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15 Women Who Have Won Science Nobel Prizes Since Marie Curie

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Madame Marie Curie famously snagged two Nobel Prizes—for Physics in 1903 with husband Pierre and Henri Becquerel, and again in 1911 for Chemistry after discovering radium and polonium—but many other women have also been awarded the Physics, Chemistry, and Physiology or Medicine Nobels, too. Here are their stories.

1. Irène Joliot-Curie // Chemistry (1935)

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The second woman to win a Nobel was Irène Curie, daughter of Pierre and Marie. She shared the Prize with her husband, Jean Frédéric Joliot-Curie, for their discovery of “artificial radioactivity,” which they achieved by bombarding boron, aluminum, and magnesium with alpha particles to create radioactive isotopes. The Curies have more Nobel laureates than any other family.

The pair publically adopted a hyphenated surname, but according to their daughter Hélène Langevin-Joliot, "Many people used to name my parents Joliot-Curie, but they signed their scientific papers Irène Curie and Frédéric Joliot."

2. Gerty Theresa Cori // Physiology or Medicine (1947)

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Gerty and her husband, Carl Cori, met in Prague and lived in Austria before immigrating to the United States in 1922, where the two medical doctors worked together (against the advice of their colleagues) at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in New York. The Coris studied carbohydrate metabolism, a specialty largely driven by Gerty’s father, a diabetic who asked her to find a cure for his disease.

Though their collaboration was unusual (even called “un-American,” according to Carl’s autobiography), the Coris were an amazing team. Gerty was given first author credit on most of their papers, indicating that she did the majority of the research. In 1929, they proposed “the Cori cycle,” a hypothetical model of how the body uses chemical reactions to break down carbohydrates.

In 1947, Gerty and Carl were awarded the Nobel in Physiology or Medicine, making Gerty Cori the first woman to hold the honor. In his speech, Carl spoke of their teamwork: "Our collaboration began 30 years ago when we were still medical students at the University of Prague and has continued ever since. Our efforts have been largely complementary, and one without the other would not have gone as far as in combination."

3. Maria Goeppert-Mayer // Physics (1963)

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German-born Maria Goeppert-Mayer studied Mathematics and Physics at the University of Göttingen, where, in 1930, she earned her Doctorate in Philosophy after writing her dissertation on two-photon absorption in atoms, a work Nobel laureate E.P. Wigner called "a masterpiece of clarity and concreteness." At the time, her work was purely theoretical; the laser hadn’t been invented yet, and no foreseeable method of testing its accuracy was available. In 1961, her theory was experimentally proven, and the unit for the two-photon absorption cross section was named the Goeppert-Mayer (GM) unit.

Goeppert-Mayer moved to the U.S. with her husband, chemist Joseph Edward Mayer, in 1930. He worked at Johns Hopkins University, where she worked as an assistant to the Physics department. There, she also taught classes and conducted research in quantum physics. In 1937, they moved to Columbia University, where Maria took an unpaid position in the Physics department where she worked with Harold Urey and Enrico Fermi. In 1942, she joined the Manhattan Project, working on methods of isolating uranium-235 from natural uranium. From there, she moved on to Los Alamos Laboratory, then Argonne National Laboratory, then to Aberdeen, where she programmed the ENIAC to solve criticality problems.

While at Argonne, Goeppert-Mayer developed the nuclear shell model, a mathematical model for the structure of atomic nuclei. For this, she shared the 1963 Nobel Prize for Physics with J. Hans D. Jensen and Eugene Paul Wigner – the first woman to receive the award in 60 years.

4. Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin // Chemistry (1964)

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Dorothy Hodgkin’s mother fostered her love of science as a child, and at age 18, she began studying chemistry at a women-only Oxford college. She earned her PhD at the University of Cambridge, where she first took an interest in X-ray crystallography and began studying the structure of proteins. In 1934, she moved back to Oxford, where she was appointed the university’s first research chemistry fellow, a position she held until 1977. (She taught future Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the 1940s.)

