Some of our favorite historical figures were born in the month of February. We couldn't possibly name them all, so here are just a handful of lives we'll be celebrating.
1. February 1, 1902: Langston Hughes
Langston Hughes knew how to network: The poet was discovered after sneaking one of his works under the dinner plate of artist Vachel Lindsay, and went on to become one of the leaders of the Harlem Renaissance.
2. February 3, 1874: Gertrude Stein
Gertrude Stein is considered one of the great American authors of the 20th century, and a key figure in the Modernism movement—but not everyone adored her. In 1912, she sent a manuscript to a London publisher who challenged the work’s unconventional grammar and style with a mocking rejection letter. It’s fine though—Stein probably shrugged it off by spending some quality time driving around town in her Model T.
3. February 4, 1913: Rosa Parks
Rosa Parks, the "mother of the freedom movement," became a Civil Rights icon when she refused to move to the back of an Alabama bus in 1955. And while her activism might have had the biggest and longest-lasting impact, she wasn’t the first to protest on public transportation. Nine months prior to Parks’s arrest, a 15-year-old named Claudette Colvin was arrested after declining to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus, and a handful of other protests followed. A total of four women (Colvin included) served as plaintiffs in Browder v. Gayle, the 1956 lawsuit that led to the desegregation of Montgomery buses. And long before them, activists like Bayard Rustin (in 1942), Irene Morgan (in 1946) and Sarah Louise Keys (in 1952) all demonstrated on public buses. But Parks's arrest became a catalyst that spurred the Civil Rights movement forward, and she continued with activism for the rest of her life.
4. February 7, 1867: Laura Ingalls Wilder
Laura Ingalls Wilder has been a hero to young readers since her first book in the Little House on the Prairie series was published 1932, but older readers can also look to the author for inspiration. Wilder didn’t publish her first work until she was 65 years old (though she did have some help from daughter Rose Wilder Lane), and wrote a dozen more after that. Not bad for a third act.
5. February 11, 1846: Thomas Edison
Thomas Edison was a pioneer in innumerable ways. He invented the phonograph, the motion picture camera, and the light bulb; ran a successful business and research laboratory, was a tough (and eccentric) job interviewer, had his last breath collected by pal Henry Ford, and—perhaps most notably—recorded the world’s first cat video. We are forever indebted.
6. February 12, 1809: Charles Darwin
On The Origin of Species—the work for which Charles Darwin is best known—is an expansive text on evolutionary biology. But the naturalist also had a penchant for the nitty gritty. Like barnacle penises. He was fascinated by the little crustaceans’ very large members, which are admittedly pretty amazing. They are highly adaptable and able to change their shape and size depending on the environment, and barnacles themselves are fully functional hermaphrodites, so they can participate in procreation no matter the circumstance.
7. February 15, 1564: Galileo Galilei
Galileo Galilei’s work in physics was groundbreaking for its time and shaped our image of the cosmos, but the mythology of his earthbound work is probably the stuff of hyperbole. In all likelihood, the polymath probably never dropped anything off the Leaning Tower of Pisa. There’s only one written account of him doing an experiment involving dropping different objects of different weights to test his theories of motion, and historians believe that if Galileo had taken those investigations to the Pisa tower, it would have been a more widely reported display.
8. February 21, 1933: Nina Simone
Nina Simone was born as Eunice Waymon but adopted her stage moniker by the time she was 21. It wasn’t just about a persona—Simone used the tactic to keep her mother from finding out about her budding career as a performer. "Nina" was what her boyfriend at the time called her, and "Simone" came from actress and singer Simone Signoret. Despite finding fame and success (and still being widely played and sampled some 50 years after her heyday), Simone never had a number-one hit. Her highest-charting song was "I Loves You, Porgy," which topped out at No. 2 on the U.S. R&B charts in 1959.
9. February 22, 1732: George Washington
George Washington is one of the towering figures in U.S. history, but there’s probably still a lot you don’t know about him. For example: He didn’t have a middle name, was made an honorary citizen of France in 1792, was posthumously awarded the highest rank in the U.S. military (so that no one will ever outrank him), forgot to bring a Bible to one of his two inaugurations, and was an early pioneer of the self-help genre. His Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation contains 110 rules for living, copied down from an etiquette manual composed by Jesuits in 1595. While some are high-minded, others are quite practical: "Spit not into the fire, nor stoop low before it, neither put your hands into the flames to warm them, nor set your feet upon the fire, especially if there be meat before it."
10. February 27, 1932: Elizabeth Taylor
One of Elizabeth Taylor’s best-known roles is as Martha—half of the toxic, warring couple at the center of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?—but the star didn’t initially want the role, and playwright Edward Albee didn't want her to have it either. When approached about the part, Taylor (quite rightly) told screenwriter Ernest Lehman that she was too young for the role, though she was eventually convinced to take it (and a sizable paycheck) by Richard Burton. As for Albee, he later said: "I was a little upset by the casting. I understood the commercial reasons behind it. I mean, Elizabeth and Richard were getting married and divorced a lot, and yelling at each other a great deal. So I suppose they thought it was perfect casting, even though Elizabeth was 20 years too young for the role and Richard was about five years too old."
A version of this story ran in 2017; it has been updated for 2022.