A list of people who have made a positive contribution to the world. These inspiring men and women have made a positive contribution in different fields – including religion, science, literature, politics, human rights and art.
Sri Krishna c 3,000-4,000 BC. Krishna is a key figure in Hinduism. He gave discourses on spirituality and religion which form the basis of the Bhagavad Gita. Krishna taught religious devotion and also selfless service done with detachment.
Moses (1391 BC – 1271 BC) Moses was a key figure in Jewish history, who led the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt across the Red Sea to the promised land. He gave important teachings of the Old Testament/Torah.
Buddha (c 563 BCE–483 BCE) The Buddha gained enlightenment after practising meditation and spiritual practices. He spent the remainder of his life teaching the value of meditation, compassion, right conduct, truthfulness and service to the community.
Confucius 551 BC – Influential Chinese philosopher who laid the groundwork for much of Chinese philosophy and society. Confucius taught principles of morality, reverence for ancestors and orderly conduct.
Socrates (469–399 BC) Socrates showed the importance of personal courage and independent thought. His philosophic method of self-inquiry provided the cornerstone for Western philosophy.
Jesus Christ (c.5BC–30AD) Spiritual Teacher and inspiration of Christianity. Taught a message of love, forgiveness and faith.
Prophet Muhammad (570-632) Muhammad was a prophet of Islam. He taught a monotheistic religion. He also reformed society, encouraging a more egalitarian society which didn’t rely on aristocratic privilege.
Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) One of the greatest minds in human history. He created beautiful art such as ‘The Last Supper’ and “Mona Lisa” He was also a polymath who investigated many fields of human endeavour.
William Shakespeare (1564–1616) Shakespeare’s plays and poetry captured the richness and diversity of human existence in a powerful and poetic way, which has enriched our culture.
Guru Nanak (1469-1539) Spiritual Guru and founder of the religion of Sikhism. Nanak taught love to his fellow man and ignoring distinctions of caste.
Joan of Arc (1412–1431) Joan of Arc inspired the French to unite against the occupation of the English. Joan of Arc showed that even a young girl from a humble background can influence the world.
St Teresa of Avila (1515–1582) Spanish mystic, poet and religious reformer. Through force of her personality and deep faith, she steered religion away from the fanaticism of the Spanish Inquisition emphasising the spiritual value of compassion.
Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626) English philosopher, statesman and scientist. Bacon is considered an important figure in the Scientific Revolution. He introduced the concept of scientific method and methodical scientific inquiry which relied on data and evidence.
James Watt (1736 – 1819) Scottish engineer. Watt improved the Newcomen steam engine creating an efficient steam engine, which was essential for the industrial revolution.
Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) Jefferson helped draft the Declaration of Independence and uttered the immortal lines ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness’
Edward Jenner (1749 – 1823) English pioneer of smallpox vaccine. Jenner’s breakthrough also enabled many other vaccines to be developed.
Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797) English author. Wollstonecraft was an early pioneer of women’s rights. Her book “A Vindication of the Rights of Women” was a landmark justification for women to be given greater liberty.
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 countryman and made slavery appear unacceptable.
Sojourner Truth (1797 – 1883) African-American abolitionist and women’s rights campaigner. She explained in plain language why slavery was wrong, why all people black, white, women and men deserved to be free.
Michael Faraday (1791 – 1867) – English scientist who made a significant contribution to making electricity available for everyday use. His studies investigated electromagnetic induction, diamagnetism, electrolysis and electrochemistry.
Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) Abraham Lincoln played a pivotal role in abolishing slavery in the United States. As president, he appealed to people’s more noble instincts and led by example to be fair and truthful.
Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896) A lifelong anti-slavery campaigner. Her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin helped to popularise anti-slavery feeling and make people question why slavery was still legal in the US.
William T.G. Morton (1819 – 1868) American dentist who pioneered the use of anaesthetic. In 1846, Morton made demonstrations of surgery which were now possible with the use of ‘ether’ an anaesthetic. Although Morton was not the only person working on aesthetics, he played a pivotal role
Florence Nightingale (1820–1910) British nurse. Nightingale made nursing into a respected profession and she used statistics to evaluate the success of different methods.
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.
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.
Millicent Fawcett (1846–1929) A leading suffragist and campaigner for equal rights for women. She helped found Newnham College, Cambridge, to give women better access to education.
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 and the ideal of international co-operation. The League of Nations was the forerunner of the United Nations.
Swami Vivekananda (1863 – 1902 ) Swami Vivekananda encouraged people to follow a spiritual life of self-introspection but also service to the community. He energised Indians to have greater self-belief and throw off unfair practices of caste system
Marie Curie (1867–1934) Polish/French scientist. Curie made groundbreaking work in radioactivity – which helped to create the first X-Ray machines. During the First World War, she was involved in the first mobile X-Ray machines. Awarded two Nobel Prizes.
