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Pierre and Marie Curie. Image Credit: Getty
Pierre and Marie Curie. Image Credit: Getty

13 of History's Greatest Husbands

Pierre and Marie Curie. Image Credit: Getty
Pierre and Marie Curie. Image Credit: Getty

Throughout much of history—and certainly to this day, in many parts of the world—women have been largely controlled by men. Governed by either their fathers or their husbands and held down by societal norms, women were often forced into roles as wives, mothers, and runners of households when they might have preferred to, say, get an education or hold down a job. However, not every marriage throughout history was this way. Despite social pressure, there have been men along the way who bucked societal norms and either helped drive their wives’ careers to success or just did their part to allow them personal control over their pursuits, in eras where the husband traditionally ruled the roost and called all the shots. The men on this list were happy to be outshone by their gifted spouses, so hey, let’s hear it for the boys—or at least a few of them, anyway.

1. PIERRE CURIE (MARIE CURIE'S HUSBAND)

In 1894, as she was studying for her second science degree at the University of Paris, Maria Skłodowska was introduced to Pierre Curie by a mutual friend who thought Pierre, a physics and chemistry instructor, might have some extra lab space for Maria to use. Immediately recognizing her talent as a researcher, Pierre took her into his own lab as a student, and they worked harmoniously together, although Maria initially rejected Pierre’s quick marriage proposal. By the following year, she had gone back to her native Poland after finishing her degree, Pierre had convinced her to return to Paris to work on her Ph.D. (which was practically unheard of for a woman at the time), and the two were married.

Pierre was thrilled by his bride’s brilliance; as he wrote to her, "It would be a beautiful thing, a thing I dare not hope, if we could spend our life near each other hypnotized by our dreams: your patriotic dream, our humanitarian dream and our scientific dream." Pierre’s dream came true, as the Curies worked side by side as peers and pioneers in the field of physics, particularly magnetism and radioactivity, until his death in 1906. With physicist Henri Becquerel, they won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903, and Maria—known in France as Marie Curie—went on to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry on her own in 1911.

2. PAUL CHILD (JULIA CHILD'S HUSBAND)

Paul and Julia met when they were both stationed in Ceylon during WWII, as members of the Office of Strategic Services. (The OSS was Julia’s second choice—she’d only joined because at 6 feet 2 inches, she was too tall to enlist in the Women’s Army Corps.) After the couple returned to the U.S. and married in 1946, Paul learned that his new wife didn’t really know how to cook, as she’d been raised in a household with a chef. After getting married, Julia began cooking and found out she "enjoyed it immensely." Her foodie husband took her to France and introduced her to French cuisine, and she took the reins from there.

Paul and Julia worked in tandem in the beginning of her career as a chef, as he took the photographs that were converted to sketches for her early cookbooks (he was credited in The French Chef Cookbook as "Paul Child, the man who is always there: porter, dishwasher, official photographer, mushroom dicer and onion chopper, editor, fish illustrator, manager, taster, idea man, resident poet, and husband."). And Paul's great admiration and support for her skills is well documented, as surviving letters to his twin brother, Charles, attest. The Childs were an inseparable, rock-solid team: When they hosted dinner parties, they’d plan the menu together; and while Julia cooked, Paul would chop veggies, set the table, pour wine, and serve the plates. Then they’d both clean the house together after the show was over. A voracious reader, he also proofread and edited her books, and he dabbled in poetry on the side. His most frequent subject? Julia.

3. GEORGE PUTNAM (AMELIA EARHART'S HUSBAND)

When newspaper publisher Putnam married pioneer pilot Earhart in 1931, after his sixth proposal, his new wife insisted on keeping her own name—which was very unusual for married women at the time—and Putnam was thereafter derisively called "Mr. Earhart." (He reportedly bore it well.) Earhart also made it clear that she intended an equal partnership in every way, and in a letter that was delivered to him the day of the wedding, she wrote, "I want you to understand I shall not hold you to any midaevil [sic] code of faithfulness to me nor shall I consider myself bound to you similarly." Putnam was down with it, though, and he also cosigned her request that "you will let me go in a year if we find no happiness together." Although some of today’s feminists find their agreement to be startlingly progressive for the early 1930s, Putnam himself seemed unfazed: "Thousands of wives and husbands are operating on exactly the same basis, successfully and happily," he wrote at the time. "It’s not even 'modern' anymore."

4. CARL APFEL (IRIS APFEL'S HUSBAND)

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A style icon in his own right, Carl had no problem with the spotlight being fixed on his ever-fabulous wife, Iris. For 42 years, the pair co-ran Old World Weavers, a textile business they founded in the 1950s, and they traveled the globe together, procuring statement pieces to wear at upscale parties around NYC. Carl was known to wear the sharp threads as expertly as Iris ever did. In 2005, the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute ran an exhibit dedicated to her art and style. The event launched her from being a celebrated, but ultimately fashion-world-only collaborator, to a nationally recognized figure—and Carl was incredibly proud and supportive of Iris's newfound fame. "As friends have pointed out, some husbands would have been jealous, or envious, or annoyed," Iris said, "but he just loved it, he wallowed in it." Upon Carl’s death in 2015, at the age of 100, friend and fellow designer Duro Olowu told The New York Times that "…his dedication to Iris is an example to us all of true and unconditional love and mutual respect."

