You may be surprised at the number of historical figures who were adopted. Many of these individuals are household names. They contributed.

Historical Figures Who Were Adopted

Adoption is often looked upon as a barrier to happiness, success, and fulfillment, but in fact, many well-known historical figures have been touched by adoption. Despite the stereotypes and myths, these people have gone on to leave their mark in the history books. From political figures to celebrities to scientists to business powerhouses, adoptees have contributed much to the world. Of course, not every life is a happy one, adopted or not, and there are plenty of well-known historical figures both famous and infamous who faced their share of struggles as well as successes. Here is a list of historical figures who were adopted. 

Simone Biles

You may know Simone Biles as a world-class Olympian champion who continues to stun the world with her talent and skill. Three-year-old Simone and her younger sister, Adria, were adopted by Ron and Nellie Biles after spending time in foster care. Originally born in Columbus, Ohio, the Biles family moved to Spring, Texas, where the girls were brought up in a loving home. This was also where Simone first found her way onto a gym floor while attending a daycare field trip at the age of 6. No surprise, her talents were quickly noticed by a coach who suggested to her parents that she enroll in gymnastics, and the rest is history. Simone is quoted as saying, “When I was younger, I thought every kid was adopted because that’s all I’ve known. I have everything I need, so I never felt the need to have answers for what happened.”

Steve Jobs

Most of us know Steve Jobs as a pioneer in the world of the personal computer, more specifically in the era of the iPod and iPhone. He once said, “Technology is nothing. What’s important is that you have faith in people, that they’re basically good and smart, and if you give them the tools, they’ll do wonderful things.” Steve was adopted by Paul and Clara Jobs in 1955. Steve’s birth mother wanted assurances that her son would be loved and brought up by a good family. She was adamant that Steve be adopted by a family who would make sure he was able to attend college, among other requirements. Upon responding to critics who suggest his personal and professional behavior were a reflection of someone struggling with abandonment issues, Steve is quoted as saying, “Knowing I was adopted may have made me feel more independent, but I have never felt abandoned. I’ve always felt special. My parents made me feel special.” 

Jessica Long

If you watched the Super Bowl, it was hard to miss one very special commercial about 28-year-old paralympic swimmer Jessica Long, who chose that opportunity to share her adoption story with the world. In the commercial, Jessica’s adoptive mom, Beth, is quoted as saying, “It won’t be easy, but it’ll be amazing.”Jessica was born in Siberia with fibular hemimelia. Fearing they wouldn’t be able to care for a disabled child, her young birth parents placed Jessica in an orphanage when she was just a baby. Jessica would eventually be adopted by Beth and Steve Long of Baltimore, Maryland when she was just over a year old. Despite having both of her lower legs amputated at 18 months old so she could begin to work with the aid of prosthetic limbs, with the encouragement of her adoptive family and boatloads of her own will and determination, Jessica began her journey into the pool at the age of 10 and became the youngest member of the US paralympic team by age 12. Jessica returned to Russia in 2012 where she reunited with her birth parents and biological siblings who had no idea their daughter had become a world champion. In total, the swimming sensation has won 29 gold medals, eight silver medals, and four bronze medals. Speaking of her childhood, her life experiences, and the disability that set her on the course of becoming an inspirational success to so many others, she says, “The only disability in life is a negative attitude.”

Dave Thomas

Adding to our list of historical figures who were adopted is Dave Thomas. The Dave Thomas Foundation is named after the founder of Wendy’s, who himself was adopted at 6 months of age by a couple in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Born in 1932, Dave experienced a lot of loss in his early life, having been raised by his adoptive father and grandmother after losing his adoptive mother at the early age of 5 years old. Dave never knew his birth mother. He would later become a champion for children in the foster care system. While he would go on to become a successful restauranteur with Wendy’s (named after his daughter), he never forgot his beginnings and promoted the adoption of foster children throughout his life. “These children are not someone else’s responsibility. They are our responsibility,” he is quoted as saying of children entering foster care. Since 2004, Wendy’s Wonderful Kids has helped place over 10,000 children in foster care into adoptive homes, according to their website.

Nelson Mandela

Known for his work as a South African anti-apartheid revolutionary, political leader, and philanthropist, Nelson Mandela was the country’s first black head of state and first elected in a fully representative democratic election. He served as President from 1994 to 1999. Born in 1918, Nelson, then known by his birth name Rolihlahla, was a member of the royal family of the Xhosa-speaking Thembu tribe in the South African village of Mvezo. At age nine, Nelson was adopted by Jongintaba Dalindyebo, a high-ranking Thembu regent, after the death of his father in 1927. Nelson’s road to becoming one of the most influential leaders of his time was not an easy one, and he spent nearly three decades in prison for his work as a leader of both peaceful and armed resistance protests in support of global human rights. He once said, “What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.” 

