Despite its small size, Belgium has produced quite a few people of international importance. I went on a search for famous Belgians and was amazed by how many I found. Too many to all include in one post, actually, so I had to be selective.
I decided to only include real people (no movie or strip characters) who accomplished something extraordinary (getting in the “Guinness Book of World Records” is extraordinary, being a prime minister isn’t) that is also known abroad or has had international importance. That means I only included famous people from Belgium who are internationally known, either because of who they are or for what they did.
I also tried to stick to famous Belgians who are or were actually Belgians – meaning they were born when Belgium was already a country and not before 1830. However, I did make a few exceptions for people born in what is now Belgium as there were just too many fabulous ones that I couldn’t not include.
Lastly, I didn’t include many sportsmen (yup, I even skipped Eddy Mercx) because I simply didn’t see where to draw the line with them.
So yes, I’ve surely missed some people. If you think someone should definitely be on this list, feel free to let me know in the comments.
Famous Belgian scientists and inventors
1. John Joseph Merlin from Huy developed the first roller skate and brought it to a masquerade in the Carlisle House in London in the 1760’s.
2. In 1987 (The year I was born!) the Belgian Rudy Beckers invented parking sensors, now used in cars all over the world. He requested a patent and was official recognized as the inventor of the parking sensor in 1988. After that, he annually had to pay 1,000 Belgian frank to keep the patent, but at a certain moment forgot to do so. This caused the patent to be released. Rudy didn’t make any money from his invention, but it will forever hold his name.
3. The saxophone was invented by Adolphe Sax, a Belgian born in Dinant in 1940. According to an article about Adolphe Sax in Time Magazine, his saxaphone didn’t become famous until after his death.
4. Robert Caillau is a Belgian informatics engineer and computer scientist. Oh, and he helped Tim Berners-Lee develop the World Wide Web.
5. The Belgian doctor Constant Loiseau invented the optometer, an instrument that measures the refraction of light by the eye. It was first used by military doctors to test whether a man’s eyesight was good enough to serve in the military or not. It became widely used after and led to the rise of optometrists.
7. Ferdinand Peeters was a Belgian gynaecologist and the inventor of the contraception pill with the right dose.
8. Andreas Vesalius, also known as the founder of modern human anatomy, was born in Brussels.
9. The Belgian immunologist and bacteriologist Jules Bordet developed the first vaccine against whooping cough. Jules Bordet also won the Nobel Prize for Physiology in 1919.
10. Many claim that in 1672, the Flemish Jesuit missionary Ferdinand Verbiest made the first automobile ever. It ran on steam and was made for the Chinese Emperor.
11. Belgian physicist Ingrid Daubechies developed the mathematical model used by the FBI to stock fingerprints.
12. The Belgian electrical engineer and inventor Charles Van Depoele invented the electric railway. His first railway was laid in Chicago in 1883.
13. Étienne Lenoir, a Belgian engineer, developed the first successful internal combustion engine.
14. The Belgian Baron Peter Piot co-discovered the Ebola virus in 1976.
15. The word “gas” was proposed by Flemish chemist Jan Baptist van Helmont as a phonetic spelling of his Dutch pronunciation of the Greek word “chaos”. The same chemist proved that plants feed mostly on water and not on soil.
17. The Belgian chemist and industrialist Ernest Solvay is the inventor of the Solvay process, a process for manufacturing soda ash from brine and limestone. There are still around 70 factories practicing the Solvay process around the world today.
18. Bakelite, a popular plastic, is named after its Belgian inventor, the chemist Leo Hendrik Baekeland. He also invented velox photograpic paper.
19. The Belgian reverend Julius Aloysius Nieuwland is famous for creating synthetic rubber. His invention led to the creation of neoprene by Dupont.
20. You know the famous geographical Mercator maps? They’re named after the Flemish cartographer, mathematician and geographer Gerardus Mercator.
21. The Belgian physicist Joseph Plateau invented the stroboscope.
22. The Belgian Edward De Smedt invented concrete asphalt, used for roads.
23. The Belgian biochemist Albert Claude developed the technique of cell fractionation. He was also the first to employ an electron microscope in the field of biology and the first to publish a detailed structure of a cell. Claude won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1974, together with the Belgian Christian de Duve and the Romanian-American George Emil Palade.
