10 People You Probably Didn’t Know Made a Positive Impact on the Planet
We’re all aware of the good deeds done by the likes of Florence Nightingale and Mother Teresa, but Benedict Arnold? Wasn’t he the guy whose name, like Judas Iscariot’s, is synonymous with traitor? History is filled with unlikely heroes and heroines — some of whom have been cast as villains — who actually did at least one thing to help improve life on Mother Earth.
One moral of the stories that follow is this: It’s never too late, until it is, for some of our least-favorite politicians to reserve an asterisk for their post-mortem reputations.
His name has come to be synonymous with “traitor,” but there was a lot more to Arnold than his disloyalty to the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. In fact, during the early years of the conflict, before he defected to the redcoat side in 1780, Arnold was hailed as a hero.
The general helped capture Britain’s Fort Ticonderoga with Ethan Allen and Allen’s Green Mountain Boys, and his victory at Saratoga in 1777 played a pivotal role in getting France to join the rebel war effort. Arnold also built one of the earliest U.S. Naval fleets, which fought a losing battle at Valcour Island but nonetheless sent the Brits back to Canada, preventing them from recapturing Fort Ticonderoga. The colonies could have lost the war because of Arnold, but without him, they might not have won it.
He’s one of the most highly regarded actors in Hollywood history, a two-time Oscar winner whose personal life was a bit of a mess (three marriages, three divorces), but Brando, who died in 2004 at age 80, was woke decades before woke was a thing. A staunch supporter of racial equality, he was active in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, taking part in the Freedom Riders’ bus movement and donating thousands of dollars to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and a college fund set up for the children of assassinated NAACP leader Medgar Evers.
In 1963, Brando joined Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic March on Washington, and he had a prime spot near the podium during King’s “I Have a Dream Speech,” earning him the lasting enmity of racist Americans.
History remembers him mostly for beheading two of his six wives, but Henry VIII left behind several notable accomplishments when he died in 1547 at age 55. In addition to being the father of arguably England’s greatest monarch, Queen Elizabeth I, he also broke with the Roman Catholic Church and started the English Reformation, even if it was for duplicitous reasons (so he could divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn, the first of the two wives he had beheaded).
But on a less-publicized note, the monarch known as the “Father of the Royal Navy” was largely responsible for setting England on course to becoming a world power, which, of course, led to the establishment of the 13 colonies that would later became the United States of America.
He may have bungled the United States’ initial response to the Great Depression after the stock market crash of 1929, but the 31st President logged an impressive list of far-reaching accomplishments throughout his lifetime. During World War I, his efforts led to the safe return of 120,000 Americans stranded in Europe, and he helped organize the Commission for Relief in Belgium, which provided food for millions of Belgians facing starvation, and served as its director.
A five-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee, from 1921 to 1928 he served as the U.S. Secretary of Commerce, supporting government regulation of aviation and radio and raising the importance of that post. As President, he made important gains in prison reform while laying the groundwork for the Good Neighbor Policy, which improved U.S. relations with Latin America. Post-Presidency, Hoover was pivotal to the creation of UNICEF in 1947.
Although she was never nominated for an Oscar and failed to reach the legendary heights of her contemporaries like Ingrid Bergman and Judy Garland, the Vienna-born star of Algiers and Samson and Delilah left an equally enduring legacy when she died in 2000 at age 85. In 1942, at the peak of her Hollywood popularity, she patented a device she’d helped develop that changed radio frequencies to prevent enemies from decoding signals during wartime.
The US Navy rejected this “Secret Communications System” as “too cumbersome” to us against the German Nazis during World War II, but it later became the crux of both secure military communications and mobile phone technology, including Wi-Fi, GPS, and Bluetooth.
Her glamorous movie-star image and tortured love life overshadowed pretty much everything else about the iconic bombshell. When she died in 1962 at age 36, her good deeds were buried under years of Hollywood drama. Among her various acts of charity: performances benefitting St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, the Arthritis Foundation, and, in her final public appearance, on June 1, 1962 (her 36th birthday), muscular dystrophy research.
She donated the earrings she wore to the world premiere of her 1957 film The Prince and the Showgirl to the Milk Fund for Babies, and when she died five years later, she left 25 percent of her estate to the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families.
His legacy forever will be tarnished by Watergate and his being the only U.S. President to resign, but Nixon’s years in the White House did yield several positives. In 1972, he became the first US President to travel to China, vastly improving U.S. relations with the superpower.
Two years earlier, he oversaw the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), saying during his 1970 State of the Union address, “The great question of the seventies is, shall we surrender to our surroundings, or shall we make peace with nature and begin to make reparations for the damage we have done to our air, to our land, and to our water … Clean air, clean water, open spaces — these should once again be the birthright of every American. If we act now, they can be.”
He’s primarily known for his rock & roll success (in the 1950s and 1960s) and his rock & roll excess (in the 1970s), but Presley, who died in 1977 at age 42, wasn’t just another two-dimensional rock & roll icon who was gone too soon. He had a less-celebrated benevolent side, lending his time, money, and celebrity to numerous organizations and causes, including the March of Dimes, the American Cancer Society, and the USS Arizona Memorial.
Beginning in 1961, he is said to have donated more than $100,000 a year to various charities, a figure that had increased to $2 million by the time he died. He continues to give posthumously through the Elvis Presley Charitable Foundation, which his estate formed in 1984.
Before he became one of the most openly racist men ever to step on the American political stage, Wallace was elected to the Alabama House of Representatives in 1946, sponsoring progressive legislation that benefitted the poor at the expense of the rich. As a liberal Alabama circuit judge in the ’50s, he denounced the KKK and made a number of pro-black rulings. He even scolded racist defendants in court on at least one occasion.
After losing Alabama’s gubernatorial race in 1958, he decided to use populist Southern racism to his advantage, ardently supporting segregation in 1962 and finally being elected governor. Although he forever will be known for exploiting racism — his New York Times obituary in 1998 barely acknowledged his early moderate-to-liberal leanings — for a brief moment in his time, it appeared that Wallace might be something entirely different from what he ended up morphing into.
During her acting career, Wood earned three Oscar nominations and was one of the first child actors to successfully graduate to adult movie star. She’s never been particularly regarded as a gay icon, but at the height of her fame in the 1960s, she hired Mart Crowley, future author of the gay-themed play The Boys in the Band, as her assistant and funded both his writing and his mental health for years.
Without her support, both financial and moral, the gay community never would have had Crowley’s groundbreaking 1968 off-Broadway play or the 1970 movie adaptation, both of which influenced and encouraged LGBTQ art for decades to come. Wood drowned in 1981 at age 43, and Crowley died of a heart attack on March 7, 2020 at age 84.