This is a list of people whose ideas, actions and speech were not fully appreciated during their lifetime. It was only after their death that their wisdom, truth and actions were fully appreciated. In this sense, we can say that they were born ahead of their time. In some cases, they were even ridiculed or persecuted for their beliefs and actions. But, with the benefit of time, we now see their real contribution to life.
Socrates (469 BC–399 BC) – Greek philosopher. Socrates encouraged people to think for themselves and questioned the motives of going to war. He was arrested by the Athenian authorities for his philosophic teachings, Socrates was willing to accept death rather than change his opinions and beliefs. It is said he calmly accepted his fate. He is now considered the father of Western philosophy.
Hippocrates (460 – 377 BC) – Hippocrates was a great doctor of ancient Greece. His pioneering techniques of health care significantly improved survival rates, and he has become the father of modern medicine. Hippocrates was considered the first doctor to place emphasis on natural causes of disease and not superstition. It was seen as a threat to the old religious beliefs, but his legacy is very important for western medicine.
Jesus Christ (around 0 AD – 32 AD) Jesus Christ was a spiritual teacher who taught a gospel of love and forgiveness. His simple, direct teachings challenged the established religious power of the Jewish priests. He was arrested and mocked by crowds. After his death, his teachings spread throughout the region and later the whole world.
Mary Magdalene A close disciple of Jesus Christ. Present at the crucifixion of Christ, Mary Magdalene retained a close faith in Jesus – even when he was mocked and betrayed by the world and his other disciples. In seeing the divinity in Christ even at his lowest moment, she was a forerunner of those who would come to recognise the special mission of Jesus.
Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179) Mystic, author and composer. Hildegard of Bingen lived a withdrawn life, spending most of her time behind convent walls. However, her writings, poetry and music were revelatory for the time period. She was consulted by popes, kings and influential people of the time. Her writings and music have influenced people to this day.
Joan of Arc (1412–1431) Joan of Arc inspired a French revolt against the occupation of the English. After initial successes, she was arrested on trumped up charges of heresy. She was convicted and burnt at the stake. However, she correctly predicted that France would be free within seven years. Her prediction came to pass and she became the patron saint of France.
Kabir (1440–c. 1518) Indian mystical poet. Kabir fused different religious traditions writing poetry which offered a direct approach to God. He questioned rituals of both established religions and was slandered for his free-thinking approach. After his death, he became a great celebrated bhakti poet.
Nicholaus Copernicus (1473- 1543) Polish scientist. A Renaissance mathematician and astronomer who formulated a heliocentric view of the universe. During his lifetime, his findings were controversial because they challenged the established views of the church. His books were banned, despite supporting evidence from Galileo. It took over a century for the scientific community to fully accept his theories. The church accepted Copernicus’ view in 1822.
Leonardo Da Vinci (1452–1519) Italian Renaissance painter, scientist, inventor, and polymath. Da Vince undertook a wide range of investigations into human anatomy and scientific subjects. He also drew prototypes for inventions like planes, helicopters, bicycles that would not be made into reality until many centuries later.
William Tyndale (1494 – 1536 ) Tyndale was one of the first persons to print the Bible in English. He worked on translating the Bible into English even when it was deemed to be an illegal act. He was executed for blasphemy. However, within a few years of his death, Henry VIII had changed his mind and began to allow Bibles to be printed in English.
St Teresa of Avila (1515–1582) Spanish mystic, poet and Carmelite reformer. St Teresa of Avila lived through the Spanish inquisition but avoided being placed on trial despite her mystical revelations. She helped to reform the tradition of Catholicism and steer the religion away from fanaticism.
Akbar (1542 – 1605) During Akbar’s reign, the Moghul empire tripled in size and wealth. Akbar was a noted benefactor of the arts, literature and culture. He sought to bring different religions together and sought to see the best in different religions. His attempt at fusing religions into one world religion was premature, but it was a precursor to future interfaith initiatives.
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 was placed on the banned list, and he was placed under house arrest. But, he is now considered a key figure in the Scientific Renaissance.
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. Newton revolutionised the subject of physics and is studied today.
William Penn (1644 – 1718) Penn was an English Quaker, entrepreneur, philosopher and founder of Philadelphia, US. Penn proposed the idea of religious tolerance and Pennsylvannia became a magnet for difuse religious minorities. He also proposed the idea of a federation of American colonies. In, An Essay Towards the Present and Future Peace of Europe (1693) he proposed the idea of an international organisation to promote peace in Europe.
Thomas Paine (1737-1809) English-American writer and political activist. In 1776, he wrote the best selling pamphlet Common Sense. This advocated America seeking independence from Great Britain. Pained was persecuted in Britain and France. He fled to the US. At his funeral, only six people attended because of his ridicule of established Christianity. His “Age of Reason” (1794) is now a classic of political philosophy.
Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) Founding Father and author of The Declaration of Independence (1776). The universal sentiments of the right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness – were radical for the time, but has become a cornerstone of human rights.
