People Who Have Altered The Course Of History You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

The banks of the River Inn in Passau, Germany, were a picturesque setting for young children to play games. Yet one day, in 1894, a four-year-old boy fell through the thin ice covering the river, certain to drown in the ice-cold waters or be pulled by the swift current to his death on the rocks of the mountains. However, in an incredible feat of bravery for one so young, another four-year-old boy spotted the unfolding disaster and managed to pull the young child out, saving his life. The rescuer was called Johann Kuehberger, and he continued to try and help people in his life, later becoming a priest. He also altered the course of history in a way no one could foresee.

The people who become household names are often those who have had an extraordinary impact on the world. Albert Einstein, Rosa Parks, Marie Curie and Nelson Mandela have all inspired millions through their bravery, knowledge or the values they live by. And for opposite reasons, people such as Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin and Genghis Khan have become synonymous with cruelty, murder and acts of great evil.

Today, perhaps more than ever, people who become incredibly famous can be distinctly average in many ways. The likes of Piers Morgan, or Paris Hilton for example, appear to have no great talent, yet they can have an incredible influence, nonetheless. It is worth remembering then that the level of fame, or infamy, a person has is no measure of how great they are, or even how big an influence, good or bad, they have had on the world.

In fact, many people who have altered the course of history in ways it is hard to fathom are those that almost no one has heard of. I have come across some over the years and always try to write them down in a bid to remember them. Here are some of my, by no means at all definitive, figures throughout history that deserve more recognition:

Ismail al-Jazari

Ismail al-Jazari was a 12th-century polymath from Upper Mesopotamia, most likely from a region now part of modern-day Turkey. He was many things, including an artist, scholar and mathematician, but is remembered today for his inventions and has been dubbed the ‘Father of Robotics’. He created many devices in his time: hydro-powered clocks, humanoid robots and even a hydraulic energy system that was used to supply water to hospitals in Damascus. He wrote down some of his most famous inventions in a book entitled, The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices and his work has gone on to influence modern engineering. His writings made their way to Medieval Europe during the Crusades, and evidence suggests that he may have influenced Leonardo da Vinci’s inventions. Al-Jazari’s work was part of the Islamic Golden Age, a period of cultural and scientific flourishing that often gets overlooked today.

Karl Landsteiner

Since 1628 and William Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of blood, blood transfusions have become a part of medical practice. Yet it was fraught with danger, and many patients died mysteriously whilst others recovered. This all changed in 1901 when Karl Landsteiner, building on the work of Leonard Landois, discovered the different blood groups, eventually leading him to receive the Nobel Prize in 1930. The discovery of blood groups allowed for successful transfusions, which has, according to estimates, subsequently saved over a billion lives. From diseases that affect the blood to heart surgery and trauma care, a debt is owed to Landsteiner.

Fritz Haber

Fritz Haber was a chemist from Germany who solved one of the key problems of the modern era. Nitrogen is one of the most abundant elements in the universe. It is literally in the air around us. Nitrogen is also key to the fertilisation of crops, and if we want to be able to feed large amounts of people, we need large amounts of nitrogen. However, there was no way of getting nitrogen out of the air, and before 1909, the main sources of nitrogen were mining cave deposits or harvesting bird faeces. These both had their limitations and so affected how much food could be produced.

However, Fritz Haber, along with Carl Bosch, managed to create a process that developed fertiliser out of thin air, using the abundant nitrogen all around us. It is hard to stress how much of a positive impact this has had on the world. Some estimates have suggested that around two in every five people are alive today because of Fritz Haber's invention. It was thought the world's population would have topped at 1.5 billion people and then faced mass starvation. But Fritz Haber changed all this. His finding was considered a miracle, described as creating 'bread from air'.

And yet, Haber is also considered the ‘father of chemical warfare’. When World War One broke out, Haber began work on developing weapons to help with the German war effort. He began experimenting with poison gas, and in an attempt to shorten the war and win it for Germany, it was deployed in 1915 at Ypres. Five thousand men died horrific deaths, with another 10,000 seriously wounded. He was promoted for his efforts, but on the same night, his wife committed suicide, partly influenced by her husband's dedication to military research. Three years after this, he won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry.  

