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THE B-LIST: Unsung heroes of history

Alexis St. Martin (on bed) in the midst of an experiment with Dr. William Beaumont while his wife and child look on.
Alexis St. Martin (on bed) in the midst of an experiment with Dr. William Beaumont while his wife and child look on.

History has always been a passion of mine.

But, as you might have guessed, I've always saved the bulk of my passion for weird history. The history that gets left out of the school textbooks. The history you stumble across in a strange, out-of-print biography. The history mainstream society often suppresses or purposefully erases.

I like the historical heroes who buck convention or defy neat categories. Take my own family legacy: On my mum's family tree is a particularly noteworthy branch belonging to Alexis Bidagan St. Martin.

St. Martin was a French-Canadian trapper who had the bad luck of getting shot in the stomach in 1822 at the age of 20. The wound never fully healed, leaving a permanent hole that an Army doctor — Dr. William Beaumont — studied extensively. By lowering food into St. Martin's stomach, Beaumont proved that the organ contained acids that aid in digestion.

Yep. That's my family's claim to fame. We have a medical marvel of an ancestor who has his own Wikipedia page, is mentioned in Mary Roach's book "Gulp" and paved the way for medical science. All because he survived a bullet to the gut. St. Martin also lived to 78, married a woman from the Cree Nation and had a slew of kids. Not too shabby, really.

And here are four more interesting folks worth reading up on:

4. "OPERATION MINCEMEAT" by Ben McIntyre. This wild tale of the Allied plot to fool the Nazis into changing military positioning at a critical point in World War II features "an unlikely cast of characters: a family of undertakers, a forensic pathologist, a gold prospector, an inventor, a submarine captain, a transvestite English spymaster, a rally driver, a pretty secretary, a credulous Nazi and a grumpy admiral who loved fly-fishing," as the preface explains.

But the pivotal heroes are Ewen Montagu — the British naval officer/lawyer who concocted the scheme — and a dead man. By dressing up a corpse in a British uniform and outfitting him with fake papers, Montagu and his men tricked Hitler into making a fatal move that turned the tide of the war. It's the sort of stuff you'd expect from a Hollywood film. And it's all true.

3. "DR. MÜTTER'S MARVELS" by Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz. Dr. Thomas Dent Mütter was more than "the P.T. Barnum of the surgery room." In the early 1800s, he pioneered the use of anesthesia and championed compassion-based treatment. One of the world's first plastic surgeons, Mütter went out of his way to treat those whom mainstream society openly called monsters: Those born deformed, crippled in horrific accidents or stricken with debilitating diseases.

Named one of NPR's best books of 2014, "Dr. Mütter's Marvels" is a biography, an unflinching look at society's treatment of "the Other" and an ultimately uplifting story of how far medicine and empathy have come in the last 200 years.

2. "AGENT GARBO" by Stephan Talty. Juan Pujol Garcia started life as a Barcelona chicken farmer. But when WWII broke out, the irrepressible scamp quite literally wrote the book on spycraft. His offer to spy for the Allies ignored, Garcia went to the German embassy. Then, with German funding and no intention of helping the Nazis, he headed to the closest library, grabbed a pen and began writing incredibly elaborate, absolutely fake correspondence between dozens of imaginary spies. Garcia single-handedly concocted an army that the Nazis panicked over, ultimately convincing his German handlers the Allied landing at Normandy was just a feint. And we all know how that ended...

Garcia is one of the most colorful and unsung heroes of WWII — the double-agent created 27 fictional spies to bamboozle the Nazis and was never discovered, earning the Iron Cross from Hitler himself and a Member of the Order of British Empire from King George VI. Then, rather than continuing his work during the Cold War, he faked his death and moved to Venezuela. What a legend; a legend soon to be immortalized in film. Oscar Isaac is currently attached to the project, which I sincerely hope will enter production this year.

1. "SHORT NIGHTS OF THE SHADOW CATCHER" by Timothy Egan. The Annie Leibovitz of his time, charismatic photographer Edward Curtis abandoned his thriving career in 1900 at the age of 32 to achieve his Great Idea: To capture on film American Indians before their culture disappeared. Amassing over 40,000 photographs and 10,000 audio recordings, Curtis made the first documentary film and preserved the stories and rituals of more than 80 tribes while becoming an outspoken, outraged advocate for America's first people.

Recipient of the National Book Award and penned by a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, "Short Nights" is richly researched, often heartbreaking and studded with Curtis' photos. More than a biography or piece of narrative nonfiction, it's a lament for an entire race and a portrait of a civil rights champion.

• ANGIE BARRY is a page designer and columnist for The Times. To suggest future topics for The B-List, which covers pop culture, history and literature, contact her at

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