One of the most popular debates, whether in a debating society or around a dinner table, is who the most influential humans are in history. It’s unlikely you’d find two people that would agree on an entire list, as all opinions tend to be highly subjective.
To create a list of the most influential humans to have ever lived, the Macro Connections Group, in conjunction with MIT University, set up a project known as Pantheon, in which they tried to draw up just such a list. This multi-ethnic team included members from all disciplines, and they did their best to analyze, quantify, and measure culture on a global basis. Using this data, the team drew up an academically-supported list of the greatest human beings in the history of the world.
Browsing the list makes fascinating reading, but simply listing the top 20 or 100 most influential people is misleading, as the top of the list would be dominated by people such as philosophers, politicians, soldiers, religious leaders, and scientists. So rather than simply list the top few overall, we should perhaps look at the person ranked the highest in each particular field.
25. Business: Walt Disney (Overall rank on the MIT list was 168)
Few individuals in the world have ever exhibited such imagination as Walt Disney and then gone on to create an enormous business empire based on the fruits of that imagination.
Walt Disney gave the world a series of cartoon icons; characters such as Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck have enchanted generations of children since they were first brought to shaky life in enormously popular cartoons.
Not only did Disney build a series of enduring characters, but he also spawned a huge entertainment empire that leveraged the popularity of these characters into a financial success story. Another measure of his success is the 22 Academy Awards that he and his creative teams have won.
His popular characters are enjoyed by children from across the globe, both rich and poor, and irrespective of skin color, ethnicity, or religious beliefs.
24. Chemistry: Louis Pasteur (Overall rank on the MIT list was 146)
It is surprising that this man holds such a low ranking in the MIT list when one considers his immense contribution to the health of humankind and how his discoveries have saved millions upon millions of lives.
Society often values wealth, entertainment, politics, and technology over the fundamental discoveries made by scientists over the ages.
Pasteur has long been considered the father of microbiology; his work toward pasteurization has ensured that millions of people drink milk cleansed of destructive bacteria. The pasteurization process has extended into almost all facets of food production, making canned and frozen foods safe for everyone to eat.
23. Martial Arts: Bruce Lee (Overall rank on the MIT list was 229)
Bruce Lee grew beyond being a simple martial artist and even became far more than an actor or entertainer. Modern MMA aficionados acknowledge him as the father of the modern sport of mixed martial arts.
He pioneered the art of standing and ground fighting while using both striking and grappling moves. Bruce also ensured that he was always at the peak of physical fitness, an attribute that many martial arts proponents did not follow until he made it fashionable with his modern training regime.
This Kung Fu star of the silver screen made the martial arts movie genre popular in households around the world. Millions of children pinned his poster to their bedroom walls, and interest in martial arts exploded around the globe. This fascination with karate and other forms of martial art is still evident today, over forty years after Lee’s untimely death.
22. Actresses: Marilyn Monroe (Overall rank on the MIT list was 141)
Marilyn Monroe was the original blonde bombshell and a universally-recognized sex symbol. She epitomized the ideal woman. No one has managed to surpass her in terms of charm and sex appeal, though many, including Madonna, Paris Hilton, and Britney Spears, have tried.
She was classified as the most important and influential female cultural pop icon of the 20th century by People magazine, and in 2009 the TV Guide Network selected her as their winner in the category Film’s Sexiest Woman of All Time.
A surprising fact to come out of the MIT Survey was that they viewed her as the most influential and popular actor of all time, beating out all the major male stars including Robert De Niro, Sean Connery, Marlon Brando, and Humphrey Bogart.
21. United States Presidents: George Washington (Overall rank on the MIT list was 190)
George Washington was the first American president and is credited as being the most influential of all the presidents. Not only was he a founding father, but he was also the commander-in-chief of the American forces during the Revolutionary War when America won its independence from Great Britain.
In addition to gaining the American people their independence, he was also one of the men belonging to the group who drew up the first American Constitution. This was done to overhaul the outdated Articles of Confederation, which had been used as the highest form of law before the Constitution was conceived.
20. Singers: Elvis Presley (Overall rank on the MIT list was 117)
Few people, especially in the Western world, would fail to recognize the dulcet tones of Elvis Presley instantly. His record sales alone have registered over a billion copies, making him the largest-selling solo artist of all time. His music is universally admired and respected, and the many cover versions of his most famous songs are a tribute to his influence.
Recently a Japanese magazine conducted a poll looking for the most popular American personality in Japan, and it was no surprise that Elvis came in on the top spot, edging out all others including politicians, sports stars, and film celebrities. His global popularity has not dimmed since his death, and his music enjoys a regular play on the radio and television.
19. Architecture: Imhotep (Overall rank on the MIT list was 116)
Imhotep was a man of extensive learning. He excelled in many fields but is particularly well known as an architect and engineer in Ancient Egypt. His greatest legacy is the Pyramid of Djoser, which he designed and engineered in the 27th century BC for the Pharaoh Djoser.
