What are the most famous polymaths of the previous century? I care mostly about scientists and scholars.

  • $\begingroup$ Relevant meta thread: meta.hsm.stackexchange.com/questions/22/… $\endgroup$
    – Danu
    May 31, 2015 at 20:48
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ As of right now, your question seems to be a "big list" question, which has historically never been a good fit for the SE model. Thus, I suggest you edit your question to make it more specific by e.g. asking about people who made breakthroughs in a certain area that you're particularly interested in. $\endgroup$
    – Danu
    May 31, 2015 at 20:49
  • $\begingroup$ Additionally, try googling "20th century polymaths" and similar phrases, and look at some of the throngs of lists that pop up. You may find that the answer to your question is trivially satisfied by reading a few articles on the internet. $\endgroup$ May 31, 2015 at 23:19
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    $\begingroup$ @Danu So far there is only one answer, and the list is already too big. :-) $\endgroup$
    – Conifold
    Jun 2, 2015 at 2:36

1 Answer 1


Polymaths from the 20th century.

  • Ottó Herman (1835–1914) was a Hungarian zoologist, ethnographer, archaeologist, and politician; a polymath recognized as a pioneer of Hungarian natural history research. He made numerous studies on Hungarian spiders, birds, and fishes, founded the journal Natural History Notebooks, which became one of the most popular scientific publications of Hungary, and the ornithological journal Aquila. He is called "the Father of the birds" in Hungary.

  • Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914) was an American philosopher, logician, mathematician, statistician, semiotician and chemist who founded the philosophical tradition of pragmatism. He made major contributions to logic, but logic for him encompassed much of that which is now called epistemology and philosophy of science. He saw logic as the formal branch of semiotics, of which he is a founder. As early as 1886 he saw that logical operations could be carried out by electrical switching circuits, the same idea as was used decades later to produce digital computers.

  • Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941) was an Indian Bengali poet, novelist, musician, playwright and painter who reshaped Bengali literature and music in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As author of Gitanjali and its "profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse", and as the first Asian to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, Tagore was perhaps the most widely regarded Indian literary figure of all time. He was a mesmerizing representative of the Indian culture whose influence and popularity internationally perhaps could only be compared to that of Gandhi, whom Tagore named Mahatma out of his deep admiration for him.

  • Edward Heron-Allen (1861–1943) was not only a lawyer by trade, he also wrote, lectured on and created violins, was an expert on the art of chiromancy or palmistry, having read palms and analysed the handwriting of luminaries of the period. He wrote on musical, literary and scientific subjects ranging from foraminifera, marine zoology, meteorology, as a Persian scholar translated Classics such as the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam and The Lament of Baba Tahir, also wrote on local history, archaeology, Buddhist philosophy, the cultivation, gourmet appreciation of and culture of the asparagus, as well as a number of novels and short stories of science fiction and horror written under his pseudonym of "Christopher Blayre."

  • C. B. Fry (1872–1956) was an International and record-breaking athlete at sports including football, cricket, athletics and rugby union, also a politician, publisher, teacher and writer.

  • Bertrand Russell (1872–1970) was a British philosopher, logician, mathematician, historian, and social critic. He is considered one of the founders of analytic philosophy along with his predecessor Gottlob Frege and his friend Ludwig Wittgenstein, and is widely held to be one of the 20th century's premier logicians. He co-authored, with A. N. Whitehead, Principia Mathematica, an attempt to ground mathematics on logic. His philosophical essay "On Denoting" has been considered a "paradigm of philosophy." His work has had a considerable influence on logic, mathematics, set theory, linguistics, computer science (see type theory and type system), and philosophy, especially philosophy of language, epistemology, and metaphysics.

  • Albert Schweitzer (1875–1965) was an Alsatian theologian, musician, philosopher, physician, humanitarian, and peace activist. Influential in all of these fields, he wrote theological and philosophical texts ranging from the historical Jesus to J.S. Bach and German/French organ-building which influenced the Organ reform movement. He founded the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Lambaréné, and was honored with the 1952 Nobel Prize for his philosophy of "Reverence for Life." He spent the last years of his life campaigning against the use of nuclear weapons.

  • Erwin Schrödinger (1887–1961) was a physicist and theoretical biologist. Schrödinger was one of the fathers of quantum mechanics, and is famed for a number of important contributions to physics, especially the Schrödinger equation, for which he received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1933. In 1935, after extensive correspondence with personal friend Albert Einstein, he proposed the Schrödinger's cat thought experiment.

  • Jean Cocteau (1889–1963) was a French poet, novelist, artist, filmmaker, dramatist, designer, boxing manager, diarist, ballet scenarist, illustrator and playwright. The "polymath par excellence" was an internationally renowned figure who was an influence on Modernism and the 20th century avant-garde.

