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Einstein tops list of leading Swiss

A visitor looks at Einstein's writings in the Einstein museum in Bern Keystone

A man who was born German and died American has just been named the most significant Swiss of all time.

Albert Einstein (1879-1955) beat such greats as Red Cross founder Henry Dunant and educationalist Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi in a survey conducted for the SonntagsZeitung newspaper, whose results are published in this Sunday’s issue.

Einstein, who is best known for the theory of relativity which he developed in 1905 when employed by the patent office in Bern, came to Switzerland at the age of 17 and completed his education in the country.

He moved definitively to the US in the 1930s, and took US citizenship in 1940, although he never gave up the Swiss citizenship he had acquired in 1901.

Einstein was awarded the Nobel prize for physics in 1922. His work revolutionised our understanding of physics.

Second place in the survey went to Gottlieb Duttweiler (1888-1962), the founder of the Migros supermarket chain who changed a nation’s shopping habits in 1925 by cutting out the middle man.

Third was tennis player Roger Federer.

Scientists, sportsmen and saints

The market research institute Isopublic spoke to 1,000 Swiss people of all ages and in all parts of the country, offering them a choice of 30 major personalities and asking them to award them points.

SonntagsZeitung readers had previously whittled these names down from a list of 100 drawn up by experts and by the paper’s editors.

Einstein was by no means the only name in the top thirty to come from a “migration background”. The family of Pestalozzi (1746-1827), number four, came from Italy, the father of the ground-breaking physician Paracelsus (1493-1541), number six, came from what is now Germany, watchmaking entrepreneur Nicolas Hayek, number seven, was born in Lebanon in 1928, the family of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), number 13, came originally from France. And that only takes account of the top 15…

Federer (whose mother is of South African origin) was by far the youngest person to appear in the top 30; the earliest was Switzerland’s national saint, Niklaus von Flüe (1417-1487), who came 19th.

Three former cabinet ministers appear on the list, including the controversial Christoph Blocher, who in a highly unusual move for Switzerland was voted out of the government in 2007, and failed in his attempt to make a comeback in 2008. He scraped in at 30.

The others in the list include writers, scientists, entrepreneurs, theologians – and even two saints. Niklaus von Flüe is joined at number 26 by Sister Maria Bernarda Bütler, who was canonised in October.

Bütler is one of only three women: the others are Carla Del Ponte, best known for her role as prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, and Gertrud Lutz (1911-1995) who devoted her life to helping refugees.


The newspaper says its survey came up with some surprising results. Roger Federer received higher marks from the over 55 year olds than from the under 34 year olds, for example. German speakers Blocher, St Niklaus and the writer and artist Friedrich Dürrenmatt were more highly rated by French speakers than by people in German-speaking Switzerland.

But in other cases there was a deep rift between the German and French parts of the country. Forty-four per cent of German speakers didn’t know the 18th century writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau, while 50 per cent of French speakers were unfamiliar with 20th century author Max Frisch.

The survey also revealed gaps in historical knowledge, particularly among the younger generation. A whole 53 per cent of young Swiss knew nothing about the religious reformer Calvin – despite the fact that Geneva has recently launched celebrations to mark the 500th anniversary of his birth. As for his near contemporary in German-speaking Switzerland, Huldrych Zwingli, 48 per cent of young Swiss had not heard of him.

Another little known figure – although he made it to the ninth spot – was the mathematical genius Leonhard Euler, whose 300th birth anniversary was celebrated in 2007. He was an unknown quantity to 59 per cent of those questioned.

If only the survey had been taken among swissinfo readers, many of the figures on the list would have been far more familiar! Check the related stories…


1. Albert Einstein (1879-1955), physicist

2. Gottlieb Duttweiler (1888-1962), businessman and philanthropist

3. Roger Federer (1981-), tennis player

4. Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746-1827), educationalist

5. Henry Dunant (1828-1910), founder of the Red Cross

6. Paracelsus (1493-1541), physician

7. Nicolas Hayek (1928-), businessman

8. Claude Nicollier (1944- ), astronaut

9=. Alfred Escher (1819-1882), entrepreneur, railway pioneer

9=. Leonhard Euler (1707-1783), mathematician

11=. Friedrich Dürrenmatt (1921-1990), writer and artist

11=. Le Corbusier (1887-1965), architect

13. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), philosopher and writer

14. Mani Matter (1936-1972), singer

15. Henri Guisan (1874-1960), general

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR