A selection of people who have changed the world for the better in different categories of religion/spirituality, literature, music, science, arts, humanitarian efforts and politics.
Socrates (469 BC – 399 BC) Encouraged critical thinking and laid a framework for modern western philosophy. Remembered for the stoic attitude with which he approached his own death.
The Buddha (563 BC – 483 BC) Gave up the privileges of a prince to be an ascetic in the forest. After attaining enlightenment, he travelled through India teaching his philosophy of self-enlightenment. Critical of the caste structure of Hindu society, the Buddha taught a middle path of right thinking and non-violence.
Jesus Christ (5BC – 30AD) Taught a message of love and forgiveness during a brutal period of Roman occupation. Inspired many to devote themselves to a spiritual life seeking to live a better life. His Christian ideals would later be adopted by the Roman Empire ensuring the spread of his philosophy and teachings all over Europe.
Moses (1391 BC – 1271 BC) Moses was a key prophet of the Old Testament. He received the Torah (law) on Mount Sinai, which includes the Ten Commandments. Moses was influential in creating a strong monotheistic religious tradition.
Laozi (Lao Tsu) (c 571 BC) Chinese poet and philosopher. He was the author of the Tao Te Ching and the founder of philosophical Taoism. Laozi encouraged followers to look for the underlying harmony in the world – and go beyond the human ego and greed.
Sri Krishna (c. 2000 BC) Principle figure of Bhagavad Gita. Taught a modern form of yoga to his disciple Arjuna. Sri Krishna taught religion/spirituality was for all and not just the preserve of ascetics who had renounced the world. Through the tradition of Brindavan and the gopis, Sri Krishna also initiated the widespread bhakti (devotional) yoga.
Muhammad (570 – 632) Prophet of Islam who wrote down revelations which form the Qu’ran, the religious text of Islam.
Pope John Paul II (1920 – 2005) Living through both Nazi and Communist regimes in his native Poland. Expressed strict morality but also compassion and encouraged people to lead more moral lives.
Joan of Arc (1412 – 1431) Helped to lead France to independence from English conquest. During her life, she helped the Dauphin, Charles, regain the French throne. Though burnt at the stake for heresy, she correctly prophesied France would be free within seven years. Also, helped change attitudes to women.
George Washington (1732 – 1799) Led American forces during the war of independence. Helped in decisively creating the new US state.
Thomas Jefferson (1743 – 1826) Wrote The Declaration of Independence with other founding fathers and helped create the ideal of liberty and democracy in the US. Passed a bill in Virginia allowing freedom of religious worship. Tried to pass a bill to end slavery. Promoted education and founded the University of Virginia.
William Wilberforce (1759 – 1833) Fought a long campaign to end the slave trade in Britain. This was eventually successful and paved the way for the abolishment of slavery in the British Empire, and other countries later followed suit.
Abraham Lincoln (1809 – 1865) US president during the civil war. Provided leadership as the Northern states fought to maintain the union of the United States. Also widened conflict to include the abolishment of slavery within the US.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902) Elizabeth Stanton was a social activist and leading figure in the early women’s rights movement. She was a key figure in helping create the early women’s suffrage movements in the US. She was the principal author of ‘Declaration of Sentiments’ which was distributed at the first women’s rights convention in 1848.
Rosa Parks (1913 – 2005) Rosa Parks’ stand against the segregation on Montgomery buses created a pivotal moment in the US civil rights struggle.
Martin Luther King (1929 – 1968) Helped create a powerful, non-violent civil rights protest movement. His speeches and organisation laid the framework for change in society. This led to the civil rights legislation of the late 1960s and helped to slowly erode the racism and segregation of the US.
Ida B. Wells (1862 – 1931) African-American activist for both civil rights and women’s suffrage. Wells was born into slavery but freed by the civil war. She led an investigation into the practise of lynching in the Deep South becoming a well-known journalist and writer.
Winston Churchill (1874 – 1965) Churchill’s finest hour came in inspiring Great Britain to continue the fight against Nazi Germany in 1940, after the fall of France. His great speeches inspired a sense of belief that victory could be won.
Mahatma Gandhi (1869 – 1948) Principal figurehead of the Indian independence movement. His policy of non-violent protest led to India’s independence in 1947. He is also admired for his philosophy of non-violence, and forgiveness.
