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Famous Myths About Famous People

Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher who writes about various subjects, including education and creative writing.

What are some myths widely told about historical figures? Read on to find out falsehoods about Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, and Christopher Columbus pictured above.

What are some myths widely told about historical figures? Read on to find out falsehoods about Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, and Christopher Columbus pictured above.

Historical Figures

Historical figures, celebrities, and well-known scientists, inventors, and explorers have always been great educational subject matters. Their exploits have inspired many to achieve the type of goals they've accomplished. And when students discover these iconic figures have a few faults or frailties, they tend to admire—and relate—to them even more.

Many distinguished people in history have overcome many obstacles. Helen Keller, Hans Christian Anderson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Stephen Hawking are just a few people who come to mind.

And if it wasn't an obstacle, we admire their daringness and courage to do things that nobody had dared to do before. We want them to be our Supermen or women. Neil Armstrong, George Washington, or sports legends such as Babe Ruth or Michael Jordon may fit this mold.

Still, many of us forget that these heroes have flaws or don't exactly live up to the legends that surround them. In some cases, the stories are more myth than reality.

Paul Revere’s ride has been debunked over the years. So has the story of George Washington cutting down a cherry tree. Even to this day, there are several myths about famous people that have been used regularly in schools throughout the country.

These myths have persisted over the years. Stories about famous people having learning disabilities have been particularly popular. Also, the idolization and exploits of Christopher Columbus are still a popular topic, despite evidence to the contrary.

The following is a list of myths associated with famous people. Many of them are passed off as innocent antidotes for teaching about possible role models. In other cases, these events are taught as facts in a history class. In other cases, the evidence suggests the myth has some validity.

Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein

The most popular myth about Albert Einstein was that he had:

  • a learning disability,
  • was not a good student,
  • struggled in math, and
  • Scored high on an IQ test.

In reality, Einstein was actually an outstanding student and he excelled in math. The story of his disability is believed to have been unintentionally created by him. He told people that he started talking late in life. His sister, on the other hand, stated he couldn’t stop talking when he was a toddler.

Although Einstein’s intelligence was evident early in his life, he had his struggle. He failed a math class. However, it was not because he didn’t understand any of the concepts. Instead, he struggled (no indication he failed) because he despised the teacher. He described the teacher as being too strict which may have hampered his interest and ability in math at the time.

In addition, he failed a college entrance exam. But that was because it was written in French, which was a language he was unfamiliar with. Reports indicate, however, that he passed the math section.

Accusations about him possibly having a developmental or learning disability is new; however, it lingers and has been brought up from time to time. But, these are just accusations at best. Again, there is no definitive proof he had autism or dyslexia.

It’s understandable why so many people like to believe the myth that Einstein struggled in school. It does the following:

  • It humanizes him;
  • It gives struggling students or those with learning disabilities some hope; and
  • It sends the message that anyone can be successful or smart.

But wishful thinking doesn’t equate to reality.

The Myth Surrounding Einstein’s IQ

The last myth, interestingly, is one that both elevates Einstein to super-genius status while also working to humanize him. This one pertains to his perceived IQ level.

Often, a reputable publication or an Internet blog will report on a person who "scored higher than Einstein on the IQ test" or has a high IQ. The stories focus on overachieving people that supposedly scored within the genius level (in some cases, they’ll report that someone scored so high that they are off the chart for measuring intelligence).

There’s a slight problem with Einstein’s IQ scores; there’s no record that he took an IQ exam. In fact, IQ exams for the most part were not readily available around the turn of the 20th century when Einstein was a college student.

Christopher Columbus and fellow European explorers

Christopher Columbus and fellow European explorers

Christopher Columbus

You may have heard of these myths associated with Christopher Columbus:

  • discovered the new world,
  • and proved Earth was round.

The reality is not that simple. First, there were people in the new world. In terms of discovery by Europeans, that distinction goes to the Vikings nearly 500 years before Columbus. In addition, Columbus didn’t reach the mainland and never made it up to North America.

Second, knowledge that the Earth is round has been known since antiquity. From the Sumerians to the Greek and Roman cultures, this was something observed and studied by scientists and philosophers of the time.

While Columbus in real life was aware that the Earth was round, he got the diameter of the planet wrong. He thought it was shorter than what it really was.

Topics concerning Columbus’ voyage and its aftermath have been controversial, lately. Even stating that somebody discovered America is enough to besmirch anyone. Also, there’s speculation that Pacific Islanders may have been trading with various tribes in the Americas for nearly a thousand years before Columbus set foot in the Western Hemisphere

Where did these wild myths about Columbus come from? American novelist, Washington Irving (writer of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow) wrote the highly romanticized and fictional account called “A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (1828).

Most striking in the book—and where this lingering myth came from—was that the people of the era that Columbus came from believed the world was flat.

