Famous American Intellectuals & Academics

Wonder who is the most influential figure in American history? Presidents, entrepreneurs, and athletes aside, it is the introspective, rabble-rousing, trailblazing lot of intellectuals and academics who have played a significant role in shaping the American tenor. They are the visionaries, the great innovators who have revolutionized America and the world at large with their standout ideas, thoughts, and actions. They are the thinkers who have dominated every American mind and have been an inspiration behind their roadmap to success. From Chomsky and Rorty to Dewey and Walzer, America has spun out some top notch intellectuals who not only put their ideas and thoughts into practice, but also architected pathways to a more stable and productive American future. Let us meet America's most cited intellectuals and academics in the biographies presented below and acquaint ourselves to their timeline, trivia, and interesting facts. Caveat: These biographies might redefine your take on world and life.

This ranking is based on an algorithm that combines various factors, including the votes of our users and search trends on the internet.

Vote for Your Favourite American Intellectuals & Academics

 1 Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell
16
Famous As: Economist
Birthdate: June 30, 1930
Sun Sign: Cancer
Birthplace: Gastonia, North Carolina

One of the few personalities known for his disdain of self-promotion, Thomas Sowell is an important American social theorist and economist. Over the years, he has played a prominent role working as a faculty member of many prestigious universities, such as the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and Cornell University

 2 Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson
6
Famous As: Essayist
Birthdate: May 25, 1803
Sun Sign: Gemini
Birthplace: Boston, Massachusetts, United States
Died: April 27, 1882

Ralph Waldo Emerson was an American philosopher who led the transcendentalist movement that developed in the eastern United States in the 1820s and 1830s. He is credited with popularizing individualism through his numerous lectures and essays. Emerson influenced many thinkers and writers that followed him; he mentored Henry David Thoreau, who went on to become a leading transcendentalist.

 3 Milton Friedman

Milton Friedman
14
Famous As: Economist, Statistician
Birthdate: July 31, 1912
Sun Sign: Leo
Birthplace: Brooklyn, New York, USA
Died: November 16, 2006

Milton Friedman was an American economist. Widely regarded as one of the most influential economists of the 20th century, Friedman was honored with the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 1976. One of the most influential personalities of the Chicago school of economics, Friedman mentored people like Gary Becker and Thomas Sowell who went on to become leading economists.

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 4 B. F. Skinner

B. F. Skinner
6
Famous As: American psychologist
Birthdate: March 20, 1904
Sun Sign: Pisces
Birthplace: Susquehanna, Pennsylvania, United States
Died: August 18, 1990

B. F. Skinner was an American behaviorist, psychologist, inventor, author, and social philosopher. Skinner, who taught psychology at Harvard University, is credited with founding a school of thought in psychology called the experimental analysis of behavior. Regarded as a pioneer of modern behaviorism, Skinner was named the 20th century's most influential psychologist, according to a survey conducted in June 2002. 

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 5 Abraham Maslow

Abraham Maslow
7
Famous As: Psychologist
Birthdate: April 1, 1908
Sun Sign: Aries
Birthplace: Brooklyn, New York, United States
Died: June 8, 1970

Abraham Maslow was an American psychologist best remembered for creating an idea in psychology called Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Maslow, who advocated self-actualization, is also credited with co-founding the school of transpersonal psychology. In 1967, he was adjudged Humanist of the Year by the popular non-profit organization, American Humanist Association.

 6 William James

William James
6
Famous As: Philosopher, Psychologist
Birthdate: January 11, 1842
Sun Sign: Capricorn
Birthplace: New York City, New York, United States
Died: August 26, 1910

William James was an American psychologist and philosopher. Widely regarded as the father of American psychology and one of the most influential American philosophers, James was the first educator in the United States to offer a course in psychology. He is also credited with co-founding a psychological school of thought called functional psychology and establishing a philosophical school called pragmatism.

