People who made a difference

In this list I have chosen people who have made a difference to the world in a positive way. They include people from the fields of politics, science, religion, humanitarian and cultural.

peopleAbraham Lincoln (1809 – 1865) – Abraham Lincoln overcame many setbacks to become the most influential American President. In his famous Gettysburg speech, he inspired the nation with his noble words and helped to bring about the abolishment of slavery.

peopleBenjamin Franklin (1706 – 1790) Great polymath and promoter of American ideals at home and in the US. A practical man of great dynamism and good character.

peopleMikhail Gorbachev (1931 – ) Had the courage, tenacity and strength of character to give up the absolute power of Soviet Communism. Moved the Soviet Union to democracy and respect for human rights. Gorbachev enabled the Berlin Wall to come down giving freedom to Eastern Europe.

peopleJesus Christ (c.5BC – 30AD) Prophet and inspiration of Christianity. Taught a message of love, forgiveness and faith. Born in a turbulent period of Roman rule, after his crucifixion, his message inspired millions around the world.

peopleWilliam Wilberforce (1759 – 1833) Fought tirelessly for ending the slave trade, at a time when many accepted it as an ‘economic necessity’. He awakened the conscience of many of his fellow countryman and made slavery appear unacceptable.

peopleNelson Mandela (1918 – 2013) Campaigned for justice and freedom in his South Africa. Spent 20 years in jail for his opposition to apartheid. On release he healed the wounds of apartheid by his magnanimous attitude to his former political enemies.

peopleAlbert Einstein (1879 –- 1955) Einstein’s theories of relativity were a very significant scientific breakthrough. As well as being a genius scientist, Einstein was also a champion of human rights and campaigned for a more peaceful world.

peopleMarie Curie (1867 – 1934) Marie Curie was awarded a Nobel Prize for both Chemistry and Physics. Her discoveries with radiation helped advance medical science. Also, her achievements were even more remarkable at a time when few women gained education.

peopleThomas Jefferson (1743 – 1826) One of America’s founding fathers, Jefferson helped draft the Declaration of Independence and foster a belief in human rights. Amongst other achievements, Jefferson passed one of the first bills on religious tolerance in his state of Virginia.

peopleMartin Luther King (1929 – 1968) Inspiring leader of the non-violent civil rights movement. Inspired millions of people black and white to aspire for a more equal society.

peopleWilliam Shakespeare (1564 – 1616) Shakespeare remains the King of English literature. His plays and poetry captured the richness and diversity of human existence in the most powerful and poetic way.

peopleLeonardo da Vinci (1452 -– 1519) – One of the greatest minds in human history. There were few areas, Leonardo didn’t delve into. In many areas he was a couple of centuries ahead of scientific discovery. He helped make great advances in anatomy, astronomy, physics, science and others. He also painted the most iconic picture in history – The Mona Lisa.

peopleMuhammad Ali (1942 – 2016 ) – Champion boxer and great character. Refused to fight in Vietnam war and became a champion of civil rights and African interests. When asked how he would like to be remembered, Ali said: “As a man who tried to unite all humankind through faith and love.”

kingHelen Keller (1880 – 1968) – Despite disability of both deafness and blindness, she learned to read and write, becoming a champion of social issued and helping to improve the welfare of deaf people.

peopleRosa Parks (1913 – 2005) Rosa Parks became a well respected figurehead of the American civil rights movement. Rosa showed what ordinary people can do when they stick fast to their beliefs in testing conditions.

peopleMother Teresa (1910 – 1997) – Lived a life of poverty to try an ameliorate the conditions of others. Her devotion and compassion inspired the lives of many thousands she came into contact with.

peopleMahatma Gandhi (1869 – 1948) – Gandhi was the principle figurehead of the Indian independence movement. Gandhi followed a philosophy of non-violence and peaceful protest.; he also sought to improve conditions for women and ‘low castes’

peopleWinston Churchill (1874 – 1965) In the worst moments of 1940, the Nazi war machine looked invincible as it swept through Europe. Churchill inspired the free nations to keep alive the fight against the tyranny of Hitler’s Germany.

peopleBuddha (c 563 – 483 BC) – The Buddha was a young prince who gave up the comforts of palace life to seek the meaning of life meditating in the forests. After gaining realisation, the Buddha spent the remainder of his life travelling around India teaching a middle path of meditation and inner peace.

peopleSocrates (469 – 399 BC) – Socrates showed the power and integrity of independent thought. Socrates taught by encouraging people to honestly question their pre-conceptions. His method of self-enquiry laid the foundations of Western Philosophic thought.

peopleJane Goodall (1934 – ) – Made ground-breaking study into the behaviour of chimpanzee’s. Became a noted campaigner and activist for environmental protection and kindness to animals.

