It's interesting how a man can become a local hero by saving just one life--or how a fictional character can be considered a superhero by saving a few thousand--when there are people relatively unknown to history who have saved many, many times more.
These are men and women who saved millions of lives, without whom you might not exist, and whose names likely never came up in your history class.
Nuclear war... Doomsday... WWIII... forget about everything Stanley Kubrick, James Cameron or (God forbid) Alan Moore ever mused on the subject. Fact is stranger than fiction, and the truth is we came closer to nuclear annihilation than even the most taut Cold War thriller would let on. More than once.
For instance, you probably know that during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the U.S. and USSR came closer to nuclear war than ever before. But you probably don't know that if it weren't for one man, we would all be wandering around a charred, radioactive wasteland today. And that guy wasn't JFK.
It's 1962, communist Cuba had gone nuclear, John F. Kennedy had the entire island under quarantine, Nikita Khrushchev was not intimidated by the young president and Kevin Costner's reputation as a legitimate actor was on the line.
For real, they cloned Bobby Kennedy for this movie.
In the center of this hot-zone was the nuclear-armed Soviet Foxtrot class submarine B-59, which on October 27, 1962 decided whether you personally would be alive right now. While surrounded by a group of 11 U.S. destroyers and the aircraft carrier USS Randolph, the submarine was eventually subjected to a barrage of depth charges.
Taking this as the opening shots of WWIII (which they kind of were), Captain Valentin Grigorievitch Savitsky ordered the B-59's nuclear-tipped missile be launched in retaliation to the U.S. surface ships. Had this been the case, it is likely that the U.S., USSR, Cuba and most of Europe would have had a full shooting-war on their hands, cowboy hats and all.
Picture this happening about 30,000 times, and all at once.
That is, if not for a guy named Vasili Arkhipov.
According to Director of the National Security Archive Thomas Blanton and former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, a guy called Vasili Arkhipov "saved the world". The thing is, to launch a nuke, the top three Soviets on the B-59 needed a unanimous vote. Captain Savitsky and Political Officer Ivan Semonovich Maslennikov were all for it, but Arkhipov, a mere second-in-command, was not all that wild about wiping out human civilization.
The three got into an argument, and Arkhipov eventually persuaded the political officer that nuking the U.S. Navy was a bad idea, and that they should resurface instead (even if it meant, you know, death). Captain Savitsky was not happy with this, but since he did not have the votes to go nuclear, the submarine surfaced, and the crisis was averted. So yeah, find out where Vasili Arkhipov is buried right now, and send him a fruit basket large enough to be seen from freaking space. He may have been a communist, but you owe him your damned life.
Of course, after that terrifyingly close call the U.S. and Soviets realized we were all walking a tightrope above a pool of lava, and that we should make peace with one other before tripping into Armageddon. Ha! Nope: We kept the Cold War going for decades afterward and in fact came just as close to annihilation again thanks to a false alarm in the 1980s (the Soviets had false radar signals showing the U.S. had launched on them.) Yet another Soviet officer, Stanislav Petrov, would risk everything by standing down.
Man, the Soviets sure saved our asses a lot during our war against the...Soviets.
James Harrison has magical blood.
Specifically, his blood contains an extremely rare enzyme that can be used to treat babies dying of Rhesus disease. If you've never heard of that disease and figure it's not a big deal, well, wait for the numbers.
Harrison, being a generous type, has donated his rare, life-saving blood roughly 1,000 times over 56 years. This has saved the lives of--seriously, you're not going to believe this--over two million babies around the world.
His dedication to blood donation has earned him the nickname "the man with the golden arm," which makes us feel like douchebags for giving that nickname to NFL quarterbacks instead. Any way you cut it, saving two million babies is always going to trump saving a game with a choice interception.
"Yeah, two million. I'm hoping to hit three, but whatever. I'm in it for the babies."
The whole thing is kind of a "pay it forward" situation for Harrison, who needed major chest surgery when he was 13-years old, and soaked up 13 liters of blood over the course of three months. "The blood I received saved my life so I made a pledge to give blood when I was 18." This has turned out to be the second most important vow in history.
Not only is he continuing to save lives every day now that he's entering his twilight years, but his blood has also been used to develop a vaccine called Anti-D to keep those babies safe. Forever.
While most extinctions are really nothing mankind should brag about (except for that smartass giant bear), the successful war humanity waged against the Variola virus--better known as smallpox--spanned over 10,000 years, claimed 500 million lives, required a U.S./Soviet alliance to crush and is generally something that the entire world can be proud of.
Like this, only real.
It all started in 1958, when the sinister-sounding Dr. Viktor Zhdanov, Deputy Minister of Health for the USSR, proposed to the World Health Assembly that a global effort be launched to eradicate smallpox: one of the oldest, deadliest and most painful diseases in human history. Since this offered the Free World their best chance to do something productive with the Soviets now that Yuri's Revenge was over, the planet held on to their butts, and signed off on the idea.
The initiative was accepted, and eventually headed by American physician Donald Henderson, M.D., who basically agreed to play the role of Dr. House for the duration of the whole world-saving thing. Thanks to Dr. Zhdanov's brilliant (and we can't help but suspect secretly evil) vision and Dr. Henderson's American-made true grit, these real life Avengers won humanity's war against smallpox through globally-administered teamwork and vaccinations.
However, the virus is still alive in laboratories under round-the-clock supervision by U.S. and Russian personnel just in case, you know, either side chooses to weaponize their sample.
Hey, even if these guys don't show up, we still have plenty of brave Russian soldiers we can count on to stop the other Russians for us.