7 famous siblings who have changed history

Sibling rivalries can lead to some impressive moments in history, how did these seven sets of siblings do?

We've often mentioned famous people who've changed the world. However, we've always focused on individuals. Since April 10th is National Siblings Day, we've got siblings that changed the world for your consideration. These seven sets of siblings have all left their mark on world history.

Some of them worked together; some worked independently in the same line of work, others were at odds, all of them made a difference. 

The Williams sisters

Serena and Venus Williams (Getty Images)

Love them or loathe them, Venus and Serena Williams are two of the greatest tennis players of all time. Coached by their parents from a young age, they started playing professionally as teenagers and have never looked back.  

They share the record for the most Olympic Gold medals won by a tennis player at four each, have maintained impressive records for their entire careers, and have the first and second highest career earnings of any tennis players. They have a professional rivalry that, when combined with their talents, makes for the most exciting sibling rivalry in sports. The recent increase in African American and Hispanic participation in tennis is often attributed to their fame.

 I don’t like to lose- Serena Williams

The Brontë sisters

The three best-known novels of the Bronte Sisters, notice the pseudonyms they used. (Public Domain)  

The Brontë sisters, Anne, Emily, and Charlotte, were titans of English literature in the first half of the 19th century. All three of them have a classic to their name and most people have heard of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. However, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is less well known.

Born into a lower middle-class family in northern England, the Brontë family initially had six members. The two eldest sisters died as teenagers of tuberculosis, which would later kill off the rest of the family as well, and none of the siblings lived past the age of 40. These deaths, alongside that of their mother, would influence the writings of the three literary sisters and infuse it with an often-shocking realism.

Their books focus on themes of feminism, classism, morality, and social criticism. They were noted for their frank discussion of issues that plagued Victorian England. Today, they are still widely read and have influenced many writers.

I can be on guard against my enemies, but God deliver me from my friends! - Charlotte Brontë 

The Marx brothers

Chico, Zeppo, Groucho, and Harpo at the height of their popularity. Gummo, the fifth brother, is not pictured.  (Getty Images)

Born in New York to a family of Jewish immigrants, the Marx brothers got their start in vaudeville in the 1900s. After a successful career touring and appearing on Broadway, they made a jump to motion pictures just as sound was introduced to films. 

While all five of them acted, only four of them appeared on film. While not everyone will recognize their names, the image of Groucho is well established in American culture. Their influence on American comedy has been tremendous, everybody knows at least a few of their jokes, and their films are still held in high regard. Duck Soup, one of their best films, is often listed as one of the funniest movies of all time.

I get credit all the time for things I never said- Groucho Marx

The Podgórski sisters

Helena and Stefania

Two polish sisters aged 16 and six during the German/Soviet invasion, Stefania and Helena took in 13 Jewish friends and associates for two and a half years after the beginning of the Final Solution. They successfully hid them from the Nazis in the attic of a home rented explicitly for that purpose. To survive, Stefania knitted sweaters and worked at a factory to make ends meet. Helena tended to the people in hiding. 

When an SS officer informed them that German nurses and their boyfriends would be moving into their home, the Jewish hideouts encouraged the sisters to flee. The sisters remained in the house, sharing the attic with their refugees until the Russian advance drove the Germans out. The Podgórski sisters were declared Righteous Among the Nations for their heroism during the holocaust.

Whoever saves a single life is considered by Scripture to have saved the whole world- The Talmud

William and Henry James

William and Henry James (Public Domain)

The James brothers were Americans in the late nineteenth century who both made lasting impacts on their respective fields. Regrettably, they don't seem to have ever collaborated on a major work. 

William James was a noted philosopher, psychologist, and writer who promoted pragmatism and functionalism. He was one of the most noteworthy psychologists in the 20th century and his work in philosophy influenced many analytic philosophers. We've talked about him before.

Henry James was a writer whose books include The Turn of the Screw and The Portrait of a Lady, who helped usher in modernist writing and was well regarded for his diving into the psychology of his characters. He was nominated for the Noble Prize in Literature several times but died before he could win. He is considered by many to be one of the greatest novelists in the English language.

Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact.- William James, but Henry often gets the credit for saying it. 

The Kennedy brothers

John, Robert, and Ted Kennedy in the early 1960s. (public domain)

The story of the Kennedy clan is a long, tragic, one. It is also one with undoubted influence on world history. The four brothers of the first generation of the political dynasty lead particularly impactful lives.

John was pushed into running for office after the death of his older brother Joseph Jr. in WWII. It went well for him, and he served in the House of Representatives, Senate, and Presidency. His administration led the United States through the hottest periods of the cold war, including the Cuban Missile Crisis and the beginnings of American involvement in Vietnam. He was assassinated in 1963.

Robert was Attorney General during his brother’s presidency and focused on fighting organized crime and managing the federal response to the civil rights movement. He was also a trusted advisor during the Cuban Missile Crisis who personally negotiated with the Soviets. He later served in the Senate and ran for president on an anti-war platform in 1968. He was assassinated after winning the California primary.

Ted was the only brother to grow old. He took over John’s Senate seat and stayed in it for the rest of his life. He was asked to take over Robert’s presidential campaign after his death but declined and ran for president himself only once. Known as “The Lion of the Senate” he played a pivotal role in passing major legislation over the course of his career.

For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die. - Ted Kennedy

Mary and Elizabeth Tudor

The tomb of the two sisters, it depicts Elizabeth I. (Getty Images)

The last two rulers of the Tudor Dynasty were half-sisters who left a nearly unmatched legacy in English history.

Mary took the throne in a coup after being removed from the line of succession by her half-brother King Edward. Despite her initial popularity, she quickly became reviled for her harsh suppression of Protestantism. This included locking up her sister Elizabeth in the Tower of London and placing her under house arrest for more than a year in fear that she would lead a Protestant coup.

After Mary’s death, Elizabeth took the throne.

Elizabeth would go on to become one of the greatest queens in world history. Leading England from a half-failed state to global power, she fought and defeated her European rivals, reduced penalties, and persecutions for religious offenses, dodged assassination attempts left and right, and finished the English Reformation. Her reign is considered a golden age.

Consorts in realm and tomb, here we sleep, Elizabeth and Mary, sisters, in hope of resurrection- translation of the inscription on the shared tomb. 



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Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

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  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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