Through those years at Oxford, Hodgkin studied and discovered the three-dimensional structures of many biomolecules using X-ray crystallography: She confirmed the structure of penicillin in 1945. Her work on mapping vitamin B12 earned her the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1964. Five years later, she discovered the structure of insulin, a project so far advanced beyond the then-current technology that she first spent years working with colleagues to improve their methods and tools.

5. Rosalyn Sussman Yalow // Physiology or Medicine (1977)

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In 1941, WWII had begun and many scholarships for women became available as men went off to war. In 1945, thanks to these scholarships, Yalow earned her PhD in Physics at the University of Illinois. Afterward, she moved to the Bronx Veterans Administration Hospital, where she helped set up its new radioisotope lab. With colleague Solomon Berson, she developed radioimmunoassay (RIA), a technique that measures tiny quantities of various substances in liquids, notably insulin in human blood.

RIA has since been used to trace hundreds of hormones, enzymes, and vitamins and is essential to testing for cancer and other diseases, screening donated blood for hepatitis and other infections, and identifying therapeutic levels of drugs in the bloodstream. Despite its potential and eventual success, Yalow and Berson refused to patent their method.

In 1977, Yalow was awarded the Nobel Prize for RIA, and with Roger Guillemin and Andrew V. Shally for devising the technique.

6. Barbara McClintock // Physiology or Medicine (1983)

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McClintock received her Ph.D. in Botany from Cornell University in 1927, where she began her long career in maize cytogenetics, a study she would pursue for the rest of her life.

McClintock’s research focused on chromosomal changes in maize during reproduction. Through this, she pioneered techniques for visualizing and analysis of maize chromosomes in order to illustrate how they change during reproduction. She created the first genetic map of corn, and was the first to link its chromosomes to its physical traits; she also was the first to demonstrate that the telomere and centromere are important for conserving genetic information. McClintock (pictured with William Golding) made many discoveries, but the one that won the Nobel was transposition—the theory that genes turn on and off physical characteristics. She was the first woman to win the Prize unshared in Physiology.

7. Rita Levi-Montalcini // Physiology or Medicine (1986)

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Rita Montalcini studied at the University of Turin Medical School, but her academic career ended abruptly in 1938 when Benito Mussolini barred Jews from pursuing academic and professional careers. Instead, she worked from a laboratory in her home, where she studied the nerve development of chicken embryos.

She moved to the United States in 1946 to attend Washington University in St. Louis for one semester. However, after repeating the results of experiments made in her home, she was offered a research position. Over the next 30 years, Levi-Montalcini would continue to study nerve growth, but her most important work was done in 1952. That year, she and collaborator Stanley Cohen isolated nerve growth factors (NGFs), proteins that guide the growth, maintenance and survival of nerve tissue.

Levi-Montalcini was the first Nobel laureate to reach the age of 100. She died in 2012, at 103 years old.

8. Gertrude B. Elion // Physiology or Medicine (1988)

Elion’s work, like Gerty Cori’s, was spurred by a relative’s disease: her grandfather died of stomach cancer when she was 15, and it was then that Elion decided to spend her life looking for a cure. She later said, "I had no specific bent toward science until my grandfather died of cancer. I decided nobody should suffer that much."

After obtaining her Master’s in Chemistry from New York University, Elion worked as a teacher and lab assistant before moving to what is now GlaxoSmithKline. She, sometimes in conjunction with George H. Hitchings, developed a number of new pharmaceuticals designed to kill pathogens without harming healthy cells. These include Purinethol, the first treatment for leukemia and an anti-rejection drug for organ transplant patients; Daraprim, for malaria; Zovirax, a treatment for viral herpes; Septra, a drug used to treat urinary and respiratory tract infections, meningitis, and septicemia; Nelarabine, a drug used in cancer treatment; and Imuran/AZT, the first immune-suppressive agent, which is used in organ transplantation and the treatment of AIDS.

Elion and Hitchings shared the Prize in 1988 with Sir James W. Black, who developed the beta-blocker propranolol and cimetidine, a drug used to treat stomach ulcers.

9. Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard // Physiology or Medicine (1995)

Fruit flies are useful in genetic research because they’re small, quick to reproduce, and easy to maintain in a laboratory. Using fruit flies, Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard, a German biologist, has spent her life uncovering the molecular and genetic mechanisms that allow multicellular organisms to develop from a single cell (embryogenesis).

Her research of genetic mutation in fruit flies has allowed us to understand which genes are involved in different developmental processes, an understanding that applies to many species beyond fruit flies. Additionally, Nüsslein-Volhard’s work helps us understand evolution, thanks to her discoveries about the genetic makeup of a common ancestor for protostomes and deuterostomes.

She was awarded the Prize in 1995, along with with Eric Wieschaus and Edward B. Lewis. 15811 Nüsslein-Volhard, an asteroid discovered in 1994, is named for her.

10. Linda B. Buck // Physiology or Medicine (2004)

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Believe it or not, we didn’t really know how the sense of smell worked until 1991, when Linda B. Buck and Richard Axel published their research, which revealed not only the structure of the olfactory system, but also the mechanism olfaction – how we smell. Buck and Axel were able to clone olfactory receptors and analyze rat DNA to determine how the sense of smell works in all mammals. For this, the pair shared the Nobel in 2004.

11. Françoise Barré-Sinoussi // Physiology or Medicine (2008)

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In 1975, Françoise Barré-Sinoussi earned her PhD at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, where she then began studying retroviruses. By 1983, she had discovered HIV. By 1988, she had her own research laboratory in the university and was studying the virus full-time. In addition to identifying the virus itself, Barré-Sinoussi’s research has revealed the methods by which HIV spreads and its connection to AIDS, and she has produced over 200 scientific publications regarding specific mechanisms in our immune systems and the virus itself.

In 2008, Barré-Sinoussi shared the Nobel for Physiology or Medicine with Luc Mantagnier, her mentor, and Harold zur Hausen, who discovered HPV and developed the cervical cancer vaccine. Barré-Sinoussi continues to work with developing countries to address the spread of and improve the treatment for HIV/AIDS.

12. Ada E. Yonath // Chemistry (2009)

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Ada Yonath grew up in Jerusalem with limited means; despite her family’s poverty, her parents sent her to an affluent school. In 1942, she moved to Tel Aviv after her father’s death, where she attended Tichon Hadash high school. She couldn’t afford tuition, so the school allowed her to attend if she gave math lessons to other students. By 1964, she had earned a PhD in X-ray Crystallography from the Weizmann Institute of Science. In 1970, she founded the first (and for a long time, only) protein crystallography lab in Israel.

Yonath pioneered cryo bio-crystallography, the technique she uses to study microbe ribosomes and their mechanisms, despite harsh criticism from the scientific community. Today, cryo bio-crystallography is taught as a standard technique in structural biology. Yonath’s body of research has revealed much more than the structure of microbe ribosomes; thanks to her work, we know how many antibiotics work, why some bacteria are drug-resistant, and discovered the structural basis for antibiotic selectivity—all of which are now used in research labs to design more effective drugs.

For her work on protein biosynthesis and peptide bond formation, Yonath earned the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2009. Today, she is the director of the Helen and Milton A. Kimmelman Center for Biomolecular Structure and Assembly of the Weizmann Institute of Science.

13 and 14. Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol W. Greider // Physiology or Medicine (2009)

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Elizabeth Blackburn was born in Tasmania in 1948. She earned her Master’s degree at the University of Melbourne, then her PhD from the University of Cambridge. By 1981, she was at the University of California, Berkeley.

Carolyn Widney Greider was born in San Diego. She received her B.A. in Biology from the University of California, Santa Barbara in 1983, then studied at the University of Göttingen for a time before returning to California in 1983 to earn her PhD at UCSF, where she studied under Elizabeth Blackburn.

Both women research telomeres, the end caps of chromosomes created by repeating stacks of “extra” DNA bases. When DNA replicates, these telomeres are shortened and the chromosomes deteriorate—the cause of aging and chromosome fusion, which leads to cancer. Blackburn and Greider set out to find a hypothetical enzyme that protects the telomere.

