These Are the Most Important People of 2014 — And You've Probably Never Heard Their Names

These Are the Most Important People of 2014 — And You've Probably Never Heard Their Names

Most lists of the world's most influential people include the same rotating cast of world leaders, celebrities and talking heads. This year, we've decided to showcase the people you probably haven't heard of who helped shape 2014 — people who may not have made magazine covers or multiplatinum records, but for better or worse have made an impact.

Dr. Joanne Liu, international president of Doctors Without Borders

Why she mattered: Liu, a Canadian, has helmed Doctors Without Borders throughout the Ebola virus outbreak, which has spread to eight countries and claimed more than 6,400 lives. Doctors Without Borders, also referred to by its French acronym MSF, has 276 international staff spread across Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, and employs more than 3,000 local staff to combat the virus. 

As the Wall Street Journal reported, MSF is "the most functional outfit in a dysfunctional global health system." Its early presence in Ebola-afflicted nations prevented the epidemic from spreading even further, a goal that wasn't helped by the lack of interest shown by developed nations until Ebola came to their shores and donating to the cause became good public relations. The organization is now helping researchers test Ebola vaccines to get rid of the epidemic once and for all.

Capt. Ron Johnson, Missouri Highway Patrol

Why he mattered: Since Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed unarmed teen Michael Brown in August, Johnson has been a key figure in the ensuing criticism of the department and the civil unrest that has shaken the St. Louis suburb. After St. Louis County police Chief Jon Belmar's militarization of the city's police force only increased tension between the town's majority-black citizens and its majority-white law enforcement, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon put Johnson in charge of the town's security. Johnson's first act was an apology.

"To the family of Michael Brown, I want you to know that my heart goes out to you and that I am sorry," he said during a speech in a Ferguson church. "This is my neighborhood. You are my family. You are my friends and I am you. When this is over, I am going to go in my son's room. My black son. Who wears his pants sagging. Wears his hat cocked to the side. Got tattoos on his arms. But that's my baby."

Johnson also marched with the protesters as a show of solidarity. While some have criticized Johnson — specifically because his conciliatory stance toward the protesters didn't lead to results — he did have a role in shaping the events of Ferguson, even if he failed to quell the mass protests and looting.

Dr. Samuel Foote, former Department of Veterans Affairs clinic director in Phoenix

Why he mattered: Foote unveiled one of the most heinous scandals of 2014. Upon retiring after more than 25 years with the VA, he sent letters to the VA Office of the Inspector General and to Rep. Jeff Miller, chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, detailing the neglect veterans faced when trying to get medical care.

Miller acknowledged Foote's letters at an April hearing, which ultimately resulted in an investigation uncovering the dismal state of the VA. Hospitals throughout the country kept many patients on a hidden waiting list so as to hide the massive delays in care. While VA clinics were supposed to treat veterans between 14 and 30 days after a request, the average response time was 115 days. Foot stated that up to 40 veterans died while on waiting lists at various VA medical centers throughout Phoenix.  

If that wasn't horrifying enough, Robert Petzel, top health official for the Department of Veterans Affairs, testified before a Senate committee that the VA had known about the surreptitious record manipulation since 2010. He subsequently resigned. Eric Shinseki, head of the Department of Veterans Affairs, resigned shortly after the scandal became public as well.

After the resignations, Sloan D. Gibson became interim head of the department and cleaned house. He fired four top executives, whose crimes ranged from negligence to selling VA contracts to disreputable companies.

To alleviate the stresses the broken VA health care system caused, President Barack Obama signed a $16.3 billion piece of legislation allowing veterans to see private doctors and for VA care centers to hire more medical professionals.

It's unlikely the outing of the scandal and its results (the firings and the beginnings of a resolution) would have happened without Foote's whistleblowing. 

Arseniy Yatsenyuk, Prime Minister of Ukraine

Why he mattered: Yatsenyuk was a central figure in the 2014 Ukrainian Revolution. After Euromaidan, a Ukrainian group favoring stronger ties with the EU and retreat from pro-Russian policies, ousted the pro-Russian administration of Viktor Yanukovych, Yatsenyuk was declared the country's new prime minister.

His tenure has been marked by some of the gravest crises Ukraine has ever faced, a dangerous time that saw two Russian invasions as well as a security crisis over the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17. These actions all helped contribute to what former president of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev has referred to as a "new Cold War" between the United States and Russia.

Tim Howard, goalie for the United States World Cup team

Why he mattered: Tim Howard's record-breaking effort in team USA's 2-1 loss to Belgium earned him the respect of players and sports fans across the world. Howard defended 16 attempts on goal during the game, a feat never accomplished before in World Cup history. Howard's unparalleled prowess at stopping the seemingly unstoppable became an Internet sensation, with Photoshopped images of him saving everyone from Game of Thrones' Ned Stark from an executioner's axe to the dinosaurs from a comet shared millions of times.

