10 More Little Known People Who Changed the World


History is full of people who made a difference in the world, for better or for worse. Yet for various reasons they often slip through the cracks of history and are rarely talked about, or even worse, are forgotten entirely.

These are 10 more people who had a profound effect on the world.

Check out Part 1.

10. Herschel Grynszpan

One of the pillars of the Nazi platform was to scapegoat and persecute the Jewish people. Of course, they had bigger plans for the Jews; notably, they wanted to systematically exterminate them. But they needed a reason to move on to the next phase and that reason would come in 1938.

17-year-old Herschel Grynszpan was a German-born Jew and after the rise of the Nazi party, he moved to France where he lived in exile. He couldn’t find work because he wasn’t a legal citizen and he was worried that if he did get a job, it would draw too much attention and he would be sent back to Germany. On November 7, 1938, he purchased a gun and a box of ammunition and then he went to the German Embassy. He walked up to Nazi German diplomat Ernst vom Rath and shot him five times. Vom Rath died two days later.

On the day he died, Joseph Goebbels gave a speech and used the assassination as proof of how dangerous Jewish people were. That speech led directly to the Kristallnacht, also known as the “Night of Broken Glass.” On the night of the speech, throughout Germany, 200 synagogues were destroyed, Jewish businesses were ransacked, 100 Jewish people were killed, and over 30,000 men were arrested for being Jewish, and then shipped off to concentration camps.

Historians widely regard the Kristallnacht as the start of the Holocaust. It marked the turning point from persecution to violence, murder, and concentration camps.

As for Grynszpan, he was arrested and held by the French. After the fall of France in June 1940, Grynszpan was sent to Germany so that he could be questioned by the Gestapo. After that, no one is sure what happened to him, and for decades people just assumed he died in a concentration camp. But then in 2016, a historian found a picture in the archives of Vienna’s Jewish Museum and in the picture, there is a man that looks like Grynszpan. The picture was taken at a camp of displaced people in 1946. If the person in the picture is really Grynszpan, it means he survived the war. However, it has never been confirmed and his true fate is unknown.

9. Abraham Flexner

The most influential person in training new doctors wasn’t a doctor at all. Abraham Flexner was an educator who was the founder and director of a preparatory college in Louisville, Kentucky.

In 1908, he published The American College: A Criticism, which had suggestions and criticisms of how college in the United States should be taught. A lot of people dismissed it, thinking Flexner had no idea what he was talking about. But it did catch the attention of the Carnegie Foundation, who commissioned Flexner to look into 155 medical colleges in the United States and Canada.

His study resulted in The Flexner Report, which had a massive effect on the way medical schools are run. One of the big changes he suggested was to stop doing so many lectures to medical students and to get them some more hands-on practical experience. He also recommended that the standards for admittance should be raised and they should get rid of all for-profit schools. In the end, they ended up adopting all of his suggestions, thus creating the foundation of the modern school of medicine.

He also thought that a lot of the schools were in rough shape, so he recommended that two-thirds of them should be shut down. Within 25 years, the number of med-schools dropped from 155 to 66. Most of them were the ones Flexner said needed to close.

8. Malcolm McLean

Malcolm McLean was born into a North Carolina farming family in 1914. During the Great Depression, he started a small trucking company, which grew to have over 1,700 trucks by the 1950s. What always struck McLean as a waste was when a ship came into a port, the merchandise had to be unloaded and then loaded onto the trucks. McLean thought: wouldn’t it be great if you could just move a container from the boat to the truck?

McLean decided to pursue the idea in the 1950s. He sold his share in the truck business for $6 million, and then secured a loan from the bank for $42 million (others say $500 million). He bought two old oil tankers, and then spent the rest on retro-fitting the tankers, and docking and repair facilities in Port Newark, New Jersey. When he was done in April 1956, the Ideal X was 30 feet long and held 58 boxes.

McLean’s shipping containers caught on because it was way more efficient, which saved money, and the sealed containers made it harder for dock workers to steal from the trucks. Soon, other dockyards were retrofitted to handle shipping containers and 40 years later they were the norm. In 1996, about 90 percent of all the trade in the world was transported in shipping containers on ships that were specifically designed to carry them.

McLean sold his share in the shipping company in 1969 for $160 million. Afterwards, he dabbled in different things, but spent most of his time on his pig farm, where he worked until he died in 2001.

Despite revolutionizing the world of trade and being a major contributor to globalization, McLean is relatively unknown today.

7. Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky

Daniel Kahneman (pictured above) and Amos Tversky are a team of psychologists, so technically this list should be 11 Lesser Known People That Changed the World. But as Michael Lewis explains in his book The Undoing Project, Kahneman and Tversky were such close friends and worked so well together that it was as if they shared one brain; albeit a super-brain.

They met in the 1960s at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and their collaborative and incredibly influential work between 1971 and 1979 focused on two very distinct themes – judgment and decision making. Judgment is weighing magnitudes and probabilities, such as, “What are the odds that I’ll get this job that I’m sort of qualified for?” Where decision making is how we choose, which is what happens all the time. For example, “will I accept the job?”

What Kahneman and Tversky found was that people don’t think like statisticians. Not even trained statisticians think like logical statisticians when it comes to judgment and decision making. Instead, people respond to something called heuristics, which are mental shortcuts that the human brain has developed that make us focus on only one aspect of complex problems. At first they identified three heuristics, but more have been identified in the ensuing years.

The first heuristic is availability. An example: what is more common in the United States – suicide by gun or homicide by gun? Even though suicide is more common, many people think that gun homicides happen more often. That’s because when people think about gun deaths, they remember homicide by gun because they are reported in the news quite frequently, and suicide by gun is infrequently mentioned.

The second heuristic is representative. It works like this: Jeff has tattoos, plays the guitar, teenagers listen to him, and he spends many of his evenings in bars. Is it more likely that is Jeff a professional musician or a teacher? Based on the description, many people would pick musician, but statistically, it’s more likely that he is a teacher because in society there are an overwhelming amount of teachers compared to professional musicians. Another example of the representative heuristic is the Gambler’s Fallacy. If you flip a coin nine times and the order lands HTHTHTHTH, some people may guess the 10th flip will be tails, but the prior flips actually have no impact on that 10th flip.

The final heuristic proposed by Kahneman and Tversky is anchoring and adjustment. That is where a person has a starting point that is familiar and then they adjust from there. For example, let’s say someone asks you, is the population of Nigeria higher or lower than 15 million people? You answer whatever you think it is, then they ask “what do you think is the specific amount of citizens in Nigeria?” You probably would guess somewhere around 15 million people.

Kahneman and Tversky’s 1979 paper “Prospect Theory: An Analysis of Decision under Risk” was revolutionary in the world of behaviorial economics and forever changed the social sciences. Kahneman was awarded The Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 2002, an award he definitely would have shared with Tversky, but sadly Tversky passed away in June 1996 from metastatic melanoma.

6. Dietrich Eckart

One of Adolf Hitler’s strongest personality traits was his charisma. It’s arguably the main he was able to ascend to his position of power, which directly led to World War II and the Holocaust. Hitler’s charisma was so pronounced that there have been a couple books written solely on the topic.

What’s interesting is that Hitler was actually an unlikely leader because he was a straight up weirdo. He was a hate-filled and deeply prejudiced man who didn’t have many friends, and he had problems keeping relationships. He was also terrible at debating.

Then in 1919, 30-year-old Hitler met Dietrich Eckart, who was one of the founders of the German Workers’ Party. Eckart was a fierce anti-critic of the Treaty of Versailles and he blamed Germany’s loss in World War I on the Jews and social democrats.

Months before Eckart met Hitler, he wrote a poem in which he would meet someone he called “the Great One,” “the Nameless One,” and “Whom all can sense but no one saw.”

When Hitler went to one of Eckart’s speeches and the two met, Eckart felt like he met his “German Messiah.” He helped Hitler find his voice and trained him to use his charisma. Eckart also introduced him to influential circles of people and Hitler was able to raise money for the German Workers’ Party.

In 1920, the group Eckart co-founded was being led by his handpicked protegee, and they changed their name from the German Workers’ Party to the National Socialist German Workers’ Party; better known as the Nazi Party.

On November 9, 1923, Eckart was involved in the failed coup known as the Beer Hall Putsch. He was arrested, but released a short time later because he was a sickly morphine addict. He died weeks later, on December 26, 1923.

Hitler dedicated a volume of Mein Kempf to the man he called “a fatherly friend” and he also named a stadium after him that was used in the 1936 Summer Olympics.

5. Hedy Lamarr

If you’re a classic film buff (and that includes the references made in Blazing Saddles), you may know who Hedy Lamarr is, because in the 1930s and 1940s, she starred in some well known movies including Boom Town with Clark Gable and Samson and Delilah with Victor Mature. Supposedly, she was the first choice of a producer to play Ilsa Lund in Casablanca, but the part ultimately went to Ingrid Bergman.

While she’s almost certainly the most famous person on our list, Lamarr didn’t change the world because she starred in some old movies, though. Instead it was her hobby that changed the world. In her spare time, Lamarr liked to work on inventions.

In 1942, Lamarr was at the height of her acting career, but she wanted to help in the war effort. Specifically, she wanted to help the Allies come up with a communications system that couldn’t be intercepted by enemies. So she and her friend, composer George Antheil, patented an idea for something they called the “Secret Communications System.” It was a system that would change radio frequencies in a per-programmed method. If someone was listening, they would only hear snippets before it changed to a different frequency.

Ultimately, the military didn’t end up using the system. But decades later, Lamarr and Antheil’s patent became really important because it was a cheap and effective way to create security in new emerging technologies like military communication, cellular phones, and WiFi.

As for Lamarr, her film career cooled down in the 1950s and her last movie was released in 1958. She became reclusive in her later life and passed away on January 19, 2000. She was 86.

4. Dennis Ritchie

Born in the Bronx in September 1941, Dennis Ritchie got degrees from Harvard University in physics and applied mathematics and then went to work at Bell Lab in Murray Hill, New Jersey. In the mid-1960s, Ritchie worked on a project called Multics (Multiplexed Information and Computing Service), which was a joint venture between Bell Lab, General Electric, and MIT. Bell Lab pulled out of the project in 1969, and Ritchie, along with his partner Ken Thompson, thought it was too bad they had to exit the project because they thought it had a lot of promise.

The problem with the Multics project was that the operating system was too complex. So Ritchie and Thompson decided to make a smaller and simpler operating system, which they called Unix. Then, to ensure the operating system ran quickly and efficiently, Ritchie developed C programming language, which was based off a never-used programming language that was invented at Cambridge and London universities in 1964 called CPL (Combined Programming Language).

Ritchie and Thompson distributed Unix free to universities, who trained future computer scientists on the system. One devotee of Unix was Steve Jobs. He used it when he started Apple and when he was fired in 1985, he used it to develop his NeXT workstation. When he was hired back by Apple, he brought Unix back with him.

As for C programming language, it’s essentially the foundation of the internet and modern computing. Nearly everything on the internet and all your smart devices uses C programming language or something derivative of it. Other languages, like Python and Ruby on the Rails, are implemented in C.

Ritchie died on October 12, 2011, exactly one week after Steve Jobs died and news of Jobs’ death greatly overshadowed Ritchie’s. When Richie died, Wired magazine called him “The Shoulders Steve Jobs Stood On.”

3. Percy Julian

Percy Julian was born in 1899 in Montgomery, Alabama, and was the grandson of former slaves. Since Julian was black, he wasn’t allowed to attend high school. Instead, he applied to DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, and was accepted but had to take evening classes to get caught up.

Nevertheless, he graduated first in his class and then he went on to get a master’s degree from Harvard in chemistry, but they wouldn’t allow him to get his doctorate. In order to do that, he left the country and got it from the University of Vienna in Austria.

In 1935, while working at DePauw, he made a impressive breakthrough. He and his partner became the first people to syntheisize physostigmine, which is used to treat people with glaucoma. While many other people would be offered a teaching position for such a breakthrough, Julian was black and never offered a full time position. He ended up he leaving academia and got a job at the Glidden Company in Chicago working with soybeans.

While working there, he made several important discoveries. He was the first person to synthesize progesterone, which helps some women avoid miscarriages and is also used to treat cancer. He also synthesized testosterone that is still used in steroids today. Finally, he also discovered how to make an inexpensive synthetic cortisone, which is used to treat rheumatoid arthritis.

In total, Julian had more than 100 chemical patents, but his work was more influential than just the products he created. According to PBS:

By making important medical products plentiful and less expensive, Julian accelerated the research and growth of knowledge about them. His techniques and products led directly to the development of chemical birth control and medicines to suppress the immune system, crucial in performing organ transplants.

Despite his overwhelming success, Julian face a lifetime of hardship and violent discrimination because of his skin color. He refused to back down and was a notable active Civil Rights activist.

Julian died in 1975, and just before he passed away, he said, “I have had one goal in my life, that of playing some role in making life a little easier for the persons who come after me.”

2. Edward Bernays

First of all, no, that’s not Edward Bernays pictured above. But it’s some of his work, and it’s a big part of how he changed the world (for better or worse), as we’re about to tell you. Bernays was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1891, but his family moved to New York City when he was just one. When he was a young boy, he would travel to the Alps in the summer to spend time with his uncle, Sigmund Freud.

As an adult, Bernays opened a public relations office, and his uncle sent him a copy of A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis. After reading it, Bernays realized that he could use psychoanalysis to persuade people to buy and do things without them even knowing that he was influencing them. To test his hypothesis, he tried to get women to smoke. In 1929, it was taboo for women to smoke because it made them look sexually promiscuous.

Bernays knew if women could smoke, his client, Lucky Strike cigarettes, would make a lot of money. So Bernays consulted with Dr. A.A. Brill, who was the top psychoanalyst in New York. Brill said that cigarettes were symbolic of male power.

Bernays came up with a campaign where he called Lucky Strike cigarettes “Torches of Freedom.” He then got a list of debutantes from Vogue magazine and told them that if they smoked cigarettes in a very public place, like Fifth Avenue, that they would be helping women’s rights. They were told to gather for the “protest” at the Easter Parade on April 1, 1929, and the press was alerted that the women would be gathering to smoke.

The press came out in droves and the story of women lighting up cigarettes made news both nationally and internationally. While it did very little for women’s rights, it did help Bernays and the tobacco industry.

The Beechnut Packing Company also hired Bernays because they were having a problem selling one of their products – bacon. Yes, that’s right: there was a time in America when bacon wasn’t popular.

To get people to eat more bacon, Bernays surveyed physicians and asked them what would be better: a light breakfast or a hearty breakfast. They overwhelmingly responded that a hearty breakfast was better, so Bernays created a marketing campaign that doctors recommend a breakfast of bacon, eggs, and toast; ultimately giving birth to the All-American breakfast.

Those are just two very specific ways Bernays changed the world, but his application of psychoanalysis to public relations has had a ripple effect on both advertising and propaganda that is still felt today.

1. Maurice Hilleman

You know what’s great about modern times? Not dying in childhood from disease, or losing a child, a sibling, a relative, or a friend due to something like the measles or rubella. The man that tens of millions of people have to thank for that is American microbiologist Maurice Hilleman.

Hilleman was born in Montana in 1919 and got his PhD in microbiology from the University of Chicago in 1944. After graduating, he went to work as a researcher at E.R. Squibb & Sons, where he developed his first vaccine, which was used to protect American troops from the Japanese B encephalitis virus.

Hilleman then went on to work at what is now Merck & Co., Inc, where he developed or improved around 40 different vaccinations. This includes vaccinations for chicken pox, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, measles, meningitis, mumps, and rubella. Out of the 14 vaccinations that are recommended for children today, nine of them were developed by Hilleman. According to The New York Times, he saved more lives than any other scientist in the 20th century. But he was never awarded the Nobel Prize, although he arguably deserved to win.

Instead, something rather unusual happened in 1998, towards the end of Hilleman’s life. A respected medical journal, The Lancet, published an article by Dr. Andrew Wakefield, who said that the rise in the prevalence of autism was caused by Hilleman’s M.M.R., which was a vaccination for meningitis, mumps, and rubella that combined what was six shots into just two. So instead of getting the Nobel Prize for saving tens of millions of lives, he got hate mail for causing the rise in autism rates.

In the years since the article was published, it has been widely discredited because there is absolutely no evidence of a link between vaccinations and autism. The Lancet has since retracted the article and in 2010 Wakefield was stripped of his medical license. However, the damage was already done.

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