Nelson Mandela. (1918 – 2013) A pivotal figure in the fight to end apartheid in South Africa. Symbol of hope and forgiveness. Accepted transition to full democracy with a remarkable lack of bitterness.
Rachel Carson (1907 – 1964) American scientist, conservationist and writer. Rachel Carson was a marine biologist who used her knowledge to become a pioneering environmentalist. Her work, Silent Spring (1962) highlighted the dangers of unregulated pesticide use. It played an important role in creating the modern ecological movement.
Virgil (70 BC – 19 BC) Roman poet. Wrote three epics Eclogues (or Bucolics), the Georgics, and the Aeneid.
Dante Alighieri (1265–1321) Italian poet of the Middle Ages. His Divine Comedy, is one of most influential European works of literature. Dante is also called the “Father of the Italian language”.
William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616) Most famous poet and playwright of the English language. His sayings and writings have been repeatedly studied and memorised throughout the world.
Rene Descartes (1596 – 1650) French philosopher and mathematician. Descartes set a precedent for examining issues and trying to avoid any presumption – even questioning the existence of God.
Tom Paine (1737- 1809) English-American author, philosopher and social activist. Wrote ‘Common Sense‘ (1776) and the Rights of Man (1791). Important tracts supporting the principles of American and French revolutions.
Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) – English author and early advocate of women’s rights. Her work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) is one of the earliest works which argues women have right to make full participation in society.
Karl Marx (1818 – 1883) German Marxist philosopher. Author of Das Kapital and The Communist Manifesto (with F.Engels) Marx argued that a Communist revolution to overthrow Capitalist society was an inevitable consequence of historical progress.
George Orwell. (1903 – 1950) Though a committed socialist, George Orwell was instrumental in highlighting the dangers of totalitarian societies, be they Fascist or Communist. Animal Farm was a satire on the Russian revolution – a revolution betrayed. 1984 was a warning of the potential dangers of totalitarian society.
Florence Nightingale (1820–1910) Nightingale is credited with inventing modern nursing. She used statistical analysis to evaluate the impact of different nursing practices.
Clara Barton (1821-1912) – A nurse in the American civil war, Clara Barton helped improve treatment of wounded soldiers. After working with the international Red Cross in Europe, she returned to the US where she set up the American Red Cross.
Eleanor Roosevelt (1884–1962)Roosevelt was an influential supporter of the United Nations in its founding years. She helped to draw up the charter on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Princess Diana. (1961–1997) Diana Princess of Wales was an influential humanitarian and figurehead, campaigning for various charities and humanitarian projects. She helped to destigmatise diseases such as AIDS.
Bach (1685 – 1750) German composer – one of the most prolific composers of all time. Bach brought Baroque and choral music to its pinnacle of musical depth.
Mozart (1756 – 1791) Austrian classical composer. Mozart was an innovative composer who had a major influence on the development of music.
Beethoven (1770 – 1827) German composer and pianist of the classical and romantic period. Beethoven took classical music to a new depth and added a new sense of romanticism and spiritual depth to music.
Leonardo Da Vinci (1452–1519) Da Vinci is one of the most famous painters for his iconic Mona Lisa and Last Supper. These paintings alone had a profound impact on global culture, but Da Vinci was also a polymath in science, anatomy, maths and inventor – often many centuries ahead of his contemporaries.
Michelangelo (1475–1564) Supreme artist of the Renaissance sculptor, painter and architect. Famous works include the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and the statue of David.
Rembrandt (1606–1669) Dutch Master from the Dutch Golden Age. One of the greatest painters, admired for his vivid realism and empathy with the human condition. Rembrandt took art in a new direction of human emotion.
Claude Monet (1840–1926) French impressionist painter. It was Monet’s painting – Impression, Soleil Levant (Impression, Sunrise), that led to the title of the Impressionist Movement. From impressionism sprung a golden age of European art with innovative approaches.
Vincent Van Gogh (1853–1890). Dutch post-impressionist painter, who spent many years in France. Despite turbulent mental state, Van Gogh produced some of the greatest works of all time – Starry Night, Sunflowers, Bedroom in Arles, Van Gogh’s Chair and The Cafe Terrace.
Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) Spanish, modern cubist painter. Notable works include Birds of Peace, Guernica (1937) and The Weeping Woman (1937) Picasso was the greatest artist of the Twentieth Century.
