4 Superheroes Who Quietly Saved the Entire Dang World

Sometimes saving the world doesn’t take three hours of time travel
4 Superheroes Who Quietly Saved the Entire Dang World

Look, I love superheroes as much as the next guy. I’m not going to sit here and act like they’re not doing great things for whatever made-up city they patrol. You have to admit, though: They could stand to chill the fuck out with the pomp and circumstance. Sure, you saved that swaddled child plummeting toward the pavement, but wanting the whole street to applaud for you? Sounds like someone didn’t get enough attention as a mutated child, amirite?

Sometimes, there are real-life heroes who save the world and don’t need a newspaper headline spiraling into frame to tell everybody about it. They’re just hidden humbly in the history books, if that. No parade needed. No cape, either, which we can all agree is possibly the most attention-starved, useless accessory of all time. Are you saving the world or heading to a renaissance fair, nerd? 

Real-life heroes like…

Stanislav Petrov


The stache that saved the world.

It’s a common climax in a superhero movie: The hero in question sets their jaw and stands up to a corrupt government (but one that’s been clearly established as super evil and definitely not our real-life government). Captain America risks getting court-martialed to stop a nuclear strike on a hospital and says something like, “This is not the way we do things.” In reality, it’s absolutely the way we do things, but not in the fantasy world of movies!

In real life, a man named Stanislav Petrov is responsible for one of the most important nos in history, one that kept the Cold War from turning into full-on nuclear tennis. Lt. Col. Petrov of the Soviet Union was the guy in charge of monitoring a highly important computer — the warning system that would tell them if the U.S. had gone full cowboy and launched missiles at them. On September 26, 1983, exactly the message they’d been hoping not to see popped up, saying that five ICBMs were headed for the Soviets. 

The next action, thankfully, lay in human hands. An attack like this was unexpected, but not totally impossible, and it came down to a judgment call by Petrov on whether it was real or not. If he reported it as a real strike, the Soviets would have loosed nukes-a-plenty targeted at the U.S., which would have been a pretty significant move. Luckily for nearly all of human life, Petrov decided it was likely an error and didn’t report it. He turned out to be right. Every time you take a sip of potable water in a U.S. major city, you have him to thank.

Henrietta Lacks


Well, at least she got a plaque?

For a hero-to-be just manifesting their powers, their value in being a medical anomaly is another common plot. As soon as you telekinetically rattle one drinking glass, you can be sure some military black-ops commander with a prominent scar is on his way to your parents’ house to toss you in a helicopter and transfer you into a series of jars. Non-consensual medical experimentation exists in our world as well, but it’s a whole lot darker and not something anybody wants to think about, much less observe. It’s also something done overwhelmingly to disadvantaged populations.

When a woman named Henrietta Lacks was dying of cervical cancer at the age of 31 in Johns Hopkins hospital, some of her cells were harvested and submitted for research without her ever knowing or agreeing to it. She died, but these cells lived on. In fact, they lived on so effectively, having incredible powers of regeneration, that they became the basis of an incredible amount of medical advancement in everything from cancer research to the development of in vitro fertilization.

In the movies, if someone’s medical contributions saved billions of lives, you can be sure there’d be a statue, a ceremony and a teary-eyed general saluting their sacrifice. When it happens in real life, at least to a Black woman in a time when most hospitals wouldn’t treat her, it turns out they don’t even tell her family. You might at least like to know that tiny medical bits of your mom are sitting in petri dishes around the world.

Aleksander Akimov


Do NOT go in there!

Whether from history books, eerie photos or the HBO miniseries full of inexplicable British accents, you likely have heard of the nuclear disaster of Chernobyl. The meltdown killed and sickened many people, and the exclusion zone around it is still thick with nuclear radiation, so much so that you aren’t allowed to touch the ground in even the areas you’re allowed to walk through. Safe to say it’s one of history’s biggest whoopsies.

The fact is, though, that what happened was the better outcome of some of the possible options, and it’s thanks in large part to a man named Aleksander Akimov. Akimov was the shift supervisor on duty at the Chernobyl plant during the disaster, which is a pretty short straw to draw. When the disaster began, he almost cemented a much less enviable legacy, as he assumed it was equipment error, and didn’t relay the alert. However, once he realized that shit was, in fact, getting real, he participated in one of the most heroic “my bad” moments of all time.

They’d waited too long to take action, and the reactor was not only leaking radiation, but a lot of the emergency safeguards were already non-functional. Rather than turn tail and leave, looking to minimize the number of tails grown, Akimov and his team stuck around and took matters into their own hands — literally. They manually pumped water into the overheating reactor without any of the needed wardrobe to do so safely, and they all died as a result. They did, however, stop the meltdown from being even more disastrous than it already was.

Ignaz Semmelweis

Public Domain

This nerd wants us to wash the corpse off our hands!

Our last hero was a man who could have saved countless lives… if everyone at the time hadn’t decided to tell him to fuck off. I’m talking about Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis. Semmelweis, as any good doctor should be, was alarmed by the massive mortality rates connected with childbirth at his hospital, and decided he should maybe figure out how not to kill people. It should be said that this was in the 1800s, right around the time that blaming deaths on high demon levels was first falling out of favor, so they weren’t looking too closely into scientific solutions.

Semmelweis did a little extremely surface-level digging and noticed that the mortality rate in women whose delivery was handled by doctors was five times higher than women whose delivery was handled by midwives. He investigated a couple of variables to see what was causing this, and eventually came up with the crazy hypothesis that the doctors, who were performing autopsies on recently ill dead people, walking over to the maternity ward and sticking their unwashed, ungloved, corpse-juice-covered hand straight into pregnant ladies, might benefit from a quick rinse. 

He had doctors start washing their hands with chlorine in-between patients, and while it probably wasn’t great for their skin, it worked. The rate of “childbed fever,” the cause of death du jour, went way down. Tell everybody about this, show the evidence, big win for the medical profession and mothers that would prefer to live, right? Well, it should have been. Except other doctors got all pissy at the implication they were doing anything wrong and ignored Semmelweis completely. Even the hospital he worked at, where they’d seen it work, fired him and stopped washing their hands. 

Apparently he was disliked because of his propensity to yell at doctors who wouldn’t follow his rules — i.e., doctors who were actively killing people.

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