For many different reasons, the people on this list aren’t household names, but they had a major impact on the world. In some cases, there is something physically unique that is found only in them. Others have done something that has had a massive, rippling effect throughout history that we still feel today.
Some of the people on this list, who are as anonymous to you as that weird neighbor you actively avoid when taking out the trash, are responsible for saving millions of lives. In other cases, they have caused millions of deaths. So again, probably like that weird neighbor.
10. James Harrison
In 1951, Australian James Harrison was 14 and had to undergo major surgery to remove one of his lungs. After he woke up from the procedure, his father explained to him that during his surgery, he was given 13 units of blood; all of it was from random strangers. As Harrison lay in bed recovering, he had time to think, and realized that without the donated blood, he would have died, so he vowed to donate blood as soon as he was old enough.
Four years later, Harrison started to donate, and not long afterwards, doctors noticed something unique in Harrison’s blood. What is unique about his blood has to do with blood group systems. There are 35 of them, and the most common is ABO. For example, most people have O-positive or A-positive blood.
The second most common blood group is the Rh blood group. The problem with Rh was that if a woman had Rh-negative blood and she was pregnant with a fetus that had Rh-positive blood, it would lead to rhesus disease. The disease caused women to develop antibodies that attack the fetus’ blood cells because they are foreign. This often resulted in brain damage and miscarriages. Thousands of babies died every year because of it.
What the doctors found in Harrison’s blood is a unique and very rare antibody. Using the antibody, doctors developed an injection called Anti-D that prevents rhesus disease; one of the first of its kind. As a result of his blood, it’s believed that 2 million babies have been saved.
9. John Bardeen
John Bardeen was born in Madison, Wisconsin, in May 1908, and was a gifted child. He enrolled in engineering at the University of Wisconsin when he was just 15. After school, he got a job as a geophysicist with Gulf Oil. He spent three years working as a geophysicist, but he didn’t care for the job so he went to Princeton and got his PhD in mathematical physics.
After a three year stint as a junior fellow at Harvard, Bardeen got a job at Bell Telephone Laboratories in 1945. While working with William Shockley and Walter Brattain, they invented the transistor. Transistors could replace vacuum tubes in electronics, which were big and bulky, so with transistors, components and electronics could be miniaturized. Eventually, transistors would become important in the evolution of computers. For their work, Bardeen, Shockley, and Brattain were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1956.
After helping create a life-changing invention, Bardeen went back to work on something that interested him throughout his life – superconductivity. Working with L.N. Cooper and J.R. Schrieffer, they developed the BCS theory of superconductivity, which is the foundation of all work in superconductivity that came afterwards. The theory explains why there is little to no electrical resistance when materials reach temperatures that are close to absolute zero. This theory led to inventions like CAT scans and MRIs. The theory also led to Bardeen’s second Nobel Prize for Physics in 1972, making him one of four people to win two Nobel prizes and the only person to win it twice for physics.
Despite winning two Nobel prizes that changed everyday life, Bardeen isn’t well known outside the world of science.
8. Olaudah Equiano
In contemporary times, we know that slavery is wrong. Enslaving another human is easily one of the worst things someone can do. It’s cruel and dehumanizing, to say the least. However, as you surely know, for a long time not everyone thought that way. Someone who is responsible for helping to change many minds on slavery was Olaudah Equiano.
Supposedly, Equiano and his sister were kidnapped at around the age of 11 by local slave traders in what is today Nigeria. They were separated days later, and Equiano was shipped to Barbados, where he experienced the horrifying middle passage, which is where slaves were locked in cages and shipped across the Atlantic from their homes in Africa to the New World. He eventually ended up in Virginia. Unfortunately, there is no way to verify the story of his early life. However, after he arrived in Virginia, there are plenty of records to back up the claims he would later make.
In Virginia, he was sold to an officer with the Royal Navy and spent eight years traveling the seas. During this time, he learned to read and write. He was also given the name Gustavus Vassa. He was then sold to a merchant where he worked as a deckhand, a valet, and a barber. He also did some trading on the side, and within three years he made enough to purchase his own freedom.
For the next 20 years, Equiano traveled the world and became active in the abolitionist movement in Europe. But most importantly, in 1798, he was the first former slave to publish an autobiography – The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African. The book was hugely popular and made Equiano a well-known activist.
