List of autodidacts

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This is a list of notable autodidacts which includes people who have been partially or wholly self-taught. Autodidacticism (also autodidactism) is self-education or self-directed learning.

Historical education levels[edit]

Because of the large increase in years of education since 1800, especially during the early 20th century, it is difficult to define autodidactism and to compare autodidacts during different time periods.

Artists and authors[edit]

  • Benjamin Kidd (1858–1916), British sociologist, was not given a formal education.[1] As a working adult, he attended some evening classes and he read incessantly.[2] Kidd gained worldwide fame by the publication of Social Evolution in 1894.[3]
  • Jorge Luis Borges was an Argentine writer, essayist, and poet. Winner of the Jerusalem Prize.
  • José Saramago, Nobel Prize for Literature. His parents were unable to pay for his studies at early age, and he was forced to abandon the baccalaureate. At the age of 13, he began to study mechanics to repair cars. He continued the next thirty years working as a locksmith for a metal company, and in an agency of social services. His first novel (Terra de pecado) was published in 1947 without any success at all. He stopped writing for publication, although he continued doing manuscripts for himself. At the end of the 1960s, he joined the Communist party, and after the fall of the Fascist dictatorship in Portugal of 1974, he was the director of the nationalized newspaper Diario de Noticias. Just a few years after the putsch of the left wing failed in 1975, he began to write again to survive. In that point of his life, the fame came.[4] In 1998 he won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
  • Rabindranath Tagore Nobel Prize of Literature. A Bengali polymath who reshaped his region's literature and music. Author of Gitanjali he became the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913.
  • The English visionary artist and poet William Blake was an autodidact. He was initially educated by his mother[5] prior to his enrollment in drawing classes but never received any formal schooling. Instead, he read widely on subjects of his own choosing.
  • John Clare was self-taught and rose out of poverty to become an acclaimed poet.
  • Harlan Ellison, multi-award-winning speculative fiction author and screenwriter. Ellison attended Ohio State University for 18 months before being expelled for hitting a professor who criticized his writing, and for the following 40 years he sent the professor a copy of every work he published. Ellison wrote screenplays for a wide variety of television series such as Star Trek and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and has won dozens of awards in science fiction and fantasy genres.
  • Howard Phillips Lovecraft, weird fiction writer and primogenitor of modern horror fiction, was a self-taught writer, critic and commentator. A pronounced child prodigy by the time he was of primary school age, reading memorized verse not long after learning how to walk, and composing and writing his own poetry by the time he was six. Growing up, Lovecraft attended school only in brief stints, his ill-health ending all scholastic endeavors prematurely. During this time Lovecraft read constantly, gifted with an abnormal talent for reading comprehension. Some of his favorite subjects were astronomy and chemistry, about both of which he went on to write amateur pieces of commentary and criticism. Not long after developing a great interest in the pulp magazines of his day, he began writing fiction himself—eventually becoming a preeminent writer of weird fiction in the pulp press, his work appearing in magazines such as Weird Tales and Astounding Stories.
  • Maxim Gorky was a self-taught man who rose out of poverty to become a world famous writer.
  • Nazir Naji, a top Pakistani Urdu news columnist and intellectual best known for his progressive writings has never attended any formal school because of the abject poverty of his parents. He has been in journalism for 50 years, started many popular magazines including Akhbar-e-Jehan and also served as the speech writer for the former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
  • Terry Pratchett, a writer of science fiction, fantasy and children's books, is quoted as saying "I didn't go to university. Didn't even finish A-levels. But I have sympathy for those who did."
  • Herman Melville, a writer best known for Moby Dick engaged in self-directed learning through his life in literature, aesthetics, criticism and art.
  • Playwright George Bernard Shaw left formal education while still in his mid-teens to become a clerk at an estate firm. He compared schools to prison and said that "I did not learn anything at school."[8]
  • Ernest Hemingway, the American novelist and short story writer, was primarily self-educated after high school. "... he read for hours at a time in bed", recounted his sister Marcelline. "He read everything around the house—all the books, all the magazines, even the AMA Journals from Dad's office downstairs. Ernie also took out great numbers of books from the public library."[9] His father wanted him to go to Oberlin for college, but Hemingway decided to become a reporter for the Kansas City Star.[10]
  • Louis L'Amour, an author who left his home at the age of 15 to expand his horizons and worked many jobs while educating himself.
  • J.A. Rogers, the Jamaican-American author, was able to educate himself after only receiving a few years worth of primary education in Jamaica. He attended but never completed high school. While he was able to study commercial art at the Chicago Art Institute later in life, he got most of his knowledge in libraries and was able to produce many books based on race, history, sociology, and anthropology. He also mastered other languages such as Spanish, German, and French.
  • Ray Bradbury, author of fantasy, horror, science fiction, and mystery novels, graduated from high school but did not attend college. In regard to his education, Bradbury was quoted as saying:
  • Rudolph Dirks, one of the earliest and most noted comic strip artists, was an autodidact.[12] He sold his first cartoon to a local newspaper when he was 13. For a while, he mainly designed ads. 17 years old, he sold cartoons to magazines like Life und Judge. With jobs like cover images for pulp novels he made his living until the New York Journal hired him, where he earned fame as creator of The Katzenjammer Kids.
  • William Shakespeare He did not attend university, but read widely and had a broad knowledge of politics, history, literature, law, and many other subjects as evidenced by his plays.
  • Frida Kahlo, painter, who is best known for her self-portraits. After a bus accident she painted to occupy her time during her temporary immobilization; after this accident she abandoned the study of medicine to begin painting.
  • Jean Michel Basquiat, painter and graffiti artist. At 15 ran away from home and in this time dropped out of school.

Actors, musicians, and other artists[edit]

  • The 20th-century virtuoso pianist Claudio Arrau was highly regarded as an intellectual despite his lack of formal education outside his musical training. Arrau spoke five languages, four of which he learned on his own in addition to his native Spanish: English, German, French, and Italian.
  • The musician Frank Zappa was noted for his exhortation, "Drop out of school before your mind rots from exposure to our mediocre educational system. Forget about the Senior Prom and go to the library and educate yourself if you've got any guts. Some of you like Pep rallies and plastic robots who tell you what to read."[13]
  • TV's Craig Ferguson, host of The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson on CBS, who first rose to fame in America as Nigel Wick on The Drew Carey Show, quit high school in native Scotland at the minimum legal age to do so, 16. He continued his education, "haphazard and informal", through American, European and Russian literature, and in his autobiography, "American on Purpose", identifies himself as an autodidact—although a dilettante one (see the article on Jean-Paul Sartre's Nausea).
  • Keith Moon, the drummer for the rock band The Who. Widely considered one of the greatest drummers of all time. The only training he ever received was at 16 years old when he had 3 or 4 drum lessons with Carlo Little (an early member of the Rolling Stones), who was also a self-taught drummer.[19]
  • Modern Pashto poet Ameer Hamza Shinwari though not educated in the regular manner, was able to establish his career through self-education.
  • Robert Lewis Shayon, early radio producer, author, television critic for Christian Science Monitor and The Saturday Review, and Ivy League professor, never had a college education.[21]
  • David Bowie, singer, musician, multi-instrumentalist, actor, and painter, has never trained in any of the mentioned fields and only received a few singing lessons in the 1960s (as reported by his former manager, Ken Pitt). As a teenager he took some lessons on saxophone by Ronnie Ross. All other instruments (including piano, keyboards/synths, electric/acoustic guitar, harmonica, koto, limited bass, and percussion), he taught himself. His paintings and sculptures were created (and exhibited) without any formal art school training. He took a few lessons in movement and dance with the Lindsey Kemps Dance company but trained himself in mime.[22]
  • Jimi Hendrix, was guitarist and singer-songwriter, considered by some to be the greatest electric guitarist in music history.[23]
  • Noel Gallagher, singer, musician, multi-instrumentalist. At the age of thirteen, Noel received six months probation for theft from a corner shop. It was during this period of probation, with little else to do, that Noel first began to teach himself to play a guitar his father had left him, imitating his favourite songs from the radio.
  • Andy DiGelsomina, composer and lead guitarist of the rock opera Lyraka. When asked in an interview whether he'd taught himself music composition DiGelsomina replied "Yes. I first taught myself the music reading, harmony, and fugue basics, then found myself especially motivated to read full orchestral scores because of (Richard) Wagner."[24]
  • Charles G. Dawes, was a self-taught pianist and composer and a member of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia, the national fraternity for men in music. His 1912 composition, "Melody in A Major", became a well-known piano and violin piece, and was played at many official functions as his signature tune. It was transformed into the pop song, "It's All in the Game", in 1951 when Carl Sigman added lyrics.
  • Guitarist and composer Jeff Loomis (known from the band Nevermore) is a self-taught guitarist. He has stated in interviews that he took few lessons in his youth but "didn't do much".
  • Hip-hop legend Nasir Jones, better known as Nas, dropped out of school at seventh grade. Born and raised in the Queensbridge Houses in Queens, New York City, Nas is self-taught in all the major academic areas of history, philosophy, science, math, English.
  • Hip-hop superstar Marshall Mathers AKA Eminem, dropped out of high school at age 17 and had to repeat ninth grade multiple times. He has gone on record as saying that his ability at rhyming comes from his love of books and reading dictionary front to back multiple times.
  • Noël Coward, was an English playwright, composer, director, actor and singer.[26]
  • Paul Gray, bassist, co-founder and songwriter for the Grammy-award winning band Slipknot stated "I am self-taught, never took any lessons".
  • Russell Crowe saved up to go acting school at the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) in Sydney but by the time he had saved enough by working acting gigs he was told he already was practicing what was taught, and he would only develop bad habits.