There is a tragic irony to much of Haber's life. He helped save billions of people but condemned many to the most horrific of deaths at the hands of chemical warfare. He was also Jewish and a proud German patriot, yet he had to flee Germany to escape persecution when the Nazis rose to prominence. In one of the cruellest twists of fate, Haber's own work was used to create the gases that went on to kill millions, including six million Jewish people, in the Holocaust. For good and bad reasons, Fritz Haber has had one of the largest impacts on humanity.

Johann Kuehberger

The story I mention at the start of this article, of the priest Johann Kuehberger saving the young boy from certain death, is admirable. However, the four-year-old boy he saved was called Adolf Hitler. It was, in many ways, a tragic act of kindness. How different would the world look if it weren’t for Johann Kuehberger’s bravery? How many millions might not have died?

There is a debate in history about whether certain episodes would come to pass anyway or whether individuals were the main reasons for significant historical events. For me, the clearest example of an individual impacting history is Adolf Hitler. Much like Putin today, he is solely responsible for a large part of the horrors the world witnessed in the middle of the 20th century. It is apparent, then, that there can be a cruel irony to how events play out, and even compassionate acts can have unintended consequences that are incredibly negative and beyond even our wildest imaginations.

Stanislav Petrov

Stanislav Petrov was a lieutenant colonel of the Soviet Air Defence Forces in the 1980s. In September 1983, the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the USA was at a very tense moment. The Soviets had recently shot down a Korean passenger airline, killing all on board, including a US politician.

Shortly after this, on 26 September 1983, whilst Petrov was on duty, the Soviet Union’s missile attack early warning system indicated that America had launched a nuclear strike against the USSR. In total, the system displayed five nuclear missiles heading towards the Soviet Union. Petrov was then faced with a dilemma and had to quickly make a decision which would impact the lives of billions of people. If he reported the strike, then the Soviet high command would have likely issued a full-scale retaliation, sparking off a nuclear exchange which would have altered the fate of our species drastically.

He opted to directly disobey his teaching and treat the alert as a false alarm, reasoning that the US would not send just five missiles in a first strike. He was correct, and it turned out that the alerts were caused by a rare alignment of sunlight on high-altitude clouds.

Estimates put a nuclear exchange between the Soviet Union and the US as killing around 250 million people instantly. The aftermath, including an increase in global temperatures and agricultural failings worldwide, would put the final death toll in excess of two billion people worldwide. This was perhaps averted by one man disobeying an order.  

Vasily Arkhipov

Remarkably, this isn’t the only close call that we have had to a full-blown nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the US.

Over twenty years prior, on 27 October 1962, at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a group of US Navy Destroyers, and an aircraft carrier, located a Soviet submarine. Unknown to the US, the submarine was armed with a ten-kiloton nuclear torpedo.

Due to the nature of their mission, as well as their depth, the Soviet submarine, B59, had not been in contact with Moscow for days, and they were unable to pick up radio broadcasts. The US Navy began dropping depth charges to force the submarine to come to the surface, and those on board the submarine took this as an indication that war had already broken out. The captain of the submarine, Valentin Savitsky, and the political officer on board, Ivan Maslennikov, decided to launch the nuclear torpedo at the US Navy, which would have surely sparked a nuclear war. However, they needed the authorisation of all three officers on board and Vasily Arkhipov, the executive officer, refused, reasoning that the Americans were trying to identify the submarine. Many of us reading this today may be alive because of his action.

Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks died in 1951 in Baltimore at just 31, and yet in a very real sense is still alive today. Sadly, she died of cancer, yet whilst in hospital, a doctor took some of her cells without her consent. These cells, for reasons unknown, never died and became the first immortal human cells ever grown. They became known as HeLa cells. They have since contributed to countless scientific advancements, from the development of the polio vaccine and cloning to gene mapping and in-vitro fertilisation. They have even been sent to space and recently were used to develop a vaccine for Covid-19.

In fact, Henrietta’s cells will continue to change the world in the years to come as more research is done on them. And yet, as more and more studies use HeLa cells, Henrietta herself fades away. As her granddaughter Jeri Lacks-Whye put it, ‘I want scientists to acknowledge that HeLa cells came from an African American woman who was flesh and blood, who had a family and who had a story.’

HeLa cells may have changed the world, but it would be wrong to forget the flesh and blood that they came from.

Rosalind Franklin

Rosalind Franklin was a British chemist who used X-rays to help us understand the structure of DNA. In 1952 Franklin, assisted by a PhD student Ray Gosling, was instrumental in taking an image which would help us unlock the molecular structure of DNA. This was dubbed the ‘secret of life’. This photo was given to two men, James Watson and Francis Crick, who used it as evidence for their model, which became the first correct model of the double helix of DNA. Before this image, Watson and Crick had erroneous models. They received the Nobel Prize in 1962 for these findings, whilst Franklin, who died in 1958 at the age of 37, was largely forgotten.

Watson and Crick used theoretical and mathematical techniques to explain DNA structure, whereas Franklin, an expert crystallographer, used advanced techniques to actually observe the structure. These techniques pushed the boundaries of science and were ground-breaking. If we hadn’t made these discoveries, we would never have been able to understand genetics, and much of modern science and medicine would not have occurred. It may have taken many, many more years to unlock the secrets of DNA, for before Franklin's image, scientists were heading down the wrong path. This work has also led to the development of CRISPR, which allows for the possibility to alter or delete our genetic code.

Sadly, Franklin’s dedication to X-ray crystallography led to high exposure to radiation and undoubtedly contributed to her dying of cancer at such a young age. However, in her short life, she had a huge impact on modern science, and outside of her work on DNA also made massive contributions to our understanding of coal, graphite, and viruses.

Claudette Colvin

On 1 December 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white passenger. Her act of defiance inspired the Black community and was a pivotal event in the civil rights movement. Parks became a symbol of strength, dignity and justice and has continued to inspire people to this day. However, many people don't know that just nine months before, on 2 March 1955, a fifteen-year-old girl named Claudette Colvin also refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus.

Colvin, a gifted student, was travelling home from school with her friends when the bus driver asked them to give up their seats for white passengers. Her friends obliged, but she refused. Colvin was arrested, dragged from the bus, placed in jail and charged with disturbing the peace, violating segregation laws and assaulting a police officer. On the car ride, officers made sexual remarks about her, and her father was so scared of reprisals from the Ku Klux Klan that night that he stayed up waiting with a shotgun.

Colvin’s case caused a local stir, but it was never taken on and championed by the wider civil rights movement. She attributes this to her being too dark-skinned and too young. A few months later, she would also become pregnant out of wedlock.

And even a decade before Colvin, Bayard Rustin, in 1942, also refused to give up his seat on a bus, gesturing to a white child at the front of the bus stating that 'I am depriving that child of the knowledge that there is injustice here, which I believe is his right to know'.

Citing Colvin and Rustin’s defiance is in no way intended to diminish the bravery and strength of Rosa Parks. It reminds us that movements, for several reasons, champion a handful of individuals at most. It is worth remembering that there are many more unsung heroes out there. The moral progress we have made today is due to all of them.

Mohamed Bouazizi

Mohamed Bouazizi was a street vendor in Tunisia. Bouazizi reached breaking point after being humiliated and having his fruit and vegetable cart confiscated by officials from the corrupt Tunisian regime. On 17 December 2010, he went to the local governor's office, doused himself in petrol and set it on fire.

Revolutions are often sparked off in an instant after years and decades of simmering resentment. You can’t predict exactly when they will start, as if you could, they wouldn’t start - they would be quashed immediately at the outset. Bouazizi’s act of self-immolation was the spark for the Arab Spring, a series of protests and uprisings across the Arab world which changed the nature of politics in the Middle East. There have been some who claim that the Arab Spring was ultimately unsuccessful, but it is worth remembering that it was only around ten years ago. The memory of the spring will linger, the love of freedom and desire for justice still burns in the hearts of many. And the autocracies which still inhabit the region may well be on borrowed time.  

John von Neumann

It is hard to define intelligence accurately, but we know something separates humans from animals, and animals from rocks, etc. However you define intelligence, there is no better candidate for the greatest mind that humanity has produced than John von Neuman. He was a Hungarian-American mathematician, physicist, computer scientist, and engineer, among many other things. He was a contemporary of Albert Einstein, with many who knew them both claiming that though Einstein perhaps had the more original mind, Von Neuman’s was the sharper of the two. And yet many today have no idea who von Neumann was.

