Second best

From politics to science and adventurin­g, here are some untold histories of the greatest runners-up.


ALFRED DEAKIN Every Australian knows who the first prime minister was: it’s something drilled into us in childhood with greater zeal than fire safety and stranger danger put together. Edmund Barton was the first prime minister, and the average Australian’s knowledge of the man begins and ends with that fact. Far more interestin­g, and far more bearded, was the man who succeeded Barton: Alfred Deakin. It’s not really surprising that the second prime minister should be more effective than the first; after all, the second one has the advantage of being able to see where the first went wrong. Truthfully, in his early days, Deakin wasn’t even considerin­g a career in politics. It was as a poet and playwright that he yearned to make his way in life. But he loved being prime minister. He loved it so much that he was not only the second, but also the fifth and the seventh. And he actually did stuff while he was in it. Loads of stuff: passing laws, building ships, funding various whatsits. Deakin was a busy little bee of boundless energy. Yet Edmund Barton gets to be in all the quizzes, just because he stumbled along first. The cruel injustice of the world laid bare. Speaking of injustice, to be a racist politician at the turn of the 20th century was, well, to be a politician, and Alfred Deakin took to racism with every bit as much enthusiasm as he did writing terrible plays. He was one of the strongest supporters of the White Australia policy, that notorious government program that prevented Australian­s from having anywhere decent to eat for decades. It’s not easy to become prime minister three times. It’s not particular­ly desirable either. For Deakin, the important thing in prime-ministersh­ip was not who comes first, but who comes the most often – and that’s surely a lesson we should all take to heart.

ALFRED RUSSEL WALLACE Depending on your point of view, Charles Darwin is either the genius whose discovery of the mechanisms of evolution transforme­d the human race’s understand­ing of the natural world, or he’s the demon dispatched straight from the bowels of hell to spread wicked lies designed to undermine all morality. However, no matter which side you’re on, you’ll agree on one thing: Darwin brought us the theory of evolution. Enter Alfred Russel Wallace, a prime example that you don’t have to come second for history to make you a runner-up. While teaching drawing, map-making and surveying in England, he met an entomologi­st who encouraged him to begin collecting insects – not as a stepping stone towards a future as a serial killer, but for legitimate scientific purposes. Wallace took to the new hobby with enthusiasm and, inspired by research from Mr Charles Darwin himself, he set off to the Amazon in 1848 in the hope of finding clues around the transmutat­ion of species – or how things turn into other things. After four years in Brazil, he noticed something extraordin­ary: closely related species tended to occupy territorie­s next to each other. Creatures of the same kind stuck together, and creatures of a slightly different kind stuck together just a little way away. These observatio­ns held true on a trip to the Malay Archipelag­o – so, while there, he formulated the ‘Sarawak Law’, which essentiall­y states that when a new thing comes along, there’s usually a thing a lot like it just over there. One night, tossing and turning in bed with a fever, a revelation arrived like a thunderbol­t: organisms that were best suited to their circumstan­ces were more likely to survive and reproduce than those less well equipped. He’d struck upon the idea of natural selection. Excited, he put his epiphany down in an essay and sent it to Darwin, hoping for his approval, like an eager child sending their finger paintings to Picasso. In this case, Picasso was stunned by the fact the finger paintings were as good as anything he’d done himself. Darwin arranged for Wallace’s paper to be published jointly with his own notes, which left Wallace delighted – he’d not only gained approval from his hero, but had been elevated to the status of an equal. Sadly, for all his sterling work, Wallace devoted little time to promoting his own role in formulatin­g the theory of evolution. This led to the current situation where most of you, on hearing the name Charles Darwin, respond with a knowing “Ah,” but on hearing the name Alfred Russel Wallace, emit an uncertain “Uh?”

ERNST SCHMIED The thing about climbing a mountain is that once it’s been done, doing it again gets a person very little credit. And that seems unfair, because Edmund Hillary climbing Mount Everest didn’t make the task any easier. So it’s a great injustice that when I say the name ‘Ernst Schmied’ you simply think I’m drunk, for Ernst

Schmied had the honour of leading the second expedition to Everest’s summit. On May 22, 1956, a ‘rope team’ – so named because they were tied together with ropes in case anyone got cold feet – started their ascent. The team consisted of Ernst Schmied, Jürg Marmet and four Sherpas whose names we don’t know because they hadn’t bothered to become white before starting out. Together they worked pretty hard to trudge up the mountain. At 8400 metres – in the final stretch – they found a small depression and set up camp. Schmied and Marmet sent the four Sherpas back, telling them they were only supporting characters, and settled down for a peaceful night. The next morning, the skies raged above them. They were so close, but they knew climbing a mountain is like putting up a Christmas tree – nobody cares if you don’t put the star on top. Step by agonising step, they hauled themselves peakward, cursing their choice of career. At 8760 metres, Schmied and Marmet reached the South Summit. They had one more ridge to climb, under an awning of hanging snow that could at any time fall and bury them forever. Every step seemed to take an eternity; their legs burned, lungs burst, frigid air snapped at their faces. But Schmied urged himself on, dreaming of the acclaim that would never come his way because someone had already done this. For him, it was not about glory – it was about the inherent thrill of standing on a spot higher than all other spots. And that thrill drove him onward until he took the last step and stood, ascendant and incandesce­nt, on top of the world. The next day, Dölf Reist and Hansruedi von Gunten followed Schmied’s and Marmet’s tracks and also ascended to the peak, becoming even less noticed by history.

ROSALIND FRANKLIN In 1962, James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine – a somewhat indecisive category – for their discovery of the DNA double helix. Unfairly left behind was Rosalind Franklin, a woman who died tragically young, without the recognitio­n she deserved for her work, which was an essential part of the process of said discovery. Franklin was born in 1920 in Notting Hill, London – the suburb immortalis­ed in the film Notting Hill. Like Julia Roberts, Franklin would one day stand in front of men, but instead of asking them to love her, she’d ask them to please shut up for a minute so she could explain things slowly in short words they would understand. In 1951, Franklin was a research associate in King’s College London’s Biophysics Unit. She and her assistant, graduate student Raymond Gosling, began to nut out the structure of DNA using Franklin’s unmatched skill with an X-ray. Shooting the X-rays about the lab, she got a better look at DNA than anyone ever had before – particular­ly Maurice Wilkins, who had been working with Raymond Gosling before and was quite snippy that his former pal was gallivanti­ng about with this uppity dame. Franklin’s technique for analysing DNA was a step forward from Wilkins’s work, and many who had previously doubted whether women could excel at science because their breasts would keep knocking the test tubes over began to believe that perhaps, in certain circumstan­ces, vaginas and laboratori­es could coexist. In fact, Franklin had discovered something that would prove to be extremely significan­t for the future of human knowledge. Presenting her findings in a lecture, she noted that “the results suggest a helical structure (which must be very closely packed) containing two, three or four co-axial nucleic acid chains per helical unit, and having the phosphate groups near the outside.” Then, in 1953, Franklin published the first evidence of the double helix structure in the A form of DNA. Don’t sweat the details too much – it’s all very complicate­d. The main point is that a decade or so later, Maurice Wilkins, along with Crick and Watson, would get a Nobel Prize for uncovering the double helix, when Rosalind Franklin had opened the door for that very discovery.

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