People who changed the world for the better

Socrates. 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. Gave up 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. 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.

Muhammad. Prophet of Islam whose revelations form the Qu’ran, the religious text of Islam.

Thomas Jefferson. Wrote Declaration of Independence with other founding fathers and helped create ideal of liberty and democracy in 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.

Martin Luther King. 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.

Winston Churchill. 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. Was principle 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. Pivotal figure in the fight to end apartheid in South Africa. Symbol of hope and forgiveness. Accepted transition to full democracy with remarkable lack of bitterness.

William Shakespeare. Most famous poet and playwright of the English language. His sayings and writings have been repeatedly studied and memorised throughout the world.

Abraham Lincoln. 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.

Sri Krishna. 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  bhakti (devotional) yoga.

Joan of Arc. 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.

William Wilberforce. 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.

George Washington. Led American forces during the war of independence. Helped in decisively creating the new US state.

Martin Luther. Led a reaction to the abuses and power of the Catholic Church. His tenets provided the basis of the Protestant reformation which spread throughout Europe and later the world. All protestant churches can trace back their origins to Martin Luther and his challenges to the previously unquestioned dominance of the Catholic church.

Rosa Parks. Rosa Parks’ stand against the segregation on Montgomery buses created a pivotal moment in the US civil rights struggle.

Princess Diana. One of the most photographed people in the world. She became an influential humanitarian and figurehead, campaigning for various charities and humanitarian projects.

George Orwell. 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.

Charles Darwin. Scientist whose theory of evolution revolutionised the way we view the development of man and the world.

John M Keynes. Influential economist who offered solutions to the Great Depression, influencing post war economic policy.

Jawaharlal Nehru. First Indian Prime Minister after independence from the British. He  steered his country through the turbulent post-independence period.

Benjamin Franklin. Great inventor, wit and American diplomat.

Akbar. Great Moghul Emperor. Pursued enlightened policies of religious tolerance and cultural openness. Helped integrate Muslim culture into a predominantly Hindu society.

Mozart. Perhaps one of the most talented musicians of all time. Mozart’s musical repertoire was extensive creating a wealth of soulful and inspiring music.

Beethoven. Another musical genius. Beethoven’s music reached new heights of depth and range.

Catherine The Great. Ruler of Russia during the turbulent 18th Century. Catherine oversaw a rise in Russian influence and sought to improve the lot of the poorest sections of Russian society.

Florence Nightingale. Often seen as the modern face of nursing. Helped to change attitudes to medical treatment, hygiene and attitudes to nursing. Also helped change Victorian attitudes to women in society.

Leonardo da Vinci. One of the greatest thinkers, artists, scientists and innovators rolled into one. The talents of Leonardo da Vinci were breathtaking. His Mona Lisa is a most famous and enigmatic painting. His scientific discoveries often pre-dated their actual creation by several centuries.

Louis Pasteur. Great scientist whose dedication led to creation of vaccination for rabies and helped develop process of pasteurisation which made milk and wine much safer to drink.

Albert Einstein. Scientist sage. Helped physics make great strides in moving beyond limitations of Newtonian physics. Also remembered for his thoughtful observations on life, peace and war.

Pope John Paul II. Living through both Nazi and Communist regimes in his native Poland.

Desmond Tutu. Campaigner against apartheid in South Africa. Awarded nobel peace prize in 1984

Kofi Annan. United Nations secretary general. Noted for his calm and patient approach to diplomacy, even in the most testing times.

Dalai Lama. Promoted policy of non-violent resistance to Chinese occupation of his native Tibet.

Marie Curie. Awarded the Nobel Prizes for chemistry and physics. Amongst other discoveries helped to monitor radiation which led to creation of X-Ray machine.

Mother Teresa. Dedicated her life to serving the poor and disadvantaged.

Emile Zatopek. Great athlete, winning three gold medals in Helsinki Olympics of 1954. As well as being a great athlete he was willing to speak out against abuses of the Communist party in his native Czechoslovakia.

Pele. The best footballer of the twentieth century.

Jesse Owens. Upset Hitler’s showcase Olympics of 1936 by winning gold in the 100m sprint. Despite his success, he struggled to benefit from his athletic achievements, which he might have done if he was white. Became a patient and inspiring spokesperson for the civil rights movement.

Women Who Changed the World For the Better

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Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan. + “Famous Leaders”, Oxford,, 01/10/2013 updated 22 september 2017