Scientists who changed the world
Aristotle (384 – 322 BC) Greek scientist who made investigations and discoveries in the natural sciences including botany, zoology, physics, astronomy, chemistry, meteorology and geometry. His prolific output had a significant impact on the study of science in the West.
Euclid (c. 325 – 265 BC) Greek mathematician. Euclid is often referred to as the ‘father of modern geometry.’ His book ‘Elements‘ provided the basis of mathematics into the Twentieth Century.
Nicholaus Copernicus (1473- 1543) Polish scientist. A Renaissance mathematician and astronomer who formulated a heliocentric view of the universe. His book On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres (1543) was one of the major moments of the Scientific Revolution.
Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626) English philosopher, statesman and scientist. Bacon is considered the father of empiricism for his work and advocacy of scientific method. He influenced future scientific studies encouraging a more rigorous and analytical method.
Galileo (1564 – 1642) Italian scientist. Created one of the first modern telescopes, Galileo revolutionised our understanding of the world supporting the work of Copernicus. His work Two New Sciences laid the groundwork for the science of Kinetics and strength of materials.
Antonie van Leeuwenhoek (1632 – 1723) Dutch scientist and trader. Leeuwenhoek is considered the father of microbiology for his work in discovering single-celled organisms and also observing muscle fibres, blood flow and bacteria. He developed the microscope which helped his own discoveries.
Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1726) English scientist. Newton made studies in mathematics, optics, physics, and astronomy. In his Principia Mathematica, published in 1687, he laid the foundations for classical mechanics, explaining the law of gravity and the Laws of Motion.
Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier (1743 – 1794) French Chemist and Nobleman. Considered the ‘Father of Chemistry’ Lavoisier discovered hydrogen and Oxygen and showed the role of Oxygen in combustion. He also made the first comprehensive list of Table of Elements.
Charles Babbage (1791 – 1871) – English inventor of the first mechanical computers. Babbage is considered the ‘father of computers’ for his pioneering work on mechanical computers.
Michael Faraday (1791 – 1867) – English scientist who contributed to the fields of electromagnetic induction, diamagnetism, electrolysis and electrochemistry. Discovered Carbon and Chlorine.
Edward Jenner (1749 – 1823) English pioneer of smallpox vaccine. Jenner’s breakthrough also enabled many other vaccines to be developed.
Charles Darwin (1809 – 1882) English scientist. Darwin developed the theory of evolution against a backdrop of disbelief and scepticism. Collected evidence over 20 years, and published conclusions in On the Origin of Species (1859).
Louis Pasteur (1822 – 1895) French biologist. Contributed substantially towards the advancement of medical sciences developing cures for rabies, anthrax and other infectious diseases. Also enabled the process of pasteurisation to make milk safer to drink.
James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) Scottish physicist. Maxwell made a significant contribution to understanding electromagnetism. His research in electricity and kinetics laid the foundation for quantum physics.
Sigmund Freud (1885 – 1939) Austrian physician – the leading figure in the new science of psychoanalysis. Freud made an extensive study of dreams and the subconscious to try and understand better human emotions.
Marie Curie (1867 – 1934) Polish physicist and chemist. Discovered radiation and helped to apply it in the field of X-ray. She won Nobel Prize in both Chemistry and Physics.
Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955) German/US physicist. Einstein revolutionised modern physics with his general theory of relativity. Won Nobel Prize in Physics (1921) for his discovery of the Photoelectric effect, which formed the basis of Quantum Theory.
Alexander Fleming (1881-1955) Scottish biologist who discovered penicillin – an anti-bacterial medicine. Shared Nobel Prize in 1945 with Howard Florey and Ernst Boris Chain, who helped produce penicillin on a large scale.
Nikola Tesla (1856 –1943) Serbian/American – Worked on electromagnetism and AC current. Credited with many patents from electricity to radio transmission.
Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan. “People who changed the world for the better”, Oxford, www.biographyonline.net, Published 01 March 2013. Last updated 4 March 2019.
Great Women Who Changed the World at Amazon
Women who changed the world – Famous women who changed the world. Features female Prime Ministers, scientists, cultural figures, authors and royalty. Includes; Cleopatra, Princess Diana, Marie Curie, Queen Victoria, and Joan of Arc.
Inspirational people – People who made a difference in a positive way and left the world a better place. Includes Eleanor Roosevelt, Mother Teresa and Emil Zatopek.
People who fought for human/civil rights – People who campaigned for equality, civil rights and civil justice. Includes Abraham Lincoln, Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks.