Portrait art of famous Americans in a modern style

Fun Fact: This Is How Old Famous Americans Were

Experts at the CDC and Harvard say that the average lifespan of Americans in 2024 is 77.5 years. Women are a touch higher, men a touch lower. Compare that to the dismal 39.4 year life expectancy from the 1860’s and we’ve come a long way baby. But this article isn’t about that, or not directly. It’s about how old past historical figures were when they achieved their notoriety. The results are startling and surprising if you look at them with a 21st century gaze, but if you understand that for many, the life expectancy was nearly half what it is today, you can see why they were in such a rush for achievement.

Below are 33 notorious, impactful and famous Americans, the age they first achieved greatness, and a few fun facts for good measure. This list focuses on scientific, cultural and political figures (sorry artists, you’re cool too). It is a bit of a wake-up call to get our butts in gear! Now lets get to the list.

Ages of Famous Americans from History:

Edgar Allan Poe: First Notable at age 18

The dark prince of American literature, Edgar Allan Poe, didn't just write spooky tales – he practically invented the detective fiction genre. With his raven-black wit and a knack for spinning macabre tales like "The Tell-Tale Heart," this gothic genius left an indelible mark on the literary world. Bonus fun fact: The Baltimore Ravens football team name came from the classic Poe poem with the same name.

Wilma Rudolph: First notable at age 20

Talk about a comeback kid! Wilma overcame polio, scarlet fever, and racism to become the first American woman to win three gold medals in a single Olympics at just 20 years old. This sprinter wasn't just fleet of foot, but she also left adversity in her dust.

Phillis Wheatley: First notable at age 20

When you're the first African American to publish a book of poetry in 1773 at around 20 years old, you don't need a mic - those rhymes will drop jaws all on their own. Phillis' way with words was so impactful, she inspired both slaves and free-folk (remember, slavery was still a thing in America at this time).

Alexander Hamilton: First notable at age 21

This Founding Father co-wrote the Federalist Papers, helped shape the U.S. Constitution, and served as the nation's first Treasury Secretary. Before you ask, yes. He was the subject of a wildly popular Broadway musical that had plenty of financial raps. Not bad for an orphan immigrant.

George Washington: First notable at age 22

The OG President, George Washington, didn't just lead the Continental Army to victory in the Revolutionary War – he essentially defined what it means to be the leader of a free nation. From presiding over the Constitutional Convention to establishing presidential traditions (like the two-term limit, which some future presidents conveniently ignored), this guy was a boss. That whole cherry tree thing? Never happened.

Thomas Edison: First notable at age 22

Thomas Edison was the original mad scientist (or mad capitalist?), with over a thousand patents to his name. From the phonograph to the motion picture camera, this prolific inventor illuminated the world – quite literally, with his long-lasting electric light bulb. If you're reading this on a screen or listening to music, you can thank good ol' Edison for helping to make it possible.

Louis Armstrong: First notable in his early 20s

When it comes to jazz, Louis Armstrong was the guy. This trumpeter and singer didn't just play the music extremely well – he helped shape genres like Dixieland and swing with his legendary improvisation skills and unmistakable gravelly voice. Whether you're a jazz aficionado or just a casual listener, Satchmo's infectious tunes got your foot tapping.

Martin Luther King Jr.: First notable at age 26

This Baptist minister revolutionized activism with his powerful approach. Inspired by Gandhi's methods and his own Christian beliefs, Martin Luther King Jr. became the driving force behind the civil rights movement. His strategy? Nonviolent protests and compelling speeches that continue to resonate powerfully with us even today.

Albert Einstein: First notable at age 26

Talk about a genius! This wild-haired theoretical physicist basically rewrote the laws of physics with his theory of relativity. Thanks to his mass-energy equivalence formula E = mc^2, Einstein proved that matter and energy are interchangeable. Now, he's still the poster child of brilliant minds everywhere.

Frederick Douglass: First notable at age 27

From escaped slave to leading abolitionist, Douglass used his eloquent wrath against slavery to change minds and laws. He championed equality through his powerful speeches and writings and never backed down when he faced decent.

Walt Disney: First notable at age 27

Before there was the glut of CGI graphics and animations, there was Walt Disney. He was a pioneer when it came to animation and filmmaking and introducing game-changing developments to cartoons. From synced sound to full-color visuals, Disney made animated films an art form. Oh, and he created that little mouse mascot you might've heard of – Mickey something?

Malcolm X: First notable at age 28

While MLK championed nonviolence, Malcolm X took a more confrontational approach in his fight for black rights during the civil rights era. This Muslim minister pulled no punches, criticizing King's passive tactics and advocating for racial separatism. He felt that the only way to combat racial violence was by meeting it.

Franklin D. Roosevelt: First notable at age 28

FDR had his work cut out for him as he lead America through the Great Depression and World War II. But this polio-stricken president didn't let his disability stop him from enacting sweeping economic reforms that brought America to prosparity following the conflict. He was also an inspiring speaker and connected with the public via his broadcasted fireside chats. 

John F. Kennedy: First notable at age 29

JFK brought some youthful style and charisma to the White House as a prominent Cold War leader. He was the youngest elected President in history. JFK set bold goals like landing on the Moon and established programs under his "New Frontier" vision. His tenure was cut tragically short in Dallas, Texas when he was assassinated and we're still trying to figure out the culprit.

Harriet Tubman: First notable in her late 20s to early 30s

Harriet Tubman was the ultimate renegade of the Underground Railroad. After escaping slavery herself, she risked her life on around 13 missions to rescue over 70 others from bondage. And if that wasn't enough, she later served as a Union spy during the Civil War. She was pretty much an action hero worthy of the big screen.