5. EUGEN BOISSEVAIN (EDNA ST. VINCENT MILLAY'S HUSBAND)

Edna St. Vincent Millay was flourishing in New York City as a successful poet and playwright when she met the Dutch businessman, poet, and feminist Eugen Boissevain in 1923. He was the widower of political icon Inez Milholland, whom Millay had met and admired during her time at Vassar College, and although Millay had rejected many proposals of marriage, she accepted Boissevain’s after knowing him only a few weeks. Boissevain worked in importing, mostly coffee and sugar, and in addition to his work, he took on all the household duties in order to allow his wife to write as much as possible. He traveled the world with Millay, catered to her whims, and condoned her relationship with her lover, George Dillon, in 1928. (Millay signed off on Boissevain’s lovers as well.) Later, in the mid-'40s, Boissevain devotedly attended to Millay for two years as she suffered a nervous breakdown and was unable to write. The pair never allowed any of the drama to split them up; after 26 years, it was only death that parted them, with Boissevain passing away in 1949 and Millay following just over a year later.

6. JAMES BOGGS (GRACE LEE BOGGS'S HUSBAND)

It was Grace Lee who pursued her husband, Jimmy Boggs, which was uncommon for a woman to do in the 1950s, to say the least. The two were working as political activists in Detroit in 1953 when Grace took a shine to Jimmy, who was a man of few words. "I kept chasing him," she said. "He kept avoiding me. And he finally came to dinner one night and asked me to marry him, and I said yes." Over the course of their 40-year marriage, the Boggses would establish or assist Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice, Gardening Angels, the Detroit civic organization Save Our Sons And Daughters (SOSAD), and Detroit Summer, a "multi-racial, inter-generational collective" to develop youth leadership in Detroit. After Jimmy’s death in 1993, associate professor at the University of Michigan Stephen Ward said that they had "built a durable partnership that was at once marital, intellectual, and political. It was a genuine partnership of equals, remarkable not only for its unique pairing or for its longevity, but also for its capacity to continually generate theoretical reflection and modes of activist engagement."

7. CARL DEAN (DOLLY PARTON'S HUSBAND)

Though Carl Dean isn't a historic figure in that he is very much alive, his wife, Dolly Parton, is a living legend, and he's been by her side since 1964. Dolly and Carl met outside the Wishy Washy Laundromat on the very day she moved to Nashville from rural Appalachia, when she was 18 and he was 21. "I was surprised and delighted that while he talked to me, he looked at my face (a rare thing for me)," Dolly recalled of their first encounter. They married two years later. The quiet type, Carl famously shuns the limelight, but he’s never been resentful of Dolly’s megastardom and "has always been supportive," choosing to express his feelings for her through poetry. Until he recently retired, Dean ran an asphalt-laying company and carefully stayed out of Parton’s many business ventures—although he's known to occasionally visit the Dollywood theme park, undercover, just to check on things. He also sees her movies the old-fashioned way—by buying a ticket and going to the cineplex. In 2016, the pair renewed their vows after 50 years of marriage.

8. PRINCE ALBERT (QUEEN VICTORIA'S HUSBAND)

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You might say that Albert was born to play second fiddle. From the start, it was his older brother who was slated to take over for their father in ruling the duchy of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha—and even when the two teenaged princes traveled to Windsor in 1836 to see their young cousin, Victoria of Kent, who was looking for a husband, everyone expected her to choose lively, sociable Ernest and not the reserved Albert. But after Victoria was crowned queen of the United Kingdom, the two visited her again, and she proposed to the younger prince. But with marrying the queen, Albert was given a completely unheard-of title: that of a prince consort (although the title wouldn't be officially granted until 1857). Specifically, he was not to be king.

Albert was fine with the inherent lack of power though and excelled at the tasks ahead of him. Taking his unorthodox role in stride, he became Victoria’s trusted adviser and essentially her secretary, supporting his queen throughout disputes with Prussia and the United States, as well as taking on much of her day-to-day workload whenever her frequent pregnancies interfered. The marriage was also a love match—unlike his philandering brother and father, it's said Albert never so much as looked at another woman. His letters to his wife consistently reflect this, e.g.: "Heaven has sent me an angel whose brightness shall illumine my life … In body and soul ever your slave, your loyal Albert.”

9. GEORGE HENRY LEWES (GEORGE ELIOT'S HUSBAND)

Although Lewes and his partner of over 20 years, Mary Anne Evans, were never legally married (as he was technically married to someone else), they lived together from 1854 until his death in 1878—and started referring to one another as husband and wife right off the bat. (The two even took a honeymoon to Germany soon after moving in together, and Evans began calling herself Mary Anne Lewes thereafter.) A philosopher and critic, G. H. Lewes encouraged her to begin a career as a novelist in 1857, when she was writing pieces for magazines—unattributed ones, per Victorian convention, because she was a woman—and she took on the masculine byname George Eliot for her first book, 1859’s Adam Bede. As it and her subsequent books became instant successes, Lewes’ own works were not garnering the attention he’d hoped for; his wife’s most productive and lucrative years were his least. But Eliot was careful to point out in letters to her friends that Lewes was not jealous of her success in the slightest, and people who knew them corroborated this idea: It’s known that Lewes managed her social and literary relationships for her and "devoted the last decade of his life almost entirely to fostering [Eliot’s] genius."

10. FRANK BUTLER (ANNIE OAKLEY'S HUSBAND)

Frank Butler might be one of the more unfairly maligned historical figures out there, in large part thanks to the 1940s musical Annie Get Your Gun, which paints him as kind of a jealous jerk. In 1875, Butler was traveling through Ohio as a performing marksman with his show, Baughman & Butler, when he foolishly bet Cincinnati hotel owner Jack Frost 100 bucks that he could best any local sharpshooter. Turns out, Frost knew just the gal for the job. After 15-year-old Annie Oakley beat him by just one shot, Butler was intrigued rather than embarrassed, and the pair began dating.

