CLOSE
Original image
Joseph Sohm/Visions of America/Corbis

9 Other Famous Harvard Dropouts

Original image
Joseph Sohm/Visions of America/Corbis

Most people are familiar with the stories of Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, who achieved great success as the founders of Microsoft and Facebook, respectively, after dropping out of Harvard. Here are nine other former Harvard students who made out just fine without earning their degrees.

1. Robert Frost

Frost, a San Francisco native who had previously dropped out of Dartmouth after only two months, was accepted for admission at Harvard in the fall of 1897 and studied liberal arts in Cambridge. Two years later, Frost, who had married and become a father just prior to enrolling at Harvard, left school to support his growing family. “They could not make a student of me here, but they gave it their best,” Frost later said. Frost won four Pulitzer Prizes for poetry in his lifetime and received an honorary degree from Harvard in 1937.

2. Matt Damon

The future Hollywood star entered Harvard in 1988 and took time off during the second semester of his sophomore year to act in Rising Son, a made-for-TV movie. Damon stepped out during his junior and senior years as well, and never accrued enough credits to graduate. “What was happening is that I would keep coming back, and I would almost get done with the semester and then I would be yanked out,” Damon recalled in an interview with the Harvard Crimson. It’s fitting, then, that Damon’s big break was Good Will Hunting, the 1997 film he co-wrote and starred in with his friend Ben Affleck. In one scene, Damon’s character tells a Harvard student, “You drop $150,000 on an education that you could have gotten for $1.50 on late charges at the public library.” Damon appeared on Ellen earlier this month and said he doesn’t have any plans to go back and finish his degree. “I feel like I got everything I needed to get from that experience,” he said.

3. William Randolph Hearst

Hearst, the son of millionaire mining engineer George Hearst, enrolled at Harvard in 1885 and acted as the first business manager of the Harvard Lampoon, the school’s humor publication. It didn’t take long for Hearst, who kept a pet alligator named Champagne Charlie in his room, to establish a reputation as a trouble-maker. According to legend, the future newspaper magnate once bought a jackass and snuck the animal into a professor’s room, leaving a card around its neck with the note, “Now there are two of you.” Hearst survived that stunt, but was later expelled for sending his professors chamber pots with their names inscribed on the bottom. After leaving Harvard, Hearst launched his successful career by taking control of one of his father’s newspapers, the San Francisco Examiner.

4. Edwin H. Land

After graduating with honors from the Norwich Academy in Connecticut, Land enrolled at Harvard in 1926. The son of a scrap metal yard owner, Land studied chemistry as a freshman and launched experiments on ways to polarize light. Land dropped out of Harvard to focus full-time on his research, which he conducted at the New York Public Library, before returning to Cambridge to establish the Land-Wheelwright Laboratories with his former Harvard physics instructor in 1932. In 1937, Land co-founded the Polaroid Corporation, which would introduce the first instant camera in 1947. Land said the idea was inspired by his then-3-year-old daughter, who asked why she couldn’t immediately see a photograph he took of her on a family vacation. Polaroid made another breakthrough in 1963 with the introduction of instant color photography. By the time of his death in 1991, Land, who was awarded an honorary doctorate degree in 1957 and had a street in Cambridge named after him, owned more than 500 patents, second only to Thomas Edison. Among his other inventions were instant X-rays, Polaroid sunglasses, and glare-reducing goggles for dogs.

5. James B. Connolly

Connolly, who was admitted to Harvard in 1895 despite never graduating high school, left Cambridge to participate in the first Olympic Games one year later. Connolly reportedly requested a leave of absence from the Harvard dean, but it was denied as a result of his low academic standing. Harvard informed Connolly that he would have to reapply for admission upon his return from Athens, but he left anyway, and became the first modern Olympic champion with a win in the triple jump. Connolly never returned to Harvard to finish his degree, but he was awarded an honorary Harvard sweater in 1948.

6. Pete Seeger

As Seeger explains it, the folk singer and activist had his financial aid rescinded after his sophomore year because he got too interested in left-wing politics and let his grades slip. Seeger, who would’ve graduated in 1940, achieved fame after dropping out of Harvard as a member of The Weavers, whose rendition of Leadbelly’s “Goodnight, Irene” topped the charts for 13 weeks in 1950. Seeger doesn’t seem to harbor any ill will toward the school. As the Harvard Crimson reported, he wrote the following in his alumni yearbook: “I remember thinking when 1940 came along that I was glad I had spent the two years there, that I had learned certain invaluable things, but also that I had learned in two years that I had been away from certain things that Harvard wouldn’t have been able to teach.”

