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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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20 Things You Might Not Know About Garfield
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Everyone’s favorite lazy, lasagna-loving cat made his debut 40 years ago, but Garfield is still just as popular today. The comic strip spawned a TV show plus a number of video games, feature films, books, and, of course, holiday specials—not to mention one very memorable car window craze. We sat down with Garfield creator Jim Davis to nail down a solid list of 20 things you might not know about the wisecracking feline.

1. JIM DAVIS ORIGINALLY INTENDED TO FOCUS THE STRIP ON JON.


Courtesy of Jim Davis

“I ran some early ideas at a local paper,” Jim Davis tells Mental Floss, “to see how I felt about it and I called the strip Jon. It was about him, but he had this wise cat who, every time, came back zinging him. He always had the great payoff. At the time, I worked for T.K. Ryan—the cartoonist for Tumbleweeds—and I showed it to him and told him how every time I got to the punch line the cat zings him. And T.K. said, 'Well, what does that tell you, Jim?'" he laughs. “The strip must be about the cat. Go with it.”

2. JON WAS A CARTOONIST IN THE VERY FIRST COMIC STRIP, BUT IT WAS NEVER REALLY MENTIONED AGAIN.

“I didn’t want to tread on the fact that Jon’s a cartoonist because my biggest fear was getting a little too inside," Davis says. "That it would be a little too easy for me to write. I didn’t want to lose the readers just for my own enjoyment, or for a handful of peers. Also, I purposely gave him a job right off the top for the reason that The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet never explained what Ozzie did for a living. Nobody ever knew because he was always in the house with Harriet and Ricky and David. Just hanging around. So I thought I would give Jon a job right off the top to avoid being asked what he does for a living in interviews.”

3. GARFIELD WAS NAMED AFTER DAVIS'S GRANDFATHER, JAMES A. GARFIELD DAVIS ...

... who was named after President James A. Garfield. That’s quite a connection. Now just imagine a fat, wisecracking, lasagna-eating cat as the President of the United States of America. (Sounds like a dead-ringer for William Howard Taft!)

4. GARFIELD IS SET IN DAVIS'S HOMETOWN OF MUNCIE, INDIANA, BUT THAT'S ALSO MOSTLY LEFT UNSAID.


Courtesy of Jim Davis

“I would like for readers in Sydney, Australia to think that Garfield lives next door,” Davis says. “Dealing with eating and sleeping, being a cat, Garfield is very universal. By virtue of being a cat, really, he’s not really male or female or any particular race or nationality, young or old. It gives me a lot more latitude for the humor for the situations.” The farm that Davis grew up on reportedly had 25 cats, several of which he based the Garfield character on.

5. DAVIS MAINTAINS COMPLETE CONTROL OVER GARFIELD'S FINAL PRODUCT, BUT HE NO LONGER DRAWS THE DAILY COMIC STRIP.

“I’m sitting here working on the writing right now,” he says. “I see gags and I work with assistants on the strip and stuff like that. We do roughs and it all filters through me so that it has one voice. We all get together occasionally in the same room and draw and work on shapes of fingers and gestures and expressions and things like that so that if any one of us draws it, you can’t tell which one did it.”

6. HE REGRETS AT LEAST ONE LICENSED GARFIELD ITEM.

According to Slate, Garfield merchandise brings in $750 million to $1 billion annually. Davis’s creation has been adapted and licensed more times than anyone could probably count, and of all of those items, there's one that Davis isn't thrilled with. “A few years ago there was a Zombie Garfield,” he says. “It was really gnarly and I thought, 'Oh, this will be fun.' So I did it and it sold okay. It was really interesting. But then I looked at it later and I go, ‘It did nothing for the character’s advancement.’ I figured I just did it because it was cool and everybody was doing it at the time. I just didn’t have a warm, fuzzy feeling after doing it. But those T-shirts go away," he laughs.

7. GARFIELD HOLDS THE GUINNESS WORLD RECORD FOR BEING THE WORLD'S MOST WIDELY SYNDICATED COMIC STRIP.

Garfield is syndicated in more than 2500 newspapers and journals. The cat also has more than 16 million fans on Facebook. That’s one seriously popular feline.

8. GARFIELD'S CHARACTER DESIGN HAS CHANGED MANY TIMES OVER THE YEARS.

There's one constant, though: The fat cat has always been—and will always be—fat. “If he lost weight, that would effectively end Garfield as we know it,” Davis says. “Garfield sends a healthy message in that he’s not perfect. He knows that and he’s cool with that. He’s happy with himself. If everybody were, there would probably be fewer disorders of all natures. He’s not perfect. In fact, he’s the imperfection in all of us underneath. I think that makes him probably easier to identify with than a slim, athletic character in the comics.”