Greider, according to Blackburn, worked diligently—often 12 hours or more a day. On Christmas Day, 1984, Greider’s results indicated that she had in fact located the mysterious telomere-protecting enzyme, which was still unnamed. Six months later, the pair published their results in the journal Cell: they had discovered telomerase. In an interview, Blackburn said:

Carol had done this experiment, and we stood, just in the lab, and I remember sort of standing there, and she had this – we call it a gel. It's an autoradiogram, because there was trace amounts of radioactivity that were used to develop an image of the separated DNA products of what turned out to be the telomerase enzyme reaction. I remember looking at it and just thinking, ‘Ah! This could be very big. This looks just right.’

Blackburn and Greider’s Prize in 2009 marked the first award shared by more than one woman.

15. May-Britt Moser // Physiology of Medicine (2014)

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Moser was honored in 2014 for the "discovery of cells that constitute a positioning system in the brain." From Nobel.org:

"In 2005, May-Britt Moser and Edvard I. Moser discovered a type of cell that is important for determining position close to the hippocampus, an area located in the center of the brain. They found that when a rat passed certain points arranged in a hexagonal grid in space, nerve cells that form a kind of coordinate system for navigation were activated. They then went on to demonstrate how these different cell types cooperate."

This story originally ran in 2015.

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15 Things You Might Not Know About Chewbacca
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Even if you don't know the name Peter Mayhew, you surely know about Chewbacca—the seven-foot tall Wookiee he has played onscreen for over three decades. In honor of Mayhew’s birthday, here are 15 things you might not know about Han Solo's BFF.

1. HE WAS INSPIRED BY GEORGE LUCAS'S DOG.

The character of Chewbacca was inspired by George Lucas’s big, hairy Alaskan malamute, Indiana. According to Lucas, the dog would always sit in the passenger seat of his car like a copilot, and people would confuse the dog for an actual person. And in case you're wondering: yes, that same dog was also the inspiration behind the name of one of Lucas’s other creations, Indiana Jones.

2. HIS NAME IS OF RUSSIAN ORIGIN.

The name “Chewbacca” was derived from the Russian word Sobaka (собака), meaning “dog.” The term “Wookiee” came from voice actor Terry McGovern; when he was doing voiceover tracks for Lucas's directorial debut, THX 1138, McGovern randomly improvised the line, “I think I just ran over a Wookiee” during one of the sessions.

3. HE'S REALLY, REALLY OLD.

In Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, Chewbacca is 200 years old.

4. PETER MAYHEW'S HEIGHT HELPED HIM LAND THE ROLE.

Peter Mayhew
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Mayhew was chosen to play everyone’s favorite Wookiee primarily because of his tremendous height: He's 7 feet 3 inches tall.

5. HIS SUIT IS MADE FROM A MIX OF ANIMAL HAIRS, AND EVENTUALLY INCLUDED A COOLING SYSTEM.

For the original trilogy (and the infamous holiday special), the Chewbacca costume was made with a combination of real yak and rabbit hair knitted into a base of mohair. A slightly altered original Chewie costume was used in 1999's The Phantom Menace for the Wookiee senator character Yarua, and a new costume used during Episode III included a specially made water-cooling system so that Mayhew could wear the suit for long periods of time and not be overheated.

6. ONE OF STANLEY KUBRICK'S CLOSEST CREATORS DESIGNED THE COSTUME.

Chewbacca's costume
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To create the original costume for Chewbacca, Lucas hired legendary makeup supervisor Stuart Freeborn, who was recruited because of his work on the apes in the “Dawn of Man” sequence in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. (Freeborn had also previously worked with Kubrick on Dr. Strangelove to effectively disguise Peter Sellers in each of his three roles in that film.) Freeborn would go on to supervise the creation of Yoda in The Empire Strike Back and Jabba the Hutt and the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi.

