The 10 Greatest Belgians Throughout History

Jacques Brel | © Barclay and Universal / Peter Paul Rubens | Public Domain
Jacques Brel | © Barclay and Universal / Peter Paul Rubens | Public Domain
Photo of Nana Van De Poel
25 February 2017

For a country the size of a peanut and sometimes derided because of it, Belgium sure has given birth to a lot of excelling scientists, warrior rebels, and remarkably selfless clergy members. In this by no means exhaustive list, Culture Trip takes a look at 10 Belgian characters that have left an indelible imprint on the world around them.

Altruistic Father Damien

Officially voted “Greatest Belgian of all time” in a large-scale Flemish vote accompanied by a documentary series, Father Damien to many is the ultimate embodiment of self-sacrifice. The missionary spent a 16-year period caring for the outcasted leper colony of Molokai – widely regarded as a true act of heroism by Belgians and Hawaiians alike. The latter have even instituted a Father Damien Day (April 15th), using the occasion to drape a lei around an iconic Honolulu statue of the saint. Visitors of Leuven often aren’t aware that his relics can be found in St. Antonius, a modern, tranquil church a hop, skip and jump from the town center.

Honolulu's Father Damien statue festooned for Father Damien Day | © Daniel Ramirez / Flickr

Warrior rebel Ambiorix

His likeness stands proud, bare-chested, and mustachioed on Tongeren’s main market square – a symbol of Belgian exceptionalism and rebellion. Ambiorix, the leader of the Eburones tribe that initiated the Gallic revolt against Roman Emperor Caesar, was edified to near God-like status in the 19th century when a newly formed country was just shaping its identity by reaching back to its region’s illustrious past. While it’s hard to determine where the legend ends and the man begins two millennia after his time, Ambiorix and his tribesmen have always held a steady appeal to the Belgian imagination.

Ambiorix' statue in Tongerlo | © Johan Neven / Flickr

Cycling deity Eddy Merckx

Over a career spanning more than two decades, “the Cannibal” devoured them all. With 11 Grand Tours to his name, Eddy Merckx is still considered the greatest road cyclist to ever hit the asphalt. His ferocious thirst for victory propelled the grocer’s son to race every race as if there was no tomorrow, a winner’s mentality that earned him a whopping 525 victories.

Foremost mathematician Ingrid Daubechies

Even if the word “wavelets” doesn’t mean much to you, they – and their inventor Ingrid Daubechies – are essentially why you’re able to store and send images on your phone and computer. Through her formulas, the internationally esteemed mathematician developed the JPEG 2000 standard, but the former Princeton and current Duke professor has found boundless other applications for her wavelets, from giving the FBI a hand with its fingerprint processing to spotting fake paintings made by expert counterfeiters.

Brussels chansonnier Jacques Brel

The most famous chansonnier to ever dwell the streets of Paris wasn’t French. Brussels-born Jacques Brel only moved to the “City of Light” in his mid-20s to further pursue his music career. As he performed melancholic songs like “Ne Me Quitte Pas” and “Amsterdam” with such intense physicality and emotional investment that he’d be dripping wet by the end of a set, the French fell in love with the poet-musician from Schaerbeek.

Infiniment, a Brel compilation album | © Barclay and Universal

Modest pill inventor Ferdinand “Nand” Peeters

A fact lost in the shadows of medical history until a 2012 documentary shone a light on the matter, the unassuming Belgian gynecologist Ferdinand – “Nand” to those who knew him – Peeters was the one who gave women the world over the gift of a practical contraceptive pill. While the American Gregory Pincus had already been marketing one since 1957, its severe side effects made the drug less than ideal. When Doctor Peeters’ perfected version hit the racks four years later, Pincus was quick to adapt his own dosage on the basis of the Belgian’s formula. The American would go down in history as the father of the pill, a misattribution that Doctor Peeters wasn’t about to go shouting off the rooftops; as a deeply religious man who knew he was going against the will of the Church, Peeters was happy to keep his role in the invention under wraps.

Contraceptive pill | public domain / Pixabay

Uniting Roman Emperor Charlemagne

Historians have long bickered about the birthplace of Charlemagne, ruler of modern-day Europe 1,200 years ago, but in the end, the wider area of Liège emerged triumphantly. This discovery explains the medieval emperor’s fondness of his castle palace in Herstal, north of the city of Liège, where he often wintered and spent the Christian holidays during his legendary 15-year rule.

Genius-of-all-trades Peter Paul Rubens

Homo Universalis to the bone, Peter Paul Rubens accomplished many things – designing his own lush townhouse/atelier in his beloved Antwerp for one, becoming one of Europe’s leading diplomats for another – but is mainly remembered as the most celebrated of the Flemish masters, if not the greatest Baroque painter to ever touch a canvas. His works, epic in scale and dramatic in conception, continue to fetch dizzying sums at fine art auctions to this day.

Rubens self-portrait from 1623. | © Public Domain / Wikicommons

Gerard Mercator

Another polymath, the Flemish Gerard Mercator played a crucial role in the way we depict our world today. Maps from the 16th-century were never the same after the cartographer added slender italic lettering and a roster that allowed one to read the correct ratio of latitude to longitude on the spot (a technique now known as the Mercator projection).

Mercator and his globe on Brussels' Petit Sablon Square | © Nick Doty / Flickr

Jeanne Devos

In the mold of Father Damien, nun and missionary Jeanne Devos left Belgium behind to devote herself to the less fortunate living in more exotic climates. By founding the National Domestic Workers Movement in the slums of Bombay, Devos played a crucial role in effectuating legal protections for the female domestic workers abused and exploited in India.

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