7. R. Buckminster Fuller

The inventor, philosopher, and futurist was the fifth generation of his family to enroll at Harvard and the first not to graduate. Fuller wasn’t accepted into any of Harvard’s social clubs, so he sought companionship elsewhere and regularly skipped classes to attend Broadway shows. During one such trip to New York City, Fuller treated actress Marilyn Miller and her entire chorus to dinner, blowing all of his tuition money for that year in the process. Harvard dismissed Fuller, who went to work as a factory worker in Quebec before his mother convinced him to reapply. Fuller was readmitted and earned several academic honors, but eventually became bored and left Harvard for good. After a stint in the U.S. Navy, Fuller embarked on the first of many commercial failures, including the prefabricated Dymaxion House, before achieving fortune and fame in 1947 with the invention of the geodesic dome. Fuller returned to Harvard in 1961 to accept the Charles Eliot Norton Professorship of Poetry.

8. Bonnie Raitt

Raitt enrolled at Radcliffe College, Harvard’s then-coordinate college, in 1967. The daughter of a Broadway musical performer, Raitt planned to major in African studies and travel to Tanzania to help “undo the damage that Western colonialism had done.” Those dreams were sidetracked when Raitt, a skilled guitar player, met blues promoter Dick Waterman in Cambridge. Waterman introduced Raitt to established performers such as Son House and Fred McDowell. Though Raitt had every intention of graduating, she took a semester off during her sophomore year to explore the possibility of a musical career with Waterman and became a star. Raitt signed a recording deal with Warner Bros. in 1970 and released her debut album in 1971. Raitt won four Grammy awards in 1990 and received Harvard’s third Arts Medal in 1997. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000.

9. Elisabeth Shue

At least one famous Harvard dropout eventually decided to return to school. Shue, who transferred to Harvard from Wellesley College, dropped out of school one semester short of receiving her political science degree in 1985 to pursue an acting career. Fifteen years later, she returned to Cambridge to complete her degree. “My brain was starting to dry up,” Shue told Movieline magazine. “In Hollywood, you’re fortunate if you get a role where your brain is engaged, but those experiences are rare. I felt like I needed to do something with my life. I wanted to feel more connected to the world.” At the time, Shue said she would eventually like to teach and make documentaries. Best known for her Oscar-nominated role in Leaving Las Vegas, one of Shue’s most recent roles was as Sheriff Julie Forester in Piranha 3D.

Original image
Karrah Kobus/NPG Records via Getty Images
arrow
Pop Culture
5 Killer Pieces of Rock History Up for Auction Now (Including Prince’s Guitar)
Original image
Karrah Kobus/NPG Records via Getty Images

If you’ve ever wanted to own a piece of rock history, now is the time. A whole host of cool music memorabilia from the 20th century is going up for sale through Julien’s Auctions in Los Angeles as part of its “Icons and Idols” sale. If you’ve got the dough, you can nab everything from leather chairs from Graceland to a shirt worn by Jimi Hendrix to never-before-available prints that Joni Mitchell signed and gave to her friends. Here are five highlights from the auction:

1. ELVIS’S NUNCHUCKS

Elvis’s nunchucks
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

Elvis’s karate skills sometimes get a bad rap, but the King earned his first black belt in 1960, and went on to become a seventh-degree black belt before opening his own studio in 1974. You can cherish a piece of his martial arts legacy in the form of his nunchaku. One was broken during his training, but the other is still in ready-to-use shape. (But please don’t use it.) It seems Elvis wasn’t super convinced of his own karate skills, though, because he also supposedly carried a police baton (which you can also buy) for his personal protection.

2. PRINCE’S GUITAR

A blue guitar used by Prince
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

Prince’s blue Cloud guitar, estimated to be worth between $60,000 and $80,000, appeared on stage with him in the late ’80s and early ’90s. The custom guitar was made just for Prince by Cloud’s luthier (as in, guitar maker) Andy Beech. The artist first sold it at a 1994 auction to benefit relief efforts for the L.A. area’s devastating Northridge earthquake.

