Take Miriam Rothschild, world expert on fleas, who grew up with no formal education in a Doctor Doolittle environment created by her father, banker Charles Rothschild. (Miriam’s Uncle Walter, the second Lord Rothschild, boasted an animal collection numbering in the hundreds of thousands.)
Eventually amassing six doctorate degrees, Miriam worked in a variety of fields. She broke German codes during World War II and played cricket for the national team under a pseudonym. She also discovered 30,000 species of flea.
Miriam loved parasites, which reminded her that unseen agents could shape history. She studied biochemical codes common to insects and plants, and became a leader in appreciating the importance of biodiversity. In that role, she persuaded Ladybird Johnson and Prince Charles to grow wildflowers in public spaces: work that both still carry on today.
Rothschild saw herself as an example of thinking small, labeling her work “all bits and pieces.” But no matter how great or small her ultimate contribution, the 60,000 microscope slides by her bedside made one thing plain: Her path to success was never “normal.”
—Adapted from “The Lives They Lived: Parasite Lover,” Alan Burdick, The New York Times Magazine.