  • Eileen Gray (9 August 1878 – 31 October 1976) was an Irish furniture designer and architect and a pioneer of the Modern Movement in architecture.
  • Francis Barry Byrne (19 December 1883 – 18 December 1967) was initially a member of the group of architects known as the Prairie School. After the demise of the Prairie School about 1914–16, Byrne continued as a successful architect by developing his own personal style.
  • Frank Lloyd Wright (born Frank Lincoln Wright, 8 June 1867 – 9 April 1959) was an American architect, interior designer, writer and educator, who designed more than 1,000 projects, which resulted in more than 500 completed works.
  • Gustave Eiffel (15 December 1832 – 27 December 1923) was a French structural engineer from the "École Centrale Paris", an architect, an entrepreneur and a specialist of metallic structures.
  • Iannis Xenakis (Greek: Ιωάννης Ιάννης Ξενάκης) (29 May 1922 – 4 February 2001) was an ethnic Greek, naturalized French composer, music theorist, and architect-engineer.
  • Jacque Fresco (born 13 March 1916), is a self-educated Architectural Designer, social engineer, industrial designer, author, lecturer, futurist, inventor, and the creator of The Venus Project.
  • Jean Prouvé (8 April 1901 – 23 March 1984) was a French metal worker and designer. His main achievement was transferring manufacturing technology from industry to architecture, without losing aesthetic qualities.
  • Le Corbusier (6 October 1887 – 27 August 1965), was a Swiss architect, designer, urbanist, writer and painter, famous for being one of the pioneers of what now is called Modernist architecture or the International style.
  • Léon Krier (born 7 April 1946 in Luxembourg), is an architect, architectural theorist and urban planner. From the late 1970s onwards Krier has been one of the most influential neo-traditional architects and planners, being one of the first and most prominent critics of architectural modernism.
  • Louis Sullivan (3 September 1856 – 14 April 1924) was an American architect, and has been called the "father of modernism." He is considered by many as the creator of the modern skyscraper
  • Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (27 March 1886 – 17 August 1969) was a German-American architect. He was commonly referred to and addressed by his surname, Mies, by his colleagues, students, writers, and others.
  • Luis Barragán (Guadalajara, 9 March 1902 – Mexico City, 22 November 1988) is considered the most important Mexican architect of the 20th century and was self-trained.
  • Michael Scott (24 June 1905 – 24 January 1989) was an Irish architect whose buildings included the Busáras building in Dublin, the Abbey Theatre, and Tullamore Hospital.
  • Peter Behrens (14 April 1868 – 27 February 1940) was a German architect and designer.
  • Tadao Ando (安藤 忠雄, Andō Tadao?, born 13 September 1941, in Osaka, Japan) is a Japanese architect whose approach to architecture was once categorized as critical regionalism.
  • Viollet-le-Duc (1814–1879) was a French architect and theorist, famous for his "restorations" of medieval buildings.
  • Sunay Erdem (17 March 1971–) He is a Turkish Architect and Landscape Architect.

