Grace Abbott

Defender of the Defenseless

Progressive Era social worker and administrator Grace Abbott led in the struggle for immigrant protection and child welfare. As head of the Federal Children’s Bureau, she enforced child labor laws and promoted maternal and child health care. As a member of the President’s Council on Economic Security in 1934-35, she helped draft the Social Security Act. Abbott also proposed the child labor provisions that were adopted in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, the law that did away with child labor. (Photo: Library of Congress)

Carl Akeley

The Intrepid Leopard Wrestler

In the late 1890s, pioneering museum taxidermist Carl Akeley made the first of five expeditions to Africa to collect wildlife specimens—on one trip, killing a leopard with his bare hands after he was attacked. The creator of the first realistic natural history displays for Chicago’s Field Museum and New York’s American Museum of Natural History, Akeley spurred the creation of Africa’s first national park (today’s Virunga National Park), a sanctuary to protect the rare mountain gorilla. (Photo: Library of Congress)

Jimmie Angel

Jimmie Angel

On the Wings of An Angel

In 1933, gold-seeking bush pilot and adventurer Jimmie Angel discovered the world’s highest waterfall in the remote Venezuelan jungle. His greater accomplishment, though, was to stir scientific interest in the region where he made the discovery—the Gran Sabana, an area the size of Belgium containing towering tepuis, flat-topped sandstone mountains harboring unknown species of plants and animals. (Photo: Davis-Monthan Aviation Field Register)

Wilbur Atwater

Wilbur Atwater

Why We Are What We Eat

In the late 1800s, scientist Wilbur Atwater popularized a word that’s now in the back of most people’s minds every day—the “calorie.” As the founder of nutrition science in America, Atwater increased our understanding of what makes a balanced diet and its effect on our energy and health. Every person who reads the nutrition information printed on food packaging labels owes Atwater a debt. (Photo: Cornell University)

Henry Beachell

Henry Beachell

The Man Who Fed Asia

Agronomist Henry Beachell didn’t intend to spend his life researching rice, but that’s the way it turned out—for which billions of people should be thankful. Beachell’s pioneering efforts in developing the first strain of high-yielding, hardy “miracle rice” in the 1960s—part of the Green Revolution—more than doubled Asia’s rice crop, dramatically boosting the income of poor farmers and saving untold numbers of people from starvation. (Photo: U.S. Department of Agriculture)

Giacomo Beltrami

Giacomo Beltrami

The Explorer with the Red Umbrella

Italian aristocrat Giacomo Beltrami came to the United States in 1822 with an admiration for democratic ideals. Fascinated by Native Americans, he joined an expedition into the wilds of the upper Midwest, toting along his jaunty red silk umbrella. After falling out with the trip’s military leader, he plunged ahead on his own, determined to discover the source of the Mississippi. Beltrami never found the river’s source, but the book he wrote afterward described his incredible adventures in the wilderness. (Illustration: Minnesota Historical Society)

Kirk Bloodsworth

Kirk Bloodsworth

The Genetics of Truth

In 1985, former Marine Kirk Bloodsworth was wrongly convicted of a brutal rape and murder in Maryland. He was condemned to death, but his chance reading of a book about a crime in England that was solved through DNA profiling led to his release after nine years in prison, making him the first American sentenced to death row to be freed by DNA testing. Bloodsworth then pressed to find the real perpetrator of the Maryland crimes, and he dedicated himself to freeing other wrongly convicted prisoners. (Photo: U.S. Marine Corps)

Inez Boissevain

Inez Boissevain

America’s Joan of Arc

Inez Boissevain’s brief life (1886-1916) was filled with drama: A pacifist and idealist, she was a record-setting athlete and vocal student leader at Vassar, a crusading New York attorney who investigated the disgraceful conditions at Sing Sing prison, and a martyr to suffragists for her refusal to give up her fight for women’s rights despite her deteriorating health. Though she didn’t live to see it happen, Boissevain was instrumental in winning women the right to vote in 1920. (Photo: Library of Congress)

Mary Bowser

Mary Bowser

The Slave Who Became a Union Spy

The name was Bond…Ellen Bond. That was the undercover alias of a real-life 007 during the Civil War—the daring, resourceful Mary Bowser. Pretending to be an illiterate slave, she spied on the South from inside the lion’s den—in the Richmond household of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Throughout 1863 and 1864, she provided the Union with invaluable information about Southern military forces, at great personal risk. (Photo: U.S. Army)

Eugene Bullard

Eugene Bullard

The Black Swallow of Death

When he took to the skies in 1917 with the Lafayette Flying Corps, American expatriate Eugene Bullard became history’s first black combat pilot. During World War II, he spied against the Nazis in Paris. The French hailed him for his military exploits and awarded him fifteen medals, but when he returned to his native land, the treatment he received from his fellow Americans was shamefully prejudiced. (Photo: U.S. Air Force)

John Wallace Crawford

John Wallace Crawford

Mythmaker of the Old West

Written between 1877 and 1908, the poetry and plays of frontier Army scout and prospector John Wallace Crawford helped create the myth of the western hero. His portrayal of larger-than-life loners who lived by a code of honor has been perpetuated in countless movies and television programs. A real-life adventurer, Crawford was a founder of the notoriously wild town of Deadwood, South Dakota, and appeared in Buffalo Bill Cody’s stage productions. (Photo: Bennett and Brown)

Joseph Dutton

Joseph Dutton

A Saint’s Unassuming Assistant

Joseph Dutton spent the first half of his life as a soldier, businessman, and dejected alcoholic. Seeking redemption through serving others, he traveled to Molokai in 1886 to assist at the leper colony run by Belgian priest Damien De Veuster. Dutton dedicated the rest of his life to the lepers of Hawaii, ministering to their needs for forty-one years after Damien’s death—while never accepting any pay and always deflecting praise from himself. (Photo: Blessed Sacrament Church, Stowe, Vt.)

Gertrude Elion

Gertrude Elion

A Life’s Labor of Love

Gertrude Elion dedicated her life to fighting human illnesses after witnessing her grandfather’s death from cancer in 1933, when she was fifteen. Going on to become a Nobel Prize-winning biochemist, Elion created the first drug to successfully treat childhood leukemia; the first immunosuppressive drug that allowed organ transplants from unrelated donors; and the first effective antiviral medication, used to fight herpes, shingles, and other viral diseases. Her work also led to the AIDs drug AZT. (Photo: National Cancer Institute)

George Fabyan

The Inquisitive Benefactor

Eccentric millionaire George Fabyan served the public by following his private passions. In the early 1900s, his attempts to prove that the works of William Shakespeare contained a cipher showing that Francis Bacon was the actual author led to the development of America’s leading cryptologists of World Wars I and II, including William Friedman, who headed the team that broke the supposedly indecipherable Japanese “Purple” code. (Photo: Riverbank Estate)

Herman Haupt

Sealing the Victory at Gettysburg

Trains were vital to the Union’s success in the Civil War, and the man who kept them running was Herman Haupt, an obscure construction engineer who could “build bridges quicker than the Rebs can burn them down.” Haupt played a key role in the victory at Gettysburg, delivering tons of vital supplies and evacuating thousands of wounded soldiers. Though promoted to brigadier general, Haupt refused to accept any pay for his wartime service. (Photo: Library of Congress)

Andrew J. Higgins

Keeping Eisenhower’s Invasion Afloat

New Orleans industrialist and shipbuilder Andrew Jackson Higgins designed and built the shallow-draft landing craft used in the Second World War’s D-Day invasion of Europe and on the beaches of the Pacific. After the war, Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower said Higgins “is the man who won the war for us.” The boatbuilder never listened to naysayers, earning him the nickname “The-Hell-It-Can’t” Higgins. (Photo: Higgins Industries/U.S. Navy)


The Last Stone Age Man in America

In 1911, the last surviving member of the Yahi Indian tribe staggered into a corral near Oroville, California, frail and half starved. Taken in by two University of California professors and given sanctuary in San Francisco’s Hearst Museum of Anthropology, the gentle soul who came to be called Ishi spent his few remaining years teaching scientists and museum visitors about his culture. (Photo: Online Archive of California)

Samuel Jones

The Mayor Who Just Wanted to be Fair

Ohio businessman Samuel Jones earned the nickname “Golden Rule” by treating his workers justly at a time when that was rare. Elected mayor of Toledo in 1897, the progressive visionary revolutionized city government. His reforms, including an eight-hour day and minimum wage for city workers, won him wide public support—and the enmity of other businessmen and politicians. (Photo: Ethackerjones)

Hedwig Kiesler

The Lovely with the Lovely Brain

Known to the world as glamorous movie star Hedy Lamarr, Austrian-born Hedwig Kiesler led a secret life as a brainy inventor. A new radio-controlled torpedo-guidance system that she proposed during World War II was the innovation that led to today’s cellular phones and other wireless communications devices—although the actress-inventor never made a cent from her idea, since her patent expired before the technology was adopted. (Photo: MGM Studios)