Archaeological documents indicate that the Pyramid of Djoser was the first pyramid built for the Egyptian kings, and it stood 62 meters high, which was a phenomenal achievement at that time.
Imhotep was born a commoner but, due to his incredible abilities, he was granted a number of civil and religious honors. Some of his honors include Administrator of the Great Palace, High Priest of Heliopolis, First in Line after the King of Upper Egypt and Chancellor of the King of Egypt.
He was also granted divine status after his death, a very rare honor for a man born as a commoner.
18. Biology: Charles Darwin (Overall rank on the MIT list was 71)
Charles Darwin was an extremely learned scientist who studied in many fields, but his legacy to the world of science was his theory of evolution by natural selection.
Darwin shocked the straight-laced Victorians by putting forward a theory that animals and humans shared a common ancestry, in direct contradiction to the Bible.
Darwin held agnostic views, and this helped him to see past the conventional view put forward in the Bible. He proposed a different theory, which was popular with the aristocracy but viewed with suspicion by the common man. Church doctrine influenced the masses; with poor educational opportunities for the common man, it was not surprising that they viewed Darwin in a destitute light.
The aristocracy and other scientists saw Darwin as a free-thinker and a rebel, and whether you agree with his theory or not, he left a lasting legacy for the scientific world.
17. Companion: Nefertiti (Overall rank on the MIT list was 51)
In the world of first ladies, Nefertiti stands head and shoulders above Rosalynn Carter, Michelle Obama, Jacqueline Kennedy-Onassis, or any of the other first ladies in history.
She was not a queen, such as Elizabeth I or Cleopatra; she was a queen consort, and closer to what we think of as a first lady.
Most historians and archaeologists believe that Nefertiti held enormous sway over her husband, Akhenaten, who was one of Egypt’s Pharaohs. It’s thought, in fact, that she was the power behind the Egyptian throne at the time. It is believed that she made all the decisions and ruled Egypt through her husband. She was so influential that the MIT Project named her as the second most famous female in history, behind another famous Egyptian ruler, Cleopatra.
16. Social Activism: Che Guevara (Overall rank on the MIT list was 72)
One of the most iconic and recognizable photographs ever taken is the image of Che Guevara, called Guerrillero Heroico, which has been declared the most famous photograph in the world by the Maryland Institute College of Art and Time magazine.
This aristocratic Argentinean doctor was a guerrilla leader and a revolutionary, a diplomat and a leader of the United Party of the Cuban Socialist Revolution, and a close confidant of Fidel Castro.
In a strange dichotomy, he was popularized as both a revolutionary leader and as a popular culture icon. His towering popularity with young people ranks him higher than other activists such as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.
15. Psychology: Sigmund Freud (Overall rank on the MIT list was 49)
Sigmund Freud was an Austrian neurologist and probably the most famous person in the realm of psychology. His legacy to the medical world was the system of the psychological theory known as psychoanalysis.
He lived a controversial life, and his theories were just as controversial, especially his fixation with the Oedipus complex, which many historians believe stem from his own family life. Irrespective of this, his psychotherapeutic methodologies and many of his techniques are still used in modern psychotherapy today.
14. Historian: Herodotus (Overall rank on the MIT list was 32)
Fans of the historical fantasy genre of film will instantly recognize the film 300, which is based on the Persian Wars and, in particular, the Battle of Thermopylae.
Without the groundbreaking work done by the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, much of the information about this era would have been lost to us.
He was the first person to actively collect data, arrange it methodically, and then report on it. He created his manuscript, The Histories, to document the Persian Wars. This work not only ensured that recording the history of a nation would be viewed as a social science, but it was also used in the 20th century by Zack Snyder and Frank Miller as the basis for the film 300.
13. Astronomy: Galileo Galilei (Overall rank on the MIT list was 31)
Galileo Galilei was one of the history’s greatest astronomers and scientists. He advocated the theory raised by ancient Greek thinkers such as Aristarchus of Samos, Hypatia, and Philolaus – that the earth revolved around the sun.
This placed him in direct opposition to the immensely powerful Roman Catholic Church. The Church tyrannized Galileo and tried him for his satanic teachings and ideas. During his trial, he said, “and yet it moves,” a quote that is one of the best-known quotes in history.
12. Physician: Hippocrates (Overall rank on the MIT list was 48)
Every medical professional takes the Hippocratic Oath when they qualify, and this oath can be traced back to ancient Greece, where the physician Hippocrates of Kos ran the Hippocratic School of Medicine.
His method of training physicians was radical at the time, and his teaching helped to not only revolutionize medical care in the ancient world but also establish medicine as a profession.
Historians believe that Hippocrates laid the basis of modern medicine and his influence cannot be underestimated, as is evidenced by the solemn oath named after him.
11. Exploration: Christopher Columbus (Overall rank on the MIT list was 24)
Christopher Columbus is one of the historical figures that is viewed either as an angel by those who see him as a brave explorer, or a demon by those who see him as an invader that destroyed indigenous peoples and forced the Christian religion upon them.
