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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 Fascinating Facts About Candyman
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Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) is a Chicago graduate student with a deep fascination with urban legends, which she and her friend Bernadette (Kasi Lemmons) are using as the basis for a thesis project. After they stumble across the local legend of Candyman, a well-to-do black artist who fell in love with a white woman in the late 1800s and was murdered for it, Helen wants to learn more. When she’s told that Candyman still haunts Chicago's Cabrini-Green housing project, and that his spirit can be summoned by repeating his name into a mirror five times, Helen does just that … and all hell breaks loose.

What began as a low-budget indie film has morphed into a contemporary classic of the horror genre, and essential Halloween viewing. In 1992, English filmmaker Bernard Rose—who got his start working as a gopher on The Muppet Show—turned Clive Barker’s short story “The Forbidden” into Candyman, which was released in theaters 25 years ago today. In honor of the film’s anniversary, here are 15 things you might not have known about Candyman.

1. EDDIE MURPHY WAS CONSIDERED FOR THE LEAD.

Though the role of Candyman turned Tony Todd into a horror icon, he wasn’t the only actor in consideration for the film’s title role: Eddie Murphy was also reportedly a contender for the part. Though it’s unclear exactly why he wasn’t cast, sources have reported that it had to do with everything from his height (at 5 feet 9 inches, he wouldn’t seem nearly as intimidating as the 6-foot-5 Todd) to his salary demands.

2. AN UNEXPECTED PREGNANCY LANDED VIRGINIA MADSEN THE LEAD.

Virginia Madsen stars in 'Candyman'
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When asked by HorrorNewsNetwork about how she got the role of Helen in Candyman, Virginia Madsen shared that it was almost by accident: She was supposed to play Bernie, Helen’s friend and classmate, the role that eventually went to Kasi Lemmons.

“I was actually very good friends with Bernard [Rose] and his wife Alexandra,” Madsen said. “She is a wonderful actress, who actually brought Clive Barker’s short story ‘The Forbidden’ to her husband. She thought this would be a great film, and he could direct her. She was supposed to be Helen. I was going to play [Kasi Lemmons'] part, until they made the character African American. Then I was out.

“Right before shooting, Alexandra found out she was pregnant. It was great for me, but it was so sad for her because this was her role; she found this story and really wanted it. So when I was asked to step in I felt like ‘I can’t take my friend’s role.’ She actually came over one day and said ‘It would just kill me to see someone else play this role, you have to be the one who plays it.’ So with her blessing I took on the role. I really tried to work my butt off just to honor her.”

3. IT COULD HAVE STARRED SANDRA BULLOCK.

On the film’s DVD commentary, producer Alan Poul said that had Madsen been unable to step into the role of Helen, the part would have likely been offered to Sandra Bullock, who was still a relative unknown actress at that point. Though she had played the role of Tess McGill in the television adaptation of Working Girl, she was still a couple of years away from Speed (1994), the role that launched her into stardom.

4. ITS OPENING SHOT WAS GROUNDBREAKING.

The film’s opening credits feature a great aerial view of Chicago, which was pretty revolutionary for its time. “We did that with an incredible new machine called the Skycam, which can shoot up to a 500mm lens with no vibration,” Rose told The Independent. “You've never seen that shot before, at least not done that smoothly.”

5. NOT ALL OF THE FILM’S CREEPY DETAILS SPRUNG FROM CLIVE BARKER’S IMAGINATION.

While investigating one of Candyman’s crime scenes, Helen and Bernie discover that the design of the apartment’s medicine cabinet made it a possible point of entry for an intruder. This was not a made-up piece of horror movie fiction. While researching the film, Rose learned that a series of murders had been committed in Chicago in this very way.

6. BERNARD ROSE SEES CANDYMAN AS A ROMANTIC FIGURE.

Tony Todd stars in 'Candyman'
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Viewers may think of Candyman as one of the horror genre’s most terrifying villains, but Rose said that “the idea always was that he was kind of a romantic figure. And again, romantic in sort of the Edgar Allan Poe sense—it's the romance of death. He's a ghost, and he's also the resurrection of something that is kind of unspoken or unspeakable in American history, which is slavery, as well. So he's kind of come back and he's haunting what is the new version of the racial segregation in Chicago.

“And I think there's also something very seductive and very sweet and very romantic about him, and that's what makes him interesting. In the same way there is about Dracula. In the end, the Bogeyman is someone you want to surrender to. You're not just afraid of. There's a certain kind of joy in his seduction. And Tony was always so romantic. Tony ties him in so elegantly and is such a gentleman. He was wonderful.”