25. The Belgian Adrien de Gerlache was the commander of the first scientific expedition to Antarctica.
Famous Belgians who held a special record
24. The Belgian engineer Camille Jenatzy was the first driver to reach the speed of 100 km/h. He did so in 1899 behind the wheel of his electrical car La Jamais Contente, which means “She who’s never pleased”.
25.The Belgian Walter Artefeuille made it into the “Guinness Book of World Records” for lifting 281.5 kg 17 cm high above the ground… with his teeth. This was in 1990.
26. However, it’s the Belgian John Massis (real name Wilfried Morbée) who is known as the man with the strongest teeth in the world. He performed all kinds of stunts bending iron with his teeth and stopping moving vehicles. He managed to get several entries in the “Guinness Book of World Records”.
Famous Belgian artists
27. The Belgian Pierre Culliford, also known by his artist name Peyo, was the creator of “The Smurfs”.
28. The Belgian Hergé, who’s real name was Georges Remi, created the comic journalist Tintin. There’s a museum dedicated to his work.
29. The painter Peter Paul Rubens was Belgian.
30. Architect Victor Horta was the main founder of the Art Nouveau style.
31. Surrealist painter René Magritte was Belgian.
Famous Belgian singers and musicians
32. Singer Jacques Brel? He was Belgian.
33. Jean-Baptiste “Django” Reinhardt invented the technique for playing guitar with two fingers.
34. Jazz fans will surely know Jean “Toots” Thielemans, arguably the world’s most famous harmonica player… and a Belgian.
35. Punk rock singer Plastic Bertrand, known from the hit “Ca plane pour moi”, was born as Roger Jouret in Brussels, Belgium in 1958. “Ca plane pour moi” was the third ever French language song to make it to the Billboard Top 100 in the US. Jouret now has his own art gallery.
36. The Belgian Sandra Kim is the youngest singer ever to win the Eurovision Song Contest.
37. The song “Dominique” by the Belgian Singing Nun was the first French-language song to enter the Billboard Top 100; “Je t’aime… moi non plus” by the French Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin was the other one.
38. The song “Pump up the Jam” was written by the Belgian band Technotronic.
Famous Belgian actors
39. Johnny Galecki, most known for the role of Leonard Hofstadter in “The Big Bang Theory”, was born in Bree, Belgium, but raised in the States. His father was in the US army.
40. Actress Audrey Hepburn was born as Edda van Heemstra Hepburn-Ruston in Brussels, Belgium in 1929. Her father was a British banker, her mother a Dutch baroness.
50. The actor best known for his Belgian roots is probably Jean-Claude van Damme, “The Muscles from Brussels”.
Famous Belgian sportsmen
51. The Belgian Stefan Everts is the only motor cross racer with 10 World Championship titles.
52. The Belgian referee John Langenus was the referee that had the honor to guide the first World Cup final in 1930.
53. The Bank of England was founded by John Houblon, a Walloon protestant who fled Belgium for religious prosecution. His face is on the £50 notes.
54. New York City was founded by the Belgian Pierre Minuit. He bought the island of Manhattan in 1626 from its original inhabitants. Okay, technically he was born in what’s now Germany, but he did have a Walloon father and I think I can be very flexible on this one 😉
55. Although it is now based in Paris, Club Med was started in 1950 by the Belgian Gérard Blit.
56. Sir Eugene Goossens, a conductor of Belgian origin, gave the idea for the construction of the opera house in Sydney.
57. On February 24, 1500, Keizer Karel/Charles V was born in Hof ter Walle in Gent.
58. The last Empress of Mexico was Charlotte of Belgium, daughter of King Leopold I of Belgium, himself the uncle of Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom.
58. The name of the “Euro” was proposed by a Belgian in 1992 and the Euro sign (€) was designed by a Belgian.
59. The Belgian astronaut Frank DeWinne was the first European to command the International Space Station.
60. The v-sign was invented by the Belgian politician Victor de Laveleye. In 1941, during World War II, he asked the Belgians to choose the V as a rallying sign. V is the first letter of the words victoire and vrijheid, “freedom” in French and Dutch. It was taken over all over Europe and became the sign of victory and freedom.
So, what do you think of this list of famous Belgians? Did you know many of the famous Belgians on it? Do you know any other famous Belgians that are or should be known abroad? Let me know in the comments!