9. DAVIS REALLY ENJOYED SCARING KIDS WITH GARFIELD'S HALLOWEEN ADVENTURE.

"It was such a challenge to try to think of something that could be scary, but fortunately we got to work with animation—we could marry scary sounds with scary music and scary images, and set the stage for a scary experience," Davis says. "Even down to the use of the actor’s voice. C. Lindsay Workman [who voices the old man that tells Garfield and Odie about the vengeful ghost pirates] was just a great character actor. I think we took our time to build to a scary scene where the ghost pirates invaded the house to look for the buried treasure. We tried to throw as many elements together as possible to create a situation where, at least for a few minutes, it could create a scary situation for the young viewers."

10. CREATING THE GHOST PIRATES IN THE HALLOWEEN TV SPECIAL WAS MUCH MORE DIFFICULT THAN YOU MIGHT THINK.

“We did it in our own art department (here at Paws, Inc.) because we wanted to make it just right,” the Garfield creator told us. “It was done with a white, chalky pencil on a rough texture so that everything would be really grainy. Back then, we animated on real film, so in order to get that glow we did what’s called a double burn. We exposed the film twice to overexpose the ghosts, and that gave it that eerie glow. We were totally in control of the process and the results turned out very well.”

11. IN 2011, A FULL-LENGTH STAGE MUSICAL CALLED GARFIELD LIVE WAS STAGED IN MUNCIE.

The musical was supposed to start touring the United States in September 2010, but was delayed until January 2011, when it premiered in Muncie. Davis wrote Garfield Live, while Michael Dansicker and Bill Meade handled the music and lyrics.

12. DAVIS LOVED THE CASTING OF BILL MURRAY AS THE VOICE OF GARFIELD IN 2004'S GARFIELD: THE MOVIE.


Muncie Magazine

“It was because of Bill Murray’s attitude [that he was cast],” Davis tells us. “It wasn’t really so much his voice. It was the fact that he embodies the attitude that Garfield has always displayed in the strip. Lorenzo [Music] obviously wasn’t a choice since he passed away years ago, and when the producers said, ‘Bill Murray would like to do the voice,’ I thought, ‘Oh, cool.’ My biggest concern about doing a CGI Garfield with live action was that people wouldn’t buy into the fact that this was our Garfield—the Garfield we’d known all these years. But I thought that as soon as they heard Bill Murray’s voice they’d get it. There will be that emotional tag going with his voice. That will establish the fact that, ‘Yes, this character has attitude.’”

13. THERE'S A GREAT LINK BETWEEN GARFIELD VOICE ACTOR LORENZO MUSIC AND BILL MURRAY.

Lorenzo Music provided the voice of Garfield in all of the cat’s TV specials from 1982 to 1991, as well as during the 1988 to 1994 run of Garfield and Friends. Music also provided the voice of Peter Venkman in The Real Ghostbusters. Murray, of course, played Venkman in the Ghostbusters films and would, in 2004, provide the voice of Garfield in Garfield: The Movie. “I didn’t know about the relationship with Ghostbusters until years later."

14. THE MACY'S PARADE ONCE CITED SHAMU THE WHALE AS THE PARADE'S LARGEST BALLOON, BUT DAVIS SAYS GARFIELD WAS LARGER.

“In the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, they had published that their biggest balloon ever, by volume of gas, was Shamu the Whale with over 18,000 cubic feet," Davis says. "The fact is that the Garfield balloon was filled with 18,907 cubic feet of helium. So we just confirmed that the Garfield balloon, in fact, was the largest one by volume of gas.”

15. THERE ARE ONLY THREE COUNTRIES IN THE WORLD WHERE GARFIELD IS NOT NAMED GARFIELD.

“In Sweden, Garfield is known as Gustav,” the Garfield creator says. “There are only three countries in the whole world where he’s not Garfield and they’re all in the Nordics.” The other two are Norway and Finland.

16. THE STUCK ON YOU GARFIELD PLUSH WITH SUCTION CUPS WAS THE RESULT OF A MISUNDERSTANDING.


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In the 1990s, it wasn't unusual to see a number of cars with little Garfield plushes stuck to the windows with suction cups. But that wasn't the original design—or the intended use. “I designed the first Stuck on You doll with Velcro on the paws, thinking that people would stick it on curtains,” Davis says. “It came back as a mistake with suction cups. They didn’t understand the directions. So I stuck it on a window and said, 'If it’s still there in two days, we’ll approve this.' Well, they were good suction cups and we released it like that. It never occurred to me that people would put them on cars.”