7. THE BEES IN THE FILM WERE BRED SPECIFICALLY TO APPEAR ONSCREEN.

No, that is not CGI! The bees that play a key role in Candyman are indeed real. So that they looked appropriately terrifying, but were less dangerous to the cast and crew, the filmmakers used newborn bees—they were just 12 hours old—so that they looked fully grown, but had less powerful stingers.

8. TONY TODD WAS STUNG 23 TIMES, AND GOT A BONUS EACH TIME IT HAPPENED.

Photo of Tony Todd in 'Candyman'
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In addition to allowing the filmmakers to cover his face with bees, Todd actually agreed to film a scene in which he had a mouthful of bees—and that, too, was all real. He told TMZ that he wore a dental dam to prevent any bees from sliding into his throat—which doesn’t mean that he didn’t suffer a sting or two … or 23, to be exact, over the course of three Candyman movies. Though it might have been worth it. “I had a great lawyer,” he told TMZ. “A thousand dollars a pop.”

9. THE BEES WEREN’T GREAT NEWS FOR MADSEN, EITHER.

Madsen, too, had to get up close and personal with those bees—a fact that almost forced her to pass on the role. “When Bernie was first asking me to do the role I said, ‘Well, I can’t. I’m allergic to bees,’” she told HorrorNewsNetwork. “He said ‘No you’re not allergic to bees, you’re just afraid.’ So I had to go to UCLA and get tested because he didn’t believe [me]. I was tested for every kind of venom. I was far more allergic to wasps. So he said, ‘We’ll just [have] paramedics there, it will be fine!’ You know actors, we’ll do anything for a paycheck! So fine, I’ll be covered with bees.

“So we a had a bee wrangler and he pretty much told us you can’t freak out around the bees, or be nervous, or swat at them, it would just aggravate them. They used baby bees on me. They can still sting you, but are less likely. When they put the bees on me it was crazy because they have fur. They felt like little Q-tips roaming around on me. Then you have pheromones on you, so they’re all in love with you and think you’re a giant queen. I really just had to go into this Zen sort of place and the takes were very short. What took the longest was getting the bees off of us. They had this tiny ‘bee vacuum,’ which wouldn’t harm the bees. After the scene where the bees were all over my face and my head, it took both Tony and I 45 minutes just to get the bees off. That’s when it became difficult to sit still. It was cool though, I felt like a total badass doing it.”

10. PHILIP GLASS COMPOSED THE SCORE, BUT WAS DISAPPOINTED IN THE MOVIE.

When Philip Glass signed on to compose the score for Candyman, he apparently envisioned the final film being something totally different. According to Rolling Stone, “What he'd presumed would be an artful version of Clive Barker's short story ‘The Forbidden’ had ended up, in his view, a low-budget slasher.” Glass was reportedly disappointed in the film, and felt that he had been manipulated. Still, the haunting music is considered a classic score—and Glass’s own view of it seems to have softened over time. “It has become a classic, so I still make money from that score, get checks every year,” he told Variety in 2014.

11. MANY OF THE FILM'S SCENES WERE SHOT AT CABRINI-GREEN.

In 2011, the last remaining high-rise in the Cabrini-Green housing project was demolished. Over the years, the property—which opened in 1942—gained a notorious reputation around the world for being a haven for violence, drugs, gangs, and other criminal activities. While the project’s real-life history weaves its way into the narrative of Candyman, it only makes sense that Rose would want to shoot there. Which he did. But in order to gain permission to shoot there, he had to agree to cast some of the residents as extras.

“I went to Chicago on a research trip to see where it could be done and I was shown around by some people from the Illinois Film Commission and they took me to Cabrini-Green,” Rose said. “And I spent some time there and I realized that this was an incredible arena for a horror movie because it was a place of such palpable fear. And rule number one when you're making a horror movie is set it somewhere frightening. And the fear of the urban housing project, it seemed to me, was actually totally irrational because you couldn't really be in that much danger. Yes, there was crime there, but people were actually afraid of driving past it. And there was such an aura of fear around the place and I thought that was really something interesting to look into because it's sort of a kind of fear that's at the heart of modern cities. And obviously, it's racially motivated, but more than that—it's poverty motivated.”

