The Big Question

Who is the most influential teenager of all time?

Graham Roumieu

Alice Kessler-Harris, history professor, Columbia University

Emmett Till, the 14-year-old boy who was murdered in Mississippi in 1955 for reportedly whistling at a white woman. That whistle cost him his life; his mother’s courage in insisting that the world view the boy’s battered body hauntingly exposed the virulence of racism and moved a nation to make new efforts to fight it.

Darrin McMahon, author, Divine Fury: A History of Genius

Joan of Arc. In an age when the fortunes of an unwed peasant girl were meager at best, Joan led an army that turned the tide in a centuries-long struggle to force the English from France. Martyred at 19 and later canonized as a saint, she galvanized a people and altered the fate of Europe.

Dean Keith Simonton, editor, The Wiley Handbook of Genius

Joan of Arc! Though dead at 19, her life left a big imprint on history, religion, politics, painting, sculpture, drama, fiction, poetry, music, opera, cinema, television, radio, video games, comics, postage stamps, and women’s haircuts. Female fighters around the world have been named after her.

Joyce Maynard, author, At Home in the World

You already know, turning the pages of Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl, how the story is going to turn out. But I defy the suggestion that its power lies solely, or even chiefly, in the bitter unfairness of its author’s death at the Nazis’ hands. Frank was a real writer—funny, wise, anarchic, gloriously talented—and a huge, joyful spirit. She made the Holocaust real for millions. Had she lived, no doubt she would have accomplished even more.

Jon Savage, author, Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture

Anne Frank’s diary is an intimate record of a hot-housed young woman writing with great honesty and precision about her own adolescence. All she wanted were the freedoms that we now take for granted but that she would never see. The tension between the sheer force of life that she expresses and the terrible fate that awaited her gives her diary an ineradicable immediacy.

Garry Kasparov, chess grandmaster

Alexander the Great. Anyone with the Great in his name is a candidate for all sorts of lists, but there are far too many elements of heroic mythology in Alexander’s biography for me. I choose him because, by studying under Aristotle as a royal teen, Alexander guaranteed the recognition and dissemination of Aristotle’s immortal works of science and philosophy.

Linda Gordon, history professor, New York University

In 1955, Claudette Colvin of Montgomery, Alabama, age 15, refused to give up her seat on the bus home from school when all the “white” seats were filled. She was considered too volatile—shouting “I am just as good as any white person” as the police kicked and arrested her—to become the face of the bus boycott that began the civil-rights movement. Rosa Parks would, later that year. But Colvin first detonated the anger behind it.

Harvey Cox, divinity professor, Harvard University, and author, How to Read the Bible (out this month)

While carrying cheese and bread to his older brothers, who were fighting the Philistines, the “downy-cheeked” shepherd David heard the bellows of the arrogant giant Goliath. With the skeptical blessing of King Saul, David strode onto the battlefield and slung a stone that struck Goliath in the forehead. Then he chopped off the giant’s head with his own sword. David’s story has inspired countless people to side with the little guy.

John Green, author, The Fault in Our Stars

Ismail I, the founder of the Safavid dynasty, didn’t finish unifying Iran and converting its people to Shiism until he was 23, but by 18 his armies had conquered most of northern and central Iran. The religious and political shifts that accompanied his rise still shape the world today. Plus, he was a pretty good poet.

Paula Fass, history professor, University of California at Berkeley

Teenagers dominated the mid-20th century (the term was invented only in the 1930s), and no one gave them more visibility than Elvis Presley, who began his own career at 18. He embodied the teen desire for liberation from their parents’ culture and mirrored their more open sexuality, as he gave youth everywhere in the world music to call their own.

James Romm, classics professor, Bard College

At 16, Nero became the ruler of an empire that encompassed most of the known world. He had typically adolescent passions—love of pop music and chariot racing, rage at his domineering mother—but also total freedom to indulge them. Eventually, he had his mother killed and sought stardom as a singer on the Roman stage. He was pushed from power at age 30, largely because he had never grown up.

Stephen Chbosky, novelist and screenwriter

Stewart Stern did for the screenplay what J. D. Salinger did for the novel. Rebel Without a Cause gave voice to the 1950s and influenced every generation that followed. It’s impossible to imagine rock and roll, the '60s, punk, grunge, John Hughes, or any teenage movement since without James Dean first screaming Stern's line "You're tearing me apart!”

Anne Hyde, history professor, Colorado College

Since teenager was invented only a century ago, we’d have to leave out King Tut, Hannibal, Joan of Arc—young leaders who didn’t know they were teenagers. How about Janis Joplin, who shook up music and U.S. culture by claiming “rebellious teenager” as a cultural style?

Reader Response

Mark Kerber, Highland Park, Ill.

Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg. Jobs began working with Steve Wozniack, Gates co-founded Microsoft, and Zuckerberg (with others) commercialized Facebook, all while in their teens.


1. E. Michael Brady, Gorham, Maine

Most scholars agree that Mary of Nazareth was a teenager, perhaps as young as 14, when she gave birth to Jesus. In all of history, what other teenage girl has had hundreds of songs written about her, thousands of buildings erected in her honor (including many of Europe’s astonishing Gothic cathedrals), and countless millions calling her name both in the zenith of life and the hour of death?

2. Tom C. W. Lin, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Blaise Pascal. As a teenager, the French mathematician and philosopher invented an early mechanical calculator and initiated significant breakthroughs in the fields of geometry and probability. His work as a teenager served as a foundation for his life's work, and influences present-day physics, mathematics, engineering, and medicine. All this is to say nothing of his contributions as a theologian and philosopher after his teenage years.

3. Donald Wigal, New York, New York

During his teens, Mozart wrote at least 30 symphonies, three operas, two masses, 14 string quartets, 10 piano sonatas, and eight concertos,

each work significantly influencing all Western music thereafter. Yet he still made time to have adolescent fun.

4. Dan Fredricks, El Cerrito, California

The 3.2 million-year-old fossil remains of Lucy—estimated to be as young as 12 or 13 when she died—caused a seismic change in human-
evolution theory, suggesting that we started to walk upright before developing larger brains. She remains the most famous of our hominid ancestors and continues to inspire anthropologists and to enthrall the general public.

5. Robert F. Benson, Columbus, Ohio

In the Hundred Years’ War between England and France, Joan of Arc played a key role in ending the war and restoring Charles VII to the throne of France. Unfortunately, she was captured and burned at the stake by the English. She was sainted in 1920. Her age at death Nineteen.

Want to see your name on this page? E-mail with your response to the question for our June issue: Which current behavior will be most unthinkable a century hence?