"Little Sure Shot" married the Irishman about a year later, by which time Butler had figured out that his wife was not only a better shot than he was, but she had more star power too. He stepped aside and made her the lead in their road show before they both joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show—as Butler put it, she "outclassed" him. Butler seems to have been an easygoing fella, brushing off the myriad proposals of marriage to his wife from her fans, and not getting too ruffled when he was mistaken for her butler as she was being feted by the British aristocracy. They had been married for 50 years when Oakley died of anemia in 1926, and it’s said that Butler was so grief-stricken that he stopped eating. He died 18 days after his wife.

11. ELLIOT HANDLER (RUTH HANDLER'S HUSBAND)

Denver teenager Ruth Handler took a vacation to Hollywood around 1936, and then informed her sweetheart back home, Elliot, that she would be staying permanently. So, he moved there as well. They soon married, and after a brief stint running a successful giftware business, they joined Harold "Matt" Matson in a new venture which they named Mattel (a name derived from "Matt" and the first two letters of "Elliot"). They began with picture frames, but they soon expanded into dollhouse furniture, and when Matson left the company and Ruth took over his job, as an equal partner, she became interested in manufacturing dolls as well. After watching their daughter, Barbara, play with dolls, Ruth invented the Barbie Teen-Age Fashion Model doll.

Although Elliot was unsure about the idea, he put faith in his wife and green-lighted the Barbie doll, marketing it as the alternative to baby dolls and aiming to empower girls to engage in speculative play rather than just mommy practice. It became one of Mattel’s best-performing products, of course, and the rest is history. Responding to negative reactions from feminists, Barbie expanded her career path under the Handlers’ joint direction, becoming not just a model but a fashion designer in 1960, a nurse in 1961, and an executive—just like Ruth—in 1963. Elliot developed other products with the company too, including Mattel Modern Furniture, a series of wooden dollhouse pieces with a midcentury Scandinavian aesthetic, It was a failure, though, and Elliot later said that one of his mistakes was that he wasn’t able to recruit his "brilliant" wife to develop a marketing campaign for the line.

12. FRED "SONIC" SMITH (PATTI SMITH'S HUSBAND)

The namesake of the band Sonic Youth, Fred "Sonic" Smith was the guitarist for the far-left political rock band MC5, a.k.a. The Motor City Five. In 1976 poet/musician Patti Smith (no relation) was attending a party a record label was hosting when the two were introduced. By '78, Fred and Patti were an item, and he encouraged her songwriting from Day 1 and taught her to play the guitar. They married in 1980 and collaborated on musical projects such as 1988’s Dream of Life until his death in 1994. "Fred crafted that whole album," Patti said. "He wrote all the music. A lot of the concept of the songs were his." She claims she tried to put both of their names on the album, but Fred refused, insisting on giving his wife all the credit. "I look at Dream of Life as [Fred's] gift to me."

13. MARTY GINSBURG (RUTH BADER GINSBURG'S HUSBAND)

When they married in 1954, Marty and Ruth Ginsburg decided that whatever they were going to pursue, they would do it together, with absolute mutual respect and support. That pursuit turned out to be law. But when Ruth made Law Review at Harvard and Marty didn’t, at a time when men were expected to be the breadwinners and top achievers in their households, Marty’s reaction was only to frequently boast to others about how he was proud he was of her. (Marty ended up doing quite well for himself in the field, becoming a Professor of Law at Georgetown University Law Center and an internationally renowned expert on taxation law.) He also happily cared for the children and handled other domestic tasks—again, in the fabulously sexist 1950s—so that Ruth could focus on her career. After she was sworn into the U.S. Supreme Court in 1993, he developed a reputation around the Supreme Court for presenting each of his wife’s clerks with homemade cakes for their birthdays.

Before Marty died of cancer in 2010 (just after the couple's 56th anniversary), he reportedly told a friend, "I think the most important thing I have done is enable Ruth to do what she has done."

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History
25 Unheralded African-American Pioneers and Trailblazers You Should Know

As we celebrate Black History Month, it's important to look back at the brave men and women who faced off against prejudice and bigotry in order to share their unique talents with the world. Whether they were involved in Civil Rights, politics, science, technology, sports, or music, African-American history is full of innovators, though they don't always get their due. Here are 25 unheralded African-American pioneers and trailblazers you should know.

1. JESSE L. BROWN

When Jesse LeRoy Brown was a teenager, he wrote a letter to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to express his disappointment that African Americans weren't flying in the military. While that changed in the Air Force in the early '40s with the Tuskegee Airmen, it would be Brown himself that would break that barrier for the Navy in 1947. By 1949 he was an officer, and in 1950, the United States was at war in Korea and he was in the action. Brown and his unit were soon airborne, completing dangerous missions to take out targets and protect troops on the ground.

On December 4, 1950, while on a mission to provide cover for a Marine regiment, Brown's plane was struck—leaking fuel, he crash-landed on a slope but was still alive. His wingman, Thomas Hudner, crash landed his own plane to reach Brown in order to help. Though Brown died shortly after due to his wounds from the crash, both men were honored by the United States—Brown received a posthumous Flying Cross medal for bravery, while Hudner, who survived the ordeal, was presented with the Medal of Honor. A Naval frigate, the USS Jesse L. Brown, was also built and operated in the '60s and '70s.

At a gathering to commemorate Brown and Hudner's rescue attempt, NAS Jacksonville Commanding Officer Capt. Jeffrey Maclay remarked: "When Brown risked his life to help a Marine regiment that day, he didn't consider their race. And when his fellow pilots saw him in danger, they did not think about the color of their skin. They only knew he was an American in trouble."

2. JO ANN ROBINSON

Picture of a Rosa Parks replica bus
A replica of the type of bus Rosa Parks rode on and that Jo Ann Robinson organized a boycott against.
Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

Jo Ann Robinson is an often-overlooked part of the Civil Rights Movement, but her contributions were crucial. Born in Georgia in 1912, Robinson focused her early life on education. She began by graduating college in 1934, and later became a public school teacher in Macon, Georgia. After receiving her master’s degree, she took a job as a college professor in Alabama and began becoming more socially active, eventually being named president of the Women's Political Council (WPC) in 1950.

