Have you ever participated in a debate about who are the most influential people in history? This is a topic that usually leads to further discussion and debate on who is the strongest, the smartest, the most beautiful, and a series of unresolved questions that nobody can answer with absolute certainty.
Pantheon, a project developed by the Macro Connections group at the MIT University Media Lab collected and analyzed data on historical and cultural popularity and tried to give answers to these questions. A multi-ethnic team of decorated designers, engineers, and scientists working collaboratively to quantify, analyze and measure global culture delivered the most academic and enduring list of the most popular and influential human beings in history. Since the top 100 is heavily dominated by philosophers, military personnel, politicians, scientists, and religious figures, we decided to deliver a roster of the 25 Most Influential People In History By Attribute and Profession.
Bruce Lee, Martial Artist - Overall Rank #229
Kung Fu superstar Bruce Lee was more than just a martial artist, more than just an actor and entertainer. He was a pioneer who trained in both striking and grappling, in standing and ground fighting, in an era when most martial artists only focused on one area. He used modern, progressive training methods, didn’t rely on tradition, and emphasized physical fitness, a rarity in the martial arts community. He became an international icon and managed to enter the houses of millions around the world and popularized Asian martial arts in the West more than any other martial artist in history. He became the idol of countless kids around the globe during the sixties and seventies, and his legend continues to gain many fans from today’s younger generations, over forty years after his death. Recently, the most powerful man of Mixed Martial Arts and the UFC’s president, Dana White, stated that Bruce Lee has influenced the fastest-growing sport in the world more than anyone else and called him the “father of MMA.”
George Washington, US President - Overall Rank #190
George Washington, considered by historians to be one of the most significant and prominent American historical figures, perhaps except for Thomas Jefferson, who penned the Declaration of Independence. Washington was the first president of the United States and one of its founding fathers. He was also the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War and contributed the most to the country’s freedom. He was also one of the men who helped replace the outdated Articles of Confederation with the Constitution, which remains the supreme law of the nation. According to MIT, he’s the most influential and famous American president even though his general rank here is quite disappointing.
Walt Disney, Business - Overall Rank #168
We have no doubt that if this list’s standard and measure of greatness was children’s love from around the world then Walt Disney would have the top spot. The man who gave birth to some of the most adored cartoon characters in all animation, including Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, is the most influential and effective businessperson of all time, and we can’t argue much with their logic on this one. Walt Disney holds the record for winning the most Academy Awards with twenty-two, but the most important thing he achieved is a business empire based on the visions of his creative imagination. Since his time, his characters have been entertaining millions of people, young and old, all around the world, regardless of their socioeconomic background, religious beliefs, skin color, or nationality.
Louis Pasteur, Chemist - Overall Rank #146
His overall rank is quite disappointing considering his immense contributions to humankind, preventing illnesses and saving the lives of millions. But, in a society that values wealth, political power, entertainment, and technology more than science and its life-altering breakthroughs, the “father of microbiology” is ranked only at number 146, even though he gets the nod as the most influential chemist in history. He’s best remembered for inventing the process of pasteurization that is named after him and has helped billions of babies around the world to grow up healthy by drinking fresh milk without bacteria.
Marilyn Monroe, Actress - Overall Rank #141
Marilyn Monroe is widely considered to be the most famous sex symbol in the world and one of the very first globally known female celebrities in history. Her legacy and incomparable influence on the entertainment world can be traced to a long list of female celebrities who tried to imitate her look and sex appeal. According to MIT’s study, she’s the most popular and influential actor of all time, beating even the male giants of the big screen Humphrey Bogart, Marlon Brando, James Dean, Robert De Niro, and Al Pacino, among many others.
Elvis Presley, Singer - Overall Rank #117
Elvis, the “King of Rock ’n’ Roll,” is, according to the MIT study (and numerous others), the most famous and influential singer of all time. We might add that he’s also the biggest-selling solo artist in history with estimated sales of over a billion records. As a side note, he’s also one of the biggest stars ever in Japan.
Imhotep, Architect - Overall Rank #116
Imhotep was an Egyptian polymath who excelled in various fields of human activity, particularly architecture and engineering. He was the designer and architect of the astonishing Pyramid of Djoser, which was built in the 27th century BCE. This was the very first Egyptian pyramid; it stood 62 meters (203 ft) tall when first built, an incredibly high architectural creation for its time. During his lifetime, Imhotep earned many honors and titles and was one of few people in Egyptian history who achieved a divine status after his death despite being a commoner.
