The 100 Best Bostonians of All Time

We nominated 400 of the city’s innovators and troublemakers. 10,264 of you voted. 22 experts weighed in. 15 commentators sounded off.

Illustration by Gluekit

Illustration by Gluekit

Nobody has to tell Bostonians how great Bostonians are. We like to say that we invented America. We also invented religious freedom, equal justice before the law, the abolitionist movement, women’s suffrage, modern surgery, the World Wide Web, Morse code, the telephone, and same-sex marriage. You’re welcome.

When Mayor Marty Walsh asked the city to begin thinking about Boston’s 400th birthday, we decided to undertake the laborious task of ranking our illustrious denizens. We recruited a panel of 22 experts; set up a webpage for public voting; solicited advice from prominent citizens; and questioned the relative merits of more than 400 nominees. Along the way, we argued—most frequently over the meaning of “Bostonian.” (You try it.)

The list before you contains familiar names of people who helped change the world, and others who have not always received the recognition they deserve. They include a woman who was kicked out of Boston in 1638 for stating her beliefs, and a man from the Dominican Republic who reminded us 375 years later that “This is our [bleeping] city.” Our rankings are designed to provoke debate—and if you’re a true Bostonian, you will disagree loudly and proudly. —Edited by David S. Bernstein


RELATED:
‘My Top Five’ Lists by Local Notables
Boston, the Innovation City


The 100 Best Bostonians of All Time

Click on individual names to read select bios.

1.

John and Abigail Adams
1735–1826; 1744–1818
Boston’s original power couple

2.

Ralph Waldo Emerson
1803–1882
Transcendentalist; America’s greatest public intellectual

3.

John F. Kennedy
1917–1963
From Brookline’s favorite son, hope springs eternal

4.

Isabella Stewart Gardner
1840–1924
Patron of the arts, maverick, feminist

5.

Malcolm X
1925–1965
Civil rights activist, minister, revolutionary

6.

Tim Berners-Lee
1955–present
Inventor of the World Wide Web

7.

Julia Child
1912–2004
At WGBH, she changed the way America eats

8.

Louis Brandeis
1856–1941
Supreme Court justice; “The People’s Lawyer”

9.

W. E. B. Du Bois
1868–1963
Civil rights activist and NAACP founder who pierced the veil of race

10.

William Rosenberg
1916–2002
Founder of Dunkin’ Donuts, maker of our most sacred beverage

11.

Bill Russell
1934–present
Boston’s greatest winner

12.

Benjamin Franklin
1706–1790
Author, public servant, diplomat, scoundrel

13.

Clara Barton
1821–1912
Founder of the American Red Cross

14.

John Hancock
1737–1793
Statesman, president of the Continental Congress

15.

54th Massachusetts Regiment
1863–1865
Bravery, freedom, and sacrifice personified

16.

Louisa May Alcott
1832–1888
Protofeminist author of Little Women

17.

Alexander Graham Bell
1847–1922
Inventor of the telephone

18.

William Lloyd Garrison
1805–1879
Abolitionist, journalist, social reformer

19.

Frederick Law Olmsted
1822–1903
Landscape architect, public administrator, Emerald Necklace designer

20.

Paul Revere
1735–1818
Silversmith, patriot of the American Revolution, night rider

21.

Helen Keller
1880–1968
Crusader for the disabled, human rights advocate

22.

Leonard Bernstein
1918–1990
Conductor, pianist, composer (of West Side Story and Candide, among others)

23.

Mary Baker Eddy
1821–1910
Founder, Christian Science church

24.

Horace Mann
1796–1859
Advocate for public education, founder of the first school for teachers

25.

Samuel Adams
1722–1803
American Revolution patriot

26.

Francis Cabot Lowell
1775–1817
Our most important industrial revolutionary

27.

John Warren
1753–1815
Physician, founding dean of Harvard Medical School

28.