Seeing how African Americans were being treated in the Montgomery, Alabama area, Robinson used her position at the WPC to try to pressure the city's mayor, William A. Gale, to desegregate public buses, to no avail. After Rosa Parks was arrested on December 1, 1955, Robinson and a group of activists distributed tens of thousands of pamphlets urging a one-day boycott of the bus system. It was a success, and the now-famous boycott of the Montgomery bus system soon ballooned, lasting for months with the help of Robinson.

Though the boycotts were eventually successful, Robinson faced severe harassment and intimidation from local police throughout—including having rocks thrown through her windows and acid poured on her car. Eventually, state police were ordered to protect her. Once the boycotts ended and buses desegregated, Robinson moved from Alabama to teach in California.

3. MARK E. DEAN

An old IMB personal computer.
Steve Petrucelli, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

For many in the '80s, IBM computers were likely their first experience with the technology that would define the future. And a big part of what made the company so successful is thanks to Mark Dean, an engineer whose work helped create the company's ISA bus. This hardware add-on allowed peripheral accessories like printers, disk drives, and keyboards to be plugged directly into the computer. Amazingly, he holds three of IBM's original nine PC patents.

His later breakthroughs included work that led to the creation of the color PC monitor and the first gigahertz chip, which allows a machine to compute a billion calculations per second and is instrumental in everything from computer systems to gaming consoles today.

He's still in the industry today, telling Engadget that he's currently "looking to develop an alternative computing architecture leveraging what we know about neuroscience and brain structures."

4. MADAM C.J. WALKER

Photo of Madam C.J. Walker products
Craig Barritt, Getty Images for Essence

Known as "the first black woman millionaire in America," Madam C.J. Walker—born Sarah Breedlove—broke the bank with her own line of hair products that she developed while trying to find a cure for her own hair loss. After experimenting with products by an African-American businesswoman named Annie Malone, Breedlove decided to strike out on her own with a method called the "Walker System." This basically boiled down to scalp prep, lotions, and an iron comb specifically designed for black hair care.

To drum up publicity and mystique, the name Madam C.J. Walker was crafted, and she soon began selling her products around the country to an African-American clientele that was often ignored by mainstream marketing. Perhaps her most long-standing accomplishment is the fact that her beauty empire helped employ others looking to make a living by selling the Walker System. Estimates put the number of employees somewhere around 40,000 at a time when holding a job as a black woman wasn't necessarily common.

With her success came a responsibility to her community, and Walker was also involved in regular donations to black charities like the NAACP and Tuskegee Institute. For a woman who was both a poor orphan and widow at 20, the Madam C.J. Walker empire is a true success story.

5. THOMAS L. JENNINGS

A laundry operation circa 1925.
Chaloner Woods, Getty Images

Thomas L. Jennings is known as the first African American to receive a patent in the United States for his invention of an early form of dry cleaning called "dry scouring." The patent was given in 1821 but was first met with resistance on the grounds that, at the time, all slaveowners legally own the "fruits of the labor of the slave both manual and intellectual." Jennings was a free man, though, and set a precedent for all other free African Americans after him. He could now make money from his own innovations.

The money earned from his invention went toward freeing other members of his family from slavery, as well as going into various abolitionist causes.

6. DEATH

The road from the pop rock acts of the '50s and '60s to the punk rock of the late '70s and '80s was bridged by what's now known as the proto-punk movement. This loose fraternity of raw, underproduced garage rock bands was prepping listeners for what was to come in the music industry. This was a genre that replaced the slick, polished tunes of the previous decades with the abrasive rhythms of anger, alienation, and attitude. But even music aficionados with a deep back catalog of the proto-punk scene might not know of a little band called Death.

Death is made up of the Hackney brothers—David, Bobby, and Dannis—and had a sound that would fit right at home next to bands like The Stooges, The Modern Lovers, and MC5. They were denied success in the '70s when Clive Davis, president of Columbia Records, pulled financial support after the band refused to change its name. This stopped the band in its tracks, and they soon fizzled after their self-financed record, Politicians in my Eyes, failed to sell.

Only a few songs from Death were ever recorded, but they had amassed a cult following over the years, leading to subsequent re-releases of their material and a documentary about the band, produced in 2013. They're just now being recognized as one of the early shots fired in the punk movement.

7. BESSIE COLEMAN

Bessie Coleman's stamp
John Flannery, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

When Bessie Coleman was denied the right to learn to fly in the United States, she decided to go to school, learn French, and travel overseas to France to get her pilot's license. In seven months, she got her license and returned to the States in 1921, where she created a media stir as the nation's first black female pilot.

Coleman soon began performing at air shows and doing stunts for waves of spectators, all while making sure to use her celebrity to raise awareness of racial inequality and encourage women of any skin color to fly. Unfortunately, just a few years later in 1926, while prepping for a stunt in Jacksonville, Florida, a wrench became stuck in the gears of her plane, which went into an unexpected nosedive and spin. Coleman wasn't wearing a seatbelt and was thrown from the plane. She died on impact.

8. JERRY LAWSON

A picture of the Fairchild Channel F
A picture of the Fairchild Channel F, complete with the system's innovative cartridges.
Michael Dunn, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Remember those video game cartridges you had growing up? The ones you'd swap in and out of your console and occasionally have to blow into to make them work? That technology was made possible with the help of Jerry Lawson, the chief hardware engineer at Fairchild Semiconductor’s game division. Lawson began his life cobbling electronics together as a child and making his own radio station in his housing complex. That interest in electronics led him to Fairchild and its burgeoning video games branch.