What his book did was give a new perspective on slavery, because he gave a firsthand account. Thousands of people either read his book or listened to him speak, making him incredibly influential when it came to changing the laws around slavery.
The Slave Trade in England was finally abolished in 1807, 10 years after Equiano’s death.
7. Joseph Lister
Isn’t it nice that people have better than a 50/50 chance of living if they have to amputate a limb? Or how about the fact that people can now have surgery and not have to fight getting sepsis by only using hopes and prayers? Well, the person to thank for that is English surgeon Joseph Lister, who is hailed as the father of modern surgery.
Lister came up with common practices that are still used, and will always be used, by doctors and surgeons. This includes practices like doctors have to wash their hands and sterilize their surgical instruments. Which seems like amazingly basic stuff today, but somehow more amazingly, he was apparently the first surgeon to use methods that now just seem like common sense. He came up with the idea in 1865, based on Louis Pasteur’s theory that microorganisms cause infection.
While Lister was honored in the medical community, and had a mouthwash named after him, he never reached the fame that other doctors received despite developing techniques that have saved countless lives over the past 150 years.
6. Henrietta Lacks
Loretta Pleasant was born in Roanoke, Virginia, in August 1920, and she would later change her name to Henrietta. Her mother died when she was 4 and she was sent to live with her grandfather, who lived in a log cabin that had previously existed as slave quarters on a plantation. She shared a room with her cousin, David Lacks. 10 years later, when Henrietta was 14, she gave birth to a baby boy that David fathered. Four years later, they had a daughter, and then they got married in 1941.
In January 1951, they were living in Maryland and Henrietta went to the only hospital in the area that treated African-Americans, John Hopkins, because she had pain and bleeding in the abdomen. Sadly, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. For several months, Henrietta went to get radiation treatment and during one of her treatment sessions, doctors took two samples of the tumor without her knowledge. Henrietta passed away on October 4, 1951, at the age of 31, but part of her never died.
For decades, scientists at John Hopkins had tried to grow tissue, but they weren’t very successful; usually the cells died after a few days. However, for some reason Henrietta’s cells were much more durable. Dr. George Otto Gey was able to isolate and multiply a specific cell belonging to Henrietta, making it the first time immortal cells were grown in culture.
The cell line, called HeLa, became quite popular in the scientific community and it was a crucial part of many important discoveries and breakthroughs. For example, it was used in the discovery of the vaccination for polio and her cells were used in the first space missions to see what would happen to human cells in space. The cell line was also important when it came to gene mapping, in vitro fertilization, and cloning. The cell line is still popular and there are over 10,000 patents that used the HeLa cell line in their development.
However, the family of Henrietta had no idea her cells were being used until 1970. For years they tried to gain control of the cell line with little success. Then in 2013, Henrietta’s genome sequence was published without the family’s knowledge or permission, which is a huge violation of privacy. After this happened, the National Institutes of Health asked two descendants of Henrietta’s to join the HeLa Genome Data Access working group, which looks at how the cells are used. Finally, the family gained a little bit of control over the cell line.
5. Mohamed Bouazizi
In 2011, Mohamed Bouazizi was 26-years-old and lived in the small, impoverished city of Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia. Bouazizi was the main breadwinner for his family of eight, making his living from selling fruits and vegetables in a market. His family said that his dream was to buy a pickup truck to replace the cart that he used to sell his wares.
On December 17, 2010, a female municipal inspector named Media Hamdi confiscated Bouazizi’s fruit-weighing scales for not having a vending license. Bouazizi had been hassled in the past by government officials, but this incident got particularly ugly. Supposedly, when Bouazizi tried to pay a fine, or a bribe depending on who you ask, Hamdi became enraged. She supposedly slapped him, spit at him, and insulted his dead father.
Humiliated, Bouazizi went to the provincial headquarters to complain. When he couldn’t get anyone to speak to him, he went and got some gasoline. When he returned to the headquarters, he poured the gas over himself and set himself on fire. Bouazizi didn’t die right away, taking over two weeks to succumb to his injuries on January 4, 2011.
