9 thrilling stories of real super-scientists who were arch-enemies

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Mar 1, 2016, 3:36 PM EST

[Editor's Note: March kicks off a season of big-time showdowns, grudge matches and maybe a few team-ups. Infamous as the month when Brutus betrayed Caesar, March will get even more epic because Batman will take on Superman on the big screen, Daredevil will get company in Hell's Kitchen in the form of The Punisher on Netflix, and The Flash shall race on over to CBS to meet Supergirl. And, of course, just a few weeks after this kickoff, we'll see a breakdown in the friendship between Captain America and Iron Man in Marvel's Civil War movie. Because we love seeing a good battle between titans, we've dedicated March to versus. Over the next four weeks, check this space for stories on title fights in superhero stories, horror, science, and more!]

Even science class has a schoolyard, which is apparently where these famous scientists learned to throw down. We found nine exciting cases of arch-enemies throughout the history of science.


Bone Scientist vs Bone Scientist

When your entire profession involves stirring up dirt, the temptation to sling some mud can be overwhelming. Such was the case for one of the biggest scientific feuds in history.

At first, scientists Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh were industry friends. They hung out frequently and compared notes. The duo even went so far as to name species after each other, which we assume is a compliment, rather than an underhanded way to call someone a pile of dusty old bones.

However, the relationship soon went south. This was partially due to divergent scientific beliefs, and partially due to the reality that digging up fossils all day does not afford one much chance to practice social skills. This rivalry soured into a game of one-upsmanship. Marsh started bribing landowners to give him all the good fossils, Cope started collecting specimens on what was though of as "Marsh's" territory, and both found every excuse to attack each other in scientific publications.

The rivalry came to a head, literally, when Marsh pointed out that Cope had mistakenly reconstructed some dinosaur fossils with the head placed on the tail. This ignited their hatred for one another, and it was on like a diracodon.

These tensions propeled both men to spend the next few decades dumping all the resources they could find into fossil-digging expeditions, trying to out-paleontologize one another. Each successful quest allowed them to publish more scientific journal articles lambasting the other for being a lousier scientist. They would spy on each other, place fake bones for each other to find, and even destroy fossils they suspected would support their rival's theories. When the two scientists' teams actually crossed paths, they acted like rival gangs. Rocks were thrown, fights broke out, even guns were brandished in attempts to make the other back down from similarly-located field expeditions.

On the home front, Cope was trying to buy up every copy of every publication that mentioned his colossal head-on-the-tail error. Though this strategy may have worked for Sylvester Stallone, Cope's efforts were hampered by the fact that Marsh would gleefully mention the slip-up in any scientific publication he could. Meanwhile, Marsh was rushing so much in an attempt to stay abreast of Cope, that he put a skull on the wrong skeleton. The resulting creature, named a Brontosaurus, would become an iconic dinosaur in popular culture for the next century before the mistake was fully addressed (or was it?).

The whole ordeal blew up in the press and spilled into public consciousness after the duo waged a no-holds-barred war of words through a series of newspaper articles. When the dust settled, the "Bone Wars" had exhausted both men, financially and socially. However, the pure vitriol that fueled their frequent expeditions yielded an amazing amount of knowledge that significantly advanced the paleontological community. So, even unhealthy rivalries are beneficial to science and humanity.


Hand Washers vs Corpse Handlers

...except when they aren't. 

Doctors can be vain. There's just something about controlling life and death with one's own hands that leads one to have a sense of overwhelming self-importance. As such, getting a doctor to change their ways can be difficult. 

Such was the case in Vienna in the 1820s. Doctors were unable to explain why mortality rates during childbirth had suddenly spiked. We suspect conversations went something like this,

"Hey, Doctor, what's new?"

"Just had another bunch of expectant moms perish at the hands of this mysterious illness. Since our hospital is now doing autopsies, that means a whole bunch of new corpses to examine."

"I know what you mean, between sticking my hands in dead bodies and delivering babies, I'm really overworked. Haven't had time to figure out the baffling mystery of why people keep getting sick."

"Yes, truly baffling! Well, got to go, I still have three more rotting carcasses to rub my hands all over, then I've got to go right to the delivery room."

Finally, a doctor named Ignac Semmelweis came up with the notion that maybe, just maybe, putting one's hands in a dead body then immediately putting one's hands into the birth canal was a less-than-optimal procedure. His solution was simple: Wash your hands after doing an autopsy. You'd think such a reasonable conclusion would lead to hand-washing becoming ubiquitous overnight. However, it's tough for some types of people to adopt new ideas, like with European men and the idea of wearing bathing suits that don't have offensive bulges.