12. THE FILM’S PRODUCERS WERE WORRIED THAT THE FILM WOULD BE CONSIDERED RACIST.

During pre-production, Candyman’s producers began to worry that the film might draw criticism for being racist, given that its villain was black and it was largely set in an infamous housing project. “I had to go and have a whole set of meetings with the NAACP, because the producers were so worried,” Rose told The Independent. “And what they said to me when they'd read the script was 'Why are we even having this meeting? You know, this is just good fun.' Their argument was 'Why shouldn't a black actor be a ghost? Why shouldn't a black actor play Freddy Krueger or Hannibal Lecter? If you're saying that they can't be, it's really perverse. This is a horror movie.'”

13. STILL, SOME FILMMAKERS COMPLAINED THAT IT WAS RACIST.

In a 1992 story in the Chicago Tribune, some high-profile black filmmakers expressed their disappointment that the film seemed to perpetuate several racist stereotypes. “There’s no question that this film plays on white middle-class fears of black people,” director Carl Franklin (Out of Time, Devil in a Blue Dress) said. “It unabashedly uses racial stereotypes and destructive myths to create shock. I found it hokey and unsettling. It didn't work for me because I don’t share those fears, buy into those myths.”

Reginald Hudlin, who directed House Party, Boomerang, and Marshall, described the film as “worrisome,” though he didn’t want to speak on the record about his specific issues with the film. “I've gotten calls about [the movie], but I think I'm going to reserve comment,” he said. “Some of my friends are in it and I may someday want to work for TriStar.”

For Rose, those assessments may have been hard to hear, as his goal in adapting Barker’s story and directing it was to upend the myths about inner cities. “[T]he tradition of oral storytelling is very much alive, especially when it's a scary story,” he told The Independent. “And the biggest urban legend of all for me was the idea that there are places in cities where you do not go, because if you go in them something dreadful will happen—not to say that there isn't danger in ghettos and inner city areas, but the exaggerated fear of them is an urban myth.”

14. IT’S STILL THE ROLE THAT MADSEN IS MOST RECOGNIZED FOR (ESPECIALLY AT AIRPORTS).

Kasi Lemmons and Virginia Madsen in 'Candyman'
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Though she earned a Best Supporting Actress nomination in 2005 for Alexander Payne’s Sideways, in 2012 Madsen said that Candyman is still the role she is most recognized for—especially at airports.

“More people recognize me from that movie than anything I’ve done,” she told HorrorNewsNetwork. “It means a lot to me. It was after years of struggling. As an actor, you always want a film that’s annual, like It’s a Wonderful Life or A Christmas Story. I just love that I have a Halloween movie. Now it’s kind of legend this story. People have watched it since they were kids, and every Halloween it’s on, and they watch it now with their kids. That means a lot to me. The place I get recognized the most is the airport security for some reason. Every person in airport security has seen Candyman. Maybe it makes them a little afraid of me.”

15. THERE WAS AN ACTUAL CANDYMAN KILLER.

Though the Chicago-based legend of Candyman is a work of fiction, there was an actual serial killer known as “Candyman” or “The Candy Man.” Between 1970 and 1973, Dean Corll kidnapped, tortured, and murdered at least 28 young boys in the Houston area. Corll earned his sweet nickname from the fact that his family owned a candy factory.

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10 Facts About Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary
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October 16 is World Dictionary Day, which each year celebrates the birthday of the American lexicographer Noah Webster, who was born in Connecticut in 1758. Last year, Mental Floss marked the occasion with a list of facts about Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language—the enormous two-volume dictionary, published in 1828 when Webster was 70 years old, that established many of the differences that still divide American and British English to this day. But while Webster was America’s foremost lexicographer, on the other side of the Atlantic, Great Britain had Dr. Samuel Johnson.

Johnson—whose 308th birthday was marked with a Google Doodle in September—published the equally groundbreaking Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, three years before Webster was even born. Its influence was arguably just as great as that of Webster’s, and it remained the foremost dictionary of British English until the early 1900s when the very first installments of the Oxford English Dictionary began to appear.

So to mark this year’s Dictionary Day, here are 10 facts about Johnson’s monumental dictionary.

1. IT WASN’T THE FIRST DICTIONARY.

With more than 40,000 entries, Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language was certainly the largest dictionary in the history of the English language at the time but, despite popular opinion, it wasn’t the first. Early vocabularies and glossaries were being compiled as far back as the Old English period, when lists of words and their equivalents in languages like Latin and French first began to be used by scribes and translators. These were followed by educational word lists and then early bilingual dictionaries that began to emerge in the 16th century, which all paved the way for what is now considered the very first English dictionary: Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall—in 1604.