Scott Hamilton

Although retired now, Scott Hamilton will forever be a name equated with the world of figure skating. Scott not only won a Gold Medal at the 1984 Olympics in Sarajevo, but four U.S. Championships and four World Championships. Since that time, there’s no doubt you’ve heard Scott giving the play-by-play of today’s best skaters in competitions around the globe with the same energy and passion he displayed on the ice. What you may not know is that when Scott was just 6 weeks old, he was adopted by a couple in Ohio. Not only did his adoptive parents encourage Scott with his love of skating, but he credits them for inspiring him and his wife Tracie to adopt two children of their own from Haiti in 2014. Scott and Tracie have two biological children as well. He once said, “Everything that I’ve ever been able to accomplish in skating and in life has come out of adversity and perseverance.”

Maurice Hilleman

While the name may not be as familiar as these other historical figures who were adopted, Maurice Hilleman’s work has impacted the lives of people all over the world. Maurice invented eight of the 14 vaccines used in routine vaccinations today, according to Famous Scientists. He is the most prolific inventor of vaccines in history, having invented more than 40 vaccines, including ones for measles, mumps, and rubella. Millions of people all over the world literally owe their lives to this scientist and an even greater number have been spared permanent disabilities as a result of his work. Born in 1919, Maurice’s mother died just two days after giving birth. His father was left to raise eight children alone while working his farm. Soon after, his aunt and uncle agreed to adopt Maurice who grew up helping the otherwise childless couple run their farm, sell produce, and do manual labor. A good student in both high school and college, Maurice graduated at the top of his class. He lived small while making his way through graduate school at the University of Chicago on scholarship. Maurice passed away in 2005 at the age of 85.

Maya Angelou

Civil rights activist and one of America’s most treasured poets, Maya Angelou is probably best known for her 1969 memoir, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” Born Marguerite Annie Johnson, she lived with her parents in St. Louis, Missouri until they divorced when Maya was just 3 years old. She and her older brother, Bailey, went to live with her paternal grandmother in a small town in Arkansas. And although she was not legally adopted by her grandmother, she was raised by Anne Henderson for most of her childhood. Despite a difficult childhood, Maya was driven to find the positives in life and shared her undying spirit with everyone she met. She once said, “One isn’t necessarily born with courage, but one is born with potential. Without courage, we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency. We can’t be kind, true, merciful, generous, or honest.”

Robert Peters

Born in April 1985, Robert Peters is a Democratic member of the Illinois Senate. Peters’ biological mother suffered from a substance abuse disorder, so he was raised by his adopted parents, Lawrence Adagba and Comfort Peters. Peters was born deaf with a massive speech impediment, which led to a series of difficulties throughout his early childhood. Despite these early setbacks, he gained full hearing and full speech capabilities by 12 years old—something he credits his teachers and public school administrators with. Unfortunately, Peters lost his parents shortly after college and at a time when he was struggling to find gainful employment and his life’s purpose. These struggles led him toward a pathway of community and political advocacy. “I was lucky. Each step of the way it could’ve been a different story,” he says, explaining his past struggles in an interview on the Black and Powerful series on ABC 7 Chicago.

Faith Hill

Award-winning country singer Faith Hill is known for her powerful singing voice. Her hit songs include “This Kiss,” which won her a whole new audience outside the country scene, and “Breathe,” which debuted at the number one spot on the Billboard country album chart and on the Billboard 200 chart. She’s performed on all the big stages, including the Super Bowl in 2000, as well as the Academy Awards. To date, she’s won multiple Grammy Awards, Country Music Association Awards, Billboard Music Awards, and the People’s Choice Award. In addition, she’s happily married to country singer Tim McGraw who she met while touring in 1996. While her life sounds like a fairytale, it began with Faith being adopted just a few days after she was born in 1967. She grew up as Audrey Faith Perry in Star, Mississippi with two older brothers and two attentive parents, according to Biography.com. She’s quoted as saying, “When kids would call one another names, they’d say, ‘You act like you’re adopted.’ And I’d always get ’em good, because I’d say, ‘Well, I am adopted. So what do you think about that?'” With the support of her adoptive family behind her, Faith eventually searched for her birth family and met with her birth mother for the first time in 1993.

There are many historical figures who were adopted. For more stories on famous adoptees check out Adoption.com’s Famous Adoptees: A Famous Guide

Are you considering placing a child for adoption? Do you want more choices with your adoption plan? Do you want to regain more control in your life? Visit Adoption.org or call 1-800-ADOPT-98. We can help you put together an adoption plan that best meets your needs.
Susan Kuligowski

Susan Kuligowski

Sue Kuligowski is a staff storyteller at Adoption.com. The mother of two girls through adoption, she is a proposal coordinator, freelance writer/editor, and an adoption advocate. When she's not writing or editing, she can be found supervising sometimes successful glow-in-the-dark experiments, chasing down snails in the backyard, and attempting to make sure her girls are eating more vegetables than candy.