The Seven Greatest Humanitarians In History

Published October 9, 2011
Updated April 19, 2024

From Oskar Schindler to Mahatma Gandhi, a look at the greatest humanitarians that have defined human history by standing up for change.

The Greatest Humanitarians In History: Harriet Tubman

The Greatest Humanitarians In History

Harriet Tubman was an African-American who overcame slavery to save others from a similar fate. Born in 1822 in Maryland, Tubman was born into slavery and was frequently beaten by her master before escaping in 1849 to Philadelphia.

However, she quickly returned to Maryland and other slave states to help others (including her family) escape through the Underground Railroad. Overall, she led 13 missions and rescued 70 slaves.

Aside from her escape missions, Harriet also worked as a spy for the Union during the American Civil War.

Norman Borlaug

Norman Borlaug

An oft-overlooked figure, Norman Borlaug was responsible for an agricultural revolution that saved billions of people from starvation. Born in 1914 in Iowa, Borlaug was an agronomist who developed a variety of high-yield, disease-resistant wheat.

Throughout the 20th century, Borlaug introduced this method of wheat production to Mexico, Pakistan and India, doubling food production and decreasing the rates of starvation in these countries. This came to be known as the Green Revolution, which Borlaug continued to promote to Asia and Africa later in life.

Great Humanitarians In History: Martin Luther King

Martin Luther King Washington Mall Photograph

Martin Luther King was the African-American clergyman and activist who spearheaded the Civil Rights Movement. Like Mandela and Gandhi, King advocated non-violent methods to advance civil rights in the US and around the world.

His work focused on abolishing racial segregation in America, and he led the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 and the 1963 March on Washington, which culminated in the iconic “I Have A Dream” speech.

King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, and although he was assassinated in 1968, his legacy of tireless campaigning for human rights lives on and is ensconced as one of the greatest humanitarians in history.

Mother Teresa

Mother Teresa

Born in 1910, Mother Teresa spent 45 years in the service of others. A Roman Catholic nun, Mother Teresa became involved in humanitarianism after reading stories about missionaries in Bengal. At the age of 18, she left her home to join the Sisters of Loreto as a missionary.

Mother Teresa’s humanitarian work is extensive and legendary as she founded and worked for the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta, India.

Today, the Missionaries of Charity numbers 600, reaches over 133 countries, and cares for refugees, sick and orphaned children, the aged, AIDS victims and the mentally ill, among others.

Nelson Mandela

Incarcerated for 27 years for his efforts to abolish racial segregation in South Africa, Nelson Mandela is widely regarded for his human rights work. Mandela spent the best part of his youth working with the African National Congress, which advocated a non-violent approach to changing the apartheid laws in the country.

Nelson Mandela

However, in 1956, he was charged with treason for his efforts, and after hiding for some time, was put in prison in 1962.

Though he was meant to serve a life sentence for an array of unjust charges, Mandela was released in February 1990 and soon became President in 1994. His efforts and incarceration shed light on the racist regime in South Africa and served as inspiration for human rights advocates across the globe.

The Greatest Humanitarians: Mahatma Gandhi


Not many would be unfamiliar with the Indian political and ideological leader, Gandhi.

Dubbed the “Father of the Nation”, Gandhi was responsible for leading and inspiring India to independence from the British. From 1915 to 1945, he worked tirelessly to advocate for peaceful demonstrations as India moved for independence. His efforts and philosophy influenced civil rights and freedom movements around the world.

Oskar Schindler

Greatest Humanitarians Oskar Schindler

Those familiar with Steven Spielberg’s epic Schindler’s List will be familiar with the Oskar Schindler story. Born in 1908, the German industrialist saved over 1000 Jews during the Holocaust.

In 1939, Schindler gained ownership over a large factory and it was at this factory that he employed thousands of Jews, thereby saving their lives. Schindler used his power and the factory’s importance to shield his workers from the numerous Gestapo raids and threats of deportation.

If you enjoyed reading about the greatest humanitarians in history, you should also read about the greatest speeches in modern history.

All That's Interesting
Established in 2010, All That's Interesting brings together a dedicated staff of digital publishing veterans and subject-level experts in history, true crime, and science. From the lesser-known byways of human history to the uncharted corners of the world, we seek out stories that bring our past, present, and future to life. Privately-owned since its founding, All That's Interesting maintains a commitment to unbiased reporting while taking great care in fact-checking and research to ensure that we meet the highest standards of accuracy.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.