This is a selection of inspirational people, people who have made a lasting contribution towards creating a better world. These people have inspired others by their various achievements, but also by their attitude and values.
Note: This does not aim to be a fully comprehensive list, rather it provides a start for further research. If you would like to suggest anyone else who you feel is inspirational, feel free.
Nelson Mandela (1918–2013) Campaigned for justice and freedom in his native South Africa. Mandela spent 20 years in jail for his opposition to apartheid. After his release, he became the first President of Democratic South Africa and helped heal the wounds of apartheid by his magnanimous attitude to his former political enemies.
Mikhail Gorbachev (1931–) Had the courage, tenacity and strength of character to give up the absolute power of Soviet Communism. Gorbachev moved the Soviet Union towards democracy and respect for human rights. In doing so he enabled the Berlin Wall to come down and Eastern Europe gained freedom from Communist control.
Martin 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 and just society.
Jesus Christ (c5 BCE–30 CE) Prophet and the inspiration of Christianity. Taught a message of love, forgiveness and faith. He was born in a turbulent period of Roman rule, and after his crucifixion, his message inspired millions around the world.
William 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 countrymen and helped to make slavery appear unacceptable.
Albert Einstein (1879–1955) His 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.
Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) One of the United States of America’s founding fathers. Jefferson helped draft the Declaration of Independence and he held a deep-seated belief in human rights. Jefferson passed one of the first bills on religious tolerance in his state of Virginia. He sought to improve education and was a noted polymath with a wide range of interests.
Mother Teresa (1910–1997) A modern day saint who sought to identify with and offer compassion to the unloved and destitute. She lived a life of voluntary poverty and service to the poor.
Abraham 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.
Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) One of the greatest minds in human history. In many areas, he was a couple of centuries ahead of scientific discovery. He helped make great advances in anatomy, astronomy, physics, science and in other fields as well. Amidst all this, he found time to paint the most iconic picture in history – The Mona Lisa.
Helen Keller (1880–1968) Despite disability of both deafness and blindness, she learned to read and write, becoming a champion of social issues and helping to improve the welfare of deaf people.
Muhammad Ali (1942–2016) Champion boxer and great character. Ali refused to fight in the 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.”
Joan of Arc (1412–1431) As a young, illiterate peasant girl, Joan of Arc inspired the Dauphin of France to defeat the English. Although burned at the stake for ‘heresy’, her prophecy of French unity came true after her death.
Benjamin 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.
Mahatma Gandhi (1869–1948) Gandhi was the principle figurehead of the Indian independence movement. Taught a philosophy of non-violence and peaceful protest.
Florence Nightingale (1820–1910) Nightingale volunteered to nurse soldiers during the Crimean War. Her statistical analysis of the pitiful conditions she found, and her management of them, helped to revolutionise the service of nursing and the treatment of patients.
Harriet Tubman (1822–1913) Tubman escaped from slavery but returned on many dangerous missions to Maryland where she helped lead slaves to freedom. She also served as agent and leader during the Civil War.
Winston 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.
Anne 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. Despite the most testing of conditions, Anne retained an optimistic spirit and faith.
Socrates (469 BC–399 BC) Socrates showed the power and integrity of independent thought. He taught by encouraging people to honestly question their preconceptions. His method of self-enquiry laid the foundations of Western Philosophic thought.
George 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, whatever the ideology may be behind them.
Buddha (c 563–483BC) The Buddha was a young prince who gave up the comforts of palace life to seek the meaning of life by meditating in the wilderness. After gaining realisation, the Buddha spent the remainder of his life travelling around India teaching a middle path of meditation and inner peace.
Sri Chinmoy (1931–2007) An Indian spiritual teacher who combined the best of Eastern and Western cultures. He founded the Sri Chinmoy Oneness-Home Peace Run, a worldwide run to promote peace and greater understanding.
William 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.
St Therese de Lisieux (1873–1897) 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 simple approach of doing the smallest acts with love.
Eleanor Roosevelt (1884–1962) Helped draft United Nations declaration of human rights. Strived to improve civil rights in the US. Inspired many people because of her positivity, compassion and self-giving.
Edward Jenner (1749–1823) Led pioneering work on the development of an inoculation against deadly smallpox. Opened up the way to more immunisation treatments, arguably saving the lives of millions of people around the world.
Jesse Owens (1913–1980) Jesse Owens’ 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 Sport.
Akbar (1542–1605) The great Moghul Emperor who went a long way to uniting India under his rule. Although 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.
Sir Isaac Newton (1642–1727) One of the greatest scientists of all time. Isaac Newton led the foundation of modern physics with his development of theories of gravity and mechanics.
Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910) 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.
Emil Zatopek (1922–2000) Greatest long-distance runner, winning three gold medals at the 1954 Olympics. He was a principled supporter of Czech democracy, being sent to work in mines for his opposition to the Communist government.
Emily Dickinson (1830–1886) One of the most popular female poets who wrote unique, uplifting poems which captured the imagination of many people.
Sri Krishna (c. 3000 BCE) Sri Krishna was a great Spiritual Teacher who gave the immortal discourses in the Bhagavad Gita, teaching a practical yoga for all.
J R R Tolkien ( 1892–1973) Writer and creator of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Tolkien was a modest professor at Oxford University but found time to create a whole mythical world.
William Blake (1757–1827) Mystical poet and artist. William Blake wrote poems of great depth and power, celebrating both the joys of spirit and nature and also fiercely criticising the injustice of the times.
Pope John Paul II (1920–2005) Lived through two totalitarian regimes, eventually becoming a priest and then the first Polish pope. He was a charismatic spiritual leader who retained great faith in moral and spiritual values.
Mozart (1756–1791) Music genius who composed a range of breathtaking music from piano concertos to his immortal Requiem.
Swami Vivekananda (1863–1902 ) a direct disciple of Sri Ramakrishna, Vivekananda helped spread Sri Ramakrishna’s message and mission to the West.
St Teresa of Avila (1515–1582) Christian mystic and writer. She also played a key role in the Spanish church at a time when women were largely marginalised.
B.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 principal figure in the drafting of the Indian Constitution, which outlawed ‘untouchability’ and promoted equality.
Marie Curie (1867–1934) Marie Curie is the only person to win a Nobel Prize for both Chemistry and Physics. Her discoveries with radiation helped advance medical science. Her achievements were even more remarkable at a time when few women had the opportunity to gain an education.
Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924) 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 his vision was important in the development of the United Nations.
Susan B. Anthony (1820–1906) Susan Anthony was an active member of the American Anti-Slavery Society, despite meeting hostility she continued to press for an amendment to the US constitution to outlaw slavery. She was also a prominent women’s rights activist who helped push forward the women’s suffrage campaign in the Nineteenth Century.
Rosa 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.
Tom Paine (1737–1809) English-American writer and political activist. He wrote influential pamphlets arguing for independence for the US, and the end of slavery. He was a key figure of the enlightenment and age of reason, supporting the revolutionary principles of US and France.
Charles Darwin (1809–1882) Darwin published his Origin of Species detailing a belief in evolution at a time when such a decision was very controversial.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945 ) was a Lutheran Pastor who was an influential critic of Hitler and Nazism, executed in 1945. His theology and writings remain influential today.
Dalai Lama (1938– ) The fourteenth Dalai Lama has been awarded the Nobel Prize for his non-violent resistance to Chinese rule. The Dalai Lama teaches a path of tolerance and compassion.
Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941) Poet, writer, humanitarian, Tagore was the first Indian to be awarded Nobel Prize for Literature.
Oprah Winfrey (1954– ) Influential talk show host. Oprah Winfrey has become a role model for African American women.
Maximilian Kolbe (1894–1941 ) was a Franciscan priest who encouraged devotion to Mary and was committed to praying for those hostile to the Church. In 1941, he was arrested for sheltering Jews and sent to Auschwitz. He volunteered to take the place of a man condemned to death.
Eric Liddell (1902–1945) Eric Liddell won Olympic gold in the 400m in the 1924 Paris Olympics. He is also famed for turning down the opportunity to compete in the 100m because the heats were on a Sunday. Eric was an accomplished sportsman also representing Scotland at rugby union.
Pope Francis (1936– ) The first Jesuit pope and the first pope from the Americas, he has sought to reform the Vatican and the Catholic church. Pope Francis has stressed the importance of humility, modesty and concern for the poor. He is seen as a reforming Pope, trying to bring back the tradition of emphasis on the Gospels.
Malala Yousafzai (1997– ) Pakistani schoolgirl who defied threats of the Taliban to campaign for the right to education for girls. She survived being shot in the head by the Taliban and has become a global advocate for women’s rights, especially the right to education.
Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan. “Inspirational People“, Oxford, UK. www.biographyonline.net, 7th May 2013. Last updated 1 March 2018.
Courageous people – People who overcame difficult circumstances with great courage and strong principles.
People who fought for human/civil rights – People who campaigned for equality, civil rights and fairer treatment of individuals.
People who made a positive contribution – People who all left the world in a better place. Including Marie Curie, Hariet Tubman, Albert Einstein and Eleanor Roosevelt.
Women’s Rights Activists – Women who championed the cause of women’s rights.