The backlash to Semmelweis' proposal was huge. After all, he had asserted that

1. Doctors' cleanliness was anything less than impeccable

2. Doctors had transfered germs to hundreds of newborns, causing deaths that could have easily been prevented

So, it's not unreasonable to see why Semmelweis' colleagues treated this notion with utter contempt. Serving as the arch-villains of this sad tale were doctors Charles Meigs and Johann Klein. Meigs and Klein asserted that, not only were doctors always perfectly clean merely by existing, hand washing was a complete waste of time and should be abolished. Semmelweis was fired, doctors stopped washing hands entirely, and deaths during childbirth soon tripled. It wasn't until the discovery of germs over 20 years later that Semmelweis' theory was revisited. Estimates say this caused between 5,000-15,000 deaths which could have been avoided with a little bit of soap. 


Leading Evolution Scientists vs. the Willi Henning Society

A recent evolutionary debate could have been quelled with a little bit of soap, provided that the scientists involved used it to wash out their mouths. Nothing more undermines one's ability to sound like a wise and methodical scientist than a profanity-laced flame war. This concept reared its ugly head recently over a hotly contested point of evolutionary theory.

The specific point in question is "how can we draw a pretty tree to represent evolution?" No, seriously, that's it. Some scientists think that the tree should be drawn in the simplest way possible, the other side advocates using computer models to find ways that might be more complex, but could also be more likely. 

Representing side "simple, pretty tree" is the Willi Henning Society, publishers of the peer-reviewed evolutionary science publication Cladistics. In the other corner were a bunch of leading scientists who claimed that the Willi Henning Society were a clique who used high-school bullying tactics to push forward specific points in evolutionary science. There's nothing like a little bullying to open a deep-seated wound in scientist nerds, so the poop-storm that followed was almost inevitable.

In an impressive display of un-introspective irony, a representative of the Society responded to the allegations by sending messages like, "proceed at your own f***ing peril" and "you just f***ed us for wrong reasons." All of the hallmarks of an intellectual debate.

Jilted scientists responded by posting their own tales of being shouted at and heckled at Society meetings, and called the Willi Henning Society a cult. In the end, both sides seem to have come to a rational agreement that every attempt at a "Tree of Life," should address the concepts presented by the "simple, pretty tree" school of thought. It's just that, rather than a spirited but cordial academic debate leading to this detante, instead the ends were reached through a bunch of leading scientists yelling at each other on Twitter.


Louis Pasteur vs Robert Koch

A different scientist square-off, one which some Twitter interaction could have actually helped, occured between microbiology macro-weights Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch.

In order to understand how a single spark could have set off the two scientists, one should first become familiar with the fascinating powder keg that was French-German politics at the time. In 1870, a war was fought that pit the two nations against each other. That, plus the general nationalism pervasive in Europe, led to icy feelings between representatives of the two nations.

So, how does this involve microbiology? France and Germany were involved in a race to colonize Africa and Asia. A key tool in this colonization was the creation of medicine to combat the diseases that explorers encountered. While Koch maintained that bacteria could not be molded to fight disease, Pasteur succeeded in transforming bacteria to create vaccines. This set the stage for an infamous incident between the two scientists at 1882.

Though studying for opposite teams, Koch and Pasteur had been cordial with each other, as they were working towards similar goals. However, neither spoke the other's language. So, when a translator mistakenly interpreted Pasteur's words as calling Koch and his nation arrogant, the glove had been unintentionally thrown. Koch retorted with a vitriolic diatribe, his anger only magnified when the unaware Pasteur remained completely calm.

Now arch-nemeses, the two competed to eradicate a cholera epidemic. Koch emerged victorious. So, in this regard, the mistranslation fueled a competition which saved many lives, but their rivalry would also prove detrimental, as well. When Pasteur discovered a vaccine for rabies, Koch discouraged its use. The rivalry had even broader applications, as rather than work to combine the differing fields of thought of both scientists, the nationalism caused many to reject one scientist's findings completely in favor of the other. 


African Explorer vs African Explorer

In the case of Koch and Pasteur, both were revered, and so their knowledge was preserved and could eventually be merged to form more complete theories. But, to paraphrase the idiom, history is often only written by one winner. 

Sir Richard Burton and John Speke are two of the most famous African explorers. They were even traveling buddies: One of their expeditions, embarked upon in 1856, tried to find a lake that was the source of the Nile River.

They were wrecked by disease. Speke went temporarily blind and deaf in one ear, Burton was unable to walk for a large portion of the journey. Eventually, Burton was unable to continue on, yet Speke pushed forward and was able to discover Lake Victoria.

This triggered a falling out between the two explorers, which led to a prolonged battle of words between the two, which may have continuted for decades if Speke hadn't accidentally shot himself while hunting.

