Mother Teresa Voted by American People as Most Admired Person of the Century

by Frank Newport

Top 5 list rounded out by Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy, Albert Einstein, and Helen Keller

GALLUP NEWS SERVICE

PRINCETON, NJ -- Mother Teresa, the Roman Catholic nun who devoted her life to ministering to the poor and sick in India, is the Most Admired Person of the Century, according to new CNN/USA Today Gallup polls of the American people conducted this fall. Mother Teresa is followed in the Top 5 list by Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy, Albert Einstein and Helen Keller.

No Systematic Record of Whom Americans Admired for the Entire Century
There is no simple way to determine what single person has been most admired by average citizens of the country throughout the years from 1900 to the present. Modern-day polling was not instituted on a regular basis until the mid-1930s, so there is no systematic record of what the people thought for the first decades of the century. In fact, Gallup did not begin asking the public on a routine basis to name the man and the woman they most admired until 1948, meaning that contemporaneous data are available only for the second half of the century. Thus, any attempt to average what Americans thought throughout the entire century on a systematic, quantifiable basis is impossible.

The procedure Gallup has followed, therefore, is based on retrospective admiration among the sample of adult Americans who are living as the century comes to a close. Earlier this fall, in October, a Gallup poll asked a sample of Americans to name -- without prompting -- the man or woman who lived at anytime this century whom they most admired. All individuals who were mentioned by at least 1% of the public in response to that question, along with other historical figures who have appeared in Gallup's Most Admired Lists since 1948, were combined into a list of 18 potential candidates for the Most Admired Person of the Century award. This list was then read to a new random sample of Americans on December 20-21. Respondents in that poll were asked to classify each of the historical figures as: 1) one of the people you admire most from this century, 2) a person you admire, but not the most, 3) a person you somewhat admire, 4) someone you do not admire at all. From these results, the 18 personalities were rank-ordered based on the percentage placing them in the top category, "one of the people you admire most from this century."

Eighteen Most Admired People of the Century
The final list is as follows:

  Percent of Americans Naming Person as "One of the People of the Century I Admire Most"
1. Mother Teresa 49
2. Martin Luther King, Jr. 34
3. John F. Kennedy 32
4. Albert Einstein 31
5. Helen Keller 30
 
6. Franklin D. Roosevelt 26
7. Billy Graham 26
8. Pope John Paul II 25
9. Eleanor Roosevelt 22
10. Winston Churchill 20
 
11. Dwight Eisenhower 18
12. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis 18
13. Mahatma Gandhi 18
14. Nelson Mandela 17
15. Ronald Reagan 17
 
16. Henry Ford 15
17. Bill Clinton 10
18. Margaret Thatcher 9

As can be seen, the Top 5 list contains a fascinating blend of historical figures. The most admired person - Mother Teresa - devoted her life to helping others, rather than acquiring personal power or wealth. It is interesting to note that in addition to receiving the most "most admired" votes when the list of 18 names was read to respondents, Mother Teresa also was the top vote-getter when Gallup earlier asked Americans to name the person they most admired without prompting. Mother Teresa is No. 1 across all major demographic categories except those 18-29 years of age.

One additional figure in the Top 5 list also devoted his life to the betterment of others - civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. King does very well among non-whites in the sample, as would be expected, but also does extraordinarily well among the youngest group in the sample, those 18-29 years of age, among whom he gets more votes than Mother Teresa. This fact is very interesting in and of itself, since no one in this age group - the oldest of whom was born in 1970 -- was alive before King's assassination in 1968.

Five U.S. presidents made the list of 18 finalists, and only one - John F. Kennedy -- made it onto the Top 5 list. Kennedy was killed in 1963, and thus, can only be remembered contemporaneously by those who are now in their 40s or older, but the mystique surrounding JFK apparently continues to this day. Some may attribute his high presence on the list to his martyrdom at the hand of an assassin's bullet, or perhaps to the publicity this year surrounding the tragic death of his son, John F. Kennedy, Jr., but it should be noted that JFK also generated high public opinion ratings while he was alive and serving in office. In fact, during his presidency, Kennedy received the highest average job approval ratings of any president since World War II. Kennedy also comes in near the top of any list generated when Gallup asks Americans to rate the best presidents in American history.

Albert Einstein, who died in 1955, did not appear routinely on Gallup's most admired list while he was still alive. His presence as No. 4 on this list also was determined before the recent announcement of his designation as the Person of the Century byTimemagazine. Einstein's appeal is roughly even across all demographic categories.

Helen Keller became the first deaf and blind individual to graduate from college when she was graduated with honors from Radcliffe College in 1904. She authored 13 books and was a frequent contributor to magazines and newspapers, often writing on blindness, deafness, social issues, and women's rights. Keller is most admired by women and by older Americans 30 years of age and above, perhaps for her advocacy on behalf of the blind and disabled.

The sixth through tenth names on Gallup's Most Admired of the Century list include two religious figures - one Protestant, Billy Graham, and one Catholic, Pope John Paul II. The other three figures are at least partially associated with World War II: President Franklin D. Roosevelt, his wife Eleanor Roosevelt (who went on to establish a strong international career of her own in the years after her husband's death), and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

Survey Methods
The results reported here are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,031 adults, 18 years and older, conducted December 20-21, 1999. For results based on the whole sample, one can say with 95 percent confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is plus or minus 3 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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