Josiah Quincy III
1772–1864
U.S. representative, the “Great Mayor” of Boston, Harvard president

29.

Tom Brady
1977–present
Greatest quarterback of all time

30.

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.
1841–1935
Supreme Court justice

31.

John Winthrop
1588–1649
Governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, coined “City Upon a Hill”

32.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
1807–1882
Poet (Evangeline, “Paul Revere’s Ride”)

33.

Larry Bird
1956–present
Celtics basketball star

34.

Dorothea Dix
1802–1887
Social reformer, educator

35.

James Michael Curley
1874–1958
Governor, U.S. representative, twice-imprisoned mayor of Boston

36.

Donna Summer
1948–2012
Singer and songwriter who kicked disco into the stratosphere

37.

Edgar Allan Poe
1809–1849
Ghoulish poet and author best remembered for “The Raven”

38.

Leonard Nimoy
1931–2015
Son of Vulcan and the West End

39.

Joseph Warren
1741–1775
American Revolutionary general, killed in the Battle of Bunker Hill

40.

Crispus Attucks
1723–1770
American Revolution patriot, Boston Massacre’s first fatality

41.

Samuel F. B. Morse
1791–1872
Inventor, telegraph and Morse code

42.

Yo-Yo Ma
1955–present
Ascendant master of the cello, occasional Dixie Chicks sideman

43.

Ted Williams
1918–2002
Red Sox star, baseball Hall of Famer

44.

Edward Kennedy
1932–2009
U.S. Senator, liberal “Lion of the Senate”

45.

Julia Ward Howe
1819–1910
Abolitionist, activist, author of “Battle Hymn of the Republic”

46.

Nathaniel Hawthorne
1804–1864
Author of The Scarlet Letter

47.

John Quincy Adams
1767–1848
Sixth president of the United States

48.

Thomas Menino
1942–2014
Beloved five-term Boston mayor

49.

Melnea Cass
1896–1978
Civil rights activist, “First Lady of Roxbury”

50.

Arthur Fiedler
1894–1979
Under his leadership, the Boston Pops became international recording stars

51.

Henry David Thoreau
1817–1862
Poet, novelist, environmentalist, author of Walden

52.

Onesimus
Late 1600s–1700s
Slave who saved Boston from smallpox by teaching inoculation

53.

Thomas “Tip” O’Neill
1912–1994
Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives

54.

Richard Cushing
1895–1970
Cardinal, archbishop

55.

Elizabeth Bishop
1911–1979
U.S. poet laureate, Pulitzer winner

56.

Margaret Marshall
1944–present
Supreme Judicial Court chief justice, author of same-sex marriage decision

57.

Cotton Mather
1663–1728
Puritan minister and author

58.

William Monroe Trotter
1872–1934
Founder of Boston’s black newspaper the Guardian

59.

John Singleton Copley
1738–1815
Premier painter of colonial America, honoree of Copley Square

60.

Bobby Orr
1948–present
Scored the greatest goal in Stanley Cup history

61.

Sidney Farber
1903–1973
Pediatric pathologist, creator of the Jimmy Fund

62.

Charles Bulfinch
1763–1844
Designer of the Massachusetts State House and the U.S. Capitol dome

63.

Sumner Redstone
1923–present
Built Boston’s National Amusements into a broadcast empire

64.

Mel King
1928–present
Activist, politician, former director of the New Urban League of Greater Boston

65.

Daniel Webster
1782–1852
U.S. senator, U.S. secretary of state

66.

Howard Zinn
1922–2010
Author, People’s History of the United States

67.

John Harvard
1607–1638
Minister, university benefactor

68.

Margaret Fuller
1810–1850
Feminist, author of Woman in the Nineteenth Century

69.

Conan O’Brien
1963–present
Tall, surprisingly un-Jewish comedian from Brookline

70.

Red Auerbach
1917–2006
Legendary Boston Celtics coach

71.

