In Hollywood, heroes are people with extraordinary abilities beating back other-worldly dilemmas — but being a hero doesn’t necessarily mean that you have super strength or wear a cape and fly through the air. In reality, the people who save lives every single day hardly ever wear capes.
It doesn’t take superhuman abilities to make an impact, either. Take, for example, these 8 extraordinary heroes. While there may not be monuments to honor them, their contributions to the world remain indelible.
1. Stanislav Petrov: September 26th, 1983, started as a normal workday for Petrov, who worked as a duty officer at Serpukhov-15. His job was to monitor Soviet military satellites over the U.S. and contact the necessary authorities in the case of an attack.
A few hours into his shift that day the alarms went off, alerting that five missiles had been launched from an American base. Petrov knew the alarm systems were in their early stages of development… there was a 50-50 chance this was a false alarm.
Petrov said, “I had a funny feeling in my gut, I didn’t want to make a mistake. I made a decision, and that was it.” That decision prevented the initiation of nuclear warfare, and more pointedly, the end of humanity.
See, had he acknowledged the alarm, Russia would have immediately launched a nuclear counterattack. Petrov didn’t panic, however, and with a steady mind he simply turned off the alarm and told his supervisor there was a malfunction.
Since then, Petrov has been regarded as an international hero. People shudder to think what might have come to be had someone else been on duty that day. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the only time the world was at odds due to a misunderstanding.
2. Vasili Arkhipov: In the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a Soviet submarine named B-59 was ordered to stop right outside of the American blockade in the Caribbean. The sub was under the command of three officers, Arkhipov being one of them.
The sub was to serve as back up to drop off weapons to Cuba. So not only was the vessel heavily armed, but it also carried a nuclear missile — a missile equal in strength to the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima.
The Soviet sub dove so they wouldn’t be detected by the Americans, however, it wasn’t deep enough. U.S. Navy ships picked up their location and started dropping non-lethal charges to scare the mysterious vessel into surfacing.
At that depth, the Soviets lost communication with command control and had no way of contacting Moscow for orders. The American’s tactic worked in rattling the Russians, but they interpreted the depth charges as an attack, which only meant one thing…
Two of the commanders aboard the sub decided they needed to launch the missile, but in order to do so, the decision had to be unanimous. This is where Arkhipov stepped in.
Arkhipov was well aware of the repercussions of launching the missile, especially if it was a misguided decision. His gut told him these “attacks” were really just a lure, and the wise move would be to wait it out as long as their reserves allowed.
When the sub’s fuel and oxygen levels eventually forced them to surface they found themselves amongst a slew of U.S. Navy ships — but not in any sort of warfare as the other commanders had suspected.
The Soviet sub immediately made a hasty return home. Thanks to Vasili Arkhipov, not a soul on board was lost, nor did we kick off WWIII that day. But not every hero is born out of a split-second decision; sometimes it takes years of hard work to save the world.
3. Norman Borlaug: In the early 20th century a report was released declaring a worldwide agricultural crisis. Essentially, if a solution was not found, mass famine was imminent — and no one would be hit harder than those in developing countries.
In fact, it was predicted that the majority of India (over one billion people) would be dead by 1980. The news was alarming, but no one was more motivated to find a resolution than Norman Borlaug.
After graduating from the University of Minnesota with a degree in forestry, plant pathology, and genetics, Borlaug got down to business. He began testing strains of wheat to determine which would grow best under varying climates around the world.
His results, however, were disheartening — nothing he tested proved sufficient. So what did the young scientist do? He set out to develop his own strain of wheat that was not only hearty but would yield more plants and be resistant to disease.
Only a few years later, Borlaug succeeded! Not only did this new strain of wheat stave off widespread famine, but it also provided the opportunity for economic growth in developing nations.
4. Henrietta Lacks: In 1951 a woman walked into Johns Hopkins Hospital to have a lump she discovered on her cervix checked out. A biopsy came back to determine that the lump was, in fact, a tumor, and Henrietta Lacks was diagnosed with cervical cancer.
The news was debilitating, but it was all the worse as she considered her five children. Impoverished as she was, she couldn’t afford the best treatment. Nonetheless, Johns Hopkins Hospital was determined to do their best to save Mrs. Lacks’ life.
Henrietta’s health was declining fast, but doctors noticed something strange about her tissue sample. While the cells from other patient’s tissues died off quickly, Henrietta’s not only survived, but they were multiplying — and rapidly.
Unfortunately, this also meant that the cancer cells were spreading at the same rate, faster than the treatment could fight off. Only seven months after her initial biopsy, Henrietta lost to cancer. What she left behind, though, would save the world.
See, even after Henrietta died, her cells from the tissue samples continued to live on and multiply! It was beyond anything doctors could comprehend. Although it would be extremely unethical by today’s standards, those samples were sent out for testing.
Jonas Salk was one of the medical professionals to receive Henrietta’s cells and with them, he created the Polio Vaccine, which saved thousands of lives across the world and ended an epidemic. But that’s not all…
As her cells were sent all over the country, they contributed to dozens of medical breakthroughs including HPV and early stage Zika Virus vaccines, the Human Genome Project, discoveries surrounding cell aging, and the creation of the virology field.
Although Henrietta was never aware of her contribution to the medical field, it was, and remains to this day, absolutely profound. It wouldn’t be until the 1960s that another such person came around with a similar innate gift.
5. James Harrison: Many people have donated blood at one point or another in their lives. It’s not exactly the most pleasant experience, especially if you are squeamish around needles.
The benefit for others is usually what drives us to overcome that discomfort, and no one knows this better than James Harrison. The Aussie resident made his first donation at 18 and never stopped. Since then he has made 1,173 blood donations.
Between the mid-1960s and 2018, Harrison donated once a week, every single week, without fail. Why on earth would someone do such a thing? Well, not too long after Harrison’s first donation, doctors noticed something unusual about his blood.
See, there is a rare, but fatal condition that affects babies known as rhesus disease. Basically, this only occurs when a mother with Rh-negative blood carries a child with Rh-positive blood. In these cases, the baby’s blood is seen as a foreign threat.
The mother will not suffer, but her body will start attacking the baby in the womb. The only way to counteract this is to inject the mom with a drug known as anti-D. This drug, however, isn’t anything that can be made in a lab. It’s only possible with one thing.
In extremely rare cases, people will have RhD-negative blood and Rh+ antibodies, and this combination is what makes anti-D possible. This combination is what will save an infant’s life. And this combination is exactly the blood type of James Harrison.
When doctors told Harrison he had this life-saving blood, he didn’t hesitate; he committed to donate as much as he could for as long as he was able. Doctors nicknamed him “the golden arm” and that is no exaggeration.
It is estimated that with his blood spread across over 3 million doses of anti-D, Mr. Harrison has saved the lives of over 2.4 million infants. He might not wear a cape, but there is no denying James Harrison is a superhero.
6. Alexander Akimov: On April 26th, 1986, a nuclear reactor exploded at Chernobyl Plant Unit Four. The explosion left the reactor exposed and leaking extremely high levels of radiation. It would come to be known as the worst nuclear disaster in history.
Akimov was the shift supervisor on duty that night. He was the one that declared the emergency once the reactor had shut down… but by then the damage had already been done, and Akimov wasn’t totally innocent.
He first got news that something was going wrong several hours earlier, but he was suspicious of a faulty alarm. Instead of reacting to the tip-off that there was a problem, he relayed false information to his superiors that all was well.
A devastating error that he later made up for with the ultimate sacrifice: after the emergency was declared and the evacuations were set in motion, Akimov and several other engineers stayed behind to mitigate the damage.
As all power was lost, the men entered the reactor building, breathing in the toxic air to manually pump feedwater back into the reactor. Even if they had been wearing protective gear, which they weren’t, the levels of radiation were lethal.
Akimov and every engineer that stayed behind in that reactor building lost their lives. Their sacrifice, however, drastically lessened the impact of the situation and saved countless lives. A captain down with the ship.
7. Zbigniew Brzezinski: At 3 AM on November 9th, 1979, the phone rang at the Brzezinski household, jolting the national security advisor awake. William Odom, the military aide, was on the line with an urgent report.
The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) just reported a Soviet missile attack. About 250 missiles were launched from a Soviet sub and headed straight for the U.S. This was undoubtedly a critical situation.
Brzezinski thought fast, and he asked Odom for a recount to confirm the number of missiles fired before he made his next move. Moments later Odom came back with an error: 2,200 missiles were fired, not 250. This was all-out warfare.
As Brzezinski hung up the phone he sat for a moment in silence before calling President Jimmy Carter to launch to retaliatory attack. Maybe he was letting it sink in, maybe he was praying — whatever the moment was for, it saved the world.
In that hesitation Brzezinski received another call, it was Odom again. The NORAD report had been a dud; a faulty computer chip caused the alarm. There were no Soviet missiles headed for the United States.
Were it not for Brzezinski’s pause, he would have instructed Carter to launch an immediate counterattack on a non-existent enemy. This mistake would have thrown the world into war. Suffice it to say, he saved us all.
8. James Blunt: “You’re beautiful, you’re beautiful, you’re beautiful it’s true.” Yes, we are talking about that James Blunt. Most people don’t know that before he got all croon-y with sweet, melancholy songs, he was a lead officer in the British Army.
In 1999 after the Kosovo War, there was a joint peacekeeping effort between NATO and Russia in the area. There was a misunderstanding, however, that Russia would be given their own base apart from NATO. When this didn’t happen Russian troops went rogue.
They decided to employ the abandoned Pristina Airport just outside of Kosovo as their base. But NATO had the same idea, and when they arrived at the already-occupied airfield headed by Officer Blunt, the place was already fraught with tension.
Violence seemed ready to break out any moment, especially as the order was given for NATO to invade and force the Russians out. Blunt, however, was privy to the all too obvious reality of the situation: invasion would do anything but keep the peace.
At the risk of being court-martialed, Blunt refused the order. Fortunately, another officer agreed with Blunt’s objection. Within hours all the NATO troops were pulled back and peace prevailed.