peopleFlorence Nightingale (1820 – 1910) Florence Nightingale helped to revolutionise the treatment of patients after her experience of treating wounded soldiers in the Crimean war.

peopleAnne Frank (1929 – 1945) Anne Frank was nobody special, just an ordinary teenage girl. But, she became a symbol of how ordinary people can get caught up in man’s inhumanity. But, despite the most testing of conditions Anne retained an optimistic spirit.

peopleGalileo (1564 -1642) – Scientist who helped make great strides in astronomy and helped promote a heliocentric view of the world, despite coming into conflict with the prevailing religious orthodoxy of the time.

peopleSwami Vivekananda (1863 – 1902 ) – Vivekananda was an influential speaker at the 1893 World Parliament of Religions because he advocated religious tolerance and religious unity. He also encouraged the education of women and inspired fellow Indians to take greater pride and belief in the best of Hindu culture.

peopleGeorge Orwell -(1903 – 1950) George Orwell was a democratic socialist who fought in the Spanish civil war on the side of the republicans. He gave up his privileged education to spend time with the unemployed of the Great Depression. His greatest contribution was warning about the dangers of totalitarian regimes (through Animal Farm and 1984)

peopleJohn M Keynes (1883 – 1946) The greatest economist of the twentieth century. Keynes laid the framework for modern macroeconomics offering solutions to the dreadful calamity of the Great Depression

peopleWilliam Blake – Poet and artist. – “To see a world in a grain of sand, | And a heaven in a wild flower|
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,| And eternity in an hour.”

peoplePrincess Diana – Involved in many humanitarian charities. Helped to de-stigmatise issues such as AIDS.

peopleConfucius – Influential Chinese philosopher who laid ground work for much of Chinese philosophy and society.

peopleMozart – A musical genius who gives joy to millions of people.

peopleJohn Keats – Romantic Poet. Keats lived a short life, but the intensity of his poetry, has left a deep and lasting legacy. ‘A thing of beauty is a joy forever.” – Keats.

peopleRaisa Gorbachev – Wife of Mikhail Gorbachev. Engaged in humanitarian works and supported her husband during great change of his Presidency.

peopleEleanor Roosevelt. A supporter of the rights of women and committed to the oppressed in society, Eleanor also helped to draft the UN Declaration of human rights.

peopleWoodrow Wilson. Woodrow Wilson had a vision for a League of Nations – a forum where nations could come together to solve disputes. The League of Nations struggled to make an impact before the Second World War, but, became more effective.

peopleLeo Tolstoy – Influential Russian author, whose great epics include War and Peace. His philosophy of non-violence and a return to rural simplicity inspired other politicians such as Gandhi.

peopleSri Krishna – Revered as Hindu Spiritual Teacher. Responsible for the immortal dialogue contained in the Bhagavad Gita.

peopleLouis Pasteur – French scientist who found many important improvements in medical science, e.g. vaccination for Rabies – and a safe way to pasteurise milk.

peopleRumi – Sufi poet. His mystical poetry has a universal appeal.

peopleCharles Darwin. Darwin published his Origin of Species detailing a belief in evolution at a time when such a decision was very controversial.

peopleAkbar – The Great Moghul Emperor who went a long way to uniting India under his rule. Though a great warrior Akbar was also known for his love of culture, music and philosophy. He introduced enlightened laws on religious tolerance in his kingdom and encouraged representatives of different religions to come to his court.

peopleC S Lewis – Author of best selling ‘Chronicles of Narnia’ and Christian apologist.

joanSophie Scholl (1921-1943) – German student who took part in resistance to Hitler and the Nazi party. She helped distribute leaflets criticising the war and the Nazi ideology. She was executed for ‘ treason’ and became an important symbol of German resistance to Hitler.

peopleOprah Winfrey – US talk show host who became an important figurehead for women in America. Encouraged belief in self-improvement.

peopleMartin Luther – Martin Luther was the most influential figure in the reformation of the sixteenth century. It was Luther who challenged the excesses of the Catholic church leading to the protestant movement – and forcing the Catholic Church to reinvigorate itself.

peopleEdward Jenner – led pioneering work on the development of an inoculation against the deadly smallpox. Opened up the way to more immunisations, arguably saving the lives of millions of people around the world.

peopleSir Isaac Newton – One of the greatest scientists of all time. Isaac Newton led the foundation of modern physics with his development of theories on gravity and mechanics

peopleSt Francis of Assisi – Christian mystic who founded new order committed to essence of Christian gospels.

people14th Dalai Lama – Spiritual leader of Tibetan people. Helped to popularise principles of Buddhism around the world

peoplePablo Picasso – Iconic twentieth century artist, known for his commitment to peace.