Either way, he is credited with the discovery of the Americas, and he undeniably played a compelling role in the exploration and conquest of what was to become the New World.
10. Art: Michelangelo (Overall rank on the MIT list was 19)
When one considers the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or paintings such as “The Crucifixion of St. Paul” or “Madonna and Child,” Michelangelo must surely be thought of as the greatest artist that ever lived.
His influence over the Renaissance period is unparalleled, and not only was he a great painter but his sculptures are as impressive. The statue of David is perhaps his best-known work.
9. Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Overall rank on the MIT list was 16)
Mozart was a child prodigy and started composing music at the age of five.
When he died at age 35, he had over 600 compositions to his name. For the past two hundred years, Western music has been influenced by his compositions, and he was recognized by his peers as the greatest composer of all time.
8. Physics: Isaac Newton (Overall rank on the MIT list was 22)
Every schoolboy knows the story of the apple that fell on Sir Isaac’s head, and while this story may be whimsical, the discoveries made by this revered scientist have established him as the most influential physicist in history.
His innovative discoveries have influenced great thinkers through the ages, including such greats as Einstein.
His book, Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, is recognized as being the foundation for classical mechanics, and the invention of calculus is shared between Sir Isaac and Gottfried Leibniz.
7. Mathematician: Archimedes (Overall rank on the MIT list was 11)
Archimedes was the most brilliant inventor and mathematician that ever lived, and he is credited as being the “Godfather of Inventors.”
His work in the realm of geometry was not only innovative, but its influence was felt through the ages by scientists such as Leonardo da Vinci and Isaac Newton.
Not only was he a mathematical wizard, but he also had a thorough understanding of the physical world. This led to his most famous inventions such as the Archimedes Screw, which is a type of pump, as well as his research into siege engines and the use and effect of levers.
6. Politics: Julius Caesar (Overall rank on the MIT list was 8)
Julius Caesar was not only a great military strategist and mesmerizing political leader, but he was also a revolutionary in his thinking and was, according to historians, the most important person in Roman history.
He modernized the basis of the government in Rome, and he fought for the rights of the poorest classes, which ultimately led to his death. In addition to his transformation of government in Rome, his military conquests resulted in the growth of Western culture throughout Europe.
5. Inventor: Leonardo da Vinci (Overall rank on the MIT list was 6)
Leonardo da Vinci was known as the original Renaissance Man, and no one epitomizes the Renaissance Age better than he does. Da Vinci may have been a Jack-of-all-trades, but he was also a master of many.
He was a painter, sculptor, mathematician, musician, engineer, inventor, and architect. He was one of the first people to have a full understanding of the anatomy of the human body.
Da Vinci’s wide range of interests and the fascinating writings that he left behind have classified him as a genius and probably the greatest inventor the world has ever seen.
4. Writer: Homer (Overall rank on the MIT list was 9)
Homer’s two masterpieces, The Odyssey and The Iliad, have been the subject of study by millions of scholars throughout the ages and across the world.
Universities, schools, colleges, and individuals have spent countless hours studying these epic poems and dissecting the personalities of Paris, Odysseus, and Achilles. These sagas have spawned innumerable books and, more recently, Hollywood films which have brought the essence of the poems to wider audiences. The enduring quality of these poems makes Homer the greatest writer in human history.
3. Military Personnel: Alexander the Great (Overall rank on the MIT list was 5)
This was the man that introduced Greek culture to a huge expanse of the known world, and with his incredible military prowess, he ruled the largest empire that the world has ever seen.
He never saw defeat in battle, and he established over 20 cities across his empire, all named after him – the most notable being Alexandria in Ancient Egypt. His death in 323 BC gave rise to the Hellenistic era in history, making him the only human to have ever given rise to an entire era.
His military prowess was used as the standard against which future military commanders measured their worth, and his name remains a synonym for a dominating and invincible force.
2. Philosophy: Aristotle (Overall rank on the MIT list was 1)
The ancient Greek philosopher is, according to MIT’s research, the most influential human in the history of the world. Aristotle, along with Socrates and Plato, is considered a most revered philosopher whose teachings spread across the known world and as far afield as Asia, Africa, and the Middle East – taken there by one of their most ardent pupils, Alexander the Great.
Aristotle is one of the very few humans whose thoughts and teachings have been respected by people of all nationalities, races, classes, and most surprisingly, across all religions – Christian, Jewish, and Muslim clerics have all hailed his writing. This man has exerted influence through the centuries and across the globe, making him the most influential man the world has ever known.
1. Religious Figure: Jesus Christ (Overall rank on the MIT list was 3)
The world currently has over 7 billion citizens; of those, around 2 billion follow the Christian teachings, so it is not surprising that Jesus Christ is considered the most influential person in history.
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According to the research, Jesus is the most influential religious leader, ahead of Muhammad and Moses but behind Aristotle as the most influential individual.