Short Men And Women Who Influenced History
We can all name famous shorter people who have in some way had an influence on us, be it large or small.
Some shorter people have such devotion to their chosen field that they become famous, spreading their influence further than they could have ever imagined, be it science, entertainment, politics, sport, environment and so on.
This article looks at a few of the people who have succeeded in their chosen field, through sheer hard work, outstanding talent, determination, passion and compassion. Their stories serve as a great inspiration to us all.
Winston Churchill - 5'6.75" (168.9 cm) 1874-1965 Born UK
Winston Churchill was born in 1874 into the British aristocracy at his family’s ancestral home, Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire, UK. His father was a member of parliament and his mother was the daughter of a wealthy American businessman.
He was not particularly academic and joined the British army, traveling to many countries. When he was in New York City and in admiration of the United States he wrote to his brother saying: ‘
what an extraordinary people the Americans are! Their hospitality is a revelation and they make you feel at home and at ease in a way that I have never before experienced. This is a very great country my dear Jack’ (1).
This was an initial appreciation of the American people which never wavered.
Churchill entered Parliament in 1901 and had an illustrious career as a politician. He served as British Prime Minister from 1940-1945 and a second term from 1951-1955, retiring at age 80. There are many events that he can be remembered by, but perhaps the greatest achievement was his outstanding leadership qualities during the Second World War. His oratories were renowned and second to none – many British people believe that Churchill was undeniably a major force in achieving victory, both strategically and in boosting public morale.
Nicolas Sarkozy - 5’5” (165.1 cm) Born 1955 France
Sarkozy was born in Paris in 1955. His family was wealthy but he rarely saw his father, saying that his grandfather had more influence on him as he grew up. He was known as a mediocre student going on to graduate in Private Law; after passing the bar he became a lawyer.
At 23, Sarkozy entered politics as a councilor and at age 28 went on to become mayor of Neuilly-Sur-Seine (1983 - 2002). He was elected President of France from 2007 to 2012. He stood again in 2016 but failed to be elected and retired from politics. Sarkozy is regarded as a talented politician, alongside being a notable orator. He lives with his third wife, former fashion model Carla Bruni (who, incidentally is 5’9” (175.3cm).
Sarkozy has made reference to his early years and abandonment by his father, saying that his taller and richer schoolmates made him feel inferior, as well as all the humiliations he suffered:
‘what made me who I am now is the sum of all the humiliations suffered during childhood’ (2).
He is said to be sensitive about his height (Reuters 21 September 2007), and the media notes that his wife frequently wears flat shoes when in public with him.
Angela Merkel - 5’4.5” (163.9 cm) Born 1954 Germany
Angela Merkel was born in 1954 in Hamburg, West Germany. Her father was a theology student and her mother a Latin teacher. Angela studied physics at Karl Marx University, graduating in 1978. In 1986 she was awarded a doctorate on her thesis on quantum chemistry. She worked as a chemist at the Central Institute for Physical Chemistry from 1978 to 1990.
In 1990, Merkel won her first parliamentary seat in the Bundestag. In 1994 she became minister of environment, conservation and reactor safety, going on in 1995 to preside over the first United Nations Climate Conference in Berlin. In 2000, she was elected head of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU).
In 2005, Merkel was declared Germany’s first female Chancellor and was re-elected for a fourth term in 2017. As such, she is one of the most powerful world leaders and is also highly respected.
In 2020, Merkel topped the Forbes list of the most powerful women in the world for a tenth consecutive year (3). She has said she will not be standing for re-election in 2021.
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi - 5'4.5" (162.6 cm) 1869- 1948 Born India
Gandhi was born in 1869, in Porbander, India, the youngest child of his father’s fourth wife. His upbringing was steeped in Vaishnavism, an Indian religion whose chief principles are non-violence and the belief that everything in the universe is eternal. Gandhi’s education was fairly ordinary and his record mediocre. He was a shy child and enjoyed going on long solitary walks, when not helping to nurse his then-ailing father.
Although he had ambitions to become a doctor, Gandhi’s family had other ideas and wanted him to qualify as a barrister. He was sent to England and studied at the University of London.
During his three years in England, he was introduced to the ‘Gita’, which is the most popular expression of Hinduism in the form of a philosophical poem. Gandhi became friends with eminent people such as George Bernard Shaw and Annie Besant, idealists whose views later came to contribute to shaping his politics and personality.
Returning to India, Gandhi had little success as a barrister and as job opportunities were limited, in 1893 he accepted a contract in South Africa. It was here where he first encountered injustice and racial discrimination. In 1894, at age 25 he went from being a diffident person to a skillful political campaigner.
He remained in South Africa until 1915 when he returned to India and by 1920 was known as Mahatma (‘Great Soul’). He was now a leading political figure and became a forerunner in the movements against colonialism, racism, and violence, with his deepest strivings spiritual. Gandhi died in 1948 leaving an irrefutable legacy and influence on the world.
Frank Sinatra - 5’7” (170.2cm) 1915-1998 Born USA
There are many musical entertainers on the shorter side, but one of the most famous in history is Frank Sinatra, who was born in New Jersey, USA, as the only child of Italian immigrants. His father worked in the local fire department and his mother Dolly was a strong and energetic woman who it is believed was a dominant influence in the development of Sinatra’s personality and self-confidence. Sinatra was very thin and small as a child and in early adulthood, but it never seemed to affect his confidence and in fact, later on, his small build would often become a staple of jokes at many of his stage shows.
Sinatra was interested in music from an early age and idolized performers such as Bing Crosby. He began his recording career in 1943 and produced his debut album ‘The Voice Of Frank Sinatra’ in 1946.
As well as being a talented recording artist, he also forged a very successful career as a movie actor winning many awards, including two Oscar’s, in 1953 for Best Supporting Actor in the movie ‘From Here To Eternity” and in 1955 for Best Actor in ‘The Man With The Golden Arm’. His private life was colorful and he married 4 times.
Sinatra went on to become one of the best-selling musical artists of all time, selling more than 150 million records worldwide. His influence on the world of music cannot be understated and he remains today as popular and highly regarded as ever.
Louis Armstrong - 5’6” (167.6 cm) 1901-1971 Born USA
Armstrong formed the Armstrong Hot Five and Hot Seven bands between 1925 and 1928, where he created his most important works and emerged as the first great soloist. By this time, it was apparent that his trumpet playing was immensely superior to others, as was his brilliant technique and overall musical genius.
By 1929, Armstrong had achieved great popularity in films, on radio, and recordings and toured America and Europe accompanying big bands as a solo artist. He later began singing on most of his recordings, with his easily identifiable gravel voice.
Armstrong’s impact on the evolution of jazz and his influence on the swing era was huge. He is also remembered for his style, his humor, and his unforgettable vocal recordings such as ‘Hello Dolly’ and “It’s a Wonderful World’, which are fondly remembered and often still played today.
Lady Gaga - 5’1” (154.9 cm) Born 1986 America
A shorter modern musical entertainer on the list, Lady Gaga, real name Stefani Germanotta, has achieved great fame as a singer, songwriter, and actress. She adopted her stage name after being inspired by the ‘Queen’ song ‘Radio Gaga’.
She learned to play the piano from the age of 4 and wrote her first piano ballad when she was 13, with her initial performance at a New York nightclub a year later. Gaga was accepted early into New York’s University Tisch School of the Arts but later withdrew to follow her own creative path.
Gaga wrote her debut album, ‘The Fame’, in 2007, aged 20, which was successful in the USA. Her debut single ‘Just Dance’ reached number 1 in 2009 and stayed in the charts for 49 weeks. Her single from the ‘The Fame’ album, ‘Poker Face’ topped charts in almost every country.
Gaga went on to perform with the greats, including Tony Bennett, releasing their duet album ‘Cheek to Cheek’ which won a Grammy award. In 2015, she showed her acting talent in ‘American Horror Story: Hotel’, earning a Golden Globe. In 2016, Gaga starred in the remake of ‘A Star is Born' with Bradley Cooper, both later winning a Grammy, Golden Globe, and an Oscar in 2019 for Best Original Song, for their co-written duet ‘Shallow’.
Gaga’s frequently outrageous stage outfits are memorable and intend to send deliberate messages.
For example, the famous meat dress, made out of real meat, was making a stand against America’s controversial “Don’t Tell, Don’t Ask’ policy, which prevented gay, lesbian, and bisexual people in the military from disclosing their sexuality.
The oversized men’s suit she wore when she gave an emotional speech at Elle’s 25th Annual Women in Hollywood event was built around her previous sexual assault and gave the message
'today I wear the pants’ (4).
Similar to Lil Wayne, Gaga has often been outspoken and utilizes her fame and music as a platform for speaking about issues that are affecting the world today. She is influential and arguably one of the most successful female singers in the world today.
Madonna - 5’3” (160 cm) Born 1958 USA
Madonna Ciccone is one of the most famous singer/ actresses in the world and there are very few who do not recognize her name. The third of six children, Madonna was brought up in a strict Catholic household.
Her mother died when she was 5 years old and Madonna says her death had a huge influence on her life, later rebelling against her traditional upbringing by wearing revealing outfits and visiting gay nightclubs.
However, Madonna worked hard to achieve her goals and was a straight-A student. Her determination paid off and in 1976 the University of Michigan offered her a full scholarship on their dance program.
She dropped out after 2 years and moved to New York to further her dance career. In 1979, she spent some time working as a showgirl in Paris, where she loved the combination of singing and dancing.
Returning to America in 1980, she sang in a band called Breakfast Club, going on to form several bands of her own. In 1981, Madonna went solo and in 1982 her first hit entitled ‘Everybody’ shot to number 1 in the dance charts.
Over the next few years, Madonna had several more number 1’s and became a huge international star. Female fans imitated her distinct sense of fashion and onstage she would often deliver controversial performances, such as the suggestive writhing in a wedding dress whilst performing her hit single ‘Like A Virgin’.
In 1989 there was public outrage at her ‘Like A Prayer’ video, aired on TV as part of her endorsement of a Pepsi advertisement, which featured burning crosses, sexual innuendo, and other controversial themes, after which Pepsi dropped their endorsement and Pope John Paul urged fans not to attend her concerts in Italy.
Despite the controversy, or perhaps because of it, Madonna’s popularity continued to grow. Her career went from strength to strength and introduced her talent as an actress, starring in the film adaptation of the musical ‘Evita’, for which she won a Golden Globe and an Oscar for Music, Original Song ‘You Must Love Me'. In 2004, she became the artist with the most gold disks in the USA.
As well as touring and big screen acting, Madonna appeared on the West End stage in the play ‘Up For Grabs’ and she has also written children’s books. Her global success is such that in 2008, Forbes magazine named her the world’s wealthiest female musician.
Madonna has been married and divorced twice; she has three biological children and three adopted Malawian children. She is still performing and remains one of the best-selling female artists of all time.
Sir Elton John - 5'7.5" (171.5 cm) Born 1947 UK
One of the most well-known performers in the world, Elton John is also one of the best-selling solo artists of all time. Born Reginald Dwight, he started playing his grandmother’s piano at an early age and by age 7 he began formal lessons. John won a junior scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music when he was 11, and here he studied classical composers.
He attended the academy for five years but dropped out before the final exams saying that he:
‘resented studying and hardly ever studied’. ‘I kind of resented going to the Academy’, he said, ‘I was one of those children who could just about get away without practising and still pass, scrape through the grades’ (5).
During this period, at age of 15, John also began playing piano in a local pub. He later went on to play in the backing band of English/Canadian singer Long John Baldry, taking his stage name from him and the sax player Elton Dean.
John teamed up with lyricist Bernie Taupin in 1967; it was to be a hugely successful and lifelong partnership, which survives today. From the beginning, John has always put the music to Taupin’s lyrics, which he says he has never queried or sought to change.
John’s career went from strength to strength and unusually for the time, it first took off in America before he achieved success in the UK and later worldwide (British artists normally made the big time in the UK before setting their sights on the USA). His career has included recording, touring, and in 1994 with Sir Tim Rice he co-wrote the stage musical ‘The Lion King’ for which he won an Oscar for Best Original Song, ‘Can You Feel The Love Tonight'. As well as his music, John is equally famous for his outrageous and flamboyant stage outfits and performances.
John had a period in the 1980s when he was drinking heavily and addicted to drugs, which resulted at one stage in him considering suicide. Bernie Taupin stopped him and the song ‘Someone Saved My Life Tonight’ came out of this experience. He has been teetotal and clear of drugs since. His career has gone from success to success and he is considered one of the greatest recording artists of all time.
Although John previously said he was bi-sexual and married Renate Blauel in 1984, the union lasted only four years, after which they divorced and he came out as gay in 1988. He married his long-term partner David Furnish in 2014 and they have two sons.
John founded his AIDS charity in 1992, the aim of which is to eliminate prejudice against people with HIV or AIDS and to help fund research into the disease. The charity has raised over £52 million.
In 1997 John performed his hit song ‘Candle In The Wind’ at his friend Princess Diana’s funeral; the words were re-written for the occasion and it became the fastest and biggest selling single of all time. John vowed never to sing this version again.
John has won countless awards and accolades, including two Oscars and 2 Golden Globes. In 1995 he was awarded a CBE and in 1988 a Knighthood. He is currently in the process of a 3-year farewell tour after which he intends to retire from show business and concentrate on his family.
Greta Thunberg - 4’11” (149.9 cm) Born 2003 Sweden
Although still only 18 years of age (2021), Thunberg has been a campaigning environmentalist since 2018 and has become a leading activist. When she was just 15, Thunberg led a climate change protest outside the Swedish parliament and initiated school strikes. Her protest was soon featured on social media, gradually spreading across the country with extensive media coverage.
The school strikes quickly became heard about across the world, making front-page headlines. Thunberg later said she got the idea for the strike from the example of US students after yet another fatal mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, USA.
Thunberg has been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome and was a quiet, shy girl at school. A symptom of this condition often overlaps with obsessive-compulsive disorder.
She has said she sees things in black and white and has an inner determination to keep speaking about climate change, however difficult it might be. She is blunt and to the point. In many ways, this is helpful as there is no waffling, just straightforward facts. Greta describes her Asberger’s as her ‘superpower’.
Thunberg is a passionate campaigner and has quickly become a global ambassador for the cause, speaking to high-profile events across the globe. She has spoken at the European Parliament and Austrian World Summit and in 2019 was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
She puts her money where her mouth is. She does not fly, travels everywhere by train or other eco-friendly transport. She takes no money for her speeches. Her passion and commitment are all that matters to her.
She has become a prominent influence on environmental issues and it appears likely that she will make the challenge of climate change her life’s work. In conclusion, let us embrace this simple quote, spoken to Jean-Claude Juncker of the EU:
‘When I grow up, I want to be able to look back and say that I did everything I could. I think that more people should feel like that’ (7).
Dame Jane Goodall - 5’ 5” (165.1 cm) Born 1934 UK
Jane Goodall is a primatologist, environmentalist, and conservation leader who has dedicated her life to studying the environment, chimpanzees, and the relationship between animals and humans.
At the age of just I year old, Goodall’s parents give her a toy chimpanzee, which she adored and named Jubilee, which still sits on Jane’s dresser today. From an early age, Goodall dreamt of living and working in Africa to study animals. Her chance came when at 23 she was invited by a friend to her family’s farm in Kenya.
There she met famous anthropologist Dr. Louis Leakey and became his assistant. Her childhood dream remained as strong as ever, to watch and learn about wild and free animals and become as close to talking to animals as she could.
With time and patience, searching the forest daily, she became accepted by the chimpanzees and was able to observe them close up. Over the next two years, they gradually let her come nearer to them and eventually would often come right up to her in search of bananas.
Goodall’s constant contact with the chimpanzees enabled the discovery of previously unobserved behaviors. She identified their language communication systems and also discovered that they are meat-eaters, as they were previously thought to be vegetarians. Another important discovery was her observing them making tools, which hitherto was thought to be an exclusively human trait.
In 1965, Goodall’s work was first introduced to the general public in a film entitled ‘Miss Goodall and the Wild Chimpanzees’, shown on American television. That year also saw her attaining a Ph.D. in Ethology from Cambridge University. She went on to study psychiatry at Stanford University from 1970 to 1975. In 1973 Goodall was appointed honorary visiting professor of zoology at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania.
In 1977 the Jane Goodall Institute for Wildlife Research, Education, and Conservation was established. It is a non-profit organization that promotes the protection of chimpanzees and environmental practices.
In 2004 Goodall was made a Dame of the British Empire and was appointed United Nations Messenger of Peace. She has received many more accolades and awards during her long career. Goodall has spent a lifetime promoting her causes and does so to this day. She has opened up the eyes of the world to the threats facing chimpanzees and to other environmental causes.
Goodall’s influence on the world can be summed up by some of her many legendary quotes. Here is one:
“Each one of us matters, has a role to play, and makes a difference. Each one of us must take responsibility for our own lives, and above all, show respect and love for living things around us, especially each other.” (6).
Goodall’s lifelong work, commitment and dedication have undoubtedly left an influence on the world.
Pele 5’8” (172.8 cm) Born 1940 Brazil
Pele. There are not many people in the world of sports who don’t instantly recognize the name. Born Edson Arantes do Nascimento, in Tres Coracoes, Minas Gerais, Brazil, Pele is arguably the greatest footballer the world has ever know and is widely regarded as one of the greatest players of all time.
In 2000 he was named Player of the Century by FIFA. A football legend, Pele was known for his amazing ability to strike the ball from both feet with incredible accuracy, along with the ability to read his opponent's movements with precision.
Pele grew up in poverty and unable to afford a proper football, his was homemade, either a sock stuffed with newspaper or a grapefruit. In his youth he played ‘futsal’ for an indoor football team, this being his opportunity to play with adults: he later credited this for helping him develop confidence with the game, as teams were playing much closer together and you have to think about the spot.
Pele first played for his club Santos at age 15.
Two years later, when he was just 17, he played in Brazil’s World Cup final win in Sweden in 1958, having scored a hat trick against France in the semi-finals.
He went on to play in the squad in 1962, missing the finals due to injury but led his team to triumph in Mexico in 1970. Pele was the only player to lay his hands on the World Cup three times. Pele scored 12 goals in 14 games during his world cup games.
Similar to Lionel Messi, Pele’s exciting and thrilling style of play made him famous and he and he toured internationally with his team, Santos. In 1967 they traveled to Nigeria, which was in the middle of a civil war. Amazingly, the government called a 48-hour cease-fire in order that all could watch the great player. In anybody’s book, what an accolade!
At the end of an amazingly successful career, Pele announced his retirement in 1974, however, he agreed in 1975 to a three-year contract with the New York Cosmos of the North American Soccer League and to promote the game in the USA. After leading the Cosmos to the league championship he retired in 1977.
In 1999, the International Olympic Committee named him Athlete of the Century.
Pele has been lauded by many of his contemporaries as the greatest player ever. For instance, Bobby Moore, England’s 1966 World Cup Winning Captain, said:
‘Pele was the most complete player I have ever seen, he had everything. Two good feet. Magic in the air. Quick. Powerful. Could beat people with skill. Could outrun people. Only 5 feet 8 inches tall yet he seemed like a giant of an athlete on the pitch. The man could play in any position’ (8).
After retiring from the game, Pele remained a key figure in sports, starring in autobiographies and documentaries and he composed the soundtrack for the film ‘Pele’ (1977). He has also worked tirelessly as a humanitarian. Pele supports many important causes through his work as UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador and is the United Nations ambassador for ecology and the environment.
He is also the Brazilian extraordinary minister for sport. In recognition of his work, he was awarded International Peace Award in 1978 for his work with UNICEF and in 1999 was given an honorary knighthood by Queen Elizabeth. In 2000, Pele received the Laureau Lifetime Achievement award and in 2005 was received the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Lifetime Achievement Award.
In 2012, Pele was awarded an honorary degree from the University of Edinburgh for ‘significant contribution to humanitarian and environmental causes, as well as his sporting achievements’ (9).
After hanging up his boots in 1977, Pele remained a pivotal figure in soccer.
He received many lifetime achievement awards, worked as a sports commentator and analyst, and wrote autobiographies. The Netflix documentary of his life, entitled simply ‘Pele’ has just been released (2021).
Billie Jean King - 5’4” (162.6 cm) Born 1943 USA
King is a former world number 1 tennis player. She has 39 Gland Slam titles to her name, which include 20 Wimbledon titles, and is considered one of the greatest tennis players of all time.
Born in Long Beach, California into an athletic family, King excelled at softball and baseball as a young child, and at age 11 she switched to tennis. King’s talent as a tennis player first emerged when she won her age bracket in the Southern California Championship.
She turned professional in 1959 and whilst attending California State University from 1961 to 1964, she continued competing in tournaments and working as a tennis instructor.
In 1961, King first gained international recognition alongside Karen Hantze Susman, being the youngest pair to ever win the Wimbledon doubles title.
In 1966 she competed at Wimbledon, being victorious and raising her first trophy! She repeated this in 1967 and 1968. There was also her first US Open singles championship in 1967 and the Australian Open singles championship in 1968. In 1966, King was ranked number 1 in the world in women’s tennis and held the ranking for 5 additional years.
As well as her tennis success, off-court King was a campaigner for equal prize money for men and women and her lobbying led to the US Open tennis championships, becoming the first major tournament to match prize money evenly to both sexes.
King’s career saw her winning 39 major singles, doubles, and mixed doubles championships, which includes a record 20 at Wimbledon. She retired from tennis in 1990 but continued as a TV commentator and also served as captain of the US team at the 1996 and 2000 Summer Olympics.
King (nee Moffitt) married Larry King in 1965 when she was 20, but in the early ’70s, she had begun a secret relationship with a woman and was publicly outed as a lesbian in 1981. It should be remembered that these were still very much unenlightened times and as a result, she lost all of her endorsement deals. However, she carried on campaigning for equality in all forms.
In 1987 she was elected to the International Tennis Hall of Fame. In 2009 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, by then-President Barack Obama, which is the US highest civilian honor, for her advocacy work representing the LGBTQ community.
She has also served as acting director for the Elton John AIDS Foundation and the National AIDS Fund.
King divorced Larry King in 1987, after which she established a lifelong partnership with Ilana Kloss. They live in New York City and remain close friends with Larry.
We have concentrated on amazingly talented, dedicated, and committed shorter people who have made an impact on our world in one way or another.
Although our focus has been on people who happen to be short, it seems quite obvious that their height and stature have had little or no bearing on their achievements.
There are also many other taller influential people we could talk about, such as Sir David Attenborough, or Barack Obama, but the question is, would their height have made any difference to their achievements, would they have failed if they were short? It is highly unlikely.
It seems appropriate to finish with a quote from 18-year-old Greta Thunberg:
‘It’s quite hilarious when the only thing people can do is mock you, or talk about your appearance or personality, as it means they have no argument, or nothing else to say’. (7).