Lawson’s most high-profile assignment was designing the electronics behind the Fairchild Channel F video game console in 1976. This system was interesting for a lot of reasons—the first of which was that players could now play against the computer, rather than needing another participant to work the game.

More important, though, is the fact that he and his team had devised the first video game cartridge that would allow players to switch out to different games instead of needing them to be hardwired into the system. The technology already existed in a rough state and was licensed to Fairchild, but Lawson and his team perfected it, making video game cartridges an omnipresent part of the industry from the '70s all the way through to today's micro-cartridges seen on the Nintendo Switch.

Need more proof that Lawson was an early Silicon Valley pioneer? He was in the same homebrew computer club as Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs in the '70s and '80s (though he apparently wasn't too impressed with either of them).

9. CHRISTOPHER PRIEST

Stack of comic books
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Longtime comic book fans may know the name Christopher Priest from writing Black Panther in the late '90s and early 2000s, and even older ones may know the name he went by earlier in his career, Jim Owsley. What most don’t know is just how groundbreaking his career has been, despite not always getting his due.

Priest came on to the Marvel scene as an intern in the late '70s and became a writer in the early '80s, working on characters like Spider-Man, Iron Fist, and Falcon. He then moved on to become the first African-American editor for a mainstream publication when he was given the job handling the company’s Spider-Man line while still in his early twenties.

During his career, he’s dipped in and out of high-profile gigs, writing stories for characters like Deadpool, Batman, Conan the Barbarian, and so many others. And while personal reasons forced him out early, he was also one of the original architects behind Milestone Comics, a company founded by black creators looking to give a diverse voice to the industry. When work slowed down or he needed to take a break from the politics of the comic book industry, he retreated from the business, at one point becoming a bus driver in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

Fans curious about Priest are in luck, though. After falling out of the mainstream comics spotlight for years, he recently spearheaded DC Comics' relaunched Deathstroke title and had a stint on the main Justice League comic as well as Marvel's Inhumans: Once and Future Kings.

10. MARIE VAN BRITTAN BROWN

Picture of a security camera
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All Marie Van Brittan Brown wanted to do was feel safe at night, and along the way she reshaped how people all over the world secure their homes. Brown lived in Jamaica, Queens at a time when the crime rate in New York City was on a steady ascent, and police were often unable to respond to every emergency. To help ensure the family's safety, Brown, a nurse, and her husband, Albert, an electronics technician, created a security system made up of peepholes, monitors, microphones, remote door locks, and an emergency alarm button that could contact police.

This is credited as the first modern home security system, and the invention was patented in 1966. Many of these features would become standard in the home security systems of the next decade into today.

11. FRITZ POLLARD

Steven Towns, Fritz Pollard's grandson, standing next to Pollard's Pro Football Hall of Fame bust in 2005.
Steven Towns, Fritz Pollard's grandson, standing next to Pollard's Pro Football Hall of Fame bust in 2005.
Jonathan Daniel, Getty Images

Standing at only 5 feet 9 inches, Fritz Pollard didn't have the type of size that was typical for gridiron success, but he still managed to break down football's color barrier multiple times. Before making it to the pros, Pollard was a standout in college, becoming the first black player to play in the Rose Bowl while attending Brown.

After school, he served a stint in the army before joining the Akron Pros of the American Professional Football League (later the NFL) in 1920. In 1921, he was named coach of the team, while also still playing. The APFA became the NFL in 1922 while Pollard was still a coach at Akron, which makes him the NFL's first African-American coach. He continued until 1926, when the NFL segregated and got rid of all black coaches and athletes.

Before retiring from the sport, Pollard would attempt to create all-black teams to play against NFL squads but was never successful. Despite his unfortunate departure from the game, Pollard was posthumously inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2005.

12. OSCAR MICHEAUX

Picture of an old film projector.
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Oscar Micheaux is credited with being the first African American to make a feature film and is one of the more successful black filmmakers of the early years of the movie industry. Micheaux worked as a porter for years before homesteading a farm in South Dakota and getting to work as a writer. One of his books, The Homesteader, was of interest to the country's first black film production company, the Lincoln Motion Picture Company.

However, instead of taking the film company's offer, Micheaux decided to produce it himself independently to have more control over the project. In his career, he produced more than 40 movies, with many of them garnering controversy from black audiences, white audiences, and oftentimes both. And though he never won much praise from contemporaries or film historians, Micheaux's story is an outlier during a time when black filmmakers were basically unheard of.

13. MOLLY WILLIAMS

Picture of the front of an FDNY firetruck
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Before the FDNY was even established, the city of New York had its first female firefighter in Molly Williams, who also happened to be a slave at the time. She belonged to Benjamin Aymar at 42 Greenwich St. in the early 19th century, and she soon found herself a part of Oceanus Engine Co. 11 where Aymar served as a volunteer.

Williams was well known around the fire house, with records indicating that she was either a cook or a personal helper to Aymar during this time. In March 1818, though, the city was struck by two calamities: a historic blizzard crippled the streets and a wave of flu incapacitated many of the volunteer firefighters. So, of course, this is exactly when a fire call would come in.

According to legend, Molly was the only one physically capable of answering the call, and the image of the lone woman hauling the water pumper out in the snowy streets has since become a sort of folklore. She was reportedly adopted as an unofficial volunteer of the fire house afterwards, given the distinction Volunteer No. 11.

14. LUTHER LINDSAY

Picture of a wrestling ring
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Luther Lindsay predated the days of superstar African-American pro-wrestlers like Ernie Ladd, Bobo Brazil, and the Junkyard Dog, but his trailblazing career helped open the doors for all of them. Noted as a superb athlete, Lindsay pulled off the rare feat of making the renowned Stu Hart tap out in the Hart Dungeon (his wrestling school)—an accomplishment which earned Hart's respect enough that he apparently kept a photo of Lindsay in his wallet until his death.