Che Guevara, Social Activist - Overall Rank #72
This handsome Argentine doctor with an aristocratic heritage who ended up a revolutionary, a guerrilla leader, a diplomat, Fidel Castro’s right-hand man, and a dominant figure in the United Party of the Cuban Socialist Revolution, ranks ahead of other towering activists such as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., due to his immense popularity among teenagers and students around the world.
Charles Darwin, Biologist - Overall Rank #71
Charles Darwin was an English polymath who studied several sciences during his lifetime, but it was his theory of evolution by natural selection, the foundation of modern evolutionary studies, which gave him the legacy of being one of history’s most famous scientists ever. Darwin was an agnostic, a fact that had a pivotal influence on his thinking, and he shocked the strict, religious Victorian society of his day by suggesting a completely different theory from that of the Bible (Creationism in Genesis), noting that animals and humans share a common ancestry.
Nefertiti, Companion - Overall Rank #51
Way before Eleanor Roosevelt, Jacqueline Kennedy-Onassis, Rosalynn Carter, Hillary Clinton, and Michelle Obama, there was Nefertiti. Make no mistake, Nefertiti was a queen consort, which meant that she was the wife of a reigning king, so she can’t be compared with the likes of Cleopatra, Elizabeth I of England, and the Byzantine Empress Irene of Athens. She was what we would define today as a first lady. However, Nefertiti’s power and influence on her husband Akhenaten, the Egyptian pharaoh, was immense, and many historians believe that she was the one who commanded the ancient Kingdom of Egypt and made every major decision behind the scenes. MIT’s study named her the most famous companion and the second-most-famous female historical figure of all time behind Cleopatra.
Sigmund Freud, Psychologist - Overall Rank #49
Sigmund Freud was a famous Austrian neurologist, the founding father of psychoanalysis, and without question the most famous figure of the academic and applied discipline of psychology. Despite some of his controversial theories, especially his obsession with the Oedipus complex, many of his psychological and psychotherapeutic views and associated techniques remain popular within psychotherapy and general psychiatry to this day.
Hippocrates, Physician - Overall Rank #48
Hippocrates of Kos was an ancient Greek physician widely considered the father of Western medicine and established medicine as a profession. He was the founder of the famous Hippocratic School of Medicine that helped to revolutionize medicine in the ancient world. Hippocrates laid the foundation for modern medicine with his methods and teachings (ground-breaking and radical for his time). His influence can be traced to the oath that every doctor, nurse, and physician’s assistant has been taking for many years, the Hippocratic Oath. Some historians believe that the oath was written by Hippocrates himself or one of his students.
Herodotus, Historian - Overall Rank #32
The ancient Greek historian from Halicarnassus was the first historian to gather together his materials consistently and methodically, and then to organize and report them into a historiographical narrative. For this reason, he is regarded as the “Father of History” and the one who elevated history as a subject to a social science. Even if you’re not a fan of history, you can thank Herodotus for investigated and recording the Greco-Persian Wars in his masterpiece The Histories. Without that, we wouldn’t have gotten the movie 300.
Galileo Galilei, Astronomer - Overall Rank #31
They called him the “Father of Modern Science,” the “Father of Modern Physics,” and ultimately the “Father of Modern Observational Astronomy,” but Galileo Galilei was more than a great scientist and astronomer; he was a rebel. He popularized the theory of many ancient Greek thinkers that the Earth revolves around a relatively stationary sun at the center of the solar system. This put him in serious trouble with the Roman Catholic church at the time. He is best remembered for saying one of the most iconic quotes in history during his trial: “And yet it moves,” referring to the Earth.
Christopher Columbus, Explorer - Overall Rank #24
To some, Christopher Columbus is a hero, the greatest explorer who ever lived, and the major figure who started the European colonization of the New World. Others consider him an invader who spread the Christian religion to the indigenous tribes of America at any cost. One way or another, Columbus is widely regarded as the founder of what we know and define today as the United States of America and his influence on history, good or bad, is unquestionable since he had the most significant role in the European exploration, conquest, and colonization of America.
Isaac Newton, Physicist - Overall Rank #22
Sir Isaac Newton has surpassed Albert Einstein as the most influential physicist of all time, outranking him by one place. The great English scientist is globally considered the key figure in the Scientific Revolution, and his revolutionary scientific discoveries influenced many other great scientists including Einstein. Most experts and historians agree that his book Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy laid the foundation for classical mechanics. He also shares credit with Gottfried Leibniz for inventing calculus.
Michelangelo, Painter - Overall Rank #19
Even though most people consider Michelangelo just a painter, the truth is that the second-most-influential artist of the Renaissance behind Leonardo da Vinci was also an excellent sculptor and architect with the ultimate masterpiece of Renaissance sculpture, David, to his name. However, most of us know him as one of the greatest painters who ever lived, if not the greatest, and rightfully when one considers that the Sistine Chapel ceiling, The Crucifixion of St. Peter, and The Conversion of Saul among other masterpieces are his creations.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Composer - Overall Rank #16
The most famous child prodigy in history is also, according to MIT research, the most influential and popular composer in history. He composed music at the age of five and by the time of his death, only thirty years later, he had created over 600 works. His compositions continue to influence Western music today. Joseph Haydn wrote that posterity will not see such a talent again for 100 years. A false statement since posterity hasn’t seen such a talent for over 220 years since the death of the great Mozart.
Archimedes, Mathematician - Overall Rank #11
Archimedes was a Greek mathematician and inventor considered one of the most brilliant minds of all time and the “Godfather of Invention.” His contributions to geometry revolutionized the subject and his methods influenced every mathematician and inventor who followed. He combined a genius for mathematics with insights into the nature of the physical universe, a mix that produced the foundations of hydrostatics, statics, and the explanation of the principle of the lever as well as many innovative machines, including siege engines and the screw pump that is named after him.
Homer, Writer - Overall Rank #9
The influence and impact of Homer on the world can be traced to his two masterpieces: The Iliad and The Odyssey. Read, studied, and spread by countless millions throughout the centuries in schools, universities, and Hollywood films and TV shows, these works continue to resonate. The ancient Greek poetic giant, who made the “immortal” figures Achilles, Paris, and Odysseus famous through his epics, ranks ahead of William Shakespeare and Dante Alighieri as the greatest writer who ever lived, according to MIT.
Julius Caesar, Politician - Overall Rank #8
Julius Caesar was, according to most historians and political analysts, the most important figure in Roman history. He was a great strategist and general but also a charismatic politician who changed the form of government in Rome while his conquests laid the foundation for the development of European and Western culture. Although he was of aristocratic origin, he fought for the lowest social classes and the poor of Rome, which was the main reason behind his assassination.
Leonardo da Vinci, Inventor - Overall Rank #6
Leonardo da Vinci’s name is equated with genius and the Renaissance, from where he got the nickname “Renaissance Man.” However, it’s really hard to define da Vinci’s actual profession since he mastered way too many things during his lifetime from sculpture to painting, architecture to music, mathematics to anatomy, and engineering among others. He was without a doubt the most diversely talented man of his time, and many historians believe that a mind and personality like his comes only once every thousand years. Because of the multiple interests that spurred him to pursue various fields of knowledge, da Vinci is widely considered the archetype of the term genius and the greatest inventor who ever lived.
Alexander the Great, Military Personnel - Overall Rank #5
Alexander the Great is one of the greatest military generals who ever lived, and his empire was one of the biggest the ancient world ever knew. He remained undefeated on the battlefield until his death, and he was the man who spread Greek culture and civilization to the biggest part of the then-known world. He founded over twenty cities which were named after him, most notably Alexandria in Egypt, and he is one of the very few who managed to start and mark a whole era of human history: the Hellenistic period. He became the absolute standard and measure of greatness for many military leaders who followed, and his name remains synonymous with dominance.
Jesus Christ, Religious Figure - Overall Rank #3
Jesus Christ, a poor Nazarene carpenter in the first century who led a short ministry healing the sick and teaching in the synagogues around Judea before being crucified under Pontius Pilate, started a religious movement within the Jewish faith that later became known as Christianity. His teachings on a saving faith, forgiveness, grace, and humility in the gospels have had a tremendous influence on world theology and philosophy. Jesus is the most famous religious figure in history ahead of Moses and Muhammad.
Aristotle, Philosopher - Overall Rank #1
Aristotle was a Greek philosopher from Stagirus, northern Greece, who was born in 384 BCE. He’s widely considered one of the three greatest philosophers of all time, along with Socrates and Plato, while his teachings and theories migrated across Africa, Asia, and the Middle East through the conquests of his most famous student, Alexander the Great. He’s one of the very few historical figures who enjoys great respect and immense popularity on every continent and has been revered in Judaism, Christian theology, and Islam, where most Muslim intellectuals refer to him as “The First Teacher.” According to MIT’s research, he is the most influential human being who ever lived, while his teachings and theories are considered the most effective on a global scale regardless of religion, location, sex, class, or race. Did you learn something new from our “25 most influential people” list? If so, you may also like these 25 Strange Facts From History You Probably Didn’t Learn In School