The Biggest Feuds in the History of Science

Debate and disagreement have a hallowed place in the halls of scientific discovery - that's because they fuel it. However, they also have the tendency to create scientists who hate each other. Whether it stems from working too closely on the same project, having competing theories about a particular phenomenon, or just generally not liking each other as people, there's rich history of down, dirty, and dastardly feuds in the scientific community. From Galileo's battle with the Catholic Church to the race to sequence the human genome, innovation comes with its fair share of hiccups and bloodshed, like, for example, when competing paleontologists destroy significant dig sites just to sabotage one another. In short: plenty of scientists hated each other through history. 

This list documents some of the fiercest (and funniest) feuds in the history of science. Some of the scientists listed here literally couldn't be in the same room as each other, and fought bitterly until their deaths. Others found reconciliation and sometimes even (forced) peace. Read on to find out more about the hallowed history of hostility surrounding some of our most loved theories.

  • Nikola Tesla Vs. Thomas Edison: The AC/DC Electricity Battle
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Nikola Tesla Vs. Thomas Edison: The AC/DC Electricity Battle

    It turns out that our beloved mad-scientist Thomas Edison might have actually been kind of a vindictive a**hole. At least if you were fellow scientist Nikola Tesla, you’d probably think so. Edison invested a lot of his time, energy, and money in designing and promoting direct current (DC) electricity. Tesla, on the other hand, was a big proponent of alternating current (AC) electric.

    Here's the thing: AC was superior to DC on pretty much every level. It was more powerful and could work over much longer distances than DC. Edison, instead of cutting his losses and joining Tesla on the AC train, spent thousands of dollars on a campaign to sabotage and discredit Tesla. And it was a pretty effective campaign too: Tesla never won a Nobel prize for his research (many believe he should have) and had difficulty finding the necessary funding to perform his research. He died nearly broke, with his name and many of his brilliant inventions ruined. 

  • Othniel Charles Marsh Vs. Edward Drinker Cope: The Bone Wars
    Photo: Mathew Brady or Levin Corbin Handy/Frederick Gutekunst / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Othniel Charles Marsh Vs. Edward Drinker Cope: The Bone Wars

    Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh were paleontologists during the Gilded Age of American history. They had a feud so legendary that it had two popularized names: the “Bone Wars” and the “Great Dinosaur Rush.” Basically, Cope, a man of means who worked at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, and Marsh, a guy born on the wrong side of the tracks who worked at the Yale Peabody Museum, were in a no-holds-barred race to see who could discover the most new dinosaur specimens - and they fought dirty

    They disparaged each other publicly and there are reports of their crews getting into violent brawls. There are also records of the two blasting archeological sites with dynamite after concluding their work in order to prevent the enemy from making additional discoveries at a site. To get an edge on the competition, they also repeatedly renamed specimens to increase their numbers. For example, they “discovered” the same fossil of Uintatherium about 20 times, giving it a different name with each rediscovery. Even though the two destroyed (literal) tons of paleontological sites and materials and made laughing stocks of one another, the sheer volume of specimens that their race unearthed made the Bone Wars a period of intense informational strides in the field of paleontology. 

  • Ignaz Semmelweis vs. Charles Meigs: The Practice Of Hand Washing
    Photo: József Borsos/Albert Doctor / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Ignaz Semmelweis vs. Charles Meigs: The Practice Of Hand Washing

    When a Viennese doctor named Ignaz Semmelweis proposed that doctors wash their hands before delivering babies as a potential solution to the problem of incredibly high infant mortality, he was met with virulent backlash from his fellow doctors. A doctor named Charles Meigs summed up the medical community's position using some stellar logic: doctors were gentlemen, and “gentlemen’s hands are always clean.”

    Therefore, pausing to wash hands between medical procedures was a colossal waste of time because they didn’t need it. Meigs, working with the head of the Vienna maternity hospital, even managed to get Semmelweis excommunicated from the medical profession in response to his modest proposal. Although he continued to try to spread his findings after getting fired, Semmelweis didn’t make much headway with the gentlemen doctors in Vienna. In fact, doctors who previously subscribed to some hygienic measures stopped doing so, and the infant mortality rate tripled as a result of Semmelweis’s attempts. Hygiene and gentlemen’s honor didn’t start mixing until after Louis Pasteur proved the existence of germs nearly two decades later. 

  • French Scientists vs. American Scientists: The Discovery Of HIV

    On December 13, 1985, the Pasteur Institute in Paris sued the United States government. Their claim? That they were the first to discover the cause of the AIDS virus (which was first discovered in 1981), and an American team led by Dr. Robert Gallo of the National Cancer Institute had scooped their findings.

    The suit came as the result of a prolonged and acrimonious battle between the two research teams over who should receive patent rights on the procedure for detecting antibodies to the AIDS virus in blood. To both sides, the patent represented symbolic recognition for the discovery of the virus, so, rather than moving forward with diagnosing and treating people or working on a vaccine in light of the research, the two sides decided to wage a prolonged battle for glory with each other. In 1987, then presidents Ronald Reagan and Jacques Chirac stepped in and forced the two sides to accept joint recognition for the discovery.

  • Alfred Wegener vs. The American Association Of Petroleum Geologists
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Alfred Wegener vs. The American Association Of Petroleum Geologists

    The theory of plate tectonics, that the continents are positioned on large-scale plates that move around, makes sense for a lot of reasons. It helps explain things like the existence of mountains, the causes of earthquakes, and why the continents look like a big jigsaw puzzle. In 1912, a German scientist named Alfred Wegener put forth the theory of plate tectonics after traveling the globe (including spending time in the North Pole) and theorizing about the many climactic and environmental phenomena he observed along the way.

    Geologists around the globe were pretty skeptical of Wegener’s idea since it didn’t jive with much of the current thinking of the day (geologists study rocks and were apparently pretty resistant to change). However, Wegener’s theory really raised the ire of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists who organized an entire symposium specifically in opposition to him. At the symposium, geologists spent most of their time attacking Wegener personally since, you know, so much evidence actually supported his model. Unfortunately, Wegener never had the chance to respond to his naysayers - he died on an expedition in Greenland in 1930.

  • Craig Venter vs. Francis Collins: The Race To Sequence The Human Genome

    In 1998, roguish scientist Craig Venter founded the Institute for Genomic Research (later called Celera Genomics). Why was Craig Venter a rogue? Because he founded the Institute after publicly impugning the government-funded Human Genome Project, which he thought was taking too long to get the job done. This sparked a feud-ish race between Venter and Francis Collins, head of the Human Genome Project. Among a number of “differences of opinion” between the warring genome camps was the premise that all mapped information should be free and available to the public.

    Venter’s private Institute opposed this key tenet of Collins’s Project. The two groups feverishly mapped for a couple of years, but, eventually, the race to sequence the genome ended amicably enough - both sides announced completed working drafts of the genome on June 26, 2000. Afterwards, then President Bill Clinton and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair declared the race to be over and “both sides had won.”