8 scientists with disabilities who changed the way we view our world

8 scientists with disabilities who changed the way we view our world

We’ve showcased 6 amazing PWD in science before. Today we highlight 7 more. Some are famous, and others perhaps less so. But all of them have changed the way we experience life, and added to what we know about the world around us.

Thomas Edison

Edison was a prolific inventor, often called the Wizard of Menlo Park for his works. His long list of inventions includes the automatic telegraph, an improved lightbulb, the phonograph, alkaline storage batteries, and the movie camera. He became deaf after a bout of scarlet fever in his youth. Rather than consider it a misfortune, Edison believed it was a positive for his work. His deafness allowed him to avoid distractions and remain focused on his work.

Alexander Graham Bell

Bell is most famous for being the inventor of the telephone. He also made several contributions in the field of manned flight, and was one of the founding members of the National Geographic Society. As a child, Bell did poorly at school, except in the sciences. It is believed that he would have been diagnosed with dyslexia today. He left school and went to live with his grandfather in London for a year. During that time, his grandfather instilled within him a love of learning and strong speaking skills. Bell’s mother and wife were also both deaf, which deeply influenced his life’s work and led him to research and experiment speech and hearing, which led to his invention of the telephone. Ironically, he considered the telephone a distraction, and would not have one in his study.

Joseph Priestley

Priestley is most well known for his work on electricity, gases, and the components of air, including oxygen. He proved that plants somehow changed the composition of air. In a famous experiment, he found that a mouse kept in a sealed jar would collapse. However a mouse kept with a plant in a similar jar would survive. Priestley developed a permanent stutter after becoming seriously ill around 1749. While this made him give up on his dreams of becoming a preacher at the time, he continued with his education and the experiments that led to his various discoveries as a scientist and researcher.

Stephen Hawking

Hawking was a theoretical physicist, cosmologist and author. He is most famous for his work on black holes, as well as his books on science. Hawkings developed amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) early in his scientific career, at the age of 21. The degenerative disease resulted in him losing his ability to walk, move and talk. Despite these challenges, he continued to make major contributions to the way we understand the universe, and the particles that make up our universe.

Derek Braun

Braun is a deaf researcher and professor with Gallaudet University, an American university for deaf and hard of hearing students. He was part of a study researching the genetic causes of deafness. The team found a specific mutation in the connexin 26 gene that led to deafness within America. They also found that the reason this mutation persisted throughout the years was that it also caused a resistance to dysentery. This is similar to how the mutation that results in sickle cell anemia also causes resistance to malaria.

Annie Jump Cannon

Cannon developed a love for the stars thanks to her mother. Her mother watched the stars with her and encouraged her interest in astronomy. She went on to study physics at Wellesley College. It was probably during this time that she contracted scarlet fever and lost much of her hearing. Later on, she worked for Edward Pickering at Harvard Observatory. She was part of an initiative to classify and catalogue all visible stars. Cannon created the Harvard Classification Scheme. This scheme sorted stars depending on their temperature and colour. She is said to have classified over 350,000 stars over her career and discovered more than 300 variable stars. Her disability did not prevent her from keeping her eyes on the sky and documenting its wonders.

Jane Goodall

Dr. Goodall is a primatologist, or a scientist who studies primates. She has observed chimpanzees making tools, eating meat, communicating, and hunting. All these things changed the way we view and understand chimpanzees. She continues to work to raise awareness about endangered chimpanzees today. Dr. Goodall has had prosopagnosia, or face blindness, since she was young. People with prosopagnosia are unable to recognise faces, especially those which they don’t know well. To compensate, she has said she acts as if she recognises everyone, even if they’ve never met before. 