  • J. R. R. Tolkien (1892–1973) was an English writer, poet, philologist, polyglot, and university professor who is best known as the author of the classic high-fantasy works The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion. Tolkien learned Latin, French, and German from his mother, and while at school he learned Middle English, Old English, Finnish, Gothic, Greek, Italian, Old Norse, Spanish, Welsh, and Medieval Welsh. He was also familiar with Danish, Dutch, Lombardic, Norwegian, Russian, Serbian, Swedish and older forms of modern Germanic and Slavonic languages, revealing his deep linguistic knowledge, above all of the Germanic languages.

  • William James Sidis (1898–1944) was a child prodigy who wrote on such varied subjects as mathematics, cosmology, psychology, Native American history, and public transportation. "His sister, Helena, said of him that, as an adult, he could learn a new language in one day, and as an adult, he was a true polymath, a 'Renaissance man'."

  • Paul Robeson (1898–1976) was an internationally renowned American bass-baritone concert singer, actor of film and stage, All-American and professional athlete, writer, multi-lingual orator, scholar and lawyer who was also noted for his wide-ranging social justice activism.

  • Vladimir Nabokov (1899–1977) was a Russian-born novelist, lepidopterist, professor, and chess problem composer.

  • Friedrich Hayek (1899–1992) was a Austrian economist, philosopher, psychologist and political scientist important contributor to the Austrian School of economics and winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 1974.

  • John von Neumann (1903–1957) was a Hungarian and later American pure and applied mathematician, physicist, inventor, polymath, and polyglot. He made major contributions to a number of fields, including mathematics (foundations of mathematics, functional analysis, ergodic theory, geometry, topology, and numerical analysis), physics (quantum mechanics, hydrodynamics, and fluid dynamics), economics (game theory), computing (Von Neumann architecture, linear programming, self-replicating machines, stochastic computing), and statistics. He was a pioneer of the application of operator theory to quantum mechanics, in the development of functional analysis, a principal member of the Manhattan Project and the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton (as one of the few originally appointed), and a key figure in the development of game theory and the concepts of cellular automata, the universal constructor, and the digital computer.

  • Howard Hughes (1905–1976) was an American business tycoon, investor, aviator, aerospace engineer, inventor, filmmaker and philanthropist. His life story provided the inspiration for the film The Aviator starring Leonardo Dicaprio as Hughes, which was released in 2004. His legacy is maintained through the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

  • Jacob Bronowski (1908–1974) was a mathematician, poet, inventor, humanist and historian of science. Author of The Ascent of Man.

  • Herbert A. Simon (1916–2001) is famed for work in psychology and computer science, philosophy of science, a leader in artificial intelligence, and a Nobel Prize winner in Economics.

  • Isaac Asimov (1920–1992) having written or edited more than 500 books and an estimated 9,000 letters and postcards, his works have been published in nine of the ten major categories of the Dewey Decimal System. "While most prolific writers tend to concentrate almost exclusively on a single genre, Asimov was a polymath who wrote widely on a variety of subjects."

  • Boris Vian (1920–1959) was a French polymath, writer, poet, musician, singer, translator, critic, actor, inventor and engineer.

  • Noam Chomsky (born 1928) is an American linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist, historian, and activist. He is an Institute Professor and Professor (Emeritus) in the Department of Linguistics & Philosophy at MIT, where he has worked for over 50 years. Chomsky has been described as the "father of modern linguistics" and a major figure of analytic philosophy. His work has influenced fields such as computer science, mathematics, and psychology.

  • Desmond Morris (born 1928) is a British zoologist and ethologist, who is also a surrealist painter, popular author, and television presenter. "Desmond Morris already has a reputation for being something of a polymath. Zoologist, Man Watcher, gesture expert and even television celebrity..."

  • Umberto Eco (born 1932) is a professor of semiotics, novelist, and an expert on literature, medieval philosophy and pop culture.

  • Jonathan Miller (born 1934) is a British theatre and opera director, author, television presenter, humorist, and sculptor, who trained as a doctor. "The polite polymath."

  • Jared Diamond (born 1937) is an anthropologist, geographer, physiologist, author, ornithologist.

  • Douglas Hofstadter (born 1945) is a professor of cognitive science, author, philosopher, aesthetist, academic musician and artist, mathematician, physicist.

  • Hamlet Isakhanli (born 1948) is a professor of mathematical-physical sciences, mathematician, poet, social scientist, scholar of history of education, literature and culture, founder of university, founder and co-founder of various organizations, entrepreneur, writer, translator.

  • Steve Jobs (1955–2011) was an entrepreneur, innovator, inventor, designer. CEO of Pixar & Apple Inc.

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    $\begingroup$ Steve Jobs is a polymath now?! $\endgroup$
    – user541686
    Apr 12, 2017 at 1:05

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