Inside the ring, Lindsay was a technician, but culturally he is best known for two barrier-breaking moments. He was the first black wrestler to go against a white wrestler in the South, when he was pitted against Ron White in Texas. And while the National Guard was brought in to fend off any riots, the crowd was overwhelmingly in favor for Lindsay that night. White even stated, "We had riots down there, but instead of killing Luther Lindsay they was trying to kill me."

His next cultural achievement came when he was given the honor of being the first black wrestler to challenge for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship when he went up against the legendary Lou Thesz in 1953. Lindsay battled the champ to a time-limit draw.

Lindsay died of a heart attack during a match in 1972, but his pioneering career helped countless black wrestlers achieve stardom over the years.

15. EARL LLOYD

Picture of Earl Lloyd
Staff Sgt. Marc Ayalin, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1950, the first three black players in NBA history were drafted by the league, but through a quirk in the schedule (not every team began the season on the same night), Earl Lloyd of the Washington Capitols earned the distinction as the first African-American to play in an NBA game. The other two players were Chuck Cooper of the Boston Celtics and Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton with the New York Knicks.

The stint didn't last long, as Lloyd was drafted to fight in Korea after just seven games. He would play for the Syracuse Nationals and the Detroit Pistons upon his return, and he later served as a scout and assistant coach for the Pistons (a first for the NBA). He would later be named the team’s head coach—the fourth black head coach in league history but the first that was not also a player simultaneously.

16. DR. SHIRLEY JACKSON

Photo of Dr. Shirley Jackson and President Barack Obama
NICHOLAS KAMM, AFP/Getty Images

Much of the technology behind how we communicate today was made easier by advancements that Dr. Shirley Jackson helped create. While working at AT&T Bell Laboratories, she worked on—and helped invent—the technologies that would go into everything from fiber optics cables to fax machines, and even Caller ID. It's no surprise that Jackson was able to accomplish all of this in her career—as a student, she became the first African-American woman to receive a Ph.D in physics and the first to earn her doctorate in any subject from MIT.

17. MAURICE ASHLEY

Picture of chess champion Maurice Ashley
Tomo Saito, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Maurice Ashley was born in Jamaica and moved to the Brownsville section of Brooklyn when he was 12. It would be another two years before he would discover the game that would earn him a unique place in history: chess. Though his first game wasn't anything close to a success, Ashley would learn from his mistakes and study the ins and outs of his new craft, eventually becoming the first African American to be named a chess Grandmaster and the first black player ever in the U.S. Chess Hall of Fame.

Despite chess being a spirited, respectful game, Ashley has heard his share of slurs over the years, though he would always keep forging ahead. He told the Chicago Tribune that's exactly why he likes the game, because with chess, "Your moves do the talking."

18. ALLISON DAVIS

Open research book
iStock

During the 1940s, anthropologist Dr. William Allison Davis was coming out with brilliant, pointed, and perceptive studies on race that helped illuminate the African-American struggle in the United States. In his studies, Davis would state that race and class worked as "interlocking systems of oppression" and helped point out the ineffectiveness of tools such as standardized intelligence tests when it came to assessing children of lower class.

Davis wrote numerous books on these subjects along with his wife and fellow anthropologist, Elizabeth Stubbs Davis. In the case of the I.Q. tests, Davis led groups that helped cities discard their standard formats, which he proved to be biased.

19. FRAN ROSS

A half-eaten Oreo
iStock

Though writer Fran Ross doesn't have a prolific body of work, what does exist of her all-too-short career is a glimpse into someone far ahead of her time. Her lone novel, Oreo, published in 1974, takes a hard-edged, satirical look at race as it centers on the titular Oreo, a young African-American girl who goes on a quest to New York City to find her white, Jewish father.

Ross combined timely themes, absurd humor, and shades of the mythological Greek story of Theseus to craft a story that stood out from the other, more conventional socially conscious novels of the time. Oreo didn't necessarily find success in the '70s, but it has gained something of a cult following since.

Ross's writing career didn't end there; she also contributed to magazines like Essence and Playboy, and even briefly wrote comedy for Richard Pryor. Her voice was different from the authors writing about race at the time, but that doesn't mean what Fran Ross had to say was any less profound.

20. WILBUR C. SWEATMAN

Musician playing the saxophone
iStock

There are a lot of "firsts" to check off on the resume of Wilbur C. Sweatman. He is reportedly the first musician to record a take on Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag" and among the first to join the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP). Most notably, though, he was also the first African American to receive a long-term record contract and possibly to record jazz in general.

21. LEWIS LATIMER

An incandescent light bulb
iStock

Lewis Latimer was born in 1848 to parents who had fled to Massachusetts after escaping slavery. After serving in the Civil War, Latimer taught himself technical drawing, which led to him designing a number of inventions, including a take on an air conditioner unit and a new style of bathroom for rail cars. He soon began working with Alexander Graham Bell, helping him with the drawings that would eventually be part of Bell's patent for the telephone.

Most notably, though, was Latimer's own patent for a carbon filament. Before this, Thomas Edison's light bulbs were powered with a filament made of paper, which would burn out quickly. This carbon filament would last far longer and helped popularize the bulb for average users. The patent was sold, and Latimer then patented the process to efficiently produce the filament on a large scale. His electrical and engineering know-how led to him supervising the installation of public lights throughout major cities like New York, Philadelphia, and London.