Lucas originally wanted Freeborn’s costume for Chewie to be a combination of a monkey, a dog, and a cat. According to Freeborn, the biggest problem during production with the costume was with Mayhew’s eyes. The actor’s body heat in the mask caused his face to detach from the costume's eyes and made them look separate from the mask.

7. FINDING CHEWBACCA'S VOICE WAS BEN BURTT'S FIRST ASSIGNMENT.

The first sound effect that director George Lucas hired now-legendary sound designer Ben Burtt for on Star Wars was Chewbacca’s voice (this was all the way back during the script stage). During the year of preliminary sound recording, Burtt principally used the vocalization of a black bear named Tarik from Happy Hollow Zoo in San Jose, California for Chewbacca. He would eventually synchronize those sounds with further walrus, lion, and badger vocalizations for the complete voice. The name of the language Chewbacca speaks came to be known in the Star Wars universe as “Shyriiwook.”

8. ROGER EBERT WAS NOT A FAN.

Roger Ebert was not a fan of the big guy. In his 1997 review of the Special Edition of The Empire Strikes Back, Ebert basically called Chewbacca the worst character in the series. “This character was thrown into the first film as window dressing, was never thought through, and as a result has been saddled with one facial expression and one mournful yelp," the famed critic wrote. "Much more could have been done. How can you be a space pilot and not be able to communicate in any meaningful way? Does Han Solo really understand Chewie's monotonous noises? Do they have long chats sometimes? Never mind.”

9. HE WAS ORIGINALLY MUCH MORE SCANTILY CLAD.

In the summary for Lucas’s second draft (dated January 28, 1975, when the film was called “Adventures of the Starkiller, Episode I: The Star Wars”), Chewbacca is described as “an eight-foot tall, savage-looking creature resembling a huge gray bushbaby-monkey with fierce ‘baboon’-like fangs. His large yellow eyes dominate a fur-covered face … [and] over his matted, furry body he wears two chrome bandoliers, a flak jacket painted in a bizarre camouflage pattern, brown cloth shorts, and little else.”

10. HIS DESIGN WAS BASED ON RALPH MCQUARRIE'S CONCEPT ART.

Chewbacca’s character design was based on concept art drawn by Ralph McQuarrie. Lucas had originally given McQuarrie a photo of a lemur for inspiration, and McQuarrie proceeded to draw the character as a female—but Chewbacca was soon changed to a male. McQuarrie based his furry design on an illustration by artist John Schoenherr, which was commissioned for Game of Thrones scribe George R.R. Martin’s short story “And Seven Times Never Kill a Man.” Sharp-eyed Chewbacca fans will recognize that Schoenherr’s drawing even includes what resembles the Wookiee’s signature weapon, the Bowcaster.

11. HE WON A LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD.

Fans were angry for decades that Chewie didn’t receive a medal of valor like Luke and Han did at the end of A New Hope, so MTV gave him a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1997 MTV Movie Awards. The medal was given to Mayhew—decked out in full costume—by Princess Leia herself, actress Carrie Fisher. His acceptance speech, made entirely in Wookiee grunts, lasted 16 seconds. When asked why Chewbacca didn’t receive a medal at the end of the first film, Lucas explained, “Medals really don’t mean much to Wookiees. They don’t really put too much credence in them. They have different kinds of ceremonies.”

12. HE HAS A FAMILY BACK HOME.

According to the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special, Chewbacca had a wife named Mallatobuck, a son named Lumpawaroo (a.k.a. “Lumpy”), and a father named Attichitcuk (aka “Itchy”). In the special, Chewie and Han visit the Wookiee home planet of Kashyyyk to celebrate “Life Day,” a celebration of the Wookiee home planet’s diverse ecosystem. The special featured appearances and musical numbers by Jefferson Starship, Diahann Carroll, Art Carney, Harvey Korman, and Bea Arthur, and marked the first appearance of Boba Fett. Lucas hated the special so much that he limited its availability following its original airdate on November 17, 1978.

