Society and Culture

’11s babies enriched our minds and bodies

A flurry of news-worthy passings the past month has focused us on those who died this year. Yet it is time once again for a look on the bright side, and our annual wrap-up of notable births on this year in centuries past. Like the lists from 2009 and 2010, this year is lighter on earlier eras, but well represented in the 20th century. The XX11s seemed to be particularly good years for the science, entertainment, and sports industries. Herewith, some of those who changed their world, largely for the better.

1411’s only notable baby was Richard Plantagenet, 3rd Duke of York, claimant to the British throne and father of Edward IV and Richard III (whose Shakespearean villainy you can read here).

The sixteenth century was apparently bare of famous babies born in 1511, while 1611 saw the birth, not of a child, but of the most important work in the English language, the King James Bible (and there’s two more weeks to see the special exhibit at Washington’s Folger Shakespeare Library).

The modern world was shaped by the small number, but high quality, of 1711 births, including Scottish philosopher of empiricism (and historian and economist) David Hume, many of whose ideas later were taught at Dartmouth College, founded by Eleazar Wheelock, born that same year. The empiricists were challenged in no small part by Henry Muhlenberg, born in Germany this year, who went on to found the U.S. Lutheran Church. On the other side of the world, blissfully unaware of this rampaging intellectual warfare, the Qianlong Emperor came into the world and ruled the Qing Empire for 60 years.

Just a dozen years after the Qianlong Emperor died, in 1811, was born New York Tribune founder and editor Horace Greeley. His anti-slavery beliefs were given life by abolitionist and novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe (Uncle Tom’s Cabin), also born this year. The great English novelist William Makepeace Thackeray (Vanity Fair) debuted in 1811, as well. On the science/invention side, Robert W.E. von Bunsen, chemist and creator of high schoolers’ favorite tool, the Bunsen Burner (which parents can buy for their budding scientist here); Elisha Graves Otis, father of the first safe commercial elevator; and Issac Singer, who revolutionized home sewing, all uttered their first cries in 1811. Finally, the political world is represented by Judah P. Benjamin, second Jewish senator in U.S. history, who would become Secretary of War and Secretary of State for the Confederacy and then a notable barrister in London in exile.

The list of 1911 famous births is a long one. This year starts, of course with the arrival of Ronald Reagan; on the other side of aisle was born Hubert Humphrey. Struggling for freedom from behind the Iron Curtain would be Yugoslav author and dissident Milovan Djilas, born in the Kingdom of Montenegro this year. The atomic age that fueled the Cold War would help to be ushered in by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Luis W. Alvarez.

Not all of those born in 1911 would deal with such serious issues. The year produced a bumper crop of outstanding baseball players, including Hank Greenberg, Jay “Dizzy” Dean, and Negro Leagues’ greats Josh Gibson and Buck O’Neil, all of whom helped make the game America’s Pastime. The entertainment world would have been entirely different without its 1911 babies, foremost among them Lucille (“I Love Lucy”) Ball, actresses extraordinaire Paulette Goddard, Jean Harlow, and Merle Oberon; idiosyncratic actors Vincent Price, Lee J. Cobb, and Broderick Crawford; and cowboy idol Roy Rogers. Playwright Tennessee Williams (“A Streetcar Named Desire”) and director John Sturges can claim membership in this year’s elite group, as can composer Spike Jones. Childhood for millions of Americans would have been far less fun without master animator Joseph Barbera (Tom and Jerry, The Flintstones, Scooby Doo, Yogi Bear). Finally, reminding us of the power of faith and voice is gospel singer and civil rights activist Mahalia Jackson, here singing Amazing Grace.

By any measure an impressive list, and one that gives hope in a time of growing uncertainty about our future. Somewhere this year may have been born those who will make their world (and ours) a better place. Happy New Year.

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