 7 John Dewey

John Dewey
5
Famous As: Philosopher
Birthdate: October 20, 1859
Sun Sign: Libra
Birthplace: Burlington, Vermont, United States
Died: June 1, 1952

A staunch advocate of progressive education and liberalism, the American philosopher and psychologist was the founder of the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools. John Dewey’s famous writings included The Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology and Human Nature and Conduct. According to him, passion for knowledge and intellectual curiosity were central to a teacher. He called himself a democratic socialist.

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 8 Carl Rogers

Carl Rogers
5
Famous As: Psychologist
Birthdate: January 8, 1902
Sun Sign: Capricorn
Birthplace: Oak Park
Died: February 4, 1987

Psychologist Carl Rogers was the first to introduce a client-centric approach to psychotherapy and addressed the patient as the client. Besides working on troubled children, he also taught at various institutes, such as the University of Chicago. On Becoming a Person remains one of his best-known books.

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 9 Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky
47
Famous As: Linguist
Birthdate: December 7, 1928
Sun Sign: Sagittarius
Birthplace: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States

Regarded by many as the father of modern linguistics, Noam Chomsky has authored over 100 books on varied topics, such as politics, linguistics, and war. A multi-talented personality, Noam Chomsky is considered a popular figure in analytic philosophy. Apart from influencing a wide array of academic fields, he has also contributed to the development of cognitivism.

 10 Margaret Mead

Margaret Mead
8
Famous As: Cultural Anthropologist
Birthdate: December 16, 1901
Sun Sign: Sagittarius
Birthplace: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, US
Died: November 15, 1978

One of the most celebrated anthropologists to have ever existed, Margaret Mead is remembered for his research on a broad range of topics, such as sexual conventions in Western society. Of her 23 books, the most talked-about was the bestseller Coming of Age in Samoa.

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 11 Jonathan Edwards

Jonathan Edwards
5
Famous As: Preacher, Theologian, Philosopher
Birthdate: October 5, 1703
Sun Sign: Libra
Birthplace: East Windsor, Connecticut, United States
Died: March 22, 1758

Jonathan Edwards was an American philosopher, revivalist preacher, and Congregationalist Protestant theologian. Considered one of America's most prominent and influential philosophical theologians, Jonathan Edwards played a major role in shaping the Evangelical Revival of the 1730s and 1740s. His theological work is credited with paving the way for a new school of theology called the New England theology.

 12 Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin
5
Famous As: Founding Father of the United States
Birthdate: January 17, 1706
Sun Sign: Capricorn
Birthplace: Milk Street, Boston, Massachusetts, United States
Died: April 17, 1790

Benjamin Franklin is considered one of the founding fathers of the United States as he was a signer of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. He was a writer, politician, scientist, inventor, civic activist, an accomplished diplomat and much more. He is a key figure in the history of physics for his discoveries and theories regarding electricity.

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 13 John B. Watson

John B. Watson
5
Famous As: Psychologist
Birthdate: January 9, 1878
Sun Sign: Capricorn
Birthplace: Travelers Rest, South Carolina, United States
Died: September 25, 1958

John B. Watson was the first to introduce the theory of behaviorism to psychology. He believed human behavior, like animal behavior, should be studied under objective and experimental conditions. One of his experiments included conditioning the fear of white rats into an 11-year-old boy he named Little Albert.

 14 Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston
9
Famous As: Folklorist, Anthropologist
Birthdate: January 7, 1891
Sun Sign: Capricorn
Birthplace: Notasulga
Died: January 28, 1960

Zora Neale Hurston was an author, anthropologist, and filmmaker. As an African American woman, she often depicted racial issues in the films she made. Her works also reflected her struggles as a black woman. In her early career, she conducted anthropological and ethnographic research and focused more on writing and film-making in her later years.

