10 Real-Life Superheroes to Celebrate on National Superhero Day

For the past decade or more, superhero movies have dominated the box office. Even if you don’t follow the inner workings of the Marvel universe, you likely know of popular characters such as Thor, Captain America, and Iron Man. Then there is the legendary superhero himself: Superman, who has gone through different iterations in television series, movies, and comics since he first appeared in 1938 in Action Comics #1.

Let’s face it, people have a love for superheroes. There is something wonderful about these extraordinary beings watching out for others and ensuring the safety of all. And while regular people may not have the superpowers that these action heroes do, it doesn’t mean they can’t be superheroes.

As we celebrate National Superhero Day on April 28 here’s a look at 10 real-life superheroes throughout history. These are people who performed heroic acts to help others, and sometimes in the face of danger.

Edith Cavell

The Memorial dedicated to Edith Cavell, a British Nurse during the Great War, located in central London
Image Credit: Shutterstock / chrisdorney

For those outside of the UK, you may not be as familiar with the name Edith Cavell, but her actions should not be overlooked. She was born in England in 1865 and went on to become a British nurse. During World War I she showed incredible bravery by helping the Allied soldiers who were able to escape from Belgium, which was occupied by Germany. After bringing the soldiers back to health, she then smuggled them to safety using an underground tunnel in her hospital.

Once the German police became suspicious of her, rather than flee she stayed behind. In 1915 the German police arrested her and then executed her by a firing squad.

Malala Yousafzai

Malala Yousafzai at the 2023 Vanity Fair Oscar Party at the Wallis Annenberg Center.
Image Credit: Shutterstock / Featureflash Photo Agency

Malala Yousafzai is a modern-day hero in that she’s still alive and still making a huge difference. Born in 1997 in Pakistan, Yousafzai can be described as a Pakistani activist. She became an activist at a young age, speaking out on the prohibition of education for girls when she was just a teen herself.

When she was only 15 an attempted assassination was made against her, and yet she survived. She went on to win the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2014 due to her ongoing efforts to shine a light on children’s rights. This made her the youngest Nobel laureate ever. Today she is living in London, England, and still very engaged in activism and human rights.

Harriet Tubman

Depicting Tubman leading a young enslaved girl to freedom.
Image Credit: Shutterstock / Brian Logan Photography

Harriet Tubman also plays an important role in history thanks to her bravery, as she risked her life to save others. She took part in 13 missions that saved 71 slaves, allowing them to escape by using the underground railroad.

She was born into slavery in 1822 and was later able to escape and become a free woman. She went on to become a social activist who lived until the age of 91, passing away in 1913.

Rosa Parks

Sculpture of Rosa Parks inside bus at the National Civil Rights Museum and the site of the Assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Image Credit: Shutterstock / Gino Santa Maria

This American activist and civil rights hero was born in 1913 in Alabama and lived until age 92 when she died in 2005. Rosa Parks is one of the most well-known civil rights activists who fought for freedom and equality for African Americans.

Parks became known for “not giving up her seat” to stand on the bus, which was part of the segregation laws in Montgomery, AB at that time. As Parks has so often described since that event, she was “tired of giving in”. Her refusal to stand up was an act towards freedom and equality for all. Her activism continued and amplified over the years, making her another modern-day hero.

Martin Luther King Jr

The statue memorial for Martin Luther King Jr. in West Potomac Park, Washington D.C..
Image Credit: Shutterstock / Atomazul

In terms of well-known people in American history, Martin Luther King Jr is right up there. He spoke out against oppression and racism and discussed the disenfranchisement of African American people. The boycotts and marches he took part in were meant to draw attention to the violence, discrimination, and bigoted speech so many had been subjected to. His speeches were always heartfelt and moving, but it was the famous words “I have a dream” that live on today.

His life was cut far too short, being fatally shot on April 4, 1968, when he was only 39 years old. Today he still inspires people, children learn about him in school, and he is honored yearly on Jan. 20 with a federal holiday.

The Chernobyl Three

Old children's gas mask inside of the abandoned Pripyat Elementary School No. 3 in Pripyat city, Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, Ukraine
Image Credit: Shutterstock / Roman Belogorodov

This particular example isn’t just one superhero but three. Known as “The Chernobyl Three”, the action of these three helped to contain just how much of a disaster the Chernobyl nuclear plant meltdown was. It was on April 26, 1986, that the fateful nuclear plant in Chernobyl exploded. That explosion created 400 times the radioactive waste that occurred in 1945 when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.

Even though it was thought to have been contained after the first fire, disaster continued at the plant and a few days later the melting reactor waste was close to meeting up with the water. Should they have met a steam explosion would have occurred, and that would have made the majority of Europe uninhabitable for hundreds of thousands of years. These three men performed acts of heroism by going on a “suicide mission” to prevent a steam explosion. Miraculously they lived and prevented the explosion.

Oskar Schindler

 Memorial plaque to Oskar Schindler, town Svitavy, Pardubice region, Czech republic
Image Credit: Shutterstock / Michaela Jilkova

Thanks to the movie Schindler’s List, most people are familiar with the actions of Oskar Schindler. Schindler was a German who was part of the Nazi party—however, he was a humanitarian who ended up saving 1,200 Jewish people during the Holocaust.

Nelson Mandela

Late South African president Nelson Mandela smiles as he poses for a portrait in London.
Image Credit: Shutterstock / Alessia Pierdomenico

Nelson Mandela is another modern-day hero who is credited with helping to end apartheid in South Africa. He was a politician, the first black head of state in South Africa, an activist, and a humanitarian. He stood for freedom, peace, and equality, and made it his life mission.

His life was dotted with hardships, setbacks, persecution, and successes, and through it all, he remained steadfast in his quest for equality for all. He lived until the age of 95, passing away on Dec. 5, 2013.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi

A Statue of Mahatma Gandhi on display at Gandhi Ashram.
Image Credit: Shutterstock / Kunal Mehta

People all around the world know of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, and many herald him as a hero. He was a man who believed in living in peace and was an anti-colonial nationalist, lawyer, and political ethicist. His goal was to gain independence for India from British rule—but wanted to do so in a peaceful manner. He inspired a movement anchored in peace, but working towards freedom for his country.

Gandhi is still spoken of today, and still inspires political activists all around the world.

First Responders

New York skyline silhouette with Twin Towers and birds flying up like souls at sunset.
Image Credit: Shutterstock / Hamara

We can’t put together a list of superheroes without mentioning those who perform heroic acts daily—the first responders. First responders are quick to respond to dangerous, scary, and life-threatening scenes to help others. Thanks to their training, skills, and ability to jump into action when needed, they have saved countless lives throughout history.

All you have to do is read about the heroic acts of first responders on 9/11 who gave their lives that day in an attempt to save others and those who have since died because of related illnesses. First responders are among the bravest heroes out there.

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