Is the ‘mad scientist’ disappearing?

Yesterday I read an obituary of a former staff member of the Chemistry department where I did my undergraduate degree. He was a non-teaching staff member, and I wouldn’t be surprised if most undergradutes and even postgraduates didn’t even know who he was. Reading the obituary saddened me, as I learned of the things he had done and the obstacles he’d faced, I felt bad that I knew nothing about him.

On the one hand he was a pioneering scientist, cultivating a love for chemistry and experimentation (often on himself!) through his teens and receiving his doctorate in middle age. And on the other, the obituary outlined debilitating mental illness and depression, time spent in an institution, and the fact that he never felt able to present a paper or poster at a conference.

The department obviously valued his core scientific contributions enough to overlook other professional shortfalls he may have had. But it made me wonder, such a person would probably not survive in academia today. In an era where everyone must be accountable, prove their worth and live up to certain expectations in terms of publishing and teaching – would any department hire/retain a person who felt unable to fulfill these criteria?

I’m sure most modern scientists cringe at the lab-coated, wild-haired ‘mad scientist’ stereotype and would insist that no one is actually like that. And maybe no one is, but I can’t help but think that this man would’ve fallen through the cracks of modern science if he’d happened to be born 50 years later.

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