2. SAMUEL JOHNSON BORROWED FROM THE DICTIONARIES THAT CAME BEFORE HIS.

In compiling his dictionary, Johnson drew on Nathan Bailey’s Dictionarium Britanicum, which had been published in 1730. (Ironically, a sequel to Bailey’s dictionary, A New Universal Etymological English Dictionary, was published in the same year as Johnson’s, and borrowed heavily from his work; its author, Joseph Nicoll Scott, even gave Johnson some credit for its publication.)

But just as Johnson had borrowed from Bailey and Scott had borrowed from Johnson, Bailey, too had borrowed from an earlier work—namely John Kersey’s Dictionarium Anglo-Britannicum (1708)—which was based in part on a technical vocabulary, John Harris’s Universal English Dictionary of Arts and Sciences. Lexicographic plagiarism was nothing new.

3. THE DICTIONARY WASN’T THE ONLY THING JOHNSON WROTE.

Although he’s best remembered as a lexicographer today, Johnson was actually something of a literary multitasker. As a journalist, he wrote for an early periodical called The Gentlemen’s Magazine. As a biographer, he wrote the Life of Mr Richard Savage (1744), a memoir of a friend and fellow writer who had died the previous year. Johnson also wrote numerous poems (London, published anonymously in 1738, was his first major published work), a novel (Rasselas, 1759), a stage play (Irene, 1749), and countless essays and critiques. He also co-edited an edition of Shakespeare’s plays. And in between all of that, he even found time to investigate a supposed haunted house in central London.

4. IT WAS THE FIRST DICTIONARY TO USE QUOTATIONS.

Johnson’s dictionary defined some 42,773 words, each of which was given a uniquely scholarly definition, complete with a suggested etymology and an armory of literary quotations—no fewer than 114,000 of them, in fact.

Johnson lifted quotations from books dating back to the 16th century for the citations in his dictionary, and relied heavily on the works of authors he admired and who were popular at the time—Shakespeare, John Milton, Alexander Pope, and Edmund Spenser included. In doing so, he established a lexicographic trend that still survives in dictionaries to this day.

5. IT TOOK MORE THAN EIGHT YEARS TO WRITE.

Defining 42,000 words and finding 114,000 quotes to help you do so takes time: Working from his home off Fleet Street in central London, Johnson and six assistants worked solidly for over eight years to bring his dictionary to print. (Webster, on the other hand, worked all but single-handedly, and used the 22 years it took him to compile his American Dictionary to learn 26 different languages.)

6. JOHNSON WAS WELL PAID FOR HIS TROUBLES.

Johnson was commissioned to write his dictionary by a group of London publishers, who paid him a princely 1,500 guineas—equivalent to roughly $300,000 (£225,000) today.

7. HE LEFT OUT A LOT OF WORDS.

The dictionary’s 42,000-word vocabulary might sound impressive, but it’s believed that the English language probably had as many as five times that many words around the time the dictionary was published in 1755. A lot of that shortfall was simply due to oversight: Johnson included the word irritable in four of his definitions, for instance, but didn’t list it as a headword in his own dictionary. He also failed to include a great many words found in the works of the authors he so admired, and in several of the source dictionaries he utilized, and in some cases he even failed to include the root forms of words whose derivatives were listed elsewhere in the dictionary. Athlete, for instance, didn’t make the final cut, whereas athletic did.

Johnson’s imposition of his own tastes and interests on his dictionary didn't help matters either. His dislike of French, for example, led to familiar words like unique, champagne, and bourgeois being omitted, while those he did include were given a thorough dressing down: ruse is defined as “a French word neither elegant nor necessary,” while finesse is dismissed as “an unnecessary word that is creeping into the language."

8. HE LEFT OUT THE LETTER X.

    At the foot of page 2308 of Johnson’s Dictionary is a note merely reading, “X is a letter which, though found in Saxon words, begins no word in the English language."

    9. HIS DEFINITIONS WEREN’T ALWAYS SO SCHOLARLY.

      As well as imposing his own taste on his dictionary, Johnson also famously employed his own sense of humor on his work. Among the most memorable of all his definitions is his explanation of oats as “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” But he also defined monsieur as “a term of reproach for a Frenchman,” excise as “a hateful tax levied upon commodities and adjudged not by the common judges of property but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid,” and luggage as “anything of more weight than value.” As an example of how to use the word dull, he explained that “to make dictionaries is dull work.”

      10. HE POKED LOTS OF FUN AT HIS OWN OCCUPATION.

      Listed on page 1195 of his dictionary, Johnson’s definition of lexicographer was “a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge.”

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