13. MAYHEW'S BIG FEET ARE WHAT KICKSTARTED HIS CAREER.

Mayhew’s path to playing Chewbacca began with a string of lucky breaks—and his big feet. A local London reporter was doing a story on people with big feet and happened to profile Mayhew. A movie producer saw the article and cast him—in an uncredited role—as Minoton the minotaur in the film Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. One of the makeup men on Sinbad was also working on the Wookiee costume with Stuart Freeborn for Star Wars and suggested to the producers that they screen test Mayhew. The rest is Wookiee history.

14. MAYHEW KEPT HIS DAY JOB WHILE SHOOTING STAR WARS.

Peter Mayhew
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During the shooting of Star Wars, Mayhew kept working his day job as a deputy head porter in a London hospital. Though he was let go because of his sudden varying shooting schedule at Elstree Studios, he was eventually hired back after production wrapped.

15. DARTH VADER COULD HAVE BEEN CHEWBACCA.

Darth Vader
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David Prowse, the 6’5” actor who ended up portraying Darth Vader—in costume only—originally turned down the role of Chewbacca.  When given the choice between portraying the two characters, Prowse said, “I turned down the role of Chewbacca at once. I know that people remember villains longer than heroes. At the time I didn’t know I’d be wearing a mask, and throughout production I thought Vader’s voice would be mine.”

Additional Sources: Star Wars DVD special features
The Making of Star Wars: The definitive Story Behind the Original Film, J.W. Rinzler

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
6 Priceless Treasures Lost in Shipwrecks
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In the lore around treasures lost at sea, most of the excitement goes to pirate’s gold and the sunken luxuries of the Titanic. But in the centuries of human seafaring, many lesser-known priceless objects, from literary manuscripts to scientific research, have been claimed by the depths. Here are some tales of those losses, from a lifetime of work by a 19th-century woman who was an expert in cephalopods, to a rare book by Dickens that went down with the Lusitania.

1. LOUIS DE JAUCOURT'S ANATOMICAL LEXICON

Always, always, always back up your work. Of course, that's easier now than it was in the 18th century, when French scholar Louis de Jaucourt dispatched his six-volume Lexicon medicum universale to his Amsterdam publisher, a move intended to evade French censorship. The medical dictionary, on which he'd spent 20 years, was completely lost when the ship it was on sank off Holland's coast. Luckily, Jaucourt rebounded when Denis Diderot asked him to contribute to the Encyclopédie, now considered one of the greatest works of Enlightenment thought, for which he used his notes from the lost manuscript. Jaucourt became the publication's most prolific author, penning 40,000 articles—so many he was nicknamed l'esclave de l’Encyclopédie, or the "slave of the Encyclopedia."

2. THE FIELDWORK OF ALFRED RUSSEL WALLACE

Portrait of Alfred Russel Wallace, Welsh naturalist and explorer
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In 1852, following four years of research in the Amazon, the British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace was ready to return to England. He loaded his copious notes, animal and plant specimens, and drawings onto the brig Helen. Just 26 days into the voyage, the vessel caught fire. Wallace only had time to hastily fill a tin box with a few drawings of fish and palms and some scientific notes before joining the crew in the lifeboat. After 10 days marooned at sea, they were rescued by the brig Jordeson—but most of Wallace's work was gone forever. As he lamented in an October 19, 1852 letter, "The only things which I saved were my watch, my drawings of fishes, and a portion of my notes and journals. Most of my journals, notes on the habits of animals, and drawings of the transformations of insects, were lost.” While he continued as a leading naturalist—albeit one overshadowed in his evolution research by Charles Darwin—Wallace was never able to reconstruct those years of fieldwork.

3. THE CEPHALOPOD RESEARCH OF JEANNE VILLEPREUX-POWER

Before Jeanne Villepreux-Power’s 19th-century research, most scientists thought the Argonauta argo, or paper nautilus, scavenged its shell from other animals. But by inventing the modern aquarium, Villepreux-Power could study the species first-hand, and witness how it grows and repairs its own shell. The breakthrough was one of many discoveries made by the pioneer in cephalopod research, one of the few women to achieve prominence in Victorian science. She might be better known today if it weren't for the fact that when she and her husband decided to move from Sicily to London, the vessel on which they’d shipped their possessions—including the majority of her drawings, notes, and equipment—foundered off the coast of France in 1843. After the devastating loss, she never published again.

