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6 famous people you might not know were Swiss

6 famous people you might not know were Swiss

While known mainly for its mountains, ski resorts, lakes and rivers, Switzerland is also a hotbed of talented people. From scientists to philosophers - and one mercurial tennis star - here are six famous people you may not have known are, or were, from Switzerland.

1. Albert Einstein

"We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them" - Albert Einstein

While Albert Einstein was born a German citizen, and died a citizen of the United States, between 1895 and 1914 he lived, studied and taught in Switzerland, eventually gaining Swiss citizenship. Einstein excelled at teaching in Swiss universities, most notably in Zurich where he received a federal teaching diploma at ETH Zurich in 1900 and a PhD from the University of Zurich in 1905. He also worked in the Swiss Patent Office and taught in Bern.

In fact, it was in Bern where he developed his theory of relativity, famous for its equation E = mc2. After a brief stint back in Zurich and Prague, he moved back to Berlin to teach at German universities, before fleeing to the United States in the 1930s. He would pass away in Princeton in 1955 and is remembered as one of the most famous physicists of all time.

2. Le Corbusier

"A house is a machine for living in" - Le Corbusier

From an innovator in science to an innovator in how people design cities. Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, more commonly known as Le Corbusier, was at the forefront of modern architecture and city design.

Born in La Chaux-de-Fonds in Canton Neuchâtel in 1887, he is most famous for urban planning and architecture, such as designing the headquarters of the United Nations in New York along with Oscar Niemeyer and Wallace K. Harrison. In 2016, UNESCO listed 17 of his projects as World Heritage Sites, like the Immeuble Clarté in Geneva

3. Louis-Joseph Chevrolet

"Movement is the universal language of personal freedom" - Louis-Joseph Chevrolet 

As bathing in the “Americana” is so integral to the international company today, you may be surprised to learn that the founder of the Chevrolet Motor Car Company was actually Swiss. Louis-Joseph Chevrolet was born in Switzerland to a French-Swiss couple in Canton Neuchâtel in 1878.

Chevrolet spent most of his life living in America, founding the famous car company in 1911 with his brothers Arthur and Durant. An unconfirmed story from the time alleged that the Chevrolet cross logo is a homage to the cross used on the Swiss flag - although another story says the logo was inspired by a piece of wallpaper Louis saw in Paris.

4. Jean-Jacques Rousseau

“The world of reality has its limits; the world of imagination is boundless” - Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Despite technically being born within Switzerland's modern borders in 1712, Jean-Jacques Rousseau would likely say that he was Genevan first, French second, as the city was only an ally of the Old Swiss Confederacy at the time of his birth, and only joined Switzerland after the Napoleonic Wars. The famous philosopher was integral to the age of Enlightenment and elements of the French Revolution, through his writings in The Social Contract and Discourse on Inequality.

Unfortunately, by converting to Catholicism early in his life, at a time when Geneva was a Calvinist city-state, he was forced to give up his Genevan citizenship. He would later return to Geneva in 1754, before travelling around Europe and settling in France, where he would die in 1778.

famous people Switzerland

5. Carl Gustav Jung

“The most terrifying thing is to accept oneself completely” - Carl Gustav Jung

Born in Canton Thurgau in 1875, Carl Gustav Jung is a well-known psychiatrist and founder of analytical psychology. He is perhaps best known for his lengthy conversations - and then lengthy rivalry - with Viennese psychologist Sigmund Freud. 

Jung himself is famous for his expansion of psychological concepts. Most notably, he was the first to identify extraversion and introversion as personality types. He died in 1961 in Küsnacht, Canton Zurich.

6. Roger Federer

"You know, I don't only play for the record books" - Roger Federer

A 20-time Grand Slam champion, Roger Federer is perhaps the most famous Swiss person in living memory. Born in Basel, the star trained in and around the Swiss city before being scouted and sent to train at the Swiss National Tennis Centre in Écublens, Canton Vaud, aged just 14.

Federer has played more than 1.500 competitive matches in his 24-year professional career. During that time, he lifted 103 ATP singles titles and 20 Grand Slam titles including eight at Wimbledon, five at the US Open, one at the French Open and six at the Australian Open. In September 2022, the star announced his retirement from competitive tennis.

Famous person Switzerland

Bonus: William Tell and Heidi

While neither of these people actually existed - probably - they are known worldwide as symbols of Swiss culture, so it would be odd not to mention them.

The (probable) legend of William Tell

“We shall be free, just as our fathers were” - William Tell by Friedrich Schiller

William Tell, the character of Swiss legend, and the Friedrich Schiller play and Giacomo Rossini opera William Tell, was a crossbowman that shot an apple from atop his son’s head to stop him from being executed by the “evil” Austrian Bailiff Gessler. 

The popular retelling of the story has it that after he completed the famous feat, he was captured but quickly sprung free by shipwrecking himself and his captors on Lake Lucerne. He then assassinated Gessler, sparking a rebellion that would eventually lead to the founding of the Old Swiss Confederacy.

While the accuracy of the story has been hotly debated, the legend of William Tell has cemented itself in popular culture as a fictional retelling of "how Switzerland was founded." The themes imparted in the story also inform readers of some of the values that the new nation took.

Heidi

“Ah, Heidi, that brings light to the heart! What comfort you have brought me!” Heidi by Johanna Spyri

Heidi, written by Zurich writer Johanna Spyri, tells the story of a little girl being brought to live in her paternal grandfather's house in the Swiss mountains, who quickly bars Heidi from going to school. After befriending her neighbours, like Peter the goatherd and Brigitte, she is sent to Frankfurt to be the companion of Klara Sesemann, who is unable to walk. 

After some time, Heidi returns to the mountain where she gives her friends presents and reads hymns to Peter’s blind grandmother. So inspired by her faith, the grandfather relents, allowing Heidi to go to school. Klara soon joins her on the recommendation of her doctor and is slowly taught how to walk. To cut a long story short, they all live happily ever after.

Heidi is one of the best-selling books of all time, and has been adapted for film and screen on several occasions.

Switzerland is full of remarkable people

Do you have a favourite famous Swiss person that we haven't mentioned? Let us know in the comments below!

Jan de Boer

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Jan de Boer

Jan studied in York and Sheffield in the UK, obtaining a master's in broadcast journalism and a bachelor's in history. He has worked as a radio DJ, TV presenter, and...

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