17. THE GARFIELD COMIC STRIP BOOKS HAVE BEEN HUGE HITS.

“The 11 Garfield comic strip books have all been number one on the New York Times Bestseller List,” Davis says. “At one time there were seven on the list simultaneously. At that point, they changed the way the list was done because other publishing houses were complaining that their authors couldn’t get on the list because of Garfield. Garfield at Large (1980) was number one for two solid years. Over 100 weeks.” The title of every compilation book is a reference to either food or Garfield’s weight.

18. STEVEN SPIELBERG AND STEPHEN KING ARE AMONG THE MANY CELEBRITIES WHO OWN ORIGINAL GARFIELD STRIPS.

They both contacted Davis personally for the strips; the cartoonist happily obliged.

19. DESPITE GARFIELD BEING INSANELY POPULAR FOR DECADES, DAVIS IS STILL MOSTLY ANONYMOUS.


Muncie Magazine

“Being a cartoonist, you really enjoy a lot of anonymity,” he says. “You take a half-dozen of the biggest cartoonists and walk them down any street, nobody would notice them. They only know their characters. So I just hide behind Garfield. The only time anyone knows the name or spots me is if I’m out on book tour and I’m meant to do publicity. We don’t suffer any of the kind of attention problems that I think people do on TV or in movies. It’s not a big deal. I’m sitting here in the countryside of East Central Indiana, so it’s pretty quiet.”

20. DAVIS'S FATHER'S FAVORITE COMIC STRIP WASN'T GARFIELD.

Davis's father and namesake, who passed away in 2016, liked Garfield but preferred another comic strip: Beetle Bailey. “Nobody else knew that until today,” Davis tells us.

This article originally appeared in 2014.

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13 Incredible Facts About Frederick Douglass
Photo Illustration: Mental Floss. Douglass: Glasshouse Images, Alamy. Backgrounds: iStock
Photo Illustration: Mental Floss. Douglass: Glasshouse Images, Alamy. Backgrounds: iStock

The list of Frederick Douglass's accomplishments is astonishing—respected orator, famous writer, abolitionist, civil rights leader, presidential consultant—even without considering that he was a former slave with no formal education. In honor of his birth 200 years ago, here are 13 incredible facts about the life of Frederick Douglass.

1. HE BARTERED BREAD FOR KNOWLEDGE.

Because Douglass was a slave, he wasn't allowed to learn to read or write. A wife of a Baltimore slave owner did teach him the alphabet when he was around 12, but she stopped after her husband interfered. Young Douglass took matters into his own hands, cleverly fitting in a reading lesson whenever he was on the street running errands for his owner. As he detailed in his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, he'd carry a book with him while out and about and trade small pieces of bread to the white kids in his neighborhood, asking them to help him learn to read the book in exchange.

2. HE CREDITED A SCHOOLBOOK FOR SHAPING HIS VIEWS ON HUMAN RIGHTS.

Engraving of Frederick Douglass, circa the 1850s.
Engraving of Frederick Douglass, circa the 1850s.
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During his youth, Douglass obtained a copy of The Columbian Orator, a collection of essays, dialogues, and speeches on a range of subjects, including slavery. Published in 1797, the Orator was required reading for most schoolchildren in the 1800s and featured 84 selections from authors like Cicero and Milton. Abraham Lincoln was also influenced by the collection when he was first starting in politics.

3. HE TAUGHT OTHER SLAVES TO READ.

While he was hired out to a farmer named William Freeland, a teenaged Douglass taught fellow slaves to read the New Testament—but a mob of locals soon broke up the classes. Undeterred, Douglas began the classes again, sometimes teaching as many as 40 people.

4. HIS FIRST WIFE HELPED HIM ESCAPE FROM SLAVERY.

Portrait of Anna Murray Douglass, Frederick Douglass's first wife.
First published in Rosetta Douglass Sprague's book My Mother As I Recall Her, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Anna Murray was an independent laundress in Baltimore and met Douglass at some point in the mid-1830s. Together they hatched a plan, and one night in 1838, Douglass took a northbound train clothed in a sailor's uniform procured by Anna, with money from her savings in his pocket alongside papers from a sailor friend. About 24 hours later, he arrived in Manhattan a free man. Anna soon joined him, and they married on September 15, 1838.

5. HE CALLED OUT HIS FORMER OWNER.

In an 1848 open letter in the newspaper he owned and published, The North Star, Douglass wrote passionately about the evils of slavery to his former owner, Thomas Auld, saying "I am your fellow man, but not your slave." He also inquired after his family members who were still enslaved a decade after his escape.

