They laughed at Copernicus. They laughed at the Wright Brothers. And they laughed at Kligerman — who eventually laughed all the way to the bank.
Alan Kligerman gave the world Beano — a dietary supplement that helps folks who suffer from flatulence.
Beano can now be found in virtually every pharmacy. But when it hit the market in 1990, Kligerman was the butt of countless jokes. The media hailed him, among other things, as "The Vanquisher of Vapor."
"That's the way people deal with embarrassing subjects. So why not?" said Kligerman. "They laughed. But we got the word out."
Since then, Beano has relieved thousands of gas pain sufferers — not to mention their close friends, co-workers and spouses. Kligerman sold his interest in the product for more than $10 million. Talk about the sweet smell of success.
Today, Kligerman is focusing on other products — CurTail, a Beano product for gaseous pets, and CatSip, a milk product for lactose intolerant cats. Laugh now, but Kligerman will probably be laughing later.
Of course, not all innovators enjoy such vindication. Many remain laughingstocks, others just obscure.
You might have to prove your contribution to humanity to win a Nobel Prize. But if you just bring a smile to the world with a seemingly crazy, novel innovation, you could win the highly coveted Ig Nobel Prize — awarded annually at Harvard University, by students and the Annals of Improbable Research, a science humor magazine.
In addition to Kligerman, past winners include: Peter Barss of McGill University, author of the medical report "Injuries Due to Falling Coconuts," George and Charlotte Blonsky, who invented a device to help women give birth by spinning them at high speed; the British Standards Institution, for publishing a six-page specification of the proper way to make a cup of tea; and Don Featherstone, the designer of the plastic pink flamingo.
If you scoff at coconut research, you probably don't live in Papua New Guinea, where the tropical trees grow more than 100 feet high and the coconuts fall with a force of up to 1 metric ton or more, Barss noted.
In the doctor's four-year study at one hospital, 2.5 percent of the trauma admissions were coconut-related. "Obviously, over there, it's no laughing matter," said Mark Abrahams, editor of the Annals of Improbable Research.
Of course, most of the Ig Nobel attendees don't come from the tropics. They're happy to make coconut jokes, and so is Barss.
'We're Not Insulted'
Amazingly, Ig Nobel winners fly into Boston each year from all over the world — and they pay their own way.
A guy like Kligerman was obviously leveraging laughter to boost Beano sales. But other "honorees" are scientists who count on their professional reputation to secure grants. Why do they show up?
Some are undoubtedly out to prove they're not stuffy academics. Others come to defend research that — on the face of it — seems coconuts.
A few years ago, three Scottish researchers flew in to Boston to be honored for their report "The Collapse of Toilets in Glasgow," examining the physical collapse of toilets after people sat on them.
"We're not insulted," Jonathan Wyatt said. "Between us, we've published more than 70 research papers. This is the only one that's given us any publicity at all."