22. MARY ANN SHADD CARY

Sign of remembrance for Mary Ann Shadd Cary
Sean_Marshall, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Mary Ann Shadd Cary can sometimes get lost among the names of African-American social activists of the 19th century, but her impact is as important as anyone's. She was born in Wilmington, Delaware to a free African-American family. Her father worked for a newspaper called The Liberator, which was run by William Lloyd Garrison, a noted abolitionist who also supported the later women's suffrage movement.

In the years before the Civil War, Cary was an ardent abolitionist and eventually moved with her brother to Canada after the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act. She founded a newspaper there called The Provincial Freeman, making her the first black newspaper editor in North America.

She moved back to the United States during the war and became a recruiting officer for the Union in Indiana. And Cary eventually attended Harvard where she got her law degree, making her the second black woman in the country ever to do so.

23. LONNIE G. JOHNSON

You might not know the name Lonnie Johnson, but if you've ever been around a group of kids on a hot summer day, you've definitely (and probably unwillingly) felt his influence. Johnson, a former engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is the man behind the infamous Super Soaker squirt gun.

The idea came to him in 1982 when he shot some pressurized streams of water across a room when he was working on a new heat pump for refrigerators. Realizing this could make for a fun squirt gun, and a new feather in his cap as a prospective inventor, Johnson said he "put the hard science stuff behind and start[ed] working on some really fun stuff."

After winning a lawsuit in 2013, Johnson was awarded underpaid royalties for his invention, netting him more than $72 million from Hasbro. Johnson's work also includes contributions to NASA's Galileo mission to Jupiter and the Cassini probe, which studied Saturn.

24. ALEXANDER MILES

Portrait of Alexander Miles
Duluth Public Library archives, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Before Alexander Miles invented a system for elevator doors to open and close automatically, it was up to people—either the riders themselves or an operator—to make sure the car and shaft doors were secure. And guess what? People would forget, and accidents ensued.

Miles saw the potential for danger when riding in an elevator with his young daughter, so he devised a system wherein an elevator's doors could open and close on their own, eliminating the hazard of human error. His design made it so the cage of the elevator car would trigger a mechanism that would close the door to the shaft on its own.

And, after moving to Chicago in 1899, he founded The United Brotherhood, a life insurance company that catered to an African-American population that wasn't always guaranteed coverage by other companies in the market.

25. SHIRLEY CHISHOLM

Picture of Shirley Chisholm
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Shirley Chisholm never faced a barrier she wasn't willing to break. An educator from Brooklyn, Chisholm became the first African-American woman to serve on the United States Congress, remaining in office from 1969 to 1983. While representing New York's 12th Congressional District, she founded the Congressional Black Caucus and the National Women's Political Caucus, and served on the Education and Labor Committee, all while exclusively staffing her office with women.

And while that's enough of a career for any successful politician, Chisholm's most high-profile work came when she decided to be the first woman to run for president as a Democrat in 1972.

On January 25, 1972, she made a speech outside of the U.S. Capitol, proclaiming:

"I am not the candidate of black America, although I am black and proud. I'm not the candidate of the women's movement of this country, although I am a woman, and I'm equally proud of that. I am not the candidate of any political bosses or fat cats or special interests.

"I stand here now without endorsements from many big-name politicians or celebrities or any kind of prop. I do not intend to offer to you the tired and glib cliches which have for too long been an accepted part of our political life. I am the candidate of the people, and my presence before you now symbolizes a new era in American political history."

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Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
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Head Case: What the Only Soft Tissue Dodo Head in Existence Is Teaching Scientists About These Extinct Birds
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock

Of all the recently extinct animals, none seems to excite the imagination quite like the dodo—a fact Mark Carnall has experienced firsthand. As one of two Life Collections Managers at the UK's Oxford University Museum of Natural History, he’s responsible for nearly 150,000 specimens, “basically all the dead animals excluding insects and fossils,” he tells Mental Floss via email. And that includes the only known soft tissue dodo head in existence.

“In the two and a bit years that I’ve been here, there’s been a steady flow of queries about the dodo from researchers, artists, the public, and the media,” he says. “This is the third interview about the dodo this week! It’s definitely one of the most popular specimens I look after.”

The dodo, or Raphus cucullatus, lived only on the island of Mauritius (and surrounding islets) in the Indian Ocean. First described by Vice Admiral Wybrand van Warwijck in 1598, it was extinct less than 100 years later (sailors' tales of the bird, coupled with its rapid extinction, made many doubt that the dodo was a real creature). Historians still debate the extent that humans ate them, but the flightless birds were easy prey for the predators, including rats and pigs, that sailors introduced to the isolated island of Mauritius. Because the dodo went extinct in the 1600s (the actual date is still widely debated), museum specimens are very, very rare. In fact, with the exception of subfossils—the dark skeletons on display at many museums—there are only three other known specimens, according to Carnall, “and one of those is missing.” (The fully feathered dodos you might have seen in museums? They're models, not actual zoological specimens.)

A man standing with a Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird
A subfossil (bone that has not been fully fossilized) Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird in a museum in Wales circa 1938.
Becker, Fox Photos/Getty Images

Since its extinction was confirmed in the 1800s, Raphus cucullatus has been an object of fascination: It’s been painted and drawn, written about and scientifically studied, and unfairly become synonymous with stupidity. Even now, more than 300 years since the last dodo walked the Earth, there’s still so much we don’t know about the bird—and Oxford’s specimen might be our greatest opportunity to unlock the mysteries surrounding how it behaved, how it lived, how it evolved, and how it died.

 
 

To put into context how old the dodo head is, consider this: From the rule of Oliver Cromwell to the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, it has been around—and it’s likely even older than that. Initially an entire bird (how exactly it was preserved is unclear), the specimen belonged to Elias Ashmole, who used his collections to found Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum in 1677. Before that, it belonged to John Tradescant the Elder and his son; a description of the collection from 1656 notes the specimen as “Dodar, from the Island Mauritius; it is not able to flie being so big.”

And that’s where the dodo’s provenance ends—beyond that, no one knows where or when the specimen came from. “Where the Tradescants got the dodo from has been the subject of some speculation,” Carnall says. “A number of live animals were brought back from Mauritius, but it’s not clear if this is one of [those animals].”

Initially, the specimen was just another one of many in the museum’s collections, and in 1755, most of the body was disposed of because of rot. But in the 19th century, when the extinction of the dodo was confirmed, there was suddenly renewed interest in what remained. Carnall writes on the museum’s blog that John Duncan, then the Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum, had a number of casts of the head made, which were sent to scientists and institutions like the British Museum and Royal College of Surgeons. Today, those casts—and casts of those casts—can be found around the world. (Carnall is actively trying to track them all down.)

The Oxford University Dodo head with scoleric bone and the skin on one side removed.
The Oxford University Dodo head with skin and sclerotic ring.
© Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History // Used with permission

In the 1840s, Sir Henry Acland, a doctor and teacher, dissected one side of the head to expose its skeleton, leaving the skin attached on the other side, for a book about the bird by Alexander Gordon Melville and H.E. Strickland called The dodo and its kindred; or, The history, affinities, and osteology of the dodo, solitaire, and other extinct birds of the islands Mauritius, Rodriguez and Bourbon. Published in 1848, “[It] brought together all the known accounts and depictions of the dodo,” Carnall says. The Dodo and its kindred further raised the dodo’s profile, and may have been what spurred schoolteacher George Clark to take a team to Mauritius, where they found the subfossil dodo remains that can be seen in many museums today.

Melville and Strickland described Oxford’s specimen—which they believed to be female—as being “in tolerable preservation ... The eyes still remain dried within the sockets, but the corneous extremity of the beak has perished, so that it scarcely exhibits that strongly hooked termination so conspicuous in all the original portraits. The deep transverse grooves are also visible, though less developed than in the paintings.”

Today, the specimen includes the head as well as the sclerotic ring (a bony feature found in the eyes of birds and lizards), a feather (which is mounted on a microscope slide), tissue samples, the foot skeleton, and scales from the foot. “Considering it’s been on display in collections and museums, pest eaten, dissected, sampled and handled by scientists for over 350 years,” Carnall says, “it’s in surprisingly good condition.”

 
 

There’s still much we don’t know about the dodo, and therefore a lot to learn. As the only soft tissue of a dodo known to exist, the head has been studied for centuries, and not always in ways that we would approve of today. “There was quite some consideration about dissecting the skin off of the head by Sir Henry Acland,” Carnall says. “Sadly there have also been some questionable permissions given, such as when [Melville] soaked the head in water to manipulate the skin and feel the bony structure. Excessive handling over the years has no doubt added to the wear of the specimen.”

Today, scientists who want to examine the head have to follow a standard protocol. “The first step is to get in touch with the museum with details about access requirements ... We deal with enquiries about our collections every single day,” Carnall says. “Depending on the study required, we try to mitigate damage and risk to specimens. For destructive sampling—where a tissue sample or bone sample is needed to be removed from the specimen and then destroyed for analysis—we weigh up the potential importance of the research and how it will be shared with the wider community.”

In other words: Do the potential scientific gains outweigh the risk to the specimen? “This,” Carnall says, “can be a tough decision to make.”

The head, which has been examined by evolutionary biologist Beth Shapiro and extinction expert Samuel Turvey as well as dodo experts Julian Hume and Jolyon Parish, has been key in many recent discoveries about the bird. “[It] has been used to understand what the dodo would have looked like, what it may have eaten, where it fits in with the bird evolutionary tree, island biogeography and of course, extinction,” Carnall says. In 2011, scientists took measurements from dodo remains—including the Oxford specimen—and revised the size of the bird from the iconic 50 pounder seen in paintings to an animal “similar to that of a large wild turkey.” DNA taken from specimen’s leg bone has shed light on how the dodo came to Mauritius and how it was related to other dodo-like birds on neighboring islands [PDF]. That DNA also revealed that the dodo’s closest living relative is the Nicobar pigeon [PDF].

A nicobar pigeon perched on a bowl of food.
A nicobar pigeon.
iStock

Even with those questions answered, there are a million more that scientists would like to answer about the dodo. “Were there other species—plants, parasites—that depended on the dodo?” Carnall asks. “What was the soft tissue like? ... How and when did the dodo and the related and also extinct Rodrigues solitaire colonize the Mascarene Islands? What were their brains like?”

 
 

Though it’s a rare specimen, and priceless by scientific standards, the dodo head is, in many ways, just like all the rest of the specimens in the museum’s collections. It’s stored in a standard archival quality box with acid-free tissue paper that’s changed regularly. (The box is getting upgraded to something that Carnall says is “slightly schmancier” because “it gets quite a bit of use, more so than the rest of the collection.”) “As for the specific storage, we store it in vault 249 and obviously turn the lasers off during the day,” Carnall jokes. “The passcode for the vault safe is 1234ABCD …”

According to Carnall, even though there are many scientific and cultural reasons why the dodo head is considered important, to him, it isn’t necessarily more important than any of the other 149,999 specimens he’s responsible for.

“Full disclosure: All museum specimens are equally important to collections managers,” he says. “It is a huge honor and a privilege to be responsible for this one particular specimen, but each and every specimen in the collection also has the power to contribute towards our knowledge of the natural world ... This week I was teaching about a species of Greek woodlouse and the molluscs of Oxfordshire. We know next to nothing about these animals—where they live, what they eat, the threats to them, and the predators that rely on them. The same is true of most living species, sadly. But on the upside, there’s so much work to be done!”

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