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 15 Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau
5
Famous As: Poet, Naturalist, Essayist
Birthdate: July 12, 1817
Sun Sign: Cancer
Birthplace: Concord, Massachusetts, United States
Died: May 6, 1862

Henry David Thoreau was an American philosopher, essayist, poet, and naturalist. He is credited with popularizing transcendentalism and simple living. His philosophy of civil disobedience, which was detailed in his essay of the same name, later influenced world-renowned personalities like Leo Tolstoy, Martin Luther King Jr., and Mahatma Gandhi.

 16 Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr.
6
Famous As: Civil Rights Activist, Minister
Birthdate: January 15, 1929
Sun Sign: Capricorn
Birthplace: Atlanta, Georgia, United States
Died: April 4, 1968

A leader in the civil rights movement in the mid-twentieth century, Martin Luther King Jr. is best remembered for advancing civil rights through nonviolence and civil disobedience. A man of Christian faith who was inspired by Indian freedom fighter Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent activism, he was honored with the Nobel Peace Prize for fighting racial inequality.  

 17 Joseph Smith Jr.

Joseph Smith Jr.
10
Famous As: Religious leader, Theologians
Birthdate: December 23, 1805
Sun Sign: Capricorn
Birthplace: Sharon, Vermont, United States
Died: June 27, 1844

Religious leader Joseph Smith Jr. is known as the founder of the Mormonism and the Latter Day Saint movement. He also published the Book of Mormon. He established his communities in Ohio and Missouri and eventually founded the city Nauvoo in Illinois, which became the center of his spiritual activities.

 18 Danica McKellar

Danica McKellar
4
Famous As: Actress
Birthdate: January 3, 1975
Sun Sign: Capricorn
Birthplace: La Jolla, California, United States
Danica McKellar is best known as Winnie Cooper from the series The Wonder Years and as the voice of Miss Martian from the animated series Young Justice. She has also starred in many Hallmark movies and written several math books, such as Math Doesn't Suck and Kiss My Math.

 19 Condoleezza Rice

Condoleezza Rice
5
Famous As: Former United States Secretary of State
Birthdate: November 14, 1954
Sun Sign: Scorpio
Birthplace: Birmingham, Alabama, United States

The 66th United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made history in 2005 when she became the first female black Secretary of State. She is also the first female to serve as National Security Advisor, a position which she served from 2001 to 2005. One of the most powerful women in the world at one point of time, she has been depicted in Hollywood films.

 20 John Rawls

John Rawls
9
Famous As: American Philosopher
Birthdate: February 21, 1921
Sun Sign: Pisces
Birthplace: Baltimore
Died: November 24, 2002

The Schock Prize and National Humanities Medal-winning American moral and political philosopher John Bordley Rawls is often counted among the most influential political philosophers of the twentieth-century. Notable books of Rawls, where he elucidated his theory of justice and which has influenced a variety of thinkers, includes A Theory of Justice and Political Liberalism.

 21 Timothy Francis Leary

Timothy Francis Leary
7
Famous As: American psychologist
Birthdate: October 22, 1920
Sun Sign: Libra
Birthplace: Springfield, Massachusetts, United States
Died: May 31, 1996

Psychologist and former Harvard professor Timothy Leary was an advocate of psychedelic drugs. His research experiments included the controversial Concord Prison Experiment and Marsh Chapel Experiment. After being fired from Harvard for his actions, he continued promoting his theories through catchphrases such as “turn on, tune in, drop out.”

 22 Paul Krugman

Paul Krugman
9
Famous As: Columnist, Economist, Essayist, Blogger, University teacher, Actor, Pundit, Journalist, Writer
Birthdate: February 28, 1953
Sun Sign: Pisces
Birthplace: Albany

Economist Paul Krugman, who has taught at Yale, MIT, and Princeton, later won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, primarily for his work on the new trade theory and economic geography. He has also gained popularity for his op-ed column in The New York Times.

