Reg Little talks to a writer whose new book sheds light on people who should be famous

Think of the greatest inventors and pioneering scientists, who changed the way millions live and think, and the likes of Darwin, Fleming and Alexander Graham Bell come to mind for most people.

But not for the writer and former Oxford Lord Mayor Ann Spokes Symonds, who over decades has been fascinated with the great “also-rans of history”.

For it seems that for a good many of the greatest discoveries and inventions, there is also someone who has gone unrecognised, had the glory snatched away and never received the gratitude of mankind that was properly due.

Now, at the age of 89, Mrs Spokes Symonds has decided the time has come to put things right in a book about those who discovered or invented things for which others have taken all or much of the credit.

Entitled Also-Rans: The Injustice of History, it will surprise many who believed they knew who to thank for the aeroplane, the steam locomotive, evolution, aspirin, DNA, the incandescent lightbulb, the telephone and the modern Olympic Games.

History’s also-rans certainly make a varied and fascinating bunch. Some did receive a certain amount of fame during their lifetime but it did not last, while others received little honour when alive but their names have become at least better known.

“In some cases the also-rans got there simultaneously with the more famous. But unlike their competitors did not have champions at the time,” observes Mrs Spokes Symonds, of Davenant Road, North Oxford.

“Others found that the joy and pleasure of invention and discovery was enough for them and that fame was of no interest.”

She reckons to have been “collecting” the unappreciated for more than 20 years, with the book taking two-and-a-half years to write.

“Most have suffered from the injustice of history,” she says in the introduction. “My intention in writing about these people is to give credit where credit is due and to put right the injustices.

“I have not intended to denigrate those who have become famous to the detriment of the lesser known.

“Some, as in the case of Fleming and Darwin, were happy to point out that others should have had more credit.”

So who are these unknown heroes?

First up is Sir Frederick Grant Banting. If the name means nothing to you, you will be far from alone. Even those who suffer from diabetes may not know that they benefit from his discovery.

But his name should be far more widely known because this son of a Canadian farmer was one of two men to first successfully use insulin to treat diabetes.

Or what about the discoverer of the structure of DNA, one of the most important events in the 20th century?

Most people credit its discovery to James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins, who were all to win the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine.

Yet, Mrs Spokes Symonds argues, the most significant role in the discovery of DNA structure was played by Rosalind Franklin, a brilliant Cambridge University-educated expert in X-ray diffraction.

Her eventual death from ovarian cancer in London in 1958 at the age of 37 may have been caused by the fact that neither she nor her colleagues were sufficiently aware of the dangers of radiation emanating from X-rays.

Two Oxford men figure prominently in the book: Norman Heatley, “the unsung hero of penicillin”, and Edward Stone, a country vicar born in 1702, who discovered aspirin.

The story of Heatley is the more familiar, with the discovery of penicillin in recent times the subject of books, documentaries and included in school courses.

It is now recognised that the work of an Oxford-based team, headed by Howard Florey, fell victim to “the Fleming myth”, which gave almost total credit to the Scottish scientist, who still made the top 20 in a poll of top Britons in the past 1,000 years and has had a crater on the moon named after him.

But while Florey, chair of pathology at Oxford and Ernst Chain had the consolation of picking up a Nobel Prize along with Fleming, the third member of the Oxford team, Norman Heatley, became the forgotten man.

Heatley, though the youngest member of the Oxford team, was in many ways the most inventive, and was instrumental in solving the most difficult problem of producing penicillin in sufficient quantities to combat bacterial infection.

Late in life he would at least receive an honorary doctorate from Oxford University, with a blue plaque now adorning the house where he lived in Marston.

The remarkable story of aspirin is altogether less well known. Stone, a curate at Charlton-on-Otmoor and then a chaplain at Chipping Norton, before becoming a Fellow of Wadham College, made his great discovery while out walking in 1798, when suffering various aches and pains.

He “accidentally” tasted a piece of bark from a white willow tree. Quickly realising that it might have therapeutic properties, he undertook experiments, grinding willow bark into powder.

He gave the substance to about 50 people to cure various aches and disorders over a five-year period.

Salicylic acid (the word salix meaning willow) is the active ingredient of aspirin.

But a century would pass before Stone’s discovery was developed into the popular painkiller and fever reducer, with Stone remaining largely unknown.

Another early scientist featured is Benjamin Jesty, the seventh child of a Dorset butcher, who was the first person to develop a vaccine against smallpox, yet all the credit for the smallpox vaccine would go to the renowned scientist Edward Jenner.

Most of the unsung heroes selected for inclusion, says Mrs Spokes Symonds, ultimately had a rival, or at least someone who overshadowed them.

For instance, who would you think of when you hear the word vacuum cleaner?

The name Hoover may be synonymous with the machine, but in reality the American James Spangler was the man who invented the hand-held motorised domestic vacuum cleaner.

Mention the word evolution and natural selection and who comes to mind? Surely the man whose face was on the £10 note and had a whole set of postage stamps printed in tribute to his work?

But the Welsh-born scientist Alfred Russel Wallace was the co-discoverer of natural selection with Charles Darwin.

The inventor of the steam locomotive? George Stephenson or James Watt, surely?

Stephenson can rightly be called the founder of the railways but it is the Cornishman Richard Trevithick who invented what was to run on the railway lines, argues Mr Spokes Symonds.

And how could any book on also-rans be complete without Carl Wilhelm Scheele, sometimes dubbed Hard-Luck Scheele, who was never properly credited with his discovery of oxygen?

There are a few surprises too. The forgotten Josephine Cochran emerges as the inventor of the first power-driven dishwasher, while it turns out Linda should not be viewed the only famous Lovelace. Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, born in 1815, deserves to be credited as the world’s first computer programmer.

The story of the code breakers at Bletchley Park during the Second World War and the role of the pioneering computer scientist Alan Turing in breaking the Enigma code is the subject of the new thriller film The Imitation Game.

Tommy Flowers and his Colossus machine at Bletchley do not figure, however.

But Colossus decoded messages sent by the Nazis in the latter part of the war, with the machine the first programmable electronic digital computer.

Flowers, who attended evening classes at the University of London, kept the nature of his work even from his family.

Arguably, information discovered by Colossus just before D-Day helped secure victory for the Allies, revealing that the Germans did not believe the Normandy landings would take place and had not sent reinforcements.

Mrs Spokes Symonds admits exposing injustice was her real motivation.

Her great-grandfather, a mayor of Reading, after being knighted by Queen Victoria, took as the family motto ‘Fiat justitia ruat coelum’ – ‘Do right (or justice) though the heavens fall’, she points out.

Some injustices simply continue.

Take William Penny Brookes, who was born in Shropshire in 1809.

The Frenchman Baron Pierre de Coubertin is credited as the principal founder of the modern Olympic Games but it was, in fact Brookes, an Englishman.

“Even during 2012 when the Olympic Games were being held on English soil, Brookes’s name was often ignored,” she observes sadly.

It remains to be seen if the former city mayor changes public perceptions about 17 great men and women and corrects the injustices of history.

Either way her also-rans should ensure that what may prove her last long book is a real winner.

Also-Rans: The Injustice of History by Ann Spokes Symonds, is published by Robert Boyd Publications. £11.95.