William Blake (1757–1827) English poet, painter and printmaker. Blake is considered an early romantic poet and painter, but with his very own unique style of drawings.
Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797) English author, Wollstonecraft wrote the most significant book in the early feminist movement. Her pamphlet “A Vindication of the Rights of Women” laid down a moral and practical basis for extending human and political rights to women. She was a pioneer in the struggle for female suffrage at a time when very few were sympathetic to the idea of equality between the sexes.
Raja Rammohun Roy (1772 – 1833) Influential political and cultural activist who helped found the Brahmo Samaj. – A social/religious organisation dedicated to the revival of a rational, modern Hinduism. He criticised outdated rituals and sought to revitalise the national spirit of India. Roy was a forerunner of the Indian independence movement.
Charles Babbage (1791–1871) English mathematician and inventor. Babbage created the first mechanical computer, which proved to be the prototype for future computers. Considered to be the ‘Father of Computers,’ despite not finishing a working model.
John Keats (1795 – 1821) English Romantic Poet. During his lifetime, his poetry sold very few copies and was criticised by many of his contemporaries. Since his death, he is ranked as one of England’s greatest poets.
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). This sparked a heated debate between evolutionists and those who believed in a literal interpretation of the bible.
Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) 16th President of the US from 1861-1865. Lincoln saw slavery a moral wrong, at a time when the majority of the population wished to keep the status quo. He made tentative suggestions to widen vote to women and parts of the black community. He was assassinated shortly after the end of the civil war by Confederate sympathisers.
Gregor Mendel (1822 – 1884) German scientist and Augustinian Friar. Mendel is considered the founder of modern genetics for his discoveries about plant breeding and rules of heredity. His initial work was not appreciated. It took 15 years for other scientists to replicate his work – confirming his theory of heredity in breeding.
Joseph Lister (1827 – 1912) English surgeon. Lister pioneered the use of antiseptic (Carbolic acid) and antiseptic surgery which dramatically improved survival rates.
Emily Dickinson (1830–1886) One of America’s greatest poets, Emily Dickinson lived most of her life in seclusion. Her poems were published posthumously and received widespread literary praise for their bold and unconventional style.
Vincent Van Gogh (1853–1890). Dutch post-impressionist painter, who spent many years in France. 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. During his lifetime he sold very few copies and remained poor. His paintings now fetch record sums.
Oscar Wilde (1854 – 1900) – Irish writer and poet. Wilde wrote humorous, satirical plays, such as ‘The Importance of Being Earnest‘ and ‘The Picture of Dorian Grey’. Sent to jail for homosexuality, Wilde’s literary output failed out of favour.
Woodrow Wilson (1856 – 1924) US president. Wilson was President during the First World War. His idealistic 14 points formed the basis for the League of Nations, the forerunner of the United Nations. However, when he took his plan back to the US, the Senate rejected it, preferring isolation to becoming a member of the League of Nations.
Nikola Tesla (1856 –1943) Serbian/American – Worked on electromagnetism and AC current. Credited with many patents from electricity to radio transmission. During his lifetime, he was overshadowed by commercially more successful inventors such as Thomas Edison.
Swami Vivekananda (1863 – 1902 ) A disciple of Sri Ramakrishna, Vivekananda helped bring yoga to the West and spoke about the underlying unity of world religions at the Parliament of World Religions (1893). Vivekananda was the first to bring yoga, meditation and the idea of interfaith unity to the West and the US in particular.
Emily Murphy (1868–1933) The first woman magistrate in the British Empire. In 1927 she joined forces with four other Canadian women who sought to challenge an old Canadian law that said, “women should not be counted as persons.” They were successful in overturning outdated sexist ideas.
Sri Aurobindo (1872 – 1950 ) A spiritual Teacher, philosopher and poet. He was an early figure in the Indian independence movement. A pioneer in calling for India’s complete independence. He retired from politics to work on an integral yoga – bringing spirituality into all aspects of life.
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.
Rachel Carson (1907 – 1964) American conservationist. Rachel Carson was a pioneering environmentalist. Her work, Silent Spring (1962) highlighted the dangers of unregulated pesticide use and other chemical toxins. It was criticised by chemical companies, but it played an important role in advancing the global environmental movement.
James Lovelock (1911 – 1977) English environmentalist. Lovelock is an independent scientist who proposed the Gaia theory that the world, humans and the environment are all interconnected. He made frequent warnings about the dangers of damaging the environment.
Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan. “People who were born ahead of their time”, Oxford, UK. www.biographyonline.net Published 23 October 2018.
People who made a difference. Men and women who made a positive contribution to the world – in the fields of politics, literature, music, activism and spirituality.
100 most influential people – A list of 100 most influential people as chosen by Michael H. Hart, from his book 100 most influential people in the world. Includes; Muhammad, Jesus Christ, Lord Buddha, Confucius, St Paul and Johann Gutenberg.
Ideas that changed the world – Scientific, political, religious and technological ideas that transformed the world. Including democracy, feminism, human rights and relativity.