 23 Gore Vidal

Gore Vidal
4
Famous As: Writer
Birthdate: October 3, 1925
Sun Sign: Libra
Birthplace: West Point, New York, United States
Died: July 31, 2012

Gore Vidal was an American intellectual and writer. He served as a major inspiration to gays, lesbians, and bisexuals as he was openly bisexual and often incorporated LGBT characters in his novels, which was very unusual at the time. He was also known for his debates with William F. Buckley Jr., which inspired the 2015 documentary film Best of Enemies.

 24 Samuel Adams

Samuel Adams
4
Famous As: Founding Father of the United States
Birthdate: September 27, 1722
Sun Sign: Libra
Birthplace: Boston, Massachusetts, United States
Died: October 2, 1803
Samuel Adams, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, also served as the governor of Massachusetts. Samuel formed the Boston Tea Party and also played a major role in drafting the Articles of Confederation and the Massachusetts Constitution. He was a second cousin of President John Adams.

 25 Terri Irwin

Terri Irwin
5
Famous As: Naturalist
Birthdate: July 20, 1964
Sun Sign: Cancer
Birthplace: Eugene, Oregon, United States

American–Australian naturalist Terri Irwin is best known as the co-host of The Crocodile Hunter, along with her husband, the late animal expert Steve Irwin. She has also been part of shows such as Croc Files and Crikey! It's the Irwins, and helped in the development of Australia Zoo.

 26 Stanley Milgram

Stanley Milgram
8
Famous As: Psychologist, University teacher, Sociologist
Birthdate: August 15, 1933
Sun Sign: Leo
Birthplace: New York City
Died: December 20, 1984

Social psychologist Stanley Milgram was inspired by the suffering of the Jews during the Holocaust to understand what drove people to harm others, and thus created his Milgram experiment. He also taught at prestigious institutes such as Harvard and Yale. His studies also included the six degrees of separation concept.

 27 Johnny Appleseed

Johnny Appleseed
4
Famous As: Missionary
Birthdate: September 26, 1774
Sun Sign: Libra
Birthplace: Leominster, Massachusetts, United States
Died: March 18, 1845
Nurseryman John Chapman, better known to people as Johnny Appleseed, is remembered for introducing apple trees in areas across the American states of Pennsylvania, Indiana, Ohio, and Illinois, and West Virginia. His aim as a missionary of The New Church was to help local settlers make cider.

 28 Franz Boas

Franz Boas
4
Famous As: Anthropologist
Birthdate: July 9, 1858
Sun Sign: Cancer
Birthplace: Minden, Westphalia, Germany
Died: December 21, 1942

Remembered for his research on cultural relativism, German-born American anthropologist Franz Boas is often referred to as the Father of American Anthropology. The son of a merchant, he was a sickly child who grew up reading a lot. He also studied folklore and developed it as an academic discipline.

 29 Peter Navarro

Peter Navarro
6
Famous As: Economist
Birthdate: July 15, 1949
Sun Sign: Cancer
Birthplace: Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States
Economist and writer Peter Navarro has served as the Director of the Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy and the Director of the National Trade Council under former president Donald Trump. He has also authored books such as Death by China and taught at the University of California.

 30 Eric Weinstein

Eric Weinstein
4
Famous As: Mathematician
Birthdate: October 26, 1965
Sun Sign: Scorpio
Birthplace: Los Angeles, California, United States

Apart from being the MD of Thiel Capital, mathematician and economist Eric Weinstein is also a researcher at Oxford. The Harvard alumnus had quit academia for 20 years before he returned again. He coined the term “intellectual dark web” and works on topics such as gauge theory, risk management, and immigration.

 31 Philip Zimbardo

Philip Zimbardo
9
Famous As: Psychologist, University teacher
Birthdate: March 23, 1933
Sun Sign: Aries
Birthplace: New York, New York, United States

Psychologist and Stanford professor Philip Zimbardo is best known for his Stanford prison experiment, which proved how prisoners get abusive due to situational factors. He is also known for his books The Lucifer Effect and The Time Paradox and has received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Psychological Foundation.