Barbara McClintock

McClintock devoted her life to the study of genetics, specifically in maize or corn. She was particularly focused on the relationship between plant reproduction and the mutations that happened after. She studied how genes in maize chromosomes could “move” during reproduction, and showed how certain genes could turn on or turn off certain physical characteristics in corn. Her work on genetic transposition (the ability of genes to change position on the chromosome) won her the 1983 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. However, McClintock was also highly reclusive, extremely fixated and focused on her work, and very particular about what she wore. It is for these reasons that she has been considered to be on the autistic spectrum.


Disabilities do not mean that a person is not smart, or cannot think for themselves. Different ways of thinking, different ways of functioning, and different ways of solving problems all lead to new ways to change the world for the better. With the right encouragement and awareness, there’s so much we can learn just by giving scientists with disabilities equal opportunities to shine.


Amy C. (2020) STEM is for Everyone: Annie Jump Cannon, Classifier of Stars [Accessed: 10 Oct 2021] Available at: https://www.sciencebuddies.org/blog/stem-for-everyone-annie-jump-cannon?from=Blog

Amy C. (2021) STEM is for Everyone: Jane Goodall, Zoologist [Accessed: 10 Oct 2021] Available at: https://www.sciencebuddies.org/blog/stem-is-for-everyone-jane-goodall?from=Blog 

Amy C. (2019) STEM is for Everyone: Scientists with Disabilities [Accessed: 10 Oct 2021] Available at: https://www.sciencebuddies.org/blog/scientists-with-disabilities 

Applied Behavior Analysis Programs Guide (2019) History’s 30 Most Inspiring People on the Autism Spectrum [Accessed: 10 Oct 2021] Available at: https://www.appliedbehavioranalysisprograms.com/historys-30-most-inspiring-people-on-the-autism-spectrum/

Derek B. (2019) Tracing the roots of deafness to a gene that maybe prevented disease | Derek Braun | TEDxMidAtlantic [Accessed: 10 Oct 2021] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yKgKM3reyBM 

Disabled World (2020) Famous People Who Are Dyslexic or Had Dyslexia [Accessed: 10 Oct 2021] Available at: https://www.disabled-world.com/disability/awareness/famous/dyslexic.php

Jake R. (2016) 12 Disabled Scientists Who Made the World a Better Place [Accessed: 10 Oct 2021] Available at: https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/87068/12-disabled-scientists-who-made-world-better-place 

Kathiann K. (2017) Disabilities don’t stop these experts in science and tech [Accessed: 10 Oct 2021] Available at: https://www.sciencenewsforstudents.org/article/disabilities-dont-stop-these-experts-science-and-tech

Patrick J .K. (2020) 6 Key Inventions by Thomas Edison [Accessed: 10 Oct 2021] Available at: https://www.history.com/news/thomas-edison-inventions

ReadingHorizons (2021) Famous Dyslexics – Alexander Graham Bell [Accessed: 10 Oct 2021] Available at: https://athome.readinghorizons.com/research/dyslexia/alexander-graham-bell 

Science News (2017) Disabilities don’t stop top tech and science experts | Science News for Students [Accessed: 10 Oct 2021] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zUQYrwYXCxs 

SnapExplorer (2020) Alexander Graham Bell [Accessed: 10 Oct 2021] Available at: https://www.snapexplorer.com/alexandergrahambell 

Tabea T. (2021) Joseph Priestley and the Discovery of Oxygen [Accessed: 10 Oct 2021] Available at: http://scihi.org/joseph-priestley-discovery-oxygen/

The Nobel Prize (2018) Barbara McClintock – Facts [Accessed: 10 Oct 2021] Available at: https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/medicine/1983/mcclintock/facts/

U.S. National Library of Medicine (2020) Barbara McClintock | The Barbara McClintock Papers [Accessed: 10 Oct 2021] Available at: https://profiles.nlm.nih.gov/spotlight/ll/feature/biographical 

University of Delaware (2021) Famous Scientists With Disabilities [Accessed: 10 Oct 2021] Available at: https://sites.udel.edu/seli-ud/famous-scientists-with-disabilities/