Before he died, people were already drawing inspiration from his act of self-immolation. At the time, Tunisia was under the rule of the dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who took over the country in a bloodless coup in 1987. Under his rule, corruption spread and unemployment, especially among recent university graduates, was very high in the country. When Bouazizi set himself on fire, it was falsely reported that he was university educated and despite it not being true, it made the narrative of his death more powerful to his fellow countrymen.
Nevertheless, Bouazizi’s death, that stemmed from his frustration of dealing with a corrupt government headed by a dictator, became symbolic and inspired mass protests in Tunisia. Due to the civil unrest, Ben Ali went into exile in early 2011 and in 2014, they had their first free and fair election since gaining independence in 1956.
These protests also inspired people in other countries in the area to protest, giving birth to the Arab Spring. The Arab Spring has led to three other dictators being ousted or overthrown and the ongoing civil war in Syria.
4. Rosalind Franklin
Born in 1920 in England, Rosalind Franklin decided at the age of 15 that she wanted to be a scientist. When she was old enough, she attended Cambridge University and at 26 she received her PhD in chemistry. After her schooling, Franklin began working with a technique called X-ray diffraction, which is using X-rays to create images of crystallized solids. This allowed her to look at something at a molecular level.
In 1950, Franklin went to work at King’s College in London. Her job was to use X-ray diffraction to look at DNA. During her time there, she came close to providing an answer to how DNA is structured, but she never got a chance to figure it out because a co-worker named Maurice Wilkins cheated her out of the opportunity to do so.
When Franklin started working at King’s College, Wilkins was on vacation. When he came back, he claimed not to know what Franklin’s role was in the lab and just assumed that, because she was a woman, she was there to assist him in his work. Franklin, on the other hand, did not know that anyone else was working on DNA, so she shared information about her work with Wilkins. Another problem was that Franklin and Wilkins had clashing personalities, leading to a contentious workplace. All of these elements would come together and forever change history, while completely cheating Franklin out of credit for her work.
In May 1952, Franklin and her PhD student, Raymond Gosling, captured an X-ray diffraction image called Photograph 51, which was a piece of DNA. Without her knowledge, Wilkins showed the picture to American biologist James Watson and when he saw it, something clicked. Watson and a molecular biologist named Francis Crick used Photograph 51 to write an article explaining that DNA had a double helix structure. The article was published in Nature in April 1953 and in it, they failed to credit Franklin for her contribution to the discovery.
At this point, Franklin’s relationship with King’s College was strained and the head of her department let her quit on the condition that she never again work on DNA. At her new job at Birkbeck College, she wrote 17 papers and her team created the foundation for structural virology. In 1956, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and died two years later on April 16, 1958, at the age of 37.
Four years later, in 1962, Watson, Crick and, unbelievably, Maurice Wilkins were given the Nobel Prize for Medicine, but Franklin has never been given official recognition for her contributions to one of the biggest discoveries in modern science.
3. Norman Borlaug
Norman Borlaug was born in Cresco, Iowa, in March 1914. When he was 27, he got his PhD in plant protection. In the 1930s and 1940s, he went to work in Mexico and helped the farmers there by improving their techniques and methods. He also developed a special type of wheat for them, called dwarf wheat, which is ideal for being grown in Mexico. By 1956, thanks to Borlaug’s work Mexico had become self-sufficient with wheat.
Around the same time, other countries around the world were experiencing population explosions and their governments were having a hard time producing enough food for all their citizens. Two countries that were plagued by food shortages due to increasing populations were India and Pakistan. During the 1960s, Borlaug brought his techniques and dwarf wheat to India and Pakistan, which improved their agricultural systems immensely.
In 1970, Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, but the award never made him a celebrity. Instead, he continued to work in developing countries, trying to improve their agriculture systems, for five decades. It’s believed that because of Borlaug’s five decades of work, a billion people were saved.
Borlaug, who is considered a central figure in the Green Revolution, died in September 2009 at the age of 95.
2. Dona Marina
Dona Marina was born with the name Malintzin around 1501 to a noble Aztec family. Her father, who was a chief, died when she was very young. Her mother remarried and that marriage produced a son, and most likely at the urging of her stepfather who wanted his son to be chief, Malintzin was sold into slavery.
