When we say 'biologist', what do we mean, exactly? Marine biologists? Plant biologists? Maybe we're only considering zoologists... or could we consider those marvellous minds generally associated with other profound disciplines where biology plays only a minor role?

Most people, when quizzed about famous biologists (or zoologists. naturalists and so on) inevitably toss out Darwin's name. Those who have a particular love for the sea might invoke Jacques Cousteau. Besides being the most renowned oceanographer, he was the world's first marine conservationist.

A biology major or history major may know of a few more names - familiar to all but possibly in a different context. If you're still in secondary school, you too might have a few names to contribute.

Let's see how your list and ours match up, shall we? Your Superprof now presents some of the most famous biologists in history.

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Charles Darwin

This English naturalist, biologist, zoologist and geologist hardly needs any introduction. Even those with no love of science know that he made significant contributions to our knowledge of evolution. Still today, Darwin contributes to our understanding of evolution.

The Darwin Award recognises those who perform incredible acts of stupidity.

Naturalist Darwin maybe doesn't like how far his legacy has gone
For good or ill, Darwinism has taken on a life of its own, but not exactly the one our naturalist would have hoped for. Photo credit: eyewashdesign: A. Golden on Visualhunt / CC BY-NC-ND

This joke-award, given out for the first time in 1985, honours those who prove Darwin's theory of evolution by... not proving themselves (mentally) fit to survive.

Side note: 'Survival of the fittest', the phrase born out of Darwin's research, was coined by another English biologist, Herbert Spencer.

While the Darwin awards can be spectacularly funny, Charles Darwin himself was not a man given to humour or whimsy. He was a rather serious lad who often accompanied his father on medical rounds. Robert Darwin, his father, was a well-positioned society man. He might have made a name for himself in medicine but was rather content to serve the genteel community of which he was a part.

He expected his son to follow him into the medical field but young Charles had no stomach for surgery. He also found the university lectures boring so he did not study very hard. However, he joined a Natural History debate group, where he met British zoologist/anatomist Robert Edmund Grant. That worthy had the temerity to openly praise evolutionary ideas, something that utterly shocked the impressionable young Charles.

He was astounded that his mentor dared to express his embrace of evolutionary theory so openly. The theory itself fazed him little; he had read similar thoughts in his grandfather Erasmus' notebooks.

Soon, Charles Darwin was in a quandary. University lectures could not keep him interested in natural history. He was drawn to plant classification - an early exercise that would later lead to his penchant for taxonomy. His father grew ever more frustrated with his cavalier attitude towards medicine.

A change was coming. It would send Darwin around the world and inform future generations on evolutionary theory and, ultimately, his masterpiece The Origin of the Species.

Gregor Mendel

Unlike the naturalist/biologist/zoologist we just discussed, Johann Mendel's father was neither well-to-do nor a medical man. He was a farmer who eked out a living in (what is now known as) the Czech Republic but he had high hopes for his only son. They just weren't the hopes the son had for himself.

Mendel loved physics and maths and he excelled in both subjects... when he was in school. Unfortunately, his rather delicate constitution forced him out of school for long stretches - once, while enrolled at the University of Olomouc, he absented himself for an entire year.

His frequent illnesses added a financial burden to the family. They were having a hard time paying for his schooling; his long breaks meant that he would need even longer to complete his studies.

That's why he entered the monastery. It was an effective way to gain an education and not have to worry about paying for it. Or for food and other life necessities. Stress and anxiety were making his already frail condition worse; he could hardly afford to worry where his next meal would come from and still excel in his studies.

He was given the name Gregor when he entered the abbey and, true to their word, the Augustine Order saw to his education. They even covered all of his expenses while studying at the University of Vienna. That might have taken things a bit farther than necessary.

While Mendel was still enrolled at the University of Olomouc, one of his teachers was Johann Karl Nestler, a professor of Natural History. Among other research, Nestler conducted studies of hereditary traits - specifically for animals (particularly sheep) and plants.

Were Mendel's studies in Vienna a waste of time and money? No, of course not! Studying is never a waste of time or money!

However, it's hard to measure how much they helped to shape his work in cross-breeding peas to discover the rules of heredity that, to this day, underpin the science of genetics.

Indeed, Gregor Mendel is famous for being the Father of Modern Genetics.

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Galen of Pergamum

While Mendel was generally known as a quiet and amiable man, Galen was anything but. With his vile temper and arrogant attitude, especially toward his fellows in medicine, Galen lived in genuine fear that somebody would murder him. At one point, he fled Rome before he could meet a grisly death.