Mahatma Gandhi (1869–1948) Gandhi followed a philosophy of non-violence and peaceful protest in his goal of achieving Indian Independence. Gandhi; he also sought to improve conditions for women and people disenfranchised by the caste system.
Albert Einstein (1879–1955) Einstein was a brilliant physicist who changed our view of the world. Einstein was also a champion of a oneness-world and campaigned against hostility and war.
Helen Keller (1880–1968) American social activist. Keller showed that even the most testing disability (deafblindness) was not a barrier to making an active contribution to society.
Alexander Fleming (1881-1955) Scottish biologist who discovered penicillin. He shared a Nobel Prize in 1945 with Howard Florey and Ernst Boris Chain, who helped produce penicillin on a large scale.
Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882 – 1945) The longest serving US President (32-45), Roosevelt saw America through the crisis of the Great Depression. He also oversaw the war effort against Nazi Germany and Japan.
Eleanor Roosevelt (1884–1962) As head of UN human rights commission she helped to draft the 1948 UN declaration of human rights.
Bill Wilson (1896-1971) was the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, an international organisation with over two million members seeking to help individuals escape from alcoholism. Wilson found a cure for his own alcoholism and set up self-help groups to enable others to do the same
Mother Teresa (1910–1997) Albanian nun and charity worker. Teresa devoted her life to serving the poor and sick – seeking to show that love and concern was a powerful force in society.
Rosa Parks (1913–2005) American civil rights activist. Parks initiated a campaign to end segregation on US public transport in Montgomery. Her dignified role helped change the law and also hearts and minds.
Nelson Mandela (1918–2013) Mandela was committed to ending apartheid in his native South Africa. He spent 27 years in jail for his protests. On release, he healed the wounds of apartheid by his magnanimous attitude to his former political enemies.
Billy Graham (1918 – 2018) American Christain evangelist. Graham preached the gospel of Jesus Christ to billions of people around the world in live mass meetings and on the tv and radio. He advised many presidents from Truman to Obama.
Pope John Paul II (1920 – 2005) Had a great effect on many lives that he touched. People felt he was a sincere and compassionate person. Lived through two very difficult periods of Poland’s history – occupation by Nazi Germany and Communist era, before becoming Poland’s first pope.
Martin Luther King (1929–1968) King was leader of the civil rights protest of the 1950s and 1960s. With dignity, courage and a peaceful approach, King was successful in dismantling barriers of segregation.
Mikhail Gorbachev (1931– ) Gorbachev was willing to move the Soviet Union from state Communism to democracy and respect for human rights. Gorbachev enabled the Berlin Wall to come down giving freedom to Eastern Europe.
Sri Chinmoy (1931-2007) Spiritual Teacher born in India. Sri Chinmoy taught meditation, the value of service and the benefit of running. He created the Sri Chinmoy Oneness-Home Peace Run – an initiative to spread the idea of peace around the world.
Pope Francis (1936 – ) The first Jesuit Pope and the first Pope from the Americas. Pope Francis has been credited with revitalising the Catholic Church by concentrating on the basic message of the Gospels, ‘selflessness, humility, charity and faith.’
John Lennon (1940-1980) – Iconic singer-songwriter. Member of the Beatles. Lennon symbolised the spirit and hope of the 1960s. He wrote a counter-culture anthem ‘Give Peace a Chance’
Shirin Ebadi (1947– ) An Iranian lawyer who has fought for human rights in Iran, representing political dissidents and promoting democracy and human rights. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003.
Dalai Lama (14th) (1950 – ) The leader of Tibetans both politically and spiritually. The Dalai Lama has practised non-violent opposition to Chinese rule, whilst maintaining Buddhist principles of compassion and forgiveness.
Diana, Princess of Wales (1961–1997) British Royal princess who was noted for her humanitarian charity work. By example, she helped to destigmatise AIDS and raised awareness for abolishing the use of landmines.
Tegla Loroupe (1973– ) Kenyan athlete and marathon world record holder. Since retiring from running, she has devoted herself to various initiatives promoting peace, education and women’s rights.
Wangari Maathai (1940–2011 ) Kenyan-born environmentalist and women’s rights campaigner. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for efforts to prevent conflict through protection of scarce resources such as planting trees.
Malala Yousafzai – Pakistani schoolgirl who defied threats of the Taliban to campaign for the right to education. She survived being shot in the head by the Taliban and has become a global advocate for human rights, women’s rights and the right to education.
Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan. “People who made a positive contribution”, Oxford, UK. www.biographyonline.net, 4th February 2015. Last updated 8 March 2018.
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