Engineers and inventors[edit]

  • Leonardo da Vinci was an Italian polymath: painter, sculptor, architect, musician, scientist, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, botanist, and writer. However, Leonardo was not autodidactic in his study of the arts, as he was trained through the Guild system, just as other Renaissance artists had been.
  • John Smeaton, who was the first civil engineer.
  • James Watt, the mechanical engineer who improved the steam engine, was "largely self taught."
  • Oliver Evans trained as a millwright, inventor of the high pressure steam engine (independently of Richard Trevithick and with a more practical engine). Evans developed and patented the first known automated materials handling system.
  • Thomas Alva Edison
  • The Wright Brothers, especially Wilbur Wright. Neither brother graduated high school. Wilbur in fact had completed all the course requirements, but his family moved to Ohio in 1885 before graduation. Both brothers were mechanically inclined, with Orville running his own printing press in his teens. They entered the bicycle business as a team in 1892, selling existing models and creating their own brand, the Van Cleve, named after a relative. Wilbur made the first inroads in seriously studying aeronautics and the development of the world's first successful airplane.
  • John Harrison, a carpenter by education, built the first marine chronometers enabling navigators to determine a ship's longitudinal position.
  • R. G. LeTourneau, prolific inventor of earthmoving machinery.
  • Granville T. Woods, an inventor in electrical and mechanical engineering with more than 50 patents, only went to school until he was ten years old. Learning on the job, he began as a blacksmith's apprentice and continued as a machinist, an electrician, a railroad fireman, a locomotive and steamship engineer. In his free time, he kept reading, especially on the subjects of electricity and mechanics. During the 1860s and 1870s, because he was black, he was not allowed to borrow books from the local libraries so he would ask white friends to borrow them for him. Every time he saw a new piece of technology, he would ask questions about it. Years later, in an 1886 cross-examination for a patent dispute, he said that he was self-taught.[27][28]
  • Konstantin E. Tsiolkovsky, a Russian and Soviet rocket scientist and pioneer of the astronautic theory, who is considered to be one of the founding fathers of rocketry and astronautics. He was not admitted to elementary schools because of his hearing problem, so he was self-taught.

Scientists, historians, and educators[edit]

  • Philosopher Daniel Dennett has described himself an autodidact. While he holds a PhD in philosophy, he says he has been a "beneficiary of hundreds of hours of informal tutorials on all the fields that interest [him], from some of the world's leading scientists."[29]
  • Michael Faraday, the chemist and physicist. Although Faraday received little formal education and knew little of higher mathematics, such as calculus, he was one of the most influential scientists in history. Some historians[30] of science refer to him as the best experimentalist in the history of science.
  • Buckminster Fuller, a self-proclaimed comprehensive anticipatory design scientist, was twice expelled from Harvard and, after a life-altering experience while on the edge of suicide, dedicated his life to working in the service of humanity and thinking for himself. In the process he created many new terms such as "ephemeralization", "dymaxion", and "Spaceship Earth".
  • Jane Jacobs wrote books about city planning, economics, and sociology with only a high school degree and training in journalism and sternography, plus courses at Columbia University's extension school.
  • Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, a cloth merchant, built the most powerful microscopes of his time and used them to make biological discoveries.
  • Artemas Martin editor of the Mathematical Visitor in 1877 and of the Mathematical Magazine in 1882.
  • Karl Marx, the German socialist philosopher, was self-taught in economics, during his study in London, at the British Library.
  • Mathematical genius Srinivasa Ramanujan was largely self-taught in mathematics. Ramanujan is notable as an autodidact for having developed thousands of new mathematical theorems despite having no formal education in mathematics, contributing substantially to the analytical theory of numbers, elliptic functions, continued fractions, and infinite series.[31]
  • Vincent J. Schaefer, who discovered the principle of cloud seeding, was schooled to 10th grade when asked by parents to help with family income. He continued his informal education by reading, participation in free lectures by scientists and exploring nature through year-round outdoor activity.
  • Eric Hoffer, recipient of the National Medal of Freedom by President Reagan
  • Steve Irwin, Australian herpetologist, conservationist, TV personality and general animal expert, never went to college and was primarily taught everything he knew about biology and zoology from teaching himself and from his father.