6. HE TOOK HIS NAME FROM A POEM.

He was born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, but after escaping slavery, Douglass used assumed names to avoid detection. Arriving in New Bedford, Massachusetts, Douglass, then using the surname "Johnson," felt there were too many other Johnsons in the area to distinguish himself. He asked his host (ironically named Nathan Johnson) to suggest a new name, and Mr. Johnson came up with Douglas, a character in Sir Walter Scott's poem The Lady of the Lake.

7. HE'S CALLED THE 19TH CENTURY'S MOST PHOTOGRAPHED AMERICAN.

Portrait of Frederick Douglass
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

There are 160 separate portraits of Douglass, more than Abraham Lincoln or Walt Whitman, two other heroes of the 19th century. Douglass wrote extensively on the subject during the Civil War, calling photography a "democratic art" that could finally represent black people as humans rather than "things." He gave his portraits away at talks and lectures, hoping his image could change the common perceptions of black men.

8. HE REFUSED TO CELEBRATE THE 4TH OF JULY.

Douglass was well-known as a powerful orator, and his July 5, 1852 speech to a group of hundreds of abolitionists in Rochester, New York, is considered a masterwork. Entitled "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July," the speech ridiculed the audience for inviting a former slave to speak at a celebration of the country who enslaved him. "This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine," he famously said to those in attendance. "Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day?" Douglass refused to celebrate the holiday until all slaves were emancipated and laws like the Compromise of 1850, which required citizens (including northerners) to return runaway slaves to their owners, were negated.

9. HE RECRUITED BLACK SOLDIERS FOR THE CIVIL WAR.

The Union attack on Fort Wagner, Charleston, during the American Civil War. The fort was under attack from July 18 to September 7, 1863, by soldiers including the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first African-American regiment in the U.S. Army.
The Union attack on Fort Wagner, Charleston, during the American Civil War. The fort was under attack from July 18 to September 7, 1863, by soldiers including the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first African-American regiment in the U.S. Army.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Douglass was a famous abolitionist by the time the war began in 1861. He actively petitioned President Lincoln to allow black troops in the Union army, writing in his newspaper: "Let the slaves and free colored people be called into service, and formed into a liberating army, to march into the South and raise the banner of Emancipation among the slaves." After Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Douglass worked tirelessly to enlist black soldiers, and two of his sons would join the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, famous for its contributions in the brutal battle of Fort Wagner.

10. HE SERVED UNDER FIVE PRESIDENTS.

Later in life, Douglass became more of a statesman, serving in highly appointed federal positions, including U.S. Marshal for D.C., Recorder of Deeds for D.C., and Minister Resident and Consul General to Haiti. Rutherford B. Hayes was the first to appoint Douglass to a position in 1877, and Presidents Garfield, Arthur, Cleveland, and Benjamin Harrison each sought his counsel in various positions as well.

11. HE WAS NOMINATED FOR VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES.

As part of the Equal Rights Party ticket in 1872, Douglass was nominated as a VP candidate, with Victoria Woodhull as the Presidential candidate. (Woodhull was the first-ever female presidential candidate, which is why Hillary Clinton was called "the first female presidential candidate from a major party" during the 2016 election.) However, the nomination was made without his consent, and Douglass never acknowledged it (and Woodhull's candidacy itself is controversial because she wouldn't have been old enough to be president on Inauguration Day). Also, though he was never a presidential candidate, he did receive one vote at each of two nomination conventions.

12. HIS SECOND MARRIAGE STIRRED UP CONTROVERSY.

Frederick Douglass with Helen Pitts Douglass (seated, right) and her sister Eva Pitts (standing, center), circa the 1880s.
Frederick Douglass with Helen Pitts Douglass (seated, right) and her sister Eva Pitts (standing, center), circa the 1880s.

Two years after his first wife, Anna, died of a stroke in 1882, Douglass married Helen Pitts, a white abolitionist and feminist who was 20 years younger than him. Even though she was the daughter of an abolitionist, Pitts's family (which had ancestral ties directly to the Mayflower) disapproved and disowned her—showing just how taboo interracial marriage was at the time. The black community also questioned why their most prominent spokesperson chose to marry a white woman, regardless of her politics. But despite the public's and their families' reaction, the Douglasses had a happy marriage and were together until his death in 1895 of a heart attack.

13. AFTER EARLY SUCCESS, HIS NARRATIVE WENT OUT OF PRINT.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself, his seminal autobiography, was heralded a success when it came out in 1845, with some estimating that 5000 copies sold in the first few months; the book was also popular in Ireland and Britain. But post-Civil War, as the country moved toward reconciliation and slave narratives fell out favor, the book went out of print. The first modern publication appeared in 1960—during another important era for the fight for civil rights. It is now available for free online.

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