The 20 Most Famous Geniuses in History

From the discovery of radium to advances in cancer treatments, see who changed the world as we know it.

Reviewed by Hayley Ramsey

Illustration of Albert Einstein

The mind is a glorious vessel that needs to be cultivated and allowed to bloom. Life has become so advanced because millions of the smartest folks throughout history tapped their little gray cells, as the great Hercule Poirot would say, and made our existence better.

Indeed, we wouldn’t be where we are today if it were not for some of the top contributions made by these intellectual figures, whether it is in philosophy or science. And, yes, the list goes beyond Elon Musk and Steve Jobs, who typically rank near the top. 

So, who are these intelligent juggernauts? And how have they helped develop our intelligence?

Here is a breakdown of 20 famous geniuses of our time.

1. Baruch Spinoza 

Would the Age of Reason have ever come about if not for Baruch Spinoza and his colleagues? The Dutch philosopher was instrumental in the foundation of the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century, contributing to the historical developments in economics, politics and science. Spinoza was integral in the reformation of the Church, challenging the theologians and their status quo. 

Despite accusations of heresy, Spinoza acknowledged his belief in God, but his view was that this apotheosis was “the sum of the natural and physical laws of the universe and certainly not an individual entity or creator.” 

2. Galileo Galilei 

If it were not for Galileo Galilei, would we be so advanced in the field of physics and astronomy? He is a chief example of someone who changed our world and perspective. The Italian scientist gave us more than just the telescope and the discovery of planetary objects. 

Galileo was responsible for informing us that we reside in a heliocentric solar system (the Earth revolves around the sun). This was unheard of in the 16th century and prompted an inquisition into what was considered a fanatical and contrarian view to the accepted view of a geocentric solar system (the sun revolves around the Earth).

3. Marie Curie 

What was remarkable about Marie Curie was that she accomplished a lot of firsts. For instance, she was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize and the first person ever to win two Nobel prizes in two different science fields. 

But Curie is best known for discovering the elements polonium and radium and helping World War I soldiers with mobile radiography units. She is also revered for her contributions to the advancement of cancer treatment. More specifically, her pioneering research led to the development of radiotherapy for cancer patients.

4. Leonardo Da Vinci

Everyone knows who Leonardo da Vinci is. The quintessential Italian renaissance man needs no introduction. Many of the technological productions that have advanced humankind were conceptualized by none other than Da Vinci. The engineer and artist would put many of our contemporary geniuses to shame!

Here are just some examples of inventions that emanated from a man who was ahead of his time: 

  • Helicopter
  • Diving suit
  • Parachute
  • Airplane
  • Self-propelled cart
  • Robotics

Of course, Da Vinci also delved into the world of art, painting perhaps the most well-known portrait in the history of the world: Mona Lisa. He could do it all. Imagine if he was around today. Maybe finally we could colonize Mars, travel back and forth through time and ensure our shoes smell good. 

5. Albert Einstein 

Like Leonardo Da Vinci, Albert Einstein is one of the most famous geniuses in the history of our world. Unfortunately, his contributions to humanity are not nearly as universal as his name, except his theory of relativity. 

But Einstein provided us with a treasure trove of information that remains pertinent in the world of mathematics and physics today. In fact, common-day things such as paper towels, stock market forecasts, solar power and laser pointers, exist because of Einstein.

6. Katherine Johnson 

Katherine Johnson was a mathematician who was instrumental to the first-ever US crewed spaceflights. Thanks to her calculations of orbital mechanics as an employee at NASA, the space agency was able to send people to space successfully. 

Her work occurred at a time of extreme racial inequality, and her inspiring story and commendable achievements led her to receive a Presidential Medal of Freedom. NASA calls Johnson’s role “historical” as she was one of the first Black American women to take on a scientist position for the space agency.

7. Aristotle

Despite being a student of Plato’s, Aristotle was likely far more influential as a Greek philosopher than his teacher. Aristotle had a major influence on the creation and development of Western philosophy, whose ideas played a monumental role in everything, from physics to logic and reason to the theater. 

He also advanced the area of morality and virtue, presenting the idea that activity of the soul is directly related to moral virtues. Put simply, he argued that practical wisdom was the basis of happiness, which is perhaps one of the all-time important developments in reason.

8. Grace Hopper 

Before there was Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, there was Grace Hopper. Hopper was one of the first computer programmers, pioneering the technology of the first linkers. The United States Navy rear admiral created one of the first working code compilers that spawned COBOL-one, a critical computer programming language of the 20th century.

The computer scientist had the guided-missile destroyer USS Hopper named after her, as well as the Cray XE6 “Hopper” supercomputer at the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center.

9. Jane C Wright

Jane Cooke Wright pioneered cancer research and surgery and contributed extensively to chemotherapy. Decades ago, when Wright was just starting out, being diagnosed with cancer was a death sentence. However, because she decided to use human tissue culture instead of laboratory mice to test the effects of possible drugs on cancer cells, Wright forever changed medical cancer treatment.

In 1967, when Wright became associate dean and professor of surgery at New York Medical College, she was the highest ranked Black American woman at a nationally recognized medical school in the US.

10. Nikola Tesla 

If you ask today’s Silicon Valley geniuses who their biggest influences are, the name Nikola Tesla will typically make any relevant list. There is even a revolutionary automobile company named after the man. The Serbian inventor established A/C electricity, wireless transmission of energy, remote control and wireless telegraphy. Tesla was also considered a futurist for envisioning what tomorrow’s world would be like over the next century. 

Suffice it to say, early writings suggest he had anticipated the prevalence of smartphone and drone technologies. 

11. Bill Gates 

Bill Gates was the driving force for everything we love about the modern-day computer, whether it is a desktop or mobile. With Microsoft at the forefront of technology, Gates gave us the Dos operating system, which is an ancient code today. He then created the Windows operating system, and a brave new world was born. This piece of software changed every aspect of the world, creating a tsunami of new opportunities. 

Gates’ methods of industry dominance are still questioned and discussed today. Still, his level of intellect that helped satisfy the needs of a billion people allowed him to become one of the richest men on the planet. 

12. John Stuart Mill 

Do you enjoy your freedom? Do you like not being chained to the state? If so, be sure to give John Stuart Mill a read. The English political economist was an imperative source for the development of classical liberalism, which dictated individual freedom. In addition to his written works, he also crafted Mill’s method of agreement, which is utilized by attorneys to this date. 

Considering that he spent his childhood studying the works of Greek and Latin philosophers and mathematicians, it’s no surprise that Mill became one of the most prominent figures in the shaping of 19th-century political discourse in Britain.

13. Dr Martin Luther King Jr

Dr Martin Luther King Jr was a towering figure and will always be remembered as one of the most integral people of the 20th century. The Christian minister and activist remains revered today, and with modern political developments, Dr Luther King Jr’s sage words and vast intellect are more important than ever before.

What earned Dr Luther King Jr his Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 was his advocating for non-violent resistance to push for equal rights for Black Americans.

14. Hedy Lamarr 

Anyone who has ever watched classic films will know Hedy Lamarr as one of the loveliest actresses to grace the silver screen. She starred in some excellent pictures, including Algiers and Ecstasy. But Lamarr was more than just a thespian talent. She was also an inventor and an integral force who contributed to the fundamentals of today’s Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and GPS communication systems in the 1940s.

Lamarr achieved all this despite having been primarily self-taught. Her curiosity around machines and technology apparently became evident at a young age, when, at five years old, she dismantled her music box to make sense of its mechanism.

15. Sir Isaac Newton 

What Sir Isaac Newton discovered in the 17th century forever changed our world. Most notably, the English scientist’s development of the three laws of motion, his discovery of calculus, and his inventor status in the field of mechanical calculators were imperative contributions to society — then and today. 

Newton was a key figure in the Scientific Revolution of the 1600s. Indeed, his career was more than just a falling apple! 

16. Ludwig von Mises

One of the greatest minds in the history of economics was Ludwig von Mises. Everything that he had ever written or uttered remains vital to the Austrian School of Economics, a free-market capitalist philosophy. 

Despite English not being his first language, he penned numerous books and articles on everything, from economics to political philosophy. His magnum opus that is considered required reading for any economics student is Human Action. Even if you are not interested in this field of study, if you ever wished to delve into the subject, then this is the only book you will never need. 

17. Milton Friedman 

Like Ludwig von Mises, Milton Friedman was also one of the greatest minds in economics. Although he also penned many books, papers and articles, Friedman’s ever-important contribution to the issues of economics and politics was Free to Choose — both his book and the PBS documentary series. 

He helped form the opinions of a lot of young people, who eventually became leaders in the conservative movement. Even if you disagreed with his ideas, Friedman was still the most charming, approachable and down-to-earth economist you would ever meet. What’s more, the only topic he ever changed his mind about was monetary policy, going from championing the Federal Reserve to advocating its abolition in his later years. 

18. Alan Turing 

The legendary career of Alan Mathison Turing helped become well-known thanks to the 2014 movie The Imitation Game. The film helped the world learn about this British cryptanalyst, computer scientist, logician, mathematician, and theoretical biologist. His life’s work, which was cut short at just the age of 41, led to the modern computer and artificial intelligence.

Winston Churchill famously said that Turing’s work and contributions shortened the Second World War by two years.

19. Stephen Hawking

When people talk about the world’s top geniuses, Stephen Hawking’s name is usually among the first to come up. The English cosmologist and theoretical physicist is most known for his 1974 discovery that black holes can emit radiation. The phenomenon has since been dubbed “Hawking radiation” and is considered one of the most crucial discoveries about black holes to date.

A lesser-known fact about Hawking is that, when he was diagnosed with ALS at the age of 21, his doctors predicted that he would live a few more years at most. However, the cosmologist lived for another five decades.

20. Lise Meitner

Though you may not have heard of Lise Meitner, you’ve probably heard of “nuclear fission”, a phenomenon she co-discovered in 1938. Nuclear fission, which Meitner was the first to understand, describe and name, refers to the division of the nucleus into smaller nuclei: the principle behind atomic weapons.

Outside of this discovery, for which only her collaborator Otto Hahn received a Nobel Prize, the Austrian-Swedish physicist was the second woman to ever earn a doctorate in physics from the University of Vienna. Meitner was also the first woman to become a physics professor in Germany.

Final thoughts

What has been your latest achievement? While it is always a good idea to start small, it could be time to think bigger and realize your potential. Who knows? A little bit of effort could help you come up with ground-breaking discoveries and you could become the next genius added to the list.

Which of these famous geniuses did you find the most inspiring? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!

Originally published July 11, 2020. Updated by Electra Michaelidou.