Rather than use the tragedy to bury the hatchet, Burton used Speke's death as an opportunity to slander him unfettered by counterarguments. Burton spent a good portion of the next decade telling everyone who would listen about what an idiot Speke was, and how he stumbled upon Victoria purely by chance, and even implied that Speke might be some kind of a sexual deviant. Burton even went so far as to claim that Speke killed himself out of shame that it would be discovered that he didn't really find the source of the Nile. 

These words stuck, and Speke faded from the limelight. This sentiment would prove pervasive: An examination noted that, in the past fifty years, seven biographies have been written about Burton, whereas the true discoverer of the Nile's source had but one. 

It wasn't until the past ten years that someone actually went to the library, looked at Speke's original journal, and said, "hey, this isn't the work of some idiotic-yet-lucky stooge." It paints a much more believable picture that the man who semi-blindly discovered that Lake Victoria fed the Nile was actually somewhat competent. However, the damage by his rival was so lasting and great that Speke's true contributions to African exploration are still being contested.


Antoine Lavoisier vs Jean-Paul Marat

What's worse than someone's reputation being ruined after their death? A ruined reputation that actually caused an execution, as was the case with legendary scientist Antoine Lavoisier. 

The feud between Lavoisier and Jean-Paul Marat reads like a comic book. Lavoisier was of noble birth, a renowned scientist who was trying to reform France's historically famous tax laws. Lavoisier was also one of the premier members of the Academy of Sciences, and used his resources to make discoveries that are still being used today, such as mass conservation and, well, oxygen. This was definitely the 1700s version of a science superhero.

Enter Marat. Unlike Lavoisier, Marat was born a commoner, and had to work his way up the scientist ladder. He longed to be a member of the Academy of Sciences, and rested his stakes on a theory he called "Animal Magnetism." Animal magnetism was a potential explanation for hypnotism, healing, and the immortal attractiveness of John Stamos. Marat claimed he had discovered this mysterious energy leaking out of rocks and (seriously) the head of Ben Franklin. 

With this theoretical "evidence" in hand, Marat went before Lavoisier and the Academy. Believe it or not, "Ben Franklin is a super-hottie" was not the foundation for a well-received scientific breakthrough. Lavoisier publicly dennounced Marat's conclusions. Marat, in turn, swore vengeance upon Lavoisier. 

Marat started his quest by passing out papers that denounced Lavoisier and everything he stood for. Marat got on board with a movement to denounce the Academy of Science. For obvious factors, it's really hard to reason with an anti-science crusade, so Marat's causes gained momentum. When the French Revolution hit and Marat was killed, his causes were taken way more seriously than they should have been. Lavoisier was arrested and executed, a move which went down in history as one of the biggest slights science has received at the hands of politics.


Albert Einstein vs Philipp Lenard

To say that politics were the reason for Albert Einstein's tangles with a prominent Nazi scientist would be putting things lightly

While Einstein is definitly a top-tier scientist, Philipp Lenard was a titan in his own right. Lenard's work led to developments in X-Rays and atomic theory. He even received a Nobel Prize in Physics.

Though they were initially friendly - Einstein even labeled Lenard a "genius "- rampant nationalism soon caused friction between the two scientists. Lenard dismissed Einstein's theoretical approach, making it well known that Einstein's Jewish heritage was holding him back. In 1920, things came to a boil at a major research conference.

At the conference, Lenard took aim at Einstein's theories, and compared the famous scientist to a goat. Einstein preferred to retort with the long-term burn of, you know, inventing nuclear weapons and helping win a World War and stuff.


Thomas Edison vs Nikola Tesla

Speaking of super-weapons, everyone's favorite crazy weapons theorist is the subject of perhaps the most famous science feud. Nikola Tesla was once under the employ of Thomas Edison. A difference in styles led the two to part ways: Edison was rigidly devoted to experimental testing, whereas Tesla's engineering training allowed him to work out theories in his head rather than the laboratory.

The key point of contention between the two was current. Edison had one type of power, Tesla another. Behind power is money; whomever could popularize their current would theoretically have a stranglehold on the market for making things run. As the legend goes, Tesla claimed he could improve Edison's current, for which Edison promised him $50,000. When Tesla unveiled A/C current, a power source still in wide usage today, Edison claimed the whole thing was just a funny American joke. This slight proved costly for Edison and extremely profitable for Tesla, who earned much more from the production and sale of current and its patents. 

Trying to stop the spread of A/C current's popularity, Edison publicly electrocuted an elephant with A/C current. Intended to promote ill will towards Tesla's current, Edison's stunt ultimately failed. It does bring up an interesting, and much lesser known, side note: A/C current does provide more power than most appliances can handle, so there is merit to Edison's championing of D/C. In fact, most A/C  must be converted into D/C current before it is used. The main reason A/C is the main popular current is cost effectiveness (it's much cheaper to send current over long distances, like from the power station to your house).