‘Saving the world’ is a motif that’s commonly used in cheesy action movies and video games with paper-thin plots, simply because it’s dramatic, engaging and effective. Few people would sit down to watch a poorly written movie about the mundane lives of average people because, in fiction, pulling that off requires strong dialogue and on point acting. To illustrate, imagine if Seinfeld – the legendary ‘show about nothing’ – wasn’t funny and had terrible acting; it wouldn’t have survived the pilot episode. If you’re a hack writer working with a bad director, your only chance at success is by bringing in the big guns; saving the world. When the stakes are high in the plot, people seem more susceptible to lackluster execution, simply because the added intrigue makes it more exciting and slightly bearable.
That’s just a TV/movie/video game trope though, right? The idea that one person (or a small group of people) can rescue all of human civilization from the brink of collapse is, on its face, preposterous. The Earth is too big, the population too massive, and the actions of the few can’t turn back the existential inertia of the many; and yet it’s been done before.
If, to you, ‘saving the world’ conjures up images of Bruce Willis riding an asteroid with explosives to keep it from hitting the earth, then you’ll be disappointed by this list. As of yet, no one has saved all humans at once from an extra-terrestrial threat, but there are people who have saved millions and sometimes billions of lives on their own – and some of them are still alive. These unsung heroes changed the course of human civilization simply through their life choices and split second decisions, granting legitimacy to people who believe human lives are influenced by fate or destiny. Whether it’s from being in the right place at the right time, or simply a culmination of a life’s work, these 5 people altered the course of human history irrevocably, and their names deserve to live on forever in the halls of human memory.
5. Maurice Hilleman
There’s a 99.9% chance you’ve never heard of Maurice Hilleman, but if you live in the developed world, there’s a 99.9% chance you’ve been directly and powerfully affected by his life’s work. Hilleman was born in 1919, in the American state of Montana to a poor farming family. After nearly missing out on college for financial reasons before his eldest brother jumped in to help, he began studying microbiology and received his PhD in 1941. Early in his career he identified a new strain of flu that had the potential to kill millions, and quickly – over 9 days – developed a vaccine for it, saving countless lives. In 1957 he joined pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co., where he would achieve the majority of his breakthroughs. Over the course of his career, Hilleman created vaccines for measles, mumps, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, chickenpox, meningitis, pneumonia, and various influenza strains. There are 14 vaccines in a child’s standard vaccination schedule; Hilleman is personally responsible for 8 of them. He only achieved mainstream recognition late in his life, receiving lifetime achievement awards from the World Health Organization and others. He died in 2005, from cancer, at the age of 85. He has been described as the most successful vaccinologist of all time, and the most important medical figure of the 20th century. Without Hilleman, our modern world would be much more sickly place.
4. Alexei Ananenko, Valeri Bezpalov and Boris Baranov
Technically this may be cheating, since this entry is actually 3 people, but their presence on this list is a result of their actions as a group. You may be familiar with the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, and if not then you should familiarize yourself. It’s an important case study in the potentially catastrophic consequences of poor safety standards when harnessing nuclear energy. A power surge in the nuclear power plant set off an explosion in one of the reactors that began a meltdown that ejected radioactive waste into the Ukrainian countryside. A portion of the reactor had superheated to 1200 °C and threatened to melt through the bottom of the chamber into a pool of water, which would have set off a steam explosion ejecting significantly more radioactive waste into the sky. The 3 men, Ananeko, Bezalov, and Baranov, volunteered knowing full well it was a suicide mission. They donned swim suits and swam into the pool to manually drain it by physically opening a valve. It’s believed the radiation had changed the chemical composition of the liquid they were swimming in from H20 (water) to H202 – hydrogen peroxide. Not only did they swim through hydrogen peroxide to empty the pool, but they exposed themselves to doses of radiation thousands of times in excess of what the human body can tolerate. Through their actions, the Chernobyl disaster was confined to the Ukraine and surrounding areas instead of a radiation cloud sweeping over large parts of Europe. All 3 men died soon after from radiation sickness.
3. Norman Borlaug
Few people can claim to have saved a life, even fewer multiple lives. The amount of people who can accurately claim to have saved over a billion is significantly smaller than even that. Norman Borlaug was born in Cresco, Iowa in 1914 to a working class family. After growing up on the family farm, he was encouraged by his grandfather to pursue an education. He concluded his studies in 1942 with a PhD in plant pathology and genetics and began a career in agricultural research. Throughout the course of his career, Borlaug focused his interest on making wheat crops more durable and bountiful. He developed several high-yield, disease resistant strains of wheat that are now commonly grown throughout the world. His wheat made Mexico a net exporter of wheat in a few scant years, and saved India and Pakistan from descending into famine during the late 60s. Borlaug’s ‘lives saved’ counter only goes up year after year, as the people he saved from starvation have children of their own. It’s estimated that over a billion (and rising!) people are alive today thanks to the agricultural practices developed by Borlaug and taught to farmers all over the world. He received the Nobel Peace Prize, and high honors from the governments of the USA, India, and others. He died in 2009, at the age of 95.
2. Vasili Arkhipov
Vasili Arkhipov was born to a very poor family living near Moscow, Russia (then the Soviet Union) in 1926. Upon reaching the required age, he joined the soviet navy and began working in the soviet submarine service. In 1962, the world was in the grips of the Cuban missile crisis. The USA and the Soviet Union were on the cusp of nuclear war due to the Soviet Union supplying nuclear weapons to Cuba – missiles that had major American cities well within strike range. Over 13 days, the world held its breath and prepared for nuclear war. With tension already at a fever pitch, Arkhipov’s submarine, K-19, ran into American ships in international waters. The Americans began deploying depth charges and ordered the soviets to surface. The crew of K-19 hadn’t had any contact with Moscow for days, and believed nuclear war could already have begun on the surface. The captain of the K-19, Valentin Grigorievitch Savitsky, wanted to launch a nuclear torpedo at the American ships. The K-19 was only authorized to do so if all 3 of the high-ranking officers onboard were in unanimous agreement. 2 were in favor of an immediate nuclear strike – but Arkhipov was not. After a prolonged argument, Arkhipov convinced the others to hold off on the strike and surface the submarine to contact Moscow. Thanks to Arkhipov, cooler heads prevailed and nuclear war was averted.
1. Stanislav Petrov
The Cold War nearly destroyed the world numerous times, the Cuban missile crisis was only one example. 20 years later, in 1983, Stanislav Petrov was working his job at the command center for the Soviet Union’s nuclear early-warning system. American-Soviet tension was at a high point and many members within the Kremlin believed the USA under Ronald Reagan was preparing for a surprise strike. On September 26th, 1983, the Soviet nuclear early-warning system malfunctioned and reported that 5 intercontinental nuclear warheads launched by the United States were headed towards the Soviet Union. Petrov, who had no other sources but his own hunch, believed the system was malfunctioning and the threat wasn’t real. He later explained how, in a real nuclear strike, the decision to launch only 5 missiles would be strange and illogical. Petrov (correctly) assumed that a nuclear assault from the United States would involve hundreds of warheads in order to minimize the possibility of a Soviet counter-attack. Despite the possibility that he was wrong and nuclear warheads were headed his way, he stayed the course and refused to initialize the counter-attack. Petrov was, obviously, correct in his assumption that the system was malfunctioning. Had a less critical man had his finger on the trigger, the world would have devolved into instant and unexpected nuclear war.