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Galen went to cruel lengths to investigate the torso and thorax
Galen made many discoveries, especially in the trunk and thorax regions. Photo credit: tahewitt on Visualhunt.com / CC BY-NC

As unpleasant as cussing and screaming at people is, he came by his attitude honestly - history shows he mainly abused competitors because of their incompetence. Today, Galen is considered Antiquity's most accomplished medical researcher. Scientists the world over are building on his discoveries still today.

What discoveries, you ask? They include:

  • pharmacology
  • pathology
  • physiology
  • anatomy
  • neurology

As mentioned before, Galen was a rather rude and arrogant man, for all that he was a genius. He knew he couldn't cut dead people open - human dissection was taboo at that time. However, there were no laws against cutting animals open, no matter if they were alive or dead. That, he did fairly regularly.

In one notable example of such, Galen demonstrated the function of the larynx... by cutting a pig's throat open and, as it squealed, he severed its vocal cords. The poor animal was still in a frenzy, it just wasn't making any more sounds. He replicated this brutal experiment several times with countless specimens, severing motor nerves and observing the specimens' inability to move the corresponding limb.

For all of that brutality and callousness - today's scientists would be brought up on charges if they operated in that manner, Galen must have had something resembling a heart.

His initial experiments were done on monkeys. He reasoned their anatomy must be identical to humans' because the species were so similar - that, without knowing a thing about DNA!

However, he found that, as he prepared to cut open a live monkey, that too-human face spooked him. Galen draped a cloth over the animal's face and carried on, but that was the last time he experimented on a monkey.

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Hippocrates of Kos

This physician from the Classical Greek era is known the world over as the Father of Medicine. Strangely enough, though, the phrase most commonly attributed to him was not his at all.

The first known usage of 'first, do no harm' was in the 17th Century, uttered by British physician Thomas Sydenham. He most likely translated it from Latin: primum non nocere, indicating that it could not have originated from the most famous doctor in history. That edict doesn't even appear in the Hippocratic Oath.

Initially, Hippocrates was an adherent to the Four Humours philosophy of medicine - people's bodies contained four specific liquids whose ratios must remain in balance to ensure good health. He later abandoned those beliefs, instead advancing the radical idea of patient well-being, even as they suffered through sickness.

Contrary to other physicians of his time, Hippocrates put emphasis on prognosis rather than diagnosis. That novel concept grew out of his theory of 'medical crises', points at which the body's natural defences would overwhelm the illness (and cure itself) or the disease will invade more cells than the body has to fight it off.

That overly-simple outline of Hippocrates' medical philosophy makes it easy to understand why he is revered as the Father of Medicine still today. It represents the essence of medical care.

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The dogfish caused a ripple in Aristotle's neat taxonomy table
The dogfish's placental sac did not fit into Aristotles classifications of zoology. Source: Wikipedia Credit; NOAA

Aristotle

If this writer were allowed, I would confess that Mendel elicits the most sympathy, Galen the most ire and this one is my favourite famous biologist of all.

Unlike the other biologists featured in this article, Aristotle did not a firm hand to guide his studies. His parents died when he was barely a teenager and, after a few years in the care of his brother-in-law, he was shipped off to Athens to study at Plato's Academy.

In those times, fathers dictated what one studied. Aristotle, absent a father - or even a father figure, was unbound by convention and untethered from any directional tiller. In short, he was allowed to study anything he chose... so he chose to study everything.

His tenure at the Academy ended after nearly two decades. He set off for the island of Lesvos with a pupil in tow to study every life form - plant, marine and land animals.

Aristotle was primarily an empiricist but his works indicate that he did take an active part in discovery sometimes. His diagrams of specimens' innards are far too detailed and accurate to have been merely thought up. Some of the theories he constructed and conclusions he drew make it clear that his work was not just a series of thought experiments about living things.

Many assume his focus was primarily on zoology with a possible second on marine life but, considering his student's surviving work talks mainly about plants and their particulars, we have to believe that Aristotle was completely impartial. He would study anything that stood still long enough for him to study.

Biology is a fascinating science. These biologists - whether they are primarily recognised as such or as some other type of scientist - even if they're more famous for their work in philosophy than physiology, as Aristotle is, changed the world in their time and continue to impact ours.

What more could you ask of any scientist - of anyone, really?

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Daniel

A student by trade, Daniel spends most of his time working on that essay that's due in a couple of days' time. When he's not working, he can be found working on his salsa steps, or in bed.