3. KURT COBAIN’S CHEERLEADER OUTFIT

Kurt Cobain wearing a cheerleader outfit in the pages of Rolling Stone
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

The Nirvana frontman wore the bright-yellow cheerleader’s uniform from his alma mater, J.M. Weatherwax High School in Aberdeen, Washington, during a photo shoot for a January 1994 issue of Rolling Stone, released just a few months before his death.

4. MICHAEL JACKSON’S WHITE GLOVE

A white glove covered in rhinestones
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

A young Michael Jackson wore this bejeweled right-hand glove on his 1981 Triumph Tour, one of the first of many single gloves he would don over the course of his career. Unlike later incarnations, this one isn’t a custom-made glove with hand-sewn crystals, but a regular glove topped with a layer of rhinestones cut into the shape of the glove and sewn on top.

The auction house is also selling a pair of jeans the star wore to his 2003 birthday party, as well as other clothes he wore for music videos and performances.

5. WOOD FROM ABBEY ROAD STUDIOS

A piece of wood in a frame under a picture of The Beatles
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

You can’t walk the halls of Abbey Road Studios, but you can pretend. First sold in 1986, the piece of wood in this frame reportedly came from Studio Two, a recording space that hosted not only The Beatles (pictured), but Pink Floyd, Stevie Wonder, Eric Clapton, and others.

Original image
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0
arrow
Lists
5 Dubious Historical Antidotes for Poison (and What Actually Works)
Original image
An artificial bezoar stone from Goa, India
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

When it comes to their health, humans will believe just about anything. In this extract from the new book Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything, authors Lydia Kang, MD, and Nate Pedersen discuss some of the more questionable ways people once tried to protect themselves from poison—whether or not the methods actually worked.

Poison is everywhere. Naturally or unnaturally, it can be in the soil (arsenic), in the air (carbon monoxide), in your drinks (lead), and in your food (cyanide). With so much danger around, it’s no wonder humans have obsessed over finding a universal antidote—the one thing that could save us from all toxins. Imagine you’re a medieval prince about to inherit the throne. Chances are, there are a lot of power-hungry wannabes waiting in the wings. A little arsenic or hemlock might be your best friend or your worst nightmare. Just in case, best have an antidote on standby.

For millennia, a certain amount of magical thinking was employed when arming oneself against poison because science was inconveniently slow to catch up. So grab your handy unicorn horn and a bezoar, and let’s take a look.

1. BEZOARS

Bezoars have been used for centuries as antidotes to poisons. A bezoar is solid mass of undigested food, plant fibers, or hair found in the digestive tracts of animals, including deer, porcupines, fish, and, yes, humans. Anyone with a cat is familiar with the less-cool feline version: hairballs.

Bezoars and other stone-like items created by animals often had a good story behind them. Legends told of deer that would eat poisonous snakes and become immune or cry tears that solidified into poison-curing stones. First-century Arabic author al-Birumi claimed bezoars could protect against one poison called “the snot of Satan,” which we hope never ever to encounter. By the 12th century, when Europe became plagued with, uh, plagues, the bezoar crept into pharmacopeias as panaceas and alexipharmics (poison antidotes).

Bezoars were a seductive notion for the rich and royal, who were at risk of assassination. The stones were often enclosed in bejeweled gold for display or worn as amulets. Indian bezoars, in particular, were sought for life-threatening fevers, poisonous bites, bleeding, jaundice, and melancholy. Consumers were also known to scrape off a bit of bezoar and add it to their drinks for heart health and kidney stones. These tonics were sometimes adulterated with toxic mercury or antimony, which caused vomiting and diarrhea, making buyers think they were effective.

But were they? One team of researchers soaked bezoars in an arsenic-laced solution and found that the stones absorbed the arsenic or that the poison was neutralized. Hard to say if it worked well enough to cure a fatal dose. Ambroise Paré, one of the preeminent French physicians of the 16th century, was also a doubter. The king’s cook, who’d been stealing silver, was given the choice between hanging or being Paré’s lab rat. He chose the latter. After the cook consumed poison, Paré looked on as a bezoar was stuffed down his throat. Six hours later, he died wracked with pain. Perhaps he chose ... poorly?

2. MITHRIDATES

This antidote was named after Mithridates VI, the king of Pontus and Armenia Minor. Born in 134 BCE, he pretty much invented the phrase “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” by consuming poisons daily to prevent his own assassination. His royal home was stocked with stingray spines, toxic mushrooms, scorpions, mineral poisons, and a poisonous plant–filled garden. He was so unpoisonable that after his son took over his kingdom and he faced execution, he couldn’t even commit suicide by poison! He begged a guard to stab him to death. (It worked.)

Though the king’s actual recipe for the antidote is nowhere to be found, versions began to circulate after his death, and they became synonymous with the king himself. Compounds with lengthy and expensive ingredient lists prevailed, including iris, cardamom, anise, frankincense, myrrh, ginger, and saffron. In the first century, Pliny the Elder snarkily remarked, “The Mithridatic antidote is composed of fifty-four ingredients ... Which of the gods, in the name of Truth, fixed these absurd proportions? ... It is plainly a showy parade of the art, and a colossal boast of science.”

Showy or not, people would take the extensive mix of herbs, pound them together with honey, and eat a nut-sized portion to cure themselves. At least it endowed them with expensive-smelling breath.

3. HORNS

An apothecary shop sign in the shape of a unicorn
An ivory pharmacy sign in the shape of a unicorn's head
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

Unicorn horns have been considered a part of antidote legend since the mythical beast galloped into literature around 300 BCE. For centuries afterward, real earthly beasts would sacrifice their lives and their horns to slake our thirst for the miraculous, nonexistent animal, including rhinoceroses, narwhals, and oryx. Even fossilized ammonites were used. It was believed that drinking vessels made of such horns might neutralize poisons, and wounds could be cured by holding them close by. In the 16th century, Mary, Queen of Scots reportedly used a unicorn horn to protect her from poisoning. Too bad it didn’t prevent her beheading.

4. PEARLS

Pearls have long been thought to be powerful antidotes. A beautiful, rare gem created by the homely oyster, a pearl is born out of annoyance (the mollusk secretes iridescent nacre to cover an irritant, like a parasite or grain of sand). Pretty as they are, they’re about as useful as the chalky antacid tablets on your bedside table; both are chiefly made of calcium carbonate. Good for a stomachache after some spicy food, but not exactly miraculous.

Pearl powder has been used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat a variety of diseases, and Ayurvedic physicians used it as an antidote in the Middle Ages. It was also reported to make people immortal. An old Taoist recipe recommended taking a long pearl and soaking it in malt, “serpent’s gall,” honeycomb, and pumice stone. When softened, it would be pulled like taffy and cut into bite-sized pieces to eat, and voilà! You would suddenly no longer need food to stay alive. Cleopatra famously drank down a large and costly pearl dissolved in wine vinegar, though in that case she wasn’t avoiding poison. She didn’t want to lose a bet with Antony—which might have fatally injured her pride.

5. THERIAC

Albarello vase for theriac, Italy, 1641
A vase for theriac, Italy, 1641
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

Theriac was an herbal concoction created in the first century by Emperor Nero’s physician, Andromachus, who was reported to have Mithridates’s secret notes. It was a mashed formula of about 70 ingredients, including cinnamon, opium, rose, iris, lavender, and acacia in a honey base. In the 12th century, theriac made in Venice was branded as particularly special, and Venetian treacle (derived from a Middle English translation of theriac) became a hot commodity. Its public, dramatic production often attracted curious crowds.

By the 18th century, cheaper golden syrup was substituted for honey. As treacle began to lose its luster as a treatment, its definition as an herbal remedy disappeared from common vernacular. But the sweet syrup remained. Which is why when we think of treacle, we think of treacle tarts, not a fancy means of saving ourselves from a deathly poisoning.

BONUS: WHAT ACTUALLY WORKS

Thankfully, science has brought us a wide range of antidotes for many items we shouldn’t be exposed to in dangerous quantities, if at all. N-acetylcysteine, fondly referred to as NAC by doctors, saves us from acetaminophen overdoses. Ethanol can treat antifreeze poisoning. Atropine, ironically one of the main components of plants in the toxic nightshade family (such as mandrake), can treat poisoning from some dangerous fertilizers and chemical nerve agents used as weapons. For years, poisonings were treated with emetics, though it turns out that plain old carbon—in the form of activated charcoal—can adsorb poisons (the poisons stick to the surface of the charcoal) in the digestive system before they’re dissolved and digested by the body.

As long as the natural world and its humans keep making things to kill us off, we’ll keep developing methods to not die untimely deaths.

We’ll just leave the fancy hairballs off the list.

The cover of the book Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything
Workman Publishing

Excerpt from Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything by Lydia Kang, MD and Nate Pedersen/Workman Publishing. Used with permission.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios