25 Inspiring Biographies Everyone Should Read

by Staff Writers

Throughout history there have been men and women who have pursued their dreams and ideals, succeeding where others had failed. From politicians to writers to humanitarians, these men and women have made a difference in the world. Read their stories to find out how they did it and why they are an inspiration to everyone who holds a dream.

  1. Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790). Not only a founding father of the United States, Benjamin Franklin also made a significant contribution to people around the world. Franklin invented many items still in use today such as bifocals, the lightening rod, and the odometer. He also started the first library and fire station. As a statesman and diplomat, he created an important alliance with France that helped pave the way to US independence. Franklin was a humanitarian, a proponent of cultural exchange, and a famous abolitionist.
  2. Thomas Jefferson (1743-1846). Third president of the US, Thomas Jefferson also helped pen the Declaration of Independence and is thought to be one of the most effective presidents of the US. Jefferson is known as a major force behind the political ideals upon which the founding of the American government was based. Not only was he an outstanding politician, but he was also an expert architect, archaeologist, horticulturist, and paleontologist. In the early 1800's, Jefferson founded the University of Virginia. Jefferson died on the 4th of July on the 50th anniversary of the drafting of the Declaration of Independence.
  3. Jane Austen (1775-1817). Jane Austen grew up in a family that encouraged writing and creative expression. By 14 she had written her first novel. Austen succeeded as a novelist in a time when women typically could not compete against men. Austen's social commentary and intelligent writing style have kept her work in the public eye and her popularity has only grown throughout the years.
  4. Sojourner Truth (1797-1883). Born into slavery as Isabella Baumfree, Sojourner Truth gave birth to five children with her husband. In 1827, New York emancipated all slaves, but Sojourner discovered that one of her sons had been sold into slavery in Alabama despite his emancipation. She sued in court and won her son's freedom. In her later years, Sojourner not only advocated for abolition, she also spoke famously on women's rights.
  5. Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865). Born of humble origins, Abraham Lincoln worked his way up to become the 16th president of the United States. Lincoln was known as a formidable lawyer and an eloquent statesman. During his presidency, Lincoln worked to prevent the southern states from seceding and passed the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, abolishing slavery.
  6. Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896). While living with her husband and family in Cincinnati, Harriet Beecher Stowe began to hear the stories of slaves who had escaped from nearby Kentucky and the horrors they had endured. In 1851 at the age of 40, she published her famous story, "Uncle Tom's Cabin," in an anti-slavery newspaper. The next year it was published as a book. Stowe is largely credited for bringing to light important issues surrounding the abolition movement.
  7. Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906). Growing up in a Quaker household, Susan B. Anthony became involved in the temperance movement to abolish alcohol. When she discovered she was not allowed to speak at rallies because she was a woman, she began fighting for equal rights for women. Working tirelessly for women's right to vote, she was instrumental in the passage of the 19th Amendment.
  8. Florence Nightingale (1820-1910). Born into a wealthy British family, Florence shook her family when she announced she would become a nurse, which was then seen as a job equal to that of a prostitute. During the Crimean War, Nightingale saw many deaths of the soldiers that she felt were attributed to the poor conditions in which they were cared. She began collecting evidence to support her theory, which eventually lead to sterile conditions and proper nutrition for the ill. She later helped found the Nightingale School and Home for Nurses where nurses first received training to learn how to best care for the injured and infirm.
  9. Mark Twain (1835-1910). Born Samuel Clemens, Mark Twain is known as the father of American literature. As a young boy, Twain began working in the printing industry as an apprentice following the death of his father. After working his way up in publishing, he later became a river pilot, but due to the Civil War, the river trade was brought to a stand-still and Twain returned to newspapers. The story "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calavaras County" first brought him fame and was published just days before his 30th birthday. Over the next 40 years, Twain made a name for himself as both a writer and a humorist.
  10. Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948). Considered the leader of the Indian independence movement, Gandhi learned a non-violent form of protest while visiting in South Africa that he later developed in the uprisings he lead for India's independence from British rule. His style of protest became the model after which Martin Luther King, Jr. styled his protests for civil rights. Gandhi's simplistic lifestyle and campaigns for the poorest Indian citizens not only endeared him to the people.
  11. Helen Keller (1880-1968). At the young age of 19 months, Helen Keller contracted a disease that left her blind and deaf. Through her innate desire to learn and the special instruction of her teacher, Annie Sullivan, Keller became the first blind and deaf student to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree. She went on to become a writer and lecturer and was an political activist for many causes including women's rights, worker's rights, and pacifism.
  12. Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962). The wife of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt was instrumental in changing the role of the first lady. She worked tirelessly for civil rights, women's rights, education, and helped form the United Nations. After her husband's death, Eleanor became a delegate to the UN.
