Famous people who were misunderstood

This is a list of famous people who were misunderstood during their lifetime and also perhaps after their death.

philosopherSocrates (469 – 399 BC) Athenian philosopher, Socrates encouraged people to think for themselves and question the existing order. The authorities considered Socrates a threat and had him executed for ‘corrupting the youth of society.’ He is now considered the father of Western philosophy.

mary-magdalene Mary Magdalene (4 BCE–40 BCE) Accounts from the Gospels and other sources suggest Mary Magdalene was one of Jesus’ most devoted followers. However, for a long time, she was conflated with Mary of Bethany and considered a “sinful woman” – a fallen prostitute. The Gnostic gospels suggest Mary Magdalene was actually one of the closest disciples to Jesus and this caused tension with some other disciples.

Jesus Christ (c. 2BC – 32 AD) Jesus taught a message of love and forgiveness, but the religious authorities of the time felt he was a threat to their power. After his crucifixion and death, writers have made claims about Jesus, which he did not necessarily claim for himself during his life. The most prolific writer in the New Testament is St Paul and our perception of Jesus Christ is coloured by St Paul’s interpretation of Jesus Christ’s mission.

joanJoan of Arc (1412–1431) Joan of Arc inspired a French revolt against the occupation of the English. An unlikely hero, at the age of just 17, the diminutive Joan successfully led the French to victory at Orleans. However, for a young woman to wield so much influence was highly unusual and she was accused of witchcraft and heresy. As a result, she was burned at the stake.

artistLeonardo Da Vinci (1452–1519) Renaissance painter, scientist, inventor and polymath genius who was many years if not centuries ahead of his time. After his death his art, notes, scientific discoveries and writings were increasingly valued.

Galileo Galileo (1564 – 1642) Italian scientist. Galileo revolutionised our understanding of the world – supporting the work of Copernicus in claiming the earth revolved around the sun, rather than the other way around. Galileo’s theories were controversial and he was considered a heretic.

writerAdam Smith (1723-1790) A Scottish social philosopher and pioneer of classical economics. He is best known for his work ‘The Wealth of Nations‘ Smith is often referred to as the ‘Father of Economics.’ Smith’s work makes a strong case for free market economics. However, Smith is far from a libertarian, free-market economist that he is often made out to be. In Moral Sentiments, he explains his view that morality and selflessness is more important than unabashed capitalism.

philosopher 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 the right to make full participation in society. She published her groundbreaking work at a time when support for women’s rights was very low.

Ludwig_van_Beethoven Beethoven (1770 – 1827) German composer and pianist of the Classical and romantic period. During his lifetime he was often misunderstood. His visionary music was not instantly appreciated. He was increasingly deaf and could be temperamental. Nevertheless, he is now considered one of the greatest musical genius of all time.

Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) 16th President of the US from 1861-1865. His election in 1861 was highly contentious, by the Southern press, he was labelled as a radical who would destroy the Southern way of life, even though he had modest proposals on slavery in 1861. The irony is that the civil war created circumstances for a radical abolition of slavery in 1865.

Charles Darwin (1809 – 1882) English scientist. Darwin developed the theory of evolution against a backdrop of disbelief and scepticism. He published his conclusions in On the Origin of Species (1859). This sparked a bitter public debate, in which Darwin was drawn in cartoons as being half a monkey – a misrepresentation of his theory of evolution.

artistVincent Van Gogh (1853–1890). Dutch post-impressionist painter. Famous paintings include; Sunflowers, The Starry Night, and Cafe Terrace at Night. During his lifetime, he sold very few paintings and his artistic genius was largely ignored. Van Gogh was considered unstable due to his volatile temperament.

booker_t_washington Booker T. Washington (1856 – 1915) Author and orator, Washington the de facto leader of African-Americans. He has been criticised for accepting racial segregation, but Washington felt an incremental approach to improving education and life prospects of black Americans was the only viable option around the start of the Twentieth Century. In secret, he supported legal challenges to segregation.

Nikola Tesla (1856 –1943) Serbian/American – Worked on electromagnetism and AC current. Credited with many patents from electricity to radio transmission. However, Tesla’s invention was often ignored and given less credit than it deserved. He died alone in a hotel room.

Alan_TuringAlan Turing (1912–1954) English 20th century mathematician, pioneer of computer science. His work on cracking the German Enigma machine is said to have shortened the Second World War by upto to two years. However, in 1952, he was arrested for ‘indecent behaviour’ (Homosexual relations were illegal at the time.) His war record was ignored due to the Official Secrets Act. He died shortly after his conviction.

Martin Luther King (1929 – 1968) – American civil rights campaigner. Martin Luther King led the non-violent civil rights movement. Towards the end of his life, he also broadened his campaign to criticise the Vietnam War and support social welfare, this led to his critics labelling him as a dangerous subversive and Communist – even though he was definitely not Communist, but committed Christian.

malalaMalala Yousafzai (1997– ) Pakistani schoolgirl who defied threats of the Taliban to campaign for the right to education. The Taliban felt she was undermining their hardline Islamic teaching. She was shot by a Taliban gunman, but survived and lived to advocate women’s rights.

Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan. “Famous People who were misunderstood”, Oxford,  UK. www.biographyonline.net Published 26 September 2018. Last updated 16 July 2023.


gandhi 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.

Courageous people – People who have overcome difficult circumstances and difficult odds. Includes Joan of Arc, Galileo, Harriet Tubman, Socrates, Malala Yousafzai.

Oprah_winfrey Famous people with Rags to Riches stories – Rags to riches stories – People who started off poor, but became rich through good fortune or hard work. The list includes; George Soros, Andrew Carnegie, Samuel Walton, Pele and J.K. Rowling.