 32 Thomas Kuhn

Thomas Kuhn
4
Famous As: Philosopher
Birthdate: July 18, 1922
Sun Sign: Cancer
Birthplace: Cincinnati, Ohio, United States
Died: June 17, 1996

American philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn is noted for his book on history of science, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, publication of which marked a significant event in the history, philosophy, and sociology of science. He presented his notion of paradigm shift and identified and elaborated on normal science in this book which remained influential in academic and popular circles.

 33 Terence McKenna

Terence McKenna
10
Famous As: Ethnobotanist
Birthdate: November 16, 1946
Sun Sign: Scorpio
Birthplace: Paonia, Colorado, United States
Died: April 3, 2000
Philosopher, ethnobotanist, and public speaker Terence McKenna was the proponent of concepts such as the Novelty Theory and Machine Elf. His work revolved around subjects such as psychedelic drugs, shamanism, alchemy, and metaphysics. He wrote several books and supported the usage of psychedelic mushrooms to experience different states of mind.

 34 Cornel West

Cornel West
13
Famous As: Philosopher
Birthdate: June 2, 1953
Sun Sign: Gemini
Birthplace: Tulsa, Oklahoma, United States

Cornel West is an American philosopher, social critic, political activist, and author. He is renowned for drawing intellectual contributions from several traditions, such as Marxism, Christianity, transcendentalism, and neopragmatism. West is credited with authoring many influential books, such as Democracy Matters and Race Matters.

 35 Samantha Power

Samantha Power
5
Famous As: Writer
Birthdate: September 21, 1970
Sun Sign: Virgo
Birthplace: London, England

Pulitzer Prize-winning author and academic Samantha Power has previously served as the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. She was a war correspondent before she became a professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. She worked on Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign and infamously called Hillary Clinton "a monster.”

 36 Veronica Porché Ali

Veronica Porché Ali
4
Famous As: Muhammad Ali’s Ex-Wife, Psychologist
Birthdate: December 16, 1955
Sun Sign: Sagittarius
Birthplace: Lake Charles, Louisiana, United States

 37 Joe Medicine Crow

Joe Medicine Crow
5
Famous As: Author
Birthdate: October 27, 1913
Sun Sign: Scorpio
Birthplace: Lodge Grass, Montana, United States
Died: April 3, 2016

The last Crow war chief, Dr. Joseph Medicine Crow was part of the Whistling Water clan of Native Americans. The legendary indigenous hero was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. A published historian, too, he is remembered for his research on the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

 38 John Cage

John Cage
6
Famous As: Composer, Writer
Birthdate: September 5, 1912
Sun Sign: Virgo
Birthplace: Los Angeles, California, United States
Died: August 12, 1992
John Cage was one of the most influential avant-garde composers of the post-World War II era. He pioneered many innovative techniques in music, such as the prepared piano and electroacoustic music. His composition 4′33″ involved musicians sitting silently, without playing any instrument, while the audience heard environmental sounds. 

 39 Lawrence Kudlow

Lawrence Kudlow
4
Famous As: Director of the National Economic Council
Birthdate: August 20, 1947
Sun Sign: Leo
Birthplace: Englewood, New Jersey

Lawrence Kudlow began his career as staff economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and then served as financial analyst at Wall Street, before joining the Ronald Reagan administration. Later he became an economic media commentator with National Review, and hosted several shows on CNBC. During the Trump administration, he served as Director of the National Economic Council.

 40 George McGovern

George McGovern
9
Famous As: Politician
Birthdate: July 19, 1922
Sun Sign: Cancer
Birthplace: Avon, South Dakota, United States
Died: October 21, 2012

Historian George McGovern had been the U.S. senator from South Dakota. He held important positions related to food, agriculture, and nutrition, too, and was named a World Food Prize laureate for his efforts in reducing world hunger. He had also advocated for the end of the Vietnam War.

 41 Martin Seligman

Martin Seligman
6
Famous As: Psychologist
Birthdate: August 12, 1942
Sun Sign: Leo
Birthplace: Albany, New York, United States

 42 William Moulton Marston

William Moulton Marston
7
Famous As: Psychologist
Birthdate: May 9, 1893
Sun Sign: Taurus
Birthplace: Saugus, Massachusetts
Died: May 2, 1947
Psychologist William Moulton Marston, also known as “Charles Moulton,” is remembered for inventing a precursor of the lie detector, along with his wife, Elizabeth Holloway. He was also a comic book author, who created the superheroine Wonder Woman. He was in a polyamorous relationship with his wife and Olive Byrne.

 43 Robert Reich

Robert Reich
10
Famous As: Politician
Birthdate: June 24, 1946
Sun Sign: Cancer
Birthplace: Scranton, Pennsylvania, USA

Economist and University of California, Berkeley professor Robert Reich has also been the U.S. secretary of labor. His rare bone disorder made him a victim of bullies in childhood, but he later won the Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford. His bestselling book Saving Capitalism was made into a Netflix documentary.

 44 Robert K. Merton

Robert K. Merton
5
Famous As: Sociologist
Birthdate: July 4, 1910
Sun Sign: Cancer
Birthplace: Philadelphia
Died: February 23, 2003

Robert K. Merton was an American sociologist best remembered for his immense contribution to the field of criminology. Merton, who is credited with founding the sociology of science, was honored with the prestigious National Medal of Science in 1994 for his contribution to the field. He is also credited with mentoring fellow sociologists like Jonathan R. Cole.

 45 Scott Adams

Scott Adams
5
Famous As: Comics artist, Economist, Journalist
Birthdate: June 8, 1957
Sun Sign: Gemini
Birthplace: Windham (town), New York

Best known for his iconic comic strip Dilbert, Scott Adams has an MBA degree and has worked in banks and tech firms earlier. The character Dilbert first appeared in Adams’s office presentations and was inspired by his co-workers. His social-media video series, Coffee with Scott Adams, too, was quite popular.

 46 Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Henry Louis Gates Jr.
8
Famous As: Author
Birthdate: September 16, 1950
Sun Sign: Virgo
Birthplace: Keyser, West Virginia

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is an American literary critic, historian, professor, filmmaker, and public intellectual. He is currently serving as the director of the Hutchins Center at Harvard University. Over the years Gates has been honored with several prestigious awards including the National Humanities Medal. In 1997, he was named in Time magazine's 25 Most Influential Americans list.

 47 Camille Paglia

Camille Paglia
7
Famous As: Cultural critic
Birthdate: April 2, 1947
Sun Sign: Aries
Birthplace: Endicott

 48 Paul Samuelson

Paul Samuelson
6
Famous As: Economist
Birthdate: May 15, 1915
Sun Sign: Taurus
Birthplace: Gary
Died: December 13, 2009

 49 Doris Kearns Goodwin

Doris Kearns Goodwin
12
Famous As: Journalist, Historian
Birthdate: January 4, 1943
Sun Sign: Capricorn
Birthplace: Brooklyn

Doris Kearns Goodwin is an American historian, biographer, and former sports journalist. She is best known for writing presidential biographies, including Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln and The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys: An American Saga. In 1995, she won the Pulitzer Prize for History for her book No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

 50 Alan Greenspan

Alan Greenspan
14
Famous As: Economist
Birthdate: March 6, 1926
Sun Sign: Pisces
Birthplace: Washington Heights, New York, United States
Economist Alan Greenspan chaired the U.S. Federal Reserve from 1987 to 2006. It is believed that his easy money policies had caused the subprime mortgage crisis of 2008. He now works as a consultant through his organization Greenspan Associates LLC. He was also trained in clarinet at the Juilliard School.