  13. Amelia Earhart (1897-1937). Amelia Earhart was a pioneer for the aviation world and received many awards for her work. She was the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean, the first woman to receive the Distinguished Flying Cross, and the first person to fly solo in the Pacific. In addition to flying, she worked at Purdue University as a women's career consultant. In an attempt to fly around the world, Earhart's plane went missing. Many believe she ran out of fuel just miles from the Howland Island air strip where they were landing.
  14. Katharine Hepburn (1907-2003). Known as one of the greatest female film stars, Katharine Hepburn not only succeeded in movies, but stood as an example of independence and power for women everywhere. Raised in a family that encouraged the girls to participate in life right alongside the boys, Hepburn grew up with a sense of adventure that she carried with her throughout her life. Her lifelong romance with Spencer Tracy, who would not divorce his wife due to his Catholic beliefs, and her strong support of family planning were unusual for women of her generation and stood as yet another example of her independent lifestyle.
  15. Mother Teresa (1910-1997). From her home in Macedonia, Mother Teresa joined a group of missionary nuns working in India where she took her vows of a nun. From childhood, she felt the call of God and the desire to help others. In India, she started a school for the poorest children. In 1950, she started her own religious order, The Missions of Charity," specifically to care for the people that no one else wanted to look after. She devoted her entire life to the poorest citizens, earning numerous awards throughout her lifetime–including the Pope John XXIII Peace Prize in 1971 and the Nehru Prize in 1972.
  16. Rosa Parks (1913-2005). Coming home on the bus after a long day of work, Rosa Parks was asked to move to the back to make way for a white man. Tired of being pushed to the back, she refused. The bus driver called the police, who then took her to jail. Rosa Parks' arrest sparked a bus boycott, which then lead to the collaboration between Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. that shaped the civil rights movement. Parks worked for most of her long life to promote civil rights and received many distinctions, including lying in honor at the Capitol Rotunda upon her death.
  17. Nelson Mandela (1918). Nelson Mandela was an anti-apartheid activist who was sent to prison for 27 years due to his work to free the black citizens of South Africa from racial segregation. After his release from prison, Mandela went on to become the first democratically-elected president of South Africa. He has received a huge number of awards, including the Nobel Peace Prize, which was awarded in 1993.
  18. Jesse Owens (1913-1980). Discovering at an early age that that he enjoyed running, Jesse Owens credits his athletic break to his junior high coach who put him on the track team. In high school, Owens became nationally recognized with his performance in the 100-yard dash and the long jump. Owens went to the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin where he won four gold medals–a record held for almost 50 years.
  19. Anne Frank (1929-1945). This extroverted young German girl who was forced to hide with her family for two years in a small room in an attempt to escape being sent to a Jewish work camp. Unfortunately, the family was discovered and sent to concentration camps, where they all died except Anne's father. Her diary was later found and serves as an incredibly well-documented account of their time in hiding.
  20. Desmond Tutu (1931). Desmond Tutu wanted to become a physician, but his family could not afford this education, so he followed in his father's footsteps and became a teacher. When South Africa passed the Bantu Education Act, which provided a sub-par education for black students, Tutu left teaching and became an ordained priest. He later went to London where he earned his Master's degree in theology. His role in the church gave him an opportunity to speak out against apartheid and to promote non-violent opposition to it. Despite problems with the South African government, Tutu succeeded in drawing worldwide attention to apartheid and is considered an instrumental figure in helping to eliminate apartheid.
  21. 14th Dalai Lama (1935). The 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, was recognized at the age of two to be the reincarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama. He began his education in a monastery at age six. By age 15 he was positioned as the spiritual and political leader of Tibet. At age 16, he worked to successfully prevent China's overtaking Tibet. He has spent his lifetime spreading his ideals of peace and harmony among people.
  22. Steve Jobs (1955). Adopted by his parents and raised in California, Steve Jobs grew up with an interest in Hewlett-Packard, where he later worked an internship and met Steve Wozniak. After leaving college, Jobs and Wozniak founded Apple Computer. Known as a powerful businessman and entrepreneur, Jobs is an inspiration to many. Read his famous commencement speech at Stanford to learn why.
  23. Bill Gates (1955). Bill Gates, considered one of the wealthiest men in the world, made his fortune as an entrepreneur in the personal computer industry. Famously, Gates dropped out of Harvard to pursue his interest in starting a software company with Paul Allen. The two went on to found Microsoft. Currently, Bill and his wife Melinda spend much of their time and money sponsoring humanitarian efforts in areas of health, education, and poverty.
  24. Princess Diana (1961-1997). This famous and beloved princess came from the kindergarten classroom where she worked to the royal palace. Her life was difficult as she battled both depression and a style of living that was terribly foreign to her. Diana made it through her struggles to become a driving force for humanitarian causes, with the banning of land mines being her primary work at the end of her life. The tragic, early death of this inspirational woman was felt around the world.
  25. J.K. Rowling (1965). The author of the wildly popular book series about the young wizard, Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling conceived of the idea for Harry Potter on a delayed train ride. She went from living on welfare to huge financial and literary success. Rowling has become known for her donations of time and money to support a variety of charities, including Multiple Sclerosis Society of Great Britain, the disease that took her mother's life.