Booker T. Washington: First notable at age 25

"Lift as we climb" was Booker T's motto, and he walked the talk by founding the Tuskegee Institute to educate African Americans. This author and leader promoted uplifting the black community through learning, hard work, and self-reliance. An inspiration to academics and entrepreneurs alike!

Amelia Earhart: First notable at age 31
(1897–presumed dead 1937)

This daring aviator didn't just break the gender barrier – she soared right past it by becoming the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. Amelia's mysterious disappearance during her round-the-world attempt only added to her legend as a trailblazing pilot.

Jonas Salk: First notable at age 33

You can thank this medical hero for developing the polio vaccine that stopped the terrifying epidemics in their tracks back in 1955. Before Salk's breakthrough, polio was paralyzing thousands – but his inactivated vaccine discovery was a game-changer for mankind and has saved countless lives. 

Thomas Jefferson: First notable at age 33

As the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, TJ penned the lines "all men are created equal" (though, being a slave owner, he may not have lived by this ideal). However, his democratic ideals helped shaped America, as did the Louisiana Purchase he orchestrated while in office.

Susan B. Anthony: First notable at age 32

A leading figure in the women's suffrage movement in the United States, she co-founded the American Equal Rights Association and worked tirelessly to secure the right for women to vote. Anthony's efforts were crucial in the eventual passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, which granted all American women the right to vote.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton: First notable at age 32

Another women's suffrage superstar, Stanton was an outspoken women's rights activist that got into the fight early. She penned the Declaration of Sentiments, which was the opening salvo in Stanton's lifelong fight for women's equality. She never let societal norms silence her push for female suffrage and progressive family reforms.

Sally Ride: First notable at age 32

Shooting for the stars was never just a dream for Sally Ride - in 1983, she soared right into the history books as the first American woman in space. Her pioneering spaceflight inspired countless girls to pursue STEM careers.

Carl Sagan: First notable at age 32

Before there was Bill Nye or Neil deGrasse Tyson, there was Carl Sagan winning over audiences with his TV series Cosmos. This science superstar made complex topics like astrophysics fun and accessible through engaging educational programs. He was a brilliant and inspiring personality that has helped shape scientific and educational content today.

Lyndon B. Johnson: First notable at age 29

This former president played a pivotal role in advancing civil rights legislation. He signed the Voter Rights Act of 1965 (outlawing discriminatory voting practices) and nominated the first African American, Thurgood Marshall, to the Supreme Court. He also helped the Civil Rights Act of 1964 pass, which prohibited all kinds of unsavory discrimination.

James Madison: First notable at age 36

A brilliant political theorist, Madison is best known as the "Father of the Constitution", meaning, he was central to its writing and creation. He ensured it was strong enough to last centuries and put America firmly on the democratic path. Oh, he was also the 4th president of the nation.

Clara Barton: First notable at age 40

Before there were paramedics, there was Clara Barton hustling to provide emergency medical aid. This pioneering nurse campaigned for the Geneva Convention to protect wounded soldiers and founded the American Red Cross to provide relief efforts. I wonder what she'd say of the current state of American healthcare?

Henry Ford: First notable at age 40

This automotive maverick did not invent the automobile. Sigh. But he did invent the assembly line, which was an incredible innovation for not just the auto industry, but all of manufacturing. This helped make four-wheeled transportation affordable for the everyday Joe, starting with the Ford Model T.

Robert Oppenheimer: First notable at age 39

They called him the "father of the atomic bomb" - a title you wouldn't want to put on a birthday cake. This theoretical physicist directed the Manhattan Project that developed nuclear weapons, ended World War II, and ushered in the terrifying Atomic Age. Yikes.

Benjamin Franklin: First notable at age 42

A prolific polymath doesn't even begin to describe this Founding Father. Statesman, scientist, inventor, writer, philosopher - was there anything Ben Franklin couldn't do? From bifocals to the in-home heating, Franklin was constantly pursuing progress, discovery and perfecting everyday life for his contemporaries.

Theodore Roosevelt: First notable at age 42

Don't mess with Teddy! This tough-as-nails president busted up corporate trusts and monopolies that were turning America on its head. With his grand moustache, he advocated for conservation and added millions of acres to the national forests and public lands. He also pulled some strings to make the Panama Canal happen and won the Nobel Peace prize for his mediation of the Russo-Japanese War.

Rosa Parks: First notable at age 42

They said she was just a tired seamstress, but Rosa Parks kicked off the Montgomery Bus Boycott in the deep South when she refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus. That simple act of defiance against injustice fanned the civil rights movement's flames.

Mark Twain: First notable at age 34

This cigar-smoking satirist was the original troll of pre-Civil War America. With biting wit, Twain skewered racism and hypocrisy in classics like Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. Honestly, the man could insult you while making you laugh. He was also a pretty epic prankster to his friends and aquaintences.

The Marquis de Lafayette: First notable at age 19

HONORABLE MENTION 🇫🇷: The French teenage aristocrat who defied orders and sailed across the pond to join America's scrappy Continental Army. The French have always had a soft spot for revolutions (or maybe just sticking it to King George). 

While we could keep this parade going, we had to cap it somewhere! Did we miss someone you think should be included? Let us know, or keep it to yourself. Nobody is perfect. Hopefully this round-up is inspiring and showcases the ferocity of these figures to obtain their goals. As a disclaimer, we know that some of these figures were not saints and perhaps had a checkered life with some poor decisions. We’re not here to audit their choices, just note their youthfulness for historical context.

If you liked this dip into history, you might also enjoy our post on stories of people being stupid. Pretty much the opposite of this one, but still a noodle teasing look at history!
About the author(s):

Christman & Raelina

Christman and Raelina are both professional designers, writers and have been working with educational content for nigh on 30 years (between the two).

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