peopleJohn Lennon – Iconic singer song writer. Member of the Beatles.

peopleDesmond Tutu – South African anti-apartheid campaigner. Sought to heal wounds after end of apartheid through Truth and Reconciliation committee.

peopleMichelangelo – Never suffering from false modesty, Michelangelo referred to himself as ‘God’s own artist’. But, in the case of Michelangelo his self-belief was well justified. During his lifetime, he produced some of the greatest works of art ever produced – The Pieta, The Sistine Chapel, the Statue of David.

peopleLord Baden Powell – Founder of the Scout Movement

peopleJesse Owens – Jesse Owen’s four gold medals at Hitler’s 1936 Olympics in Berlin was one of the great moments of sport, which helped to puncture the Nazi ideology of Aryan supremacy. Jesse Owens was a modest hero who remained a great ambassador for the sport.

peopleJohn F. Kennedy – US President who offered new vision for his country.

peoplePope John Paul II – Polish pope who played a role in transition from Communist to a more democratic Eastern Europe.

Dr._Bhim_Rao_AmbedkarB.R Ambedkar (1891 – 1956) Indian social reformer. Ambedkar was born in the Mahar ‘untouchable’ caste, but became a pioneering political activist and social reformer. He was the principle figure in the drafting of the Indian Constitution, which outlawed ‘untouchability’ and promoted equality.

peopleRaphael – Artist. Raphael was an Italian painter of the Renaissance.

peopleBeethoven – Great Classical Composer.

peopleSri Chinmoy – An Indian spiritual teacher who combined the best of Eastern and Western cultures. Founded the Sri Chinmoy Oneness-Home Peace Run, a world wide run to promote greater friendship and understanding.

peopleSt Teresa of Avila – 16th Century Spanish mystic and poet. Helped re-vitalise religious life in Spain, despite the Inquisition and patriarchal nature of society.

peoplePele – One of world’s greatest ever footballers. Became international sporting icon.

peopleAbbe Pierre – French humanitarian who set up charity for the homeless.

peopleSri Aurobindo – Early Indian nationalist leader who later retired from politics to devote his life to yoga, spirituality and poetry.

peopleAnnie Besant – involved in representing women and workers in 19th Century Britain. Became leading member of Theosophy society and supported Indian independence

peopleEmile Zatopek – Greatest long distance runner. Winning three gold medals at the 1954 Olympics. Principled supporter of Czech democracy, being sent to work in mines for his opposition to the Communist government.

peopleSt Therese Lisieux – A Carmelite nun, who died aged 24, unknown to the world. Yet, after her death her simple writings had a profound effect becoming one of the best selling spiritual writings. Her approach was a deceptively simple approach of doing the smallest acts with love.

peopleAudrey Hepburn – Actress later involved in working for UNESCO

peopleBetty Williams – Awarded Nobel Peace prize for her peace work in Northern Ireland.


peopleBob Geldof – Musician and charity campaigner. Launched ‘Band Aid’ in 1984 to help African famine.

peopleEva Peron – Argentinian ‘First Lady’ Founded influential charity and helped create more equal society.

peopleSir Titus Salt – Victorian industrialist who was also concerned for welfare of workers. Helped to build model village and insist on better working conditions.

peopleAugn San Suu Kyi – Leader of opposition in Myanmar. Recently released from house arrest, she has been awarded the Nobel Peace prize for her fight for democracy and human rights.

peopleJohn M. Keynes. Keynes was a revolutionary economist, who explained the causes of the Great Depression and how it might be solved. He created the discipline of macroeconomics.

peopleSteve Jobs – Charismatic founder of Apple. Helped create new standards of design in technology.

peopleDietrich Bonhoeffer –German pastor and pacifist who was executed for his opposition to Hitler in Nazi Germany.

peopleHarriet Beecher Stow – American writer and campaigner against slavery. Author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

peopleKofi Annan – Secretary General of the United Nations from 1997 to 2006. Awarded Nobel Peace Prize in 2001

peopleLech Walesa – Polish opposition leader who became symbolic figure in efforts to end Communist rule.

peopleMillicent Fawcett – English suffragist who campaigned for equal rights and votes for women. Leader of the largest Suffrage movement the NUWSS, who advocated peaceful, constitutional change.

Malala Yousafzai – Pakistani schoolgirl who defied threats of the Taliban to campaign for the right to education. She survived being shot in the head by the Taliban and has become a global advocate for human rights, women’s rights and the right to education.

Citation : Pettinger, Tejvan. “People who made a difference”, Oxford,, 18th July. 2013

Related pages


  • look all I’m saying is we should totally include people like Stalin and Hitler.

    just because they changed things doesn’t mean it was good

Join the Discussion