Photo:

People Who Shaped History - And Not Necessarily For The Better

List Rules
Vote up the historic figures who didn't do us any favors.

Open any history book and you'll probably meet historic figures who improved the world in big and small ways - just think of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Jane Addams, or a number of lesser-known figures. But history isn't a straight escalator ride of progress. Plenty of people in the past did things that arguably made the world worse than it was before.

Sometimes people think they're doing good, when in fact their work causes significant devastation and hardship. By the same token, people are rarely the "good" or "bad" guys we like to make them out to be - humans are complicated. But the little-known individuals on this list nonetheless had an outsized impact on the world - and not in a good way.

Whether they fueled the anti-vax movement or unleashed chemicals that have quickened climate change, these historical figures did things that, in hindsight, weren't so great. Read on and vote up the people who shaped history, but not for the better. 

Photo:

  • 1
    1,194 VOTES

    Trofim Lysenko's Research Led To Some Of The World's Deadliest Famines

    Too often in the former Soviet Union, political savvy counted more than competence. That was certainly true of Trofim Lysenko, an agronomist who advertised new strategies for growing crops. Dictator Joseph Stalin loved Lysenko's enthusiasm and lavished more authority on him.

    Lysenko used that influence to attack the scientific community. He vehemently spurned theories of genetics and evolution that had been accepted for decades. Worse, he targeted and purged scientists who challenged him.

    His approach to agriculture brought devastation - millions passed in famines that his theories worsened. Writer Semyon Reznik and biologist Victor Fet have pointed out Lysenko only succeeded in accelerating "the destruction of Soviet agriculture."

    • Age: Dec. at 78 (1898-1976)
    • Birthplace: Karlivka, Ukraine
  • Robert Maxwell Put Academic Research Behind Paywalls
    Photo: Unknown (Anefo) / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    2
    1,635 VOTES

    Robert Maxwell Put Academic Research Behind Paywalls

    Ghislaine Maxwell remains in the public eye for her relationship with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. But she wasn't the first person in her family caught up in controversy; her father Robert Maxwell was a media mogul who stole millions from his company's pension account.

    Robert left an unpopular legacy in other ways, too. He helped remake academic publishing as a for-profit, paywalled business that limited who had access to new scientific literature. Instead of making research freely available, his model was a gate-keeping device that put profit over knowledge.

  • Walter Freeman Treated Mental Illness By Sticking A Surgical Instrument Into His Patients' Brains
    Photo: Harris A Ewing / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    3
    1,450 VOTES

    Walter Freeman Treated Mental Illness By Sticking A Surgical Instrument Into His Patients' Brains

    In 1945, Walter Freeman debuted a new tool for treating patients exhibiting aggression, severe depression, and other behavioral, emotional, and mental conditions: an instrument resembling an ice-pick inserted into the brain in a procedure known as a lobotomy. Freeman wasn't the first to practice lobotomies; Portuguese neurologist Antonia Moniz won a Nobel Prize for pioneering lobotomies in the 1930s, but Freeman popularized it in the US.

    He also inflated the benefits and downplayed the risks of his procedure. About 15% of his patients didn't survive, and only 33% claimed their lobotomies improved their condition.

    According to researcher Miriam Posner:

    Freeman thought psychosis was the result of excessive self-reflection, thoughts that circled back on themselves over and over again. He was being literal when he said lobotomy was a way of cutting those endlessly circling thoughts off within the brain.

    Howard Dully, who was only 12 when Freeman performed a lobotomy on him, recalled the procedure's effects during an interview with NPR: "If you saw me you'd never know I'd had a lobotomy [...] But I've always felt different - wondered if something's missing from my soul."

    Others experienced more devastating effects. Rosemary Kennedy - former US President John F. Kennedy's younger sister - had a lobotomy in 1941 that left her unable to speak or walk on her own.

  • Sir Mark Sykes Drew Up Ill-Advised Borders In The Middle East
    Photo: Leopold Pilichowski / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    The borders of the modern Middle East haven't always been fixed the way they are now. In fact, those lines are a consequence of colonialism. 

    British diplomat Sir Mark Sykes was partly responsible for the way the Middle East looks today. During World War I, Sykes and French administrator François Georges-Picot drafted the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which carved land out of the Ottoman Empire. They drew up new borders for each nation, motivated more by how the British and French zones of influence would look rather than the region's cultural and historical boundaries.

    Ultimately, the agreement further damaged France's and Britain's reputation in the Middle East and contributed to decades of strife.

    • Age: Dec. at 39 (1879-1919)
    • Birthplace: England
  • The World Health Organization considers vaccine hesitancy to be one of the greatest threats to public health in the world. Although vaccine hesitancy comes in many forms, it includes a full-scale, coordinated anti-vax movement built on misinformation.

    One of the most pernicious claims that fuels the movement is that vaccines cause autism. That lie can be traced back to the discredited work of one man: Andrew Wakefield, a British physician. In 1998, Wakefield published a paper in The Lancet that claimed a connection existed between autism and the MMR vaccine, which prevents measles, mumps, and rubella. 

    Although Wakefield's paper was resoundingly debunked by the medical community, the damage was already done. People seized on his claim and used it to validate their medical skepticism. As Nature put it, his paper "turbocharged the anti-vaccine movement."

    • Age: 66
    • Birthplace: Canada
  • Thomas Midgley Jr. May Be Responsible For The Most Environmental Damage
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Thomas Midgley, Jr. seems to have left the world in a worse place than how he entered it. The chemical engineer created products that pumped not one but two harmful chemicals into the air. In the 1920s, he added lead to car fuel, and the resulting toxic fumes poisoned people.

    In the next decade, Midgley developed chlorofluorocarbons, chemical compounds often used as refrigerants, propellants, and solvents. CFCs can eat through the ozone layer, so his invention ended up hastening climate change

    • Age: Dec. at 55 (1889-1944)
    • Birthplace: Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania