Culture & Literature
LIFE 100 People Who Changed the World

LIFE 100 People Who Changed the World

LIFE 100 People Who Changed the World

Albert Einstein. Elvis Presley. Nelson Mandela. Barack Obama. Madame Curie. Through innovation, perseverance and enlightenment, they have shaped the world as we know it, far transcending their lifetimes. In this special edition, the editors of LIFE examine the extraordinary lives and enduring influences of these figures, along with many, many more.

United States
Meredith Corporation
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in this issue

4 min.
history in motion

History never stops moving. It evolves. It is fluid. What history looks like today is different from what it looked like, say, a hundred years ago; and what today’s history-in-the-making looks like now may look very different just 20 years from now. Did anyone in 1907 really think Henry Ford was changing the world when he started tinkering with how to make his Model-T? Other than maybe Henry himself, probably not. Will Elon Musk be seen in 2040 as world-changer because of his electric Tesla? He may, or he may not. When combing the past, and the present, for a list such as the 100 People Who Changed the World, there are criteria to consider, to be sure, but there are no hard and fast rules. There are judgments to be…

1 min.
abraham circa 2100–1500 b.c.

Before the rise of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the world’s dominant monotheistic religions, it was the rare human who believed in one supreme being rather than in a plurality of gods and goddesses. Today, by contrast, more than half the planet adheres to a one-god theology, with 2.3 billion Christians, 1.8 billion Muslims and nearly 15 million Jews outnumbering the followers of polytheistic religions. The shared beliefs of these monotheisms include a single god, Adam and Eve, and a common roster of holy ancestors—most importantly, Abraham. His existence is impossible to prove but strenuously asserted in the Hebrew and Christian bibles and the Koran. Abraham (or Abram, as he appears in the earliest citations) was born in the Mesopotamian city of Ur (in the most prominent theory, Ur is Iraq’s…

2 min.
buddha circa 563–483 b.c.

He was born in India to wealth and power as Prince Siddhartha Gautama. A short time later, a visiting seer predicted that Siddhartha would become either a chakravartin (“universal monarch”) or a fully enlightened being who would lead others to spiritual awakening. His father, King Suddhodana, wanted him to follow in his footsteps, and so to keep him on the secular track, he confined the prince to the palace and a life of luxury and ease, surrounded by beauty and every kind of sensual pleasure. Siddhartha grew up, married and had a son. Yet thirsting for knowledge of the world around him, he eventually sneaked out of the palace and saw for the first time a sick person, a geriatric and a corpse. This encounter with human misery shook Siddhartha,…

1 min.
confucius 551–479 b.c.

For more than two millennia, the straightforward, appealing and highly moral philosophy of this often misunderstood man dictated the political behavior of his homeland, China. His adages—care for your fellow man, honor your ancestors, don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want done to yourself—were both piquant and useful as a basis for governing a nation. With their ethical underpinnings, Confucius’s sayings also seemed obliquely and sometimes not so obliquely religious. Some excerpts from Confucianism—“Forget injuries, never forget kindnesses”—can read like Christian teachings, written five centuries before Jesus was born. But Confucius was not strictly a spiritual leader, he was a teacher and a philosophical statesman. Born into poverty and raised by a widowed mother in northeastern China, Confucius served briefly in government then dedicated 16 years to teaching. Word…

2 min.
aristotle 384–322 b.c.

This is the original case of the brilliant pupil outshining the brilliant teacher. In ancient Greece, Aristotle began at age 17 to study under Plato, who in turn had been mentored by Socrates. The student-teacher relationship spanned two decades, from 366 B.C. until 347 B.C., the year Plato died. If Plato is rightly seen as the father of Western political and ethical thought, Aristotle, who disagreed with his professor on crucial points, was the philosopher who consolidated the new way of looking at the natural order. In perhaps as many as 170 books on all manner of subjects, Aristotle laid out his beliefs. He agreed with Plato that the universe was an ideal world, but felt that form and matter were inseparable; this crucial departure was at the root of…

1 min.
jesus circa 5 b.c.–a.d. 29

He was descended from Abraham through the line of Isaac, as it extended through David. So says the New Testament of the Christian Bible, which concerns itself with the life of Jesus: born to Mary and Joseph, the Christ, God’s son made flesh. His people were from Nazareth, but two Gospel authors are agreed that he was born in Bethlehem. Angels and a shining star signaled that his was a special nativity; still, nothing in Jesus’ life presages the phenomenon that would come after his brief time on earth, which may have been as short as 33 years. To quickly look at that remarkable existence: The son of the wife of a carpenter, Jesus seemed ready to take up the family trade but then showed a precocity for philosophy and…