20 Midwesterners Who Changed the World | Midwest Living

20 Midwesterners Who Changed the World

Every piece of our society owes much to our region. Presidents and scientists, inventors and musicians.

(Originally Published: January/ February 2007)

We may not talk big very often, but Midwesterners certainly make an impact by doing. In researching this story, we realized that nearly every piece of society owes much to our region. Presidents and scientists, inventors and musicians. The steel plow (John Deere) and defining the American western (John Wayne). Famous common sense (Erma Bombeck and Ann Landers) and famous aeronautics (Amelia Earhart, Charles Lindbergh, John Glenn). Even dancing (Fred Astaire) and magic (Harry Houdini). How to choose only 20? Though it would've been easier to wait for our 100th anniversary, it is our 20th, so we had to narrow. Here are our choices.

Tell us when to stop: lightbulb, phonograph, electric power plant, electric light... In fact, Milan, Ohio, native THOMAS EDISON held more than 1,000 patents despite only three months of formal education in Port Huron, Michigan. (Still, we recommend you stay in school.)

Ford to Kroc

HENRY FORD was an Edison protege of sorts. He joined Detroit's Edison Illuminating Company in 1891, working as an engineer and tinkering with plans for an internal combustion engine. In 1903, he struck out on his own and founded Ford Motor Company; by 1918, half of America's cars were Model Ts, thanks to Ford's revolutionary assembly lines. Other car manufacturers sprouted in Detroit, making it -- until recently -- the world's car-making capital.

The first black woman billionaire is known simply by her first name. But in 1984, little-known OPRAH WINFREY started a Chicago-based TV talk show that revised the genre, becoming a champion of self-improvement and encouraging viewers to lead healthier lives, read books (gasp!), and be charitable.

Our pick for the lofty contribution of flight? The WRIGHT BROTHERS, self-taught engineers from Ohio, changed travel in 1903 when their powered, piloted aircraft took off from Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

Microbiologist and geneticist NORMAN BORLAUG was a practical scientist with a simple goal: feeding the world! Born in 1914 on a farm near Cresco, Iowa, he led the Green Revolution, a movement in the 1960s to increase crop yields and combat hunger. The result? More meals, a Nobel Prize in 1970 for improving wheat strains and production, and the ongoing World Food Prize program.

It's hard to hide the cultural effects of a billion burgers. A 1954 visit to a California hamburger joint owned by the McDonald brothers (get it?) inspired Oak Park, Illinois, native RAY KROC to franchise the place, revolutionizing the fast-food industry worldwide and expanding waistlines well into the 21st century.

Hemingway to Disney

Six months covering crime for the Kansas City Star were all ERNEST HEMINGWAY needed to develop a no-frills style that would transform American novels and win the Nobel Prize in 1954. Another Oak Park, Illinois, guy, Hemingway wrote short, hard-boiled sentences that eschewed adjectives yet resembled poetry (he'd hate this sentence, by the way). Need proof? Check out the opening paragraph of the loosely autobiographical A Farewell to Arms.

Hemingway added to America's modern literary tradition; MARK TWAIN started it. The humorist and novelist drew from his years in Hannibal, Missouri, when he published The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in 1884, which broke convention by using street lingo. Considered the first modern American novel, it gave the rest of the world a snapshot of 19th-century Midwestern life.

Here's something funny: During the 1950s, Waukegan, Illinois, native JACK BENNY transformed his radio show into a self-titled TV program, establishing what became stand-up and situation comedy. And there's more to our Midwest talking tradition than that: Johnny Carson, David Letterman, Garrison Keillor, and more.

Add a man and a mouse, and you get a whole new entertainment scene. WALT DISNEY, born in Chicago and raised in Missouri, created the world's first full-length color cartoon (1937's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs) and turned mouse ears into one of the world's most-recognized icons. Plus, Disney's first-of-their-kind destination theme parks have helped kids of all ages live the fairy tale.

Friedan to Eisenhower

Women juggling families and careers today may not get why BETTY FRIEDAN's book, The Feminine Mystique, caused such a stir in 1963. But they have this Peoria, Illinois, native to credit for their Supermom juggling act. Friedan's research refuted the widely held belief that only housewives are innately feminine and fulfilled. (In a moment of frustration at a leadership conference, she also helped establish the National Organization for Women.)

Keeping the United States in one piece had some small impact on the world, plus ABRAHAM LINCOLN emancipated the slaves and solidified democratic ideals during his four-year presidency (1861-1865). The Springfield, Illinois, resident also gave a boost to that honesty thing.

Go ahead. Try to imagine life without JOHN ATANASOFF. Think you can? First, you'd have to give up your cell phone, computer, television, car -- stuff that's electronic. That's because in 1939, this Iowa State University associate professor of math and physics created the prototype for the world's first electronic digital computer.

Okay, so Ike was accomplished. Supreme commander of the Allies during World War II. Liberator of Europe. President. But a lot of people forget DWIGHT EISENHOWER, who was raised in Abilene, Kansas, also championed civil rights, sending troops to enforce school desegregation in Little Rock, Arkansas, and integrating the military.

Truman to Frank Lloyd Wright

President HARRY TRUMAN has a lonely spot in nuclear history. When the man from Independence, Missouri, allowed the use of atomic bombs during World War II, it changed the face of war -- and world relations -- forever.

It's hard to be the second-richest man in the world and not have an impact. At 76, Omaha's king of stock-market investing is a business model for students everywhere, and last summer, WARREN BUFFETT announced the largest philanthropic gift in history (roughly $37 billion in Berkshire-Hathaway stock). He also does service to another Midwest trait: frugality. He still lives in the house he bought 48 years ago for $31,700.

For a moment, forget the bread lines. If Americans found a reason to dance during the Depression, BENNY GOODMAN gave it to them. This Chicagoan and clarinet virtuoso blended jazz, ragtime, and Dixieland to create swing music. Audiences applauded the King of Swing at Carnegie Hall; even today, you can find swing-dance clubs in just about every city.

Go to the moon? Not without JAMES VAN ALLEN, a former University of Iowa astrophysicist. In 1958, Van Allen's satellites confirmed Earth has radiation belts in its atmosphere. Why did anyone care? NASA could design manned spacecraft to weather the belts and return safely to Earth, beating the Russians to the moon. (We're sure Neil Armstrong -- another Midwesterner! -- was grateful.)

Before he had gigs on greeting cards, coffee mugs, and television specials, Snoopy was simply Charlie Brown's dog in the defining comic strip Peanuts. For 50 years, Minneapolis native CHARLES SCHULZ offered subtle social commentary through the eyes of the lovable gang of children. The strip ran in 2,600 newspapers.

Those of us with open floor plans at home owe a big thank you to FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT. Unlike the countless architects before him, he just liked open spaces, clean lines, and nature's colors and forms. This Richland Center, Wisconsin, native created what became known by the early 1900s as Prairie style architecture. (For an example, visit his home in Oak Park, Illinois. Is there some kind of creative juice in the water there?)

Our apologies to Red Grange, whose barnstorming football led to today's NFL, and to Malcolm X, whose pride pushed this country a step closer to civil rights. We just had too many influential Midwesterners on the ballot!

More Midwesterners: IL to MN


  • Jack Benny - Pioneering comedian; Chicago & Waukegan

  • Ray Bradbury - Author; Waukegan

  • William Jennings Bryan - Orator, politician; Salem

  • Daniel Burnham - Architect; Chicago

  • Raymond Chandler - Writer; Chicago

  • Richard J. Daley - Mayor; Chicago

  • Miles Davis - Musician; Alton

  • John Deere - Inventor; moved to Grand Detour, Illinois, as an adult

  • Walt Disney - Animator, theme park pioneer; born in Chicago, moved to Missouri

  • Betty Friedan - Feminist; Peoria

  • Benny Goodman - Musician; Chicago

  • Red Grange - Football legend; Wheaton

  • Paul Harvey - Newscaster; Chicago

  • Ernest Hemingway - Author; Oak Park

  • Quincy Jones - Singer, composer; producer; Chicago

  • Ray Kroc - McDonald's founder; Oak Park

  • Abraham Lincoln - U.S. president; Springfield

  • David Mamet - Playwright; Chicago

  • Bob Newhart - Comedian, actor; Chicago

  • Richard Pryor - Comedian, actor; Peoria

  • Ronald Reagan - U.S. president; Tampico

  • Carl Sandburg - Poet, writer; Galesburg

  • Oprah Winfrey - Talk-show host; Chicago


  • James Dean - Actor; Marion

  • James R. Hoffa - Labor leader; Brazil

  • Michael Jackson - Singer; Gary

  • David Letterman - TV host; Indianapolis

  • Eli Lilly - Pharmaceuticals magnate; Indianapolis

  • John Cougar Mellencamp - Singer, songwriter; Seymour

  • Kurt Vonnegut Jr. - Author; Indianapolis


  • John Atanasoff - Creator of first electronic digital computer; Slater

  • Norman Borlaug - Plant pathologist, Nobel Peace Prize winner; Cresco

  • George H. Gallup - Pollster; Jefferson

  • Herbert Hoover - U.S. president; West Branch

  • Ann Landers (Esther Lederer) - Columnist; Sioux City

  • Ringling Brothers - Circus pioneers; McGregor

  • James Van Allen - Space scientist; Mount Pleasant

  • Abigail Van Buren (Pauline Philips) - "Dear Abby" columnist; Sioux City

  • John Wayne - Actor; Winterset

  • Grant Wood - Painter; Anamosa


  • John Brown - Abolitionist; Osawatomie

  • William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody - Frontier hero, entertainment magnate; Leavenworth

  • Clyde Cessna - Airplane manufacturer; Rago & Wichita

  • Wilt Chamberlain - Basketball player; attended University of Kansas

  • Walter P. Chrysler - Industrialist; Wamego & Ellis

  • Amelia Earhart - Aviator, Atchison

  • Dwight D. Eisenhower - U.S. president; Abilene

  • (James) Langston Hughes - Poet, author; Topeka and Lawrence

  • William Lear - Inventor of car radio, airplane magnate; Wichita


  • Francis Ford Coppola - Film director; Detroit

  • Gerald R. Ford - U.S. president; Grand Rapids

  • Henry Ford - Industrialist; Greenfield Township

  • Charles Lindbergh - Aviator; Detroit

  • Diana Ross - Singer; Detroit

  • Stevie Wonder - Singer; songwriter; Saginaw


  • Bob Dylan - Singer; songwriter; Duluth

  • F. Scott Fitzgerald - Novelist; Saint Paul

  • Judy Garland - Singer, actress; Grand Rapids

  • Garrison Keillor - Humorist; Anoka

  • Mayo Brothers - Founded Mayo Clinic; Rochester

  • Charles M. Schulz - Peanuts cartoonist; Minneapolis


  • Dale Carnegie - Teacher of public speaking; Maryville

  • George Washington Carver - Agriculturist; Diamond Grove

  • Walter Cronkite - Newscaster; St. Joseph

  • T.S. Eliot - Poet; Saint Louis

  • Edwin Hubble - Astronomer; Marshfield

  • John Huston - Film director; Nevada

  • Jesse James - Outlaw; Kearney

  • Rush Limbaugh - Radio host; Cape Giradeau

  • Charlie Parker - Musician; Kansas City

  • Marlin Perkins - TV host, zoo director; Carthage

  • Charles M. Russell - Painter; St. Louis

  • Harry Truman - U.S. president; Lamar

  • Mark Twain - Author; Hannibal

  • Dick Van Dyke - Actor; West Plains


  • Fred Astaire - Dancer, actor; Omaha

  • Warren Buffett - Investor; Omaha

  • Johnny Carson - TV host; Norfolk

  • Harold Edgerton - Inventor; Fremont

  • Malcolm X - Civil rights advocate; Omaha

  • Standing Bear - Indian rights advocate

North Dakota

  • Louis L'Amour - Author; Jamestown

  • Lawrence Welk - Bandleader; Strasburg


  • Neil Armstrong - Astronaut; Wapekoneta

  • Erma Bombeck - Humorist; Dayton

  • Thomas Alva Edison - Inventor; Milan

  • James Abram Garfield - U.S. president; Cuyahoga County

  • John Glenn - Astronaut, politician; New Concord

  • Ulysses Simpson Grant - U.S. president; Point Pleasant

  • Zane Grey - Author; Zanesville

  • Warren G. Harding - U.S. president; Morrow County

  • Benjamin Harrison - U.S. president; North Bend

  • Rutherford Hayes - U.S. president; Delaware

  • Maya Lin - Artist; Athens

  • William McKinley - U.S. president; Niles

  • Jack Nicklaus - Professional golfer; Columbus

  • Gloria Steinem - Feminist activist; Toledo

  • Donalee Tabern - Discovered general anesthetic; Bowling Green

  • William H. Taft - U.S. president; Cincinnati

  • Orville & Wilbur Wright - Invented first working airplane; Dayton

South Dakota

  • Crazy Horse - Oglala chief

  • George McGovern - Politician; Avon

  • Russell Means - Indian activist; Pine Ridge

  • Red Cloud - Oglala Sioux chief

  • Sitting Bull - Hunkpapa Sioux chief


  • Carrie Catt - Suffragist; Ripon

  • Harry Houdini - Magician; Appleton

  • Georgia O'Keeffe - Painter; Sun Prairie

  • Les Paul - Guitarist, pioneer of electric guitars; Waukesha

  • William H. Rehnquist - Supreme Court Chief Justice; Milwaukee

  • Orson Welles - Actor, producer; Kenosha

  • Laura Ingalls Wilder - Author; Pepin

  • Frank Lloyd Wright - Architect; Richland Center


Comments (2)

misticmike28 wrote:
What about Prince from Minneapolis, Minnesota. Madonna from Michigan. Aaliyah from Detroit, Michigan.

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