Robert Frost
1874–1963
Four-time Pulitzer Prize–winning poet

72.

Charles Sumner
1811–1874
U.S. senator, abolitionist

73.

Muriel Snowden
1916–1988
Founder of Freedom House, dubbed the “Black Pentagon” during the busing crisis

74.

Noam Chomsky
1928–present
Linguist, philosopher, activist

75.

David Ortiz
1975–present
Big Papi, breaker of Bambino curse

76.

Jack Welch
1935–present
Former CEO of General Electric

77.

Elie Wiesel
1928–present
Holocaust survivor and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize

78.

Lucy Stone
1818–1893
Suffragist, abolitionist

79.

Winslow Homer
1836–1910
Greatest American painter of the 19th century

80.

Edwin Land
1909–1991
Scientist, cofounder of Polaroid

81.

Elizabeth Cabot Cary Agassiz
1822–1907
Educator, Radcliffe co-founder and president

82.

Henry Knox
1750–1806
Officer of the Continental Army; U.S. secretary of war

83.

Phillis Wheatley
1753–1784
America’s first African- American poet

84.

An Wang
1920–1990
Computer engineer, inventor, Wang Laboratories founder

85.

Steven Tyler
1948–present
Aerosmith frontman, Rock & Roll Hall of Famer

86.

John Kerry
1943–present
U.S. senator, presidential candidate, U.S. secretary
of state

87.

Maurice Starr
1953–present
Svengali behind New Edition and New Kids on the Block

88.

Kahlil Gibran
1883–1931
Visionary, secular prophet, third- bestselling poet of all time

89.

Henry Lee Higginson
1834–1919
Businessman, philanthropist, founder of the Boston Symphony Orchestra

90.

Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin
1842–1924
Journalist, suffragist, civil rights activist

91.

Edward W. Brooke
1919–2015
The first African American elected to the U.S. Senate

92.

Anne Hutchinson
1591–1643
Promoter of religious freedom

93.

Henry Hobson Richardson
1838–1886
Architect, designer of Trinity Church

94.

Elma Lewis
1921–2004
Founder, National Center of Afro-American Artists and Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts

95.

James Otis
1725–1783
His The Rights of the Colonies Asserted helped spark the Revolution

96.

Prince Hall
1735–1807
Abolitionist, freemasonry leader

97.

Barney McGinniskin
1808–1868
Boston’s first Irish police officer

98.

Sylvia Plath
1932–1963
Poet, author

99.

Pedro Martínez
1971–present
Red Sox great, baseball Hall of Famer

100.

Ben Affleck
1972–present
Actor, director, Oscar-winning screenwriter and producer

  • Glenn Kulbako

    Replace Ben Affleck with Alan Hovhaness, one of the most prolific and influential classical composers of the 20th Century.

  • Citizen David

    The poll page shows Samuel Adams as #1… WHY do you place him as #25?

  • Carla Rigby

    What about Rev. William Blackstone, settler of Boston, who later gave the Boston Common to the people of Boston? A very significant and sad omission!

  • bullwinklerocky

    Noticeably missing – Amar Bose, Henry Kloss.

    • bullwinklerocky

      Oh and Jonathan Richman. I’m done critiquing.

  • Mmmmaven Project

    Awesome to see Maurice Starr on here! Totally unheralded Boston music legend…

  • seacrook

    Ben Affleck is not from Boston he is from Cambridge don’t let good will hunting confuse you just tell yourself it was only a movie.

  • Alice Magrane

    Steven Tyler outranks John Kerry?? The rankings really astound me. That’s just one of many that made me sit up and gulp!!

  • Francis Saucier

    What about John Williams much more deserving then others on your list. I think Ben Franklin I think of Philadelphia not Boston. You have An Wang who made Lowell famous not Boston. If you were just adding anybody from Massachusetts Jack Keourac or Robert Goddard. Then I see David Ortiz. I like him but he is not Boston.