A little-known fact: Many of history’s greatest people are–and were–Polish. Indeed, Poland has produced its fair share of scientists, performers, actors, directors, and so on. They are known internationally due to the size of their contributions. For instance, one person in our countdown won two Nobel Peace Prizes for her work in the area of radioactivity. Another created more than a few of the greatest musical movements history has ever heard. And one of them was an astronomer who came to the conclusion that Planet Earth was not flat–and just before he passed away, published his findings. And one of them became one of the famous heads of the modern Catholic Church. This countdown pays tribute to all of the above.
List of Top 10 Greatest Poles Ever until in 2017
10. Marie Curie (1867-1934)
The late great legendary physicist and chemist blazed a trail. She was the first woman to gain recognition and respect as a scientist. She, with her husband, Pierre Curie, whom she met after she moved to France, finding Poland a sexist country, published reports on hundreds of experiments and discovered radioactivity.
She was born in the Russian partition of Poland, according to Wikipedia, on November 7, 1867. She was the child of teachers, the fifth and youngest. Her father was the greatest influence on her developing interest in science. He brought home equipment from his job after the Russians discontinued scientific instruction from the Polish school curriculum. Young Marie learned how to use it.
But this did not mean that she was immediately successful as a scientist. That would come later. In her earlier adult life, she worked more menial jobs. She was a governess on several occasions, and then a home tutor in Warsaw. She also served as a governess for a family who was related to her father for two years.
Then she moved to France, where she began her studies in physics. She enrolled at thhe Unversity of Paris, in late 1891. It was here that she would meet Pierre Curie. This is the man that she would fall in love with and marry. It was their love of science that would draw them together. They married in 1895.
She carried out her studies with certain radioactive materials. This led to studies of even more materials that emitted radiation. Moreover, it gained her immense respect in the field. In the Ecole Normale Supreme, she obtained her position as the first female faculty member. Meanwhile her husband Pierre became a professor at the University of Paris.
She earned two Nobel Peace Prizes –one with her husband and one without. She went around giving lectures, as people with Nobel Peace Prizes are required to do.
The University of Paris recognized her after the death of her husband in a tragic crash in the road. They appointed her to the chair he once held.
She continued to study radioactivity throughout World War One. Physicians relied on her skill with radioactive materials and they used her during World War I to help treat the soldiers that were coming into treatment centers hurt.
In the 20s she toured the United States of America, giving speeches there numerous times. Towards the end of this decade, however, her health began to fail. She died on July 4, 1934, at the age of 66. Her death is believed to be from years of exposure to the radioactive materials that she often handled. Back then there was no protection from such materials, because they were not deemed as dangerous as science would prove them to be in subsequent years.
9. Frederic Chopin
He lived only a short time, but classical students and professional musicians are studying and playing his music until this very day. Born in Poland, he spent most of his life in France, according to the Poland for Visitors website. He wrote music for the piano. His repertoire included concert music, sonatas, polonaises, mazurkas, and waltzes. Waltzes are music written in 3/4 time. Some famous more modern music written in this style are Engelbert Humperdinck’s “Last Waltz,” back in 1967; even the Beatles has been influenced by his music, as it was written in 3/4 time, “For No One” is an example.
For a time he supported himself by selling his music. Then he left Poland at age 20 after studying there and composing some musical works there. By 21 he had settled in Paris. He didn’t appear in public that often. It has been said by Wikipedia that he gave only 30 public appearances his whole life.
His health began to steadily deteriorate in his 30s. He died of suspected tuberculosis, on October 17, 1849, at only 39 years old.
Among the works for which he is best remembered include “Revolutionary Etude”, “Minute Waltz,” and “Funeral March.” Until this day, these songs are studied by students first learning how to play the piano and the organ.
8. Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543)
I am sure you’ve all heard the name. When it comes to this name, you will probably think of the man who convinced us that the world was round and not flat. This is a watershed idea in its time, for people insisted not only that the world was flat, but that the sun and the planets all revolved around the earth. After all, religion supported this idea, and anyone who thought otherwise, the clerics of the day felt, was guilty of blasphemy.
Copernicus challenged this idea in a book, entitled “The Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres.” This was the first writing to challenge this idea.
But as best-remembered as he is for the impact on science he had, he was not only influential there. As Wikipedia reports, he was also a doctor, a governor, translator, Classics scholar, and an economist. He derived a quantum theory of money, which he published in 1519.
But it was the last major work of his life for which he became most famous. It is said that he read “The Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres” on his deathbed, at age 70.
7. Roman Polanski (1933-)
Roman Polanski is a French-Polish actor, director, and writer. He was born in Paris, France to Polish parents, according to Wikipedia. He moved back to his parents to their native Poland in 1937, shortly before the beginning of the Second World War. He was educated there.
His first feature length film, “Knife in the Water,” was finished in 1962. This got him nominated for his first award, for best foreign language film. He has since received five more Oscar nominations.
Other movies he has directed include 1968’s “Rosemary’s Baby,” “MacBeth, his adaptation to the old Shakespearean play, in 1971. This marked his first return to directing after the 1969 murder of his then-pregnant wife, Sharon Tate.
He got in trouble with the law in 1977. He raped a girl, and tried to plead to the lesser charge of statutory rape, for she was 13 at the time. The judge would not let him, and the US has tried to get him extradited back to the country to face charges. Nevertheless he has continued to make hit films, such as “The Pianist (2002), for which he won three Academy awards. He also made “Oliver Twist,” based on the Charles Dickens book, back in 2005. More recently, he has won the best director award for the “Ghost Writer” back in 2010, at the 23rd European Film Awards, according to Wikipedia. He is one amongst the Top 10 Greatest Poles Ever until 2017.
6. Joseph Conrad (1857-1924)
His name at birth was Josef Teodor Konrad Korzenioski on December 3, 1857, in the Ukraine. His Parents, Apollo and Evelina Korzenioski, were members of the Polish noble class, according to the Biography website. They were also Polish patriots who conspired against the oppressive Russian rule. As a result, the couple were arrested and sent to live in the Russian province of Vologda, with their then 4 year old son Joseph.
Years later the parents died. He went to live with one of his uncles in Poland. At 16, Conrad left Poland for Marseilles, France, for a military career. It was here that he began his career as a mariner. But years later, he joined the British military, and it was here that the voyages that became a reality as a member of the military became ideas for the fiction he would write later in life. He traveled to India, Singapore, Australia, and Africa
Among his best-known books are “Heart of Darkness,” “and “Lord Jim,” both released at the turn of the century.
He died of a heart attack on August 3, 1924, at his Canterbury, England home.
5. Helena Rubinstein (1872-1965)
She was a Polish entrepreneur best known for her global cosmetics empire. Born on Christmas Day in 1872, in Krakow, Poland, she started her business career in Australia in 1902, distributing a cream her mother had used . Soon she built a beauty salon manufacturing cosmetics, working very hard to expand her business. Sure enough, her beauty business became a worldwide empire, and in 1953 she created the Helena Rubenstein foundation to fund organizations for children’s health, according to the Biography.com website.
Her mother was her totally supportive parent. She encouraged her interest in beauty products, while her father, who was very strict and dictatorial, was disappointed in her for not wanting to become a doctor, and not marrying the man he wanted her to marry–a 35-year-old widower.
Seeing that she could no longer live with her father, she moved to Australia to live with her uncle. And it was there that her business began.
She died of old age in 1965 at the age of 93.
4. Oscar Hammerstein I (1847- )
Oscar Hammerstein I was a cigar entrepreneur who found fortune in that industry and became a patron of the arts. He was born on May 8, 1847 in Kingdom of Prussia, which today is considered part of Poland. After moving to the US he found his fortune in the cigar making industry.
He became quite the patron of the arts, too. In 1889, for example, he invested his money into the building of the Harlem Opera House. He also built similar houses elsewhere. Then the unexpected happened, in about 1910: He received 1.2 million dollars from the Metropolitan Opera not to target certain American cities for opera houses.
He died on August 1, 1919, in New York City. His grandson, Oscar Hammerstein II, became famous for writing and producing such musicals as “Oklahoma,” “South Pacific,” “The Sound of Music,” and “The King and I.”
His contributions to American culture, then, is also carried on through the family line.
3. Arthur Rubinstein (1887-1982)
He was born January 28, 1887, in Lodz, Poland. He showed signs that at an early age he was going to excel at the piano. So his mother encouraged it. He began playing piano at the age of 3, and made first public performance four years later.
In spite of his young age, he made his debut at Carnegie Hall at age 19. He is not best remembered for this visit, however. He received a cool reception here, according to the article on Biography.com.
Discouraged by such a low review, Rubinstein moved to Paris, France. This is where he gained a reputation as a socialite, who was an extrovert who spent his free time telling interesting stories, and entertaining certain French artists the likes of Cocteau and Picasso. And by the way, he received better reviews in Paris.
He got married in 1932, and began to have children. This was the turning point of his life. He decided that he wanted to fine-tune his gift. So he began practicing 12-16 hours a day.
Sure enough, it all paid off. At age 50, he returned to Carnegie Hall. This time, the reception there was much warmer.
As World War II began, he moved to Los Angeles. He acquired his American citizenship in 1946. He lost his family in Lodz, Poland during the war. After this he publicly supported Israel.
He continued to perform until the partial blindness he encountered later in life forced him into retirement by 1976. He died on December 20, 1982, at the age of 95.
2. Lech Walesa (1943- )
He is a well-known labor activist who later rose to the Presidency of Poland. An electrician by trade, he was disgusted by how Polish workers were treated, and he decided to try to unionize them. Thus the Solidarity movement was born. He led that movement from 1980-1990. He then became president and served in this capacity from 1990-95.
He ran again in 2000, but, unfortunately was unsuccessful. He has written books, including “A Way of Hope” and “The Struggle and the Triumph.”
He has won the Nobel Peace Prize for his activism. As of 2016, he is still lecturing.
But during those years life was not easy for him. He was imprisoned, released from prison, and jailed again for his beliefs by a Communist government that did not die that easily. But he pressed onward, and his activism led to the ground-breaking Gdansk agreement, according to Wikipedia. The Round Table agreement, however, is even more significant in that it ed to semi-free parliamentary elections in the summer of 1989, and led to the Solidarity Party being the main one in power.
1. Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II)
His ascension to the office of Pope is historic for the Catholic church. There was no other non-Italian pope before this–for 400 years. He broke a long-held tradition.
Born in Poland on May 8, 1920, he came up through the ranks of the Catholic Church. He was ordained as a member of the clergy in 1946, became the Bishop of Omri in 1958, and the Archbishop of Krakow in 1964, according to Biography.com. Pope Paul VI made him a cardinal in 1967.
He became known as a very outspoken human rights advocate who traveled the world, preaching change in the world.
He died on April 2, 2005, at his Vatican residence, from Parkinson’s, old age, and sepsis. He was 84.
In 2014, he was made into a saint. Devout Catholics report that they have prayed to him for healing, and certain conditions–including the Parkinsons that killed the Pope–were miraculously healed.
These above are the Top 10 Greatest Poles Ever until 2017. There are lots of Poles in the world who have made a contribution to society that was very significant. I have found these ten to have made such major changes in their fields to have included them in the top 10 list of Polish people. Karol Wotjyla deserved to be #1 because, in a lot of ways, he was a trailblazer. Today, a pope doesn’t always have to be Italian. That had been a tradition that had stayed in force until 1978.
Similarly, Lech Walesa was #2 because he too was a trailblazer. He changed the way Poles viewed government. He showed his fellow Polish people that they didn’t have to put up with oppression, that there was, indeed, another way.