In addition, Irving’s flat Earth concept in this fictional tale would later be inaccurately reported as a medieval belief in two 19th century history books: John William Draper’s History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874) and Andrew Dickson White’s History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896).

Another misconception about Columbus was that he found the new world by accident. Maps from the Vikings were available in several libraries in Europe. Although the maps were inaccurate, they indicated that there was a large land mass on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

Some scholars believed that Columbus’ original story of trying to find a quicker passage to India may have been a ruse to convince the king and queen of Spain to fund his trip to the Western Hemisphere. Also, Columbus' intention may have been to find riches in the new world. Columbus was a merchant and opportunist, as well as an explorer.

Captain John Smith

Captain John Smith

Captain John Smith

There are plenty of myths surrounding Captain John Smith, and much of it is due to him. If you are not familiar with him, outside a popular Disney film, Here are the myths:

  • was an avid explorer;
  • he saved a colony;
  • he brokered peace between the English Colonists and Native American Tribes;
  • and was romantically involved with Pocahantas.

The reality is that he embellished his accomplishments. Captain Smith (if he was a captain) was a self-promoter who seemed to be in the midst of every important event in the early days of British Colonialism. Today, his stories are wild and extremely hard to believe. However, he managed to make his reputation on it.

Captain Smith has become a mythological character of sorts, thanks to Disney’s Pocahontas (1995). His account is also taught by some teachers as a lesson for cultural understanding and tolerance. Pocahontas was an actual person, just as Captain Smith was.

Still, Captain Smith and Pocahontas never fell in love. He was much older than her (she was a child). It's awkward and false.

Historians have questioned certain details of his stories. This included the rituals of the Native American tribe he came in contact with. This account only scratches the surface of his lies. In fact, it's hard to tell what is fact or fiction when it comes to his exploits.

Sir Isaac Newton

Sir Isaac Newton

Sir Isaac Newton

One particular myth surrounds Sir Isaac Newton. Supposedly he had a form of autism.

The reality, however, is that the jury is still out on this one. Descriptions of Newton’s behavior suggest he may have had a disorder such as Autism; however, nobody can be sure of this, and there’s a possibility nobody will.

Historically, Autism was first coined in the early 20th century. It is a neural developmental disorder that is characterized by impaired social interaction and communication as well as restricted and repetitive behavior present in the sufferer. It is often referred to as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ADS) because it can affect those with it at drastically different levels. While autism has been a recognized condition for nearly a century, researchers are still learning new things about it.

Although this is a modern condition, court records, journals and studies indicate that it has been around for a long time. It is believed the first documented case of autism may have been in 1747. This came from a court case in which the brother of Hugh Blair of Borgue successfully petitioned to annul Blair’s marriage in order to gain his inheritance.

Sir Isaac Newton was born in 1642 and died in 1727—20 years before the first documented case. And during his time, he was considered the greatest mind of his time. Also, he had many interests including, physics, math, astronomy, and religion.

In 2003, an article on BBC News website reported that researchers at Cambridge and Oxford believed that Newton had a form of high-functioning autism known as Asperger’s Syndrome (This is the same article that mentioned Einstein had symptoms of this condition).

Much of the proof was based on Newton’s eccentric behavior. The article reported that “he hardly spoke, was so engrossed in his work that he often forgot to eat and was lukewarm or bad-tempered with the few friends he had.”

In other words, there might be some truth to this myth; however, nobody will ever definitively verify this.

Why the Truth Matters

The story of Newton having autism is tempting for many teachers to tell. Again, it’s a way to show that anyone can be a genius and that they have the same afflictions as everyone else. In fact, several special education teachers have used this as an example of why students shouldn’t get discouraged in school.

Telling the tales of famous people is a popular way to help build people—especially school-aged children—to build character and self-confidence.

While this may be a good method for modeling good behavior, it has the ability to blur the fine line between reality and myth. And if anyone feels they’re exposed to a myth, the lesson can be compromised.

Work Cited

© 2012 Dean Traylor


Doug Ocean from Ohio USA on July 15, 2012:

I agree that these geniuses were misunderstood by the hoi polloi, and mis-characterized by their (often envious) peers.

Newton is one of the 5 all-time superhumans, with a genius mind like his, why wouldn't he get lost in long trains of thought and shut out the comparatively meaningless of everyday pleasantries? Today we are all glad he did, it may be the only way to surpass normal limits of thinking. Also, when you skip meals because of your hyperfocus (necessary to tackle the most difficult problems) you can get cranky! See my list of the top 5 Superhumans of all time:

JoanCA on July 15, 2012:

This is a very interesting hub, especially the part about Einstein. A lot of times highly intelligent kids don't do well in school because it's too easy for them. They don't have any interest in doing what needs to be done to get good grades. It's a mistake to use people like Einstein as an example of why good grades in school aren't important. Or Steve Jobs as an example of why college isn't important. Their high intelligence practically guaranteed success. Academic success is important for kids of normal intelligence because they likely will need a good education to be successful.