4. A COPY OF A CHRISTMAS CAROL OWNED BY CHARLES DICKENS

Sinking of the Lusitania
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When Boston bookseller Charles Lauriat realized the RMS Lusitania was doomed that fateful day in 1915, he dashed to his cabin, using the light from a few matches to try to find the literary treasures he’d brought aboard. These included original drawings by Vanity Fair author William Makepeace Thackeray, as well as an edition of A Christmas Carol owned by Charles Dickens himself. The edition was irreplaceable, since it included Dickens’s notes related to his 1844 copyright suit against the illicit republishing of his story. In the book Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, Erik Larson vividly describes Lauriat’s harrowing experience when the ocean liner was torpedoed by a German U-boat off the coast of Ireland: Lauriat grabbed the leather briefcase containing the Dickens, but left the Thackeray sketches behind. Rushing out to the deck, he saw a lifeboat packed with women and children that was being dragged down by the sinking ship. He jumped in with the briefcase, yet was unable to free the lifeboat, and in the escape into the water he lost the precious cargo. Out in the waves, he managed to evade entanglement with an antenna, swim to a collapsible lifeboat, and survive. One of the few items he managed to save were photographs of his baby, which he told his wife were his "mascot."

5. WRITINGS OF JOSÉ ASUNCIÓN SILVA

Portrait of José Asunción Silva

Many Colombians can recite the first lines from the influential Modernist poet José Asunción Silva's "Nocturne III"—"A night / A night full of hushings, of the curled wool of perfume / And incanting wing"—and it’s even printed in microtext on the 5000 Colombian peso bill. The poem, written in 1892, is believed to be a tribute to Silva’s half-sister. Silva suffered another blow in 1895, when many of his manuscripts, including a draft of a novel, were lost in a shipwreck. He left his diplomatic post in Venezuela, and dedicated all his time to reconstructing the drowned novel. But his melancholy continued: After visiting a doctor to ask the exact position of his heart, he shot himself in 1896. His rewritten novel—After-Dinner Conversation (De sobremesa) —wasn’t published until 1925.

6. THE ART OF GIOVANNI BATTISTA LUSIERI

The South-east Corner of the Parthenon, Athens by Giovanni Battista Lusieri
Giovanni Battista Lusieri, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Giovanni Battista Lusieri was a meticulous painter of the Italian landscape, particularly its classical ruins. In large panoramas and more compact watercolors, he depicted the Acropolis, views of Rome and Naples, and, his favorite, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Some of his most striking works captured the volcano at night, illuminating the darkness with its orange glow. Lord Byron called him "an Italian painter of the first eminence." Yet his name is now obscure. This is partly due to the years he stopped painting to help Lord Elgin remove and ship the Parthenon Marbles to London. But when Lusieri's artwork was being sent home from Greece after his death in 1821, a shipwreck destroyed nearly half of it (including a spectacular 25-foot-long panorama of Athens), helping to ensure his fall from fame.

BONUS: PEKING MAN

A replica of the Peking Man Skull
A replica of the Peking Man Skull

When paleontologists discovered the bones of "Peking man" in a dig near Beijing in the 1920s, they were the oldest hominid fossils ever found. However, scientists can now only study the bones—thought to be about half a million years old—from casts. The Peking Man fossils were last seen in December 1941, but vanished during the Japanese occupation of China while they were being sent to the United States for safekeeping. There are many conjectures on their fate, from being secretly stored away in Japan, to being under a parking lot in China. Yet one enduring theory is that they were lost at sea on the Japanese freighter Awa Maru: In 1945, the ship was torpedoed in the Taiwan Strait by the USS Queenfish despite being guaranteed safe passage by the United States, leading to the loss of more than 2000 lives—and, it's said, the priceless Peking fossils [PDF].

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