People who overcame difficult odds

This is a selection of people who overcame adversity, obstacles and difficult odds to attain a significant achievement.

joanJoan of Arc (1412-1431) was a 14-year-old illiterate peasant girl. However, despite the prejudice against both peasants and women, she persuaded the Dauphin of France to lay siege to the town of Orleans. She correctly prophesied the Dauphin would be again crowned King of France. Seven years after her death, the French had defeated the English.

mandelaNelson Mandela (1918 – 2013) worked very hard to train as a lawyer, despite the South African apartheid system making this very difficult for a black man. Against the odds Nelson Mandela was able to practice law, helping many black South Africans to survive in the apartheid system. When Nelson Mandela was sent to jail for his opposition to apartheid in the 1960s, there seemed no end in sight to the all-powerful apartheid system of South Africa. But, against the odds, Mandela played a critical role in bringing about the end of apartheid and the first truly democratic elections.

mandela Helen Keller (1880-1968) A became deaf-blind before her second birthday. Despite this debilitating disability, she learned to read and write, and became the first deaf-blind person to gain a bachelor degree. She campaigned on issues of social welfare, women’s suffrage, disability rights and impressed many with her force of personality.

mandelaWinston Churchill (1874- 1965)In 1940, Britain stood alone against the all-conquering Nazi war machine. After Hitler’s troops had swept all before them, the invasion of Britain looked imminent. There were several leading British politicians who advocated suing for peace, like Vichy France. Churchill inspired the nation to fight on and achieve total victory – whatever the cost. Five years later, British troops took part in the Allied landings in Normandy and over a year later completed the liberation of Europe.

mandelaMahatma Gandhi (1869 – 1948) For his non-violent protests against the British domination of India, Gandhi was put into jail several times. Militarily, India could not hope to defeat the British Empire, but through his policy of ahimsa/non-violence he awoke the spirit of fellow Indians and helped to create a climate for Indian Independence which came in 1947.

mandelaRosa Parks (1913 – 2005) Rosa Parks could have easily been just another statistic in the American system of racial segregation. In the Deep South, black Americans were systematically discriminated against, but on one famous day in 1955, Rosa Parks made a stand and refused to give up her seat to a white passenger. Her brave action sparked a widespread boycott of buses in Montgomery, Alabama.

Ruby_Bridges Ruby Bridges (1954 – ) An American civil rights activist who became the first black child to enter a previously all-white elementary school in Louisiana symbolically breaking the colour bar for segregation in the south. Aged only six years old she overcame the hostility and prejudice of many in her community who opposed her right to equal education.

catherineCatherine the Great (1729 – 1796) German by birth, Catherine the Great married into the Russian Royal family at a time when women played little, if any, role in public life. But, she became one of the most influential monarchs Russia had ever seen. She oversaw an increase in Russian influence and helped to improve the conditions of the serf population.

mandelaMarie Curie (1867-1934)In an age where few women were able to be educated, Marie Curie became one of the most important scientists of her generation. Her discoveries enabled the development of modern radiation and X-Ray. She was one of the few people to receive a Nobel prize for both medicine and physics.

Olaudah Equiano (1745 – 1797) – Aged 11, he was taken into slavery and transported to America. However, after releasing his freedom he wrote a book ‘The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano‘ which played a pivotal role in turning public opinion in Britain against slavery. It was also well received for its literary merit

mandelaBeethoven For a musician to lose his hearing is the greatest possible misfortune. Yet, despite the inevitable frustration, it didn’t stop Beethoven composing some of the most sublime pieces of music in the history of man.

Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) Born in a one-room log cabin, Lincoln taught himself to read and trained to become a lawyer. Despite numerous setbacks both personal and political, he was elected 16th President of the US from 1861-1865. In difficult circumstances Lincoln led the Union forces to victory preserving the United States and against vehement opposition passed a bill to abolish legal slavery.

Harriet_Tubman Harriet Tubman (1822 – 1913) Born into slavery, Tubman managed to escape and begin a new life. She 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. She became a symbol of the abolition movement.

mandelaPope John Paul II (1920 – 2005) Living through, first the Nazi occupation of Poland, and then the totalitarian Communist state of Poland, Pope John Paul II became the first-ever Polish Pope and presided over one of the most influential papacies in history.

imageMikhail Gorbachev (1931 – ) – Pursued Glasnost and Perestroika, enabling the gradual end of Communist rule, bringing democracy to Eastern Europe.

image Stephen Hawking (1942 – 2018) – despite suffering from motor neurone disease, Hawking has helped popularise scientific concepts and make ground-breaking discoveries.


Simon Bolivar (1783 – 1830) Bolivar led several Latin American countries (Peru, Bolivar, Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela) to independence from the Spanish colonial forces. Initially, people were reluctant to support his revolution. But, through strong leadership and success in daring military attacks, he swung opinion behind him and succeeding in defeating the power of the Spanish royal forces.

Oprah Oprah Winfrey (1954– ) Winfrey grew up in poverty. She gave birth aged 14, and lost her child. With few resources, she became a respected American talk show host and businesswoman. Oprah Winfrey was the first woman to own her own talk show. One of the most influential women in the US.

image Thomas Edison – Thomas Edison was fired from his job, when a chemical experiment, leaked acid on to his boss’ desk. However, despite being almost penniless, Edison rose to be the most prolific inventor of his generation.

imageJesse Owens – Despite experiencing racial discrimination in his native country, the US. Owens became a global icon at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. By winning Olympic gold in the 100m, Owens helped demolish the myth of Hitler’s Aryan superiority theory.

image J.K.Rowling – J.K.Rowling became the world’s best-selling children’s author, despite managing on benefits as a single mother. Initially, her manuscript for Harry Potter was rejected by several publishers.

imageFlorence Nightingale – When Florence Nightingale went to the Crimea to serve in hospitals, nurses were given little respect or priority. However, she helped to change attitudes to the nursing profession and implement new practices which helped to improve mortality survival rates.

people Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845) British Quaker who campaigned for better conditions in prisons, also set up charities for homeless and poor. She was an early female pioneer in influencing public policy.

Malala Yousafzai (1997 ) – 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.

Greta_ThunbergGreta Thunberg (2003 – ) Swedish schoolgirl who has become a global leader for environmental issues. When she started her school strike, she was only one person and was often condemned for missing school. But, she has overcame opposition to build a global coalition in favour of environmental activism.

Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan. “People who overcame difficult odds”, Oxford,, 11th Feb 2013. Last updated 1 March 2020.

Related pages

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

Martin_Luther_King_Jr Inspirational people – People who made a difference in a positive way and left the world a better place. Includes Eleanor Roosevelt, Mother Teresa and Emil Zatopek.

People who fought for human/civil rights rosa parks  – People who campaigned for equality, civil rights and civil justice. Includes Abraham Lincoln, Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks.


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