Learn about their contributions to our state

by Jake Rome

Wisconsin produces some pretty big names — from Orson Welles to the Watt brothers, there are a lot of people we idolize who call the cheese state home. While the Watts have contributed a lot to our Sunday afternoons, there are many more people who’ve contributed great things to society; these are seven of Wisconsin’s forgotten heroes.  

Electa Quinney (1798-1885)

Electa Quinney was not only the first female teacher in Wisconsin, but she was also the first person to found a public school in Wisconsin. Quinney taught more than 40 students herself, both white and Native American, near what is now Green Bay, starting in 1828. 

Ellen Ainsworth (1919-1944)

2nd Lt. Ellen Ainsworth served in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps during World War II and was one of the first women to receive the Silver Star Medal. Ainsworth earned this, along with a Red Cross Bronze Medal and a Purple Heart Medal, by evacuating 42 patients to safety after being struck in the chest by a piece of shrapnel from a German artillery shell. She later died from this injury on the same day.

Laurel Clark (1961-2003)

Laurel Clark, a UW–Madison alumna, served as an undersea medical officer for the U.S. Navy, where she dove to evacuate U.S. submarines in medical emergencies. Clark later trained in aeromedicine and became a naval flight surgeon. She began her NASA astronaut training in 1996, helped create an astronaut treadmill and conducted more than 80 experiments on a 16-day mission to space. Clark died when the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated as it reentered the Earth’s atmosphere.

The Korbel Brothers (1882-Present)

The Korbel Brothers, a group of three brothers-turned-businessmen from Bohemia, are largely to thank for Wisconsin’s signature drink: the brandy old fashioned. The Korbel brothers brought their brandy to the Chicago World Fair in 1893 and Wisconsinites at the fair loved it so much, they brought it back home with them. Today, Wisconsin drinks more brandy than any other state.

Harry Houdini (1874-1926)

The “Great Houdini” is recognized worldwide as one of the most influential modern magicians, but he got his start as a child in Wisconsin. Houdini’s father was a rabbi in Appleton before he lost his job and moved the family to Milwaukee. His son’s Wisconsin legacy is evident, with “Houdini Plaza” in Appleton named after him.

Mildred Fish-Harnack (1902-1943)

Mildred Fish-Harnack was an American teacher, literary historian, translator, and most importantly, a member of a German resistance group against the Nazi regime. Fish-Harnack was born in Milwaukee in 1902, but she spent her adult years living in Germany. The rise of Nazism in Germany during the onset of World War II troubled Fish-Harnack and her husband, and they joined a resistance group known as the Red Orchestra. Fish-Harnack was arrested by the Gestapo in 1942 after her espionage efforts were discovered. Her initial trial resulted in a six-year prison sentence, but Adolf Hitler refused to endorse the sentence. She was sentenced to death by guillotine in 1943, making Fish-Harnack the first and only American woman executed on Hitler’s direct orders. The City of Madison dedicated a memorial to Fish-Harnack on the western edge of Lake Mendota in 2019.

John Ridley (1965-Present)

John Ridley is a Milwaukee-born screenwriter, television director, novelist and showrunner, best known for winning an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for “12 Years a Slave.” Ridley also served as a writer for popular shows such as “Martin,” “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” “American Crime,” “Justice League” and more. Ridley continues to work in the entertainment industry and even brought some of it back to Milwaukee, founding Milwaukee’s Nō Studios, a creative arts hub, overseen by his sister, Lisa Caesar.

Featured photo by Perri Moran.