Jonathan Letterman

Healer of the Fallen

The Father of Battlefield Medicine, Civil War surgeon Jonathan Letterman originated casualty management procedures that are still in use today. Before his time, the wounded often lay on the battlefield for days before receiving medical attention. In 1862, Letterman created the army’s first ambulance corps and instituted the first organized system of battlefield first aid stations and mobile field hospitals, providing the wounded with timely, life-saving treatment. (Photo: Library of Congress)

Solomon Louis

Choctaw Code Talker of World War I

Long before the Second World War’s Navajo code talkers employed their native tongue to thwart the Japanese in the Pacific, a small group of Choctaw soldiers led by Solomon Louis used their own language to baffle the Germans in World War I. Although the Choctaws helped win the pivotal Meuse-Argonne offensive, ninety years passed before Congress honored these first military code talkers. (Photo: Oklahoma Historical Society)

Hercules Mulligan

General Washington’s Genial Savior

New York City tailor Hercules Mulligan had the singular distinction of saving George Washington’s life—twice. A Revolutionary War patriot and spy, Mulligan learned of two British plots to ambush the general and alerted him to the danger. Mulligan also persuaded Founding Father Alexander Hamilton—originally a supporter of British colonial rule—to promote the cause of American independence. (Illustration: Library of Congress)

Cynthia Ann Parker

A Captive in Two Cultures

Abducted by the Comanche in 1836 at the age of nine, Cynthia Ann Parker lived among the Indians for twenty-four years, marrying and bearing three children. In 1860, Parker and her daughter were rescued by whites. Never allowed to return to her Comanche family, Parker withered away and died. One of her two sons, Quanah, became a legendary Comanche leader. Cynthia Ann’s perseverance remains a source of inspiration. (Photo: Texas Beyond History)

James Parker

An Act of Valor Denied

James Parker was celebrated as a hero in 1901 after he subdued the crazed anarchist who shot President William McKinley at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. Although Parker was thought to have saved the President’s life, his deed was subsequently disputed, and the surgeons who attended McKinley were unable to prevent the President’s death. Belatedly, Parker’s heroism was validated by government officials. (Photo: The Colored American)

Anne Royall

A Thorn in the Side of Convention

America’s original muckraking journalist, 19th-century writer Anne Royall was as prolific as she was cantankerous. Taking up writing as a penniless widow in her mid-fifties, she poured out ten travel books and a novel. She then spent twenty-three years as a fearless Washington, D.C., newspaper editor, ferreting out corruption and incompetence in government. Always plagued by poverty, Royall was the first reporter to interview and quote a President, and she left a legacy still studied in journalism schools. (Photo: Find A Grave)

Clarence Saunders

The Man Behind the Checkout Counter

When entrepreneur Clarence Saunders opened his Piggly Wiggly grocery store in Memphis in 1916, he pioneered virtually all of the familiar features of modern retail shopping—everything from prepackaged goods to self-service to the checkout counter. A merchandising genius with touches of inspired nuttiness, Saunders created a revolutionary advancement in convenience in the way we live. (Photo: Library of Congress)

Eliza Scidmore

An Idea that Bloomed to Perfection

In 1885, Eliza Scidmore—travel writer, photographer, and the first woman to serve on the board of the National Geographic Society—planted the seed of an idea that took nearly three decades to flower. It was Scidmore who first campaigned to have Washington, D.C., beautified with ornamental cherry trees, which she’d seen on a trip to Japan. Assisted in her efforts by First Lady Helen Taft, Scidmore finally witnessed the planting of the first of more than 3,000 flowering cherry trees in 1912. (Photo: D.C. Public Library)

Hugh Thompson

Warrior with a Conscience

On March 16, 1968, army helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson rescued ten Vietnamese peasants in the midst of the American attack on the village of My Lai. U.S. troops slaughtered an estimated five hundred unarmed women, children, and old men that day in the worst civilian massacre of the Vietnam War. Thompson and his two-man crew were among the few Americans to oppose the killings, an act of heroism for which they were finally decorated thirty years later. (Photo: U.S. Army)

William Van Horne

The Yank Who United Canada

William Van Horne took a career risk when he moved to Canada in 1881 to oversee the construction of the struggling Canadian Pacific Railway—a monumental engineering project plagued with financial problems. In the end, Van Horne did more than complete the job he’d signed up for: The transcontinental railway he built became the engine for Canada’s settlement and economic growth. (Photo: Library and Archives Canada)

Madam C.J. Walker

Dispenser of Beauty and Truth

At the start of the twentieth century, former laundress Madam C.J. Walker became one of the country’s richest self-made female entrepreneurs by creating hair care products for black women. The daughter of sharecroppers, she used her wealth to support schools, civil rights activities, and artists who gained fame during the Harlem Renaissance. Her success inspired pride and self-esteem in African Americans, especially among women. (Photo: Addison Scurlock)