfoot
Grover Krantz, an anthropologist, was certain the creature was real after watching the renowned Bigfoot movie from 1967.
Krantz thought the animal was an extinct Asian monkey that had made its way across the Bering Strait to North America. Up until his passing in 2002, he kept searching for Bigfoot proof.
Medical Schools Allowing Women vs. Elizabeth Blackwell
Elizabeth Blackwell applied to twelve different medical schools in the northeastern United States in 1847 before discovering one that would accept women.
The all-male faculty asked their all-male students to vote on whether or not to accept her when the Geneva Medical College received her application. They all voted in favor, thinking it was a joke, making her the first woman to enroll in medical school in the US.
Ignaz Semmelweis vs. the Medical Community on Washing your Hands
Before germ theory was known, Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis told the people who worked in his hospital to wash their hands. He saw that a lot of new moms were dying in the maternity room from something called “puerperal fever.” He thought that this was because doctors and nurses were spreading germs from dead bodies to living people, making them sick.
After he told everyone in his hospital to wash their hands, the death rate dropped by a huge amount. He tried to get other hospitals to do the same, but doctors didn’t agree with him. He finally had a nervous breakdown and was sent to a mental hospital.
The Anatomical Society vs. Alice Lee on Women’s Brain Size
Many male anatomists of the 19th century thought that intelligence was dictated by cranial capacity and that women were inherently less intelligent due to their smaller skulls and brains. This hypothesis was tested by Alice Lee, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of London.
The members of the Anatomical Society served as Lee’s initial test subjects as she measured the skulls of living individuals. She took measurements of all 35 members and compared them to female students’ skulls. The findings revealed that some of the most well-known male anatomists had the test group’s smallest skulls.
Alfred Wegener vs. Geologists on Continental Drift
Alfred Wegener, a meteorologist, ripped the continents out of an atlas and assembled them into a jigsaw in 1910. His notion that the continents once formed a single supercontinent and separated over time was born out of the experiment. Geologists, who thought that the continents and oceans were immobile on solid earth, got into a fight over this.
His contemporaries criticized him, and the backlash ultimately slowed down scientific advancement. But ultimately Wegener was correct. Change didn’t occur until younger scientists began to take the concept of continental drift seriously in the 1960s.
Samuel Wilberforce vs. Thomas H. Huxley on Natural Selection
In front of 500 spectators, Bishop Samuel Wilberforce and Thomas H. Huxley engaged in what is now referred to as the Great Debate in 1860.
Huxley, on the other hand, vigorously maintained creationism, while Wilberforce backed Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Huxley responded that he would rather to be derived from an ape than an ignorant man when Wilberforce questioned him about if he was related to an ape through his grandmother or grandpa. After that, they were never amicable.
Antoine Lavoisier vs. Jean-Paul Marat on Animal Magnetism
Most scientific feuds involve calling each other names and putting each other down, but this one finished with a beheading. Jean-Paul Marat started the fight when he tried to get into the elite Academy of Sciences to do research on what he thought was the energy behind animal magnetism. Antoine Lavoisier was not impressed, so he turned down Marat’s application in public.
Marat felt ashamed, so he used his power as a leader of the French Revolution to make people hate Lavoisier. A political enemy stabbed Marat to death in his bathtub. But those who helped him got Lavoisier arrested and took his lab tools. On May 8, 1794, Lavoisier was tried, found guilty of theft, and put to death by guillotine.
Bone wars: Edward Drinker Cope vs. Othniel Charles Marsh
Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope turned from friends to foes in 1868. Cope invited Marsh to visit his fossil quarry, which is when the conflict between the two paleontologists started. Marsh went on to create a covert pact with the miners to have them deliver him any fossils they discovered at Yale.
Then the marriage fell apart, and the “bone wars” started. They each made an effort to publish more articles and collect more fossils than the other.
John James Audubon vs. Charles Waterton on Vultures’ Sense of Smell
In the field of ornithology in the 1800s, there was a fight between the nosarians and the anti-nosarians. Charles Waterton asked nosarians to back up his idea that vultures can find dead animals by using their sense of smell. John James Audubon’s view, on the other hand, said that vultures only use their eyes.
The public was invited to participate in experiments that were arranged by Audubon’s admirers in exchange for their signatures attesting to the vulture’s odorlessness. Ornithologists, on the other hand, disproved Audubon’s assertions in the 20th century.
Percival Lowell vs. Astronomers on Martian Canals
Percival Lowell spent a lot of time studying Mars and making detailed drawings of the marks he saw on its surface. He thought that these marks showed that intelligent life existed on Mars. He even built his own telescope in Flagstaff, Arizona, so he could study life on Mars.
The astronomy world had a lot of doubts. Many astronomers couldn’t see these markings, and few thought that they were as extensive as Lowell said.
Leta Hollingworth vs. Edward Thorndike on the Variability Hypothesis
The variability theory, promoted by Edward Thorndike, argued that while women demonstrate a limited range of physical and psychological characteristics, they are unable to function at the same level as males. Leta Hollingworth, a student, wasn’t having it and focused her studies on refuting Thorndike.
She compared the physical characteristics of 2,000 newborn boys and girls, and discovered that female neonates display a wider range of physical and psychological characteristics. Thorndike was unable to contest the veracity of her findings. He gave her a job opportunity after passing her doctoral study.
Thomas Hobbes vs. John Wallis on Squaring a Circle
Thomas Hobbes was a philosopher, not a mathematician, when he asserted that a circle could be squared. John Wallis, a mathematician, was so offended by Hobbes’ arrogance in mathematics that he even said it would “vomit poison and filth upon us.”
Hobbes, in turn, referred to Wallis’ writing as “mere ignorance and gibberish.” From 1655 until Hobbes’ demise in 1679, the conflict persisted. Considering that it is impossible to square a circle, Hobbes was never proved right.