She was sent to the city of Tabasco, and by the time she arrived she could speak the languages of both the Aztecs, which was called Nahuatl, and the Mayans. In 1519, Spanish Conquistador Hernán Cortés arrived in the city of Tabasco, and he was given 20 female slaves, which he baptized. One of those slaves was Malintzin, who he christened Dona Marina.
Not long afterwards, Cortés learned that Marina could speak both Mayan and Nahuatl. This was important because Cortés had a priest who was a slave that could speak both Mayan and Spanish. Using the two interpreters, Cortés passed along messages of peace to the leader of the Aztecs, Montezuma.
Marina, who clearly had a gift for languages, quickly learned to speak Spanish and Cortés used her as an interpreter when his forces started to attack non-Aztec cities. What would happen is that the Spanish would attack the non-Aztec Indians, but then back off. Marina was then brought in to negotiate peace. Part of the negotiation was that she also asked them for their help with Spain’s upcoming war against the Aztecs. The non-Aztec Indians agreed to help not only to save their own cities from the Spanish, but also because the Aztecs used their cities as farms for human sacrifices. They hated it, but they were never strong enough to do anything about it.
All of Marina’s work would pay off for Cortés and the Spanish forces because when they invaded the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, the Aztecs were surprised because they thought that they were coming in peace. In fact, they welcomed Cortés and his men in their city. Not only was their guard down, but since the Spanish had forged alliances with the non-Aztec Indians, the Aztecs found themselves outnumbered and out-weaponed and they were conquered in just two years.
Besides helping with the logistics of bringing down the Aztec empire, Marina was also Cortés’ mistress. She got pregnant and gave birth to a son, Martín Cortés, making him the first Mestizo, which is a person who has both European and Amerindian blood.
While Marina could be considered a traitor because she did help foreigners take over her native land, the people of her time respected her. She is credited with saving thousands of lives by being able to negotiate peace instead of Cortés declaring all out war.
Of course, the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs not only gave birth to the country of Mexico, but it also led to the colonization of South America.
1. Gavrilo Princip
We told you at the beginning, not everyone on this list is responsible for lives saved. Now we get to millions of lives that were lost. While there were many contributing factors that led to the start of World War I, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria is considered the spark that set it off.
On June 28, 1914, Ferdinand, who was the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was doing a tour of the newly acquired state of Bosnia. A group of Bosnian-born Serbs weren’t happy they were now under Austrian rule, so they decided to assassinate the heir to their throne.
The most famous version of the story is that a grenade was thrown at the motorcade by Nedeljko Cabrinovic, but it was an old grenade and had a 10 second fuse on it. So it didn’t do anything to Ferdinand’s car, instead causing chaos that led Ferdinand’s limo to flee from the motorcade. Cabrinovic then swallowed a cyanide pill and jumped into the river. However, the pill was past its expiration date so it didn’t kill him, it just made him sick. Also, the river was only four inches deep, so he was arrested… a sequence so hilarious we wish footage existed so we could set it to the Curb Your Enthusiasm theme song.
Anyway, one of Cabrinovic’s allies, 20-year-old Gavrilo Princip, watched the failed assassination attempt, and decided to leave. He walked a few streets over to a deli, where he ordered a sandwich. Meanwhile, Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, who had been hiding out in the town hall, decided to go to the hospital to visit the men who were injured by the grenade. However, along the way their limo driver got lost and they ended up on the same street where Princip was eating a sandwich. Seeing his opportunity, Princip pulled out a pistol and fired two bullets; the first one hit Sophie and the second hit Ferdinand. They were both killed in the shooting and Princip was arrested.
It’s certainly an interesting story that a series of coincidences sparked the First World War, but it’s probably not true. First off, sandwiches weren’t really popular in Bosnia at the time. Secondly, while Princip was still standing outside of the restaurant when he killed the Ferdinands, it was a restaurant on the original route the motorcade was on before it was sent off course by the bomb.
Nevertheless, in October 1914, Princip was sentenced to 20 years in prison, but died on April 28, 1918. While he may be the best known person on this list, he’s still not a household name considering his actions directly started the First World War, which left 80 million dead, and World War I directly led to massive historical events like the rise of Hitler, the Russian Revolution, and ultimately World War II.