7 Greatest Feuds and Rivalries in Science History

Some of the greatest feuds and rivalries in the history of science is a reminder that a scientist in pursuit of reputation can be as dangerous a foe as you’ll find anywhere on earth.
John Loeffler
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While Hector vs. Achilles, Foreman vs. Ali, and Notorious B.I.G. vs. Tu Pac Shakur are indelible rivalries in our cultural consciousness, some of the greatest feuds in history belong to brilliant men and women in lab coats.

In some examples of the most outrageous feuds in the history of science, these scientists were dedicated to the complete and utter destruction of their rivals.

Thomas Edison vs. Nikola Tesla

No two men embody the spirit of the electrical revolution like Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla. Edison, famed inventor and businessman, was pushing Direct Current (DC) while his former employee, Tesla, was pushing Alternating Current (AC).

The fight between the two became known as the Current Wars, and had an enormous monetary potential for the winner.

As it appeared that AC current had the upper hand, Edison took to a scorched earth campaign against Tesla’s AC and electrocuted stray animals in the streets to highlight the dangers of Tesla’s current.

But even the animals tortured to death to prove his point couldn’t save his cause. Tesla eventually won, and AC current became the standard for power transmission in the United States.

Charles Darwin Vs. Richard Owen

Darwin Owen
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When Charles Darwin made his famous voyage aboard the HMS Beagle, it would be several decades before he would publish his findings in his On the Origins of Species, and in the interim.

Darwin would discuss his work with Richard Owen, head of the Natural History Collection of the British Museum, who was also busy formulating his own theory of evolution.

Subsequent debates between the men over who actually came up with the theory credited to Darwin became rancorous, with the very public debate itself sometimes being credited for the resistance to the theory’s acceptance by the public. 

Isaac Newton Vs. Gottfried Leibniz

Newton Liebniz
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Isaac Newton was no doubt one of the greatest scientists who ever lived and his work is rightfully viewed as revolutionary in our understanding of the universe.

But the controversy over his invention of calculus was squarely challenged by a lesser known mathematician named Gottfried Leibniz.

Unless you’ve taken a Calculus class, you almost certainly have no idea who Leibniz is, which is exactly how Newton and his allies wanted it.

Having published his version of calculus two decades before Newton, Newton and his allies accused Leibniz of plagiarism and set about destroying his reputation, damage which lasts to this day.

It would be centuries before Leibniz was given proper credit, but Newton is still the capital-I Inventor of calculus, while Leibniz gets a tacked on “along with” acknowledgment.

So, in honor of poor, forgotten Leibniz, feel free to use Leibniz's notation instead while working out that derivative—it’s the least you can do.

Willi Henning Society Vs. Anti-Parsimony Scientists

Henning Nerz
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Sometimes, from the outside, conflicts in science can seem completely out of proportion to the perceived controversy, and the subject of parsimony seems like one of those subjects.

The peer-reviewed scientific journal Cladistics published an editorial stating that any “tree of life” submissions—essentially family trees of the various species of life—must utilize parsimony, or else the author of the submission should be prepared to defend their work on philosophical grounds, rather than, you know, science.

This led to back-and-forths online that could be the comment section of an Instagram story as anti-parsimony scientists called the publishers of Cladistics, the Willi Henning Society, akin to a cult.

While one member of the Willi Henning Society to warn anti-parsimony scientists to “proceed [sic] at your f*cking peril!”

We take no side in this fight, for the record.

Ignaz Semmelweis Vs. Charles Meigs and Johann Klien

Semmelweis Miegs
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In 1850, the mortality rate for infants born in the obstetric clinic at the University of Vienna was as high as 25-30% due to puerperal infection, a common problem in maternity hospitals at the time.

Semmelweis had the brilliant idea that perhaps doctors should wash their hands after dissecting decaying cadavers as part of the medical education program.

Incensed, his superiors Charles Meigs and Johann Klien eventually forced Semmelweis from his position for daring to question the cleanliness of the gentlemen doctors of the University of Vienna.

Semmelweis went on to show that doctors washing their hands could reduce the rates of puerperal infection by more than 90%, but it was only after Louis Pasteur proved that bacteria were responsible for infections did doctors start to take Semmelweis’s advice.

Gerta Keller Vs. Luis Alvarez

Alvarez Keller
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It is common knowledge that it was an asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs so many millions of years ago. If Gerta Keller has her way, all those science textbooks will have to be rewritten.

Advocating for a slow, suffocating extinction of the dinosaurs over millions of years from rampant volcanism.

Keller’s theory is a direct assault on the cemented, closed-case of an asteroid impact leading to the dinosaur extinction event 65 million years ago proposed by physicist Luis Alvarez and his team at UC Berkley.

The controversy between these two competing theories has many scientists refusing to go on the record for fear of being embroiled in what one scientist called a fight akin to the Thirty Years War in 17th century Europe.

The Soviet Union Vs. the United States

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With the end of World War Two, the world was left with two great powers still standing, each incredibly distrustful of the other.

What began with an arms buildup of tanks and bombers soon took a turn when the Soviet Union shocked the world with the launch of the Sputnik 1 in 1957, the first artificial object ever sent into space by man.

What followed was a scientific arms race like no other. It would lead to the development of the largest nuclear explosion ever produced by man—Tsar Bomba—, and the eventual landing on the moon by American Astronauts in 1969.

The era of space exploration that grew out of this fight is responsible for everything from cellular phones to deep space probes.

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