The pictures were silly, but they underscored the indelible imprint Howard's performance made on American soccer fans — the U.S. paid more attention to soccer in 2014 than ever before.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, "caliph" of the Islamic State

Why he mattered: After Syria's collapse into civil war and the inability of the Iraqi government to prevent sectarian violence in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal, the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) filled the power vacuum, killing tens of thousands, marching on Mosul and beheading journalists.

Baghdadi was essential in the group's ascendency. He took charge of the Islamic State in 2010, back when it was simply an al-Qaida breakaway known as the Islamic State of Iraq. Three years later, Baghdadi expanded his operations to Syria, forming ISIS. Finally, in the summer of 2014, Baghdadi declared ISIS to be the beginning of a worldwide caliphate, with himself at the helm. The Islamic State's influence is slowly spreading to countries like Lebanon, Pakistan and even China and the Philippines. Its surge in power forced Obama to double the number of U.S. troops in Iraq.

At 2014's end, the Islamic State's future is still unclear. A U.S.-led air strike in mid-November left Baghdadi wounded. This will likely hinder the Islamic State's immediate goals of expanding to Saudi Arabia and growing its clout (and recruiting efforts) in the English-speaking world, although its entrenched position in northern Iraq still has geopolitical minders worried.

Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaar, Eyal Yifrach and Mohammed Abu Khdeir, kidnapped teenagers

Why they mattered: In June 2014, three Israeli teenagers — Fraenkel, Shaar and Yifrach — were kidnapped in the West Bank and murdered. Israel put the blame on Hamas. After the teens were buried, three Israeli extremists kidnapped Khdeir, a Palestinian teen, and burned him alive in a forest as retaliation. 

The resulting increase in tensions between Israelis and Palestinians ultimately escalated into a ground invasion of Gaza by the Israeli military, as well as a 50-day exchange of rockets and shells that killed more than 2,100 Gazans and 70 Israelis.

Helmut R. Rosenbauer, Jean-Pierre Bibring, Stephan Ulamec and Denis Moura, scientists behind the European Space Agency's Philae lander

Why they matter: When the Philae lander traveled 250 million miles to land on Comet 67P/C-G, it also landed in the history books. If landing a probe on a 2.5-mile wide comet (microscopic on an astronomical scale) isn't impressive enough, Philae also discovered organic molecules on the comet's surface. While the data are still being processed, Philae's discovery may have confirmed the idea of panspermia — the seeding of the building blocks of life across the universe by comets and meteors — and in doing so, discovered the origins of life on Earth.

Unfortunately, the only scientist who worked on the Philae mission you might have heard of is Matt Taylor — not because of his contributions to the project, but because of an admittedly sexist T-shirt he wore featuring half-dressed women.

But let's put that aside. Rosenbauer and Bibring's work as project scientists, as well as Ulamec and Moura, the two people who oversaw the project from start to finish, helped bring humanity closer to the stars than we've ever been before.

"OriginalGuy," anonymous purveyor of celebrity nudes

Why he mattered: OriginalGuy committed the most culturally pervasive sex crime in American history. The anonymous individual leaked nude images of more than 100 female celebrities, most notably Jennifer Lawrence and Kate Upton.

The photos spread faster than arguably any piece of media in the Internet age. The celebrities threatened to sue Google for $100 million for not doing enough to halt the spread of the photos. Allegedly, the man who leaked the photographs went by the pseudonym "OriginalGuy." However, as Gawker noted, the leaks could have just as easily been the work of several hackers and explicit photo collectors.

Still, OriginalGuy (or whoever else was responsible) violated the rights of hundreds of women, bringing the issues of digital privacy and Internet harassment to the national discourse in a way the country has never seen before. The only upshot is the crime ultimately resulted in "revenge porn" laws, which make leaking sexually explicit photos of unsuspecting people over the Internet illegal.

Emma Sulkowicz, Columbia University senior

Why she mattered: After Sulkowicz was raped during her sophomore year at Columbia, the university's disciplinary committee neglected to punish her rapist despite two previous sexual assault allegations made against him by other students.

In Sulkowicz's senior year, she decided to carry a mattress around campus for as long as her rapist continued attending the university. Her protest received national media attention, and brought to light the lack of concern with which universities deal with sexual assault claims. Her bold stance inspired other rape survivors to make their own voices heard. One woman, "Kate," confessed the seedy details of the University of Virginia's rape culture to Rolling Stone in a blockbuster article that has led to the temporary closure of every fraternity on that campus.

Sulkowicz's actions demonstrate the growing attention paid to sexual assault in America — 55 universities are now being investigated for their handling of sexual assault, and alleged rapists like Bill Cosby are no longer able to outrun rape allegations that have dogged their careers.