It is hard to put into words how intelligent he was. At age six, he could speak fluent Ancient Greek and multiply two eight-digit numbers in his head. By the age of eight, he was proficient in calculus. He could read a book and recite it word for word decades later, and if it was in another language, he could translate it into English without slowing down. He went on to have a massive impact in every major field of science, from physics, biology, and maths to economics, the social sciences, and computing.

He created the blueprint for modern computers, laid the foundations for Artificial Intelligence, and even to this day, almost every computer is based partly on his designs. Historian Roy Weintraub called his work in economics on fixed-point theorems, ‘The single most important article in mathematical economics’ and inspired ‘half a dozen’ Nobel laureates. His work on utility theory was called by economics Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, ‘The most important theory in the social sciences’. He established the field of Game Theory, was foundational in developing quantum theory and was instrumental in the success of the Manhattan Project. When it comes to his impact on today’s world, this is just the tip of the iceberg. It is thought that if he never existed, multiple fields would be decades behind where they currently are.


There are a few things to note about the above list. Males clearly dominate it due to the power dynamics present throughout history. How many women may have impacted the world greatly and had their work hijacked or their names forgotten? How many women were denied the right to impact the world vastly over the millennia? It is food for thought. And the list is also dominated by people who are white. How many people, for reasons of race, were never given the opportunity to shine? To thrive? How many have altered the world and been forgotten? There has been a lot more work recently on shining a light on many of these unsung heroes, but sadly we will never know about many people who we really should. For reasons of race, Henriette Lacks, the African American woman mentioned earlier who had her cells taken without her consent, was treated as lesser by the medical establishment. Yet there is a beautiful irony that her living cells will continue to change the world. Many have called for the end to HeLa cells in research as her consent was never given, yet her descendants have been adamant that they want the work to continue. Her grandson, Alfred Lacks Carter, has had many people tell him that they could conceive a child because of in vitro fertilisation, developed with the help of HeLa cells. As he fittingly says, ‘They were taken in a bad way, but they are doing good for the world.’

My list has a modern bias, with almost all these people living within the last 200 years. This is largely due to the extraordinary developments technology and science have led to, good and bad. Also, the further back you go, the fewer available sources there are to pull from. Many of the extraordinary figures from the past will be already known or already forgotten.  

The scientific list could go on and on. I have tried to focus more on those that are lesser known, but which have still had a huge impact. In fact, research compiled a list of one hundred scientists, almost none of whom are well known outside of the field, and on a conservative estimate, calculated that over five billion lives had been saved by their work. These advancements become the norm and fade into the background of our lives. Diseases such as smallpox have become a thing of the past, blood transfusions are an everyday part of medicine, and fertiliser is cheaply produced to create crops to feed billions of people.

Yet instead of being lauded, science today is often treated with scorn and scepticism. However, the fact remains that many of us are alive today because of the advancements in science. Perhaps some of these discoveries would have eventually occurred, and indeed it is likely so, but the first person to discover these undoubtedly led to more lives being saved and has helped us reach subsequent discoveries quicker.

There is also a Western bias to this list, due to having grown up in the West myself, as well as the power dynamics of the world in which many of these people lived. The more I learn, the more ignorance in myself I reveal. There are many people who are well known in other parts of the world that I was late to come across – people such as Kwame Nkrumah and Julius Nyerere had enormous impacts on the shaping of modern Africa, Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar on modern India or Deng Xiaoping on contemporary China. The list could go on. There are undoubtedly countless people whom I have no knowledge of that have greatly influenced the world. It is not that history has forgotten them; it is that history in each part of the world has a different perspective for many reasons. In this, I profess ignorance and hope to learn about the many great people from all over the world one day.

Finally, this list is undoubtedly the tip of an enormous iceberg. The world we live in today has been shaped drastically by people whom we have little knowledge of. It’s not a complete list – rather, it highlights that such a vast list exists. The act of shining a light on some of these is not with the intention of capturing them all, but to recognise a few and let us all be aware that there are many acts and individuals that have hugely altered the course of history that may have become unknown. Many of these individuals have acted bravely and deserve to be remembered. I sincerely hope to come across them someday. I hope we all do.

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