  • Kató Lomb, one of the first simultaneous interpreters in the world,[32] spoke more than ten languages fluently and she learned them by gleaning their rules and vocabulary from books (mostly novels), as she described in her book Polyglot: How I Learn Languages (2008), originally published in Hungarian in four editions (1970, 1972, 1990, 1995).
  • The German mystic and theologian Jakob Böhme was an autodidact. While being apprenticed to become a shoemaker, he read the Bible as well as the works of philosophers and theologians including Paracelsus, Caspar Schwenckfeld, and Valentin Weigel, thereby educating himself without any formal schooling.
  • Professional skateboarder and entrepreneur Rodney Mullen established his reputation in the sport of freestyle skateboarding while young with new tricks and routines developed largely in isolation on his family's farm in Florida.[33] His autodidactism led to significant and long-standing innovations in skateboarding, such as the flatground ollie and the kickflip, both staples of modern skateboarding.
  • Sean Parker, Internet entrepreneur and former President of Facebook, Inc. As of 2010, his net worth is nearly two billion USD.
  • Publilius Syrus, classics writer who is often quoted for his seminal Latin work Sentences. He started his life as a slave, but eventually won his freedom.
  • Frederick Douglass,[34] an American abolitionist, women's suffragist, editor, orator, author, statesman, minister and reformer. He was and is one of the most renowned figures in United States history.
  • Booker T. Washington. He started his life as a slave, but he was one of the greatest leaders of African Americans. He advocated self-help and entrepreneurship to overcome racial injustice.
  • Malcolm X, a one-time Black Muslim minister who late in his shortened life rejected that philosophy and became an adherent of the Sunni Islam branch of Islam, public speaker, and human rights activist, taught himself about subjects from genetics to sociology to philosophy. He also copied a dictionary word-for-word while in prison for 7 years, thus expanding his vocabulary himself.[35]
  • Wikileaks founder Julian Assange was kept from school by his mother who thought it would "inculcate an unhealthy respect for authority in her children and dampen their will to learn."[36]
  • Adolf Hitler, Nazi Chancellor of Germany; was self-educated beyond early education through libraries (primarily in Vienna and parts of Austria).
  • Henry Knox, American Revolutionary War General and commander of continental artillery. Knox had been an owner of a book store before the war, and had taught himself the principles of period artillery out of his own general interest.
  • J.B. Fuqua, American businessman and philanthropist, who in his youth studied business practices from books sent to his farm by mail from Duke University library. The Fuqua School of Business, one of the top business schools in the United States, is named in his honor.
  • Paul Keating, former Australian Treasurer and Prime Minister. Keating left school at 15 years of age and was elected to Parliament when he was 25 years old. He is credited with opening up Australia's economy by bringing in various microeconomic reforms as Treasurer and setting up APEC's annual leaders meetings, pursuing Aboriginal reconciliation and forging closer ties with Australia's near Asian neighbors whilst Prime Minister.


  1. ^ Henry Sturt, "Kidd, Benjamin (1858–1916), sociologist," Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 1927).
  2. ^ D. P. Crook, "Kidd, Benjamin (1858–1916)," Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (Oxford University Press, 2004).
  3. ^ Henry Sturt, "Kidd, Benjamin (1858–1916), sociologist," Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 1927).
  4. ^ Interview: José Saramago: Nada está mejorando, BBC Mundo, 22 June 2009. (In Spanish)
  5. ^ Raine, Kathleen (1970). World of Art: William Blake. Thames & Hudson. ISBN 0-500-20107-2. 
  6. ^ "Frank Bender, ‘Recomposer’ of Faces of the Dead, Dies at 70" NY Times, 30 July 2011
  7. ^ "Echoes of August Wilson sound in the Hill District's new Carnegie Library," Pittsburgh City Paper, 13 November 2008
  8. ^ Shaw, George Bernard. "Treatise On Parents And Children."
  9. ^ Brasch, James D. and Sigman, Joseph. "Hemingway's Library," Garland Publishing, 1981.
  10. ^ "The Lessons of Youth: Ernest Hemingway as a Young Man," Literary Traveler
  11. ^ Steinhauer, Jennifer (19 June 2009). "A Literary Legend Fights for a Local Library". The New York Times. Retrieved 9 December 2009. 
  12. ^ Comic-Pionier Rudolph Dirks : Mickys deutscher Großvater by Tim Eckhorst (in German)
  13. ^ "Freak Out" album liner notes, circa 1965.
  14. ^ Arnold Schoenberg Center (Halsey Stevens interview)
  15. ^ Marc-André Roberge. "A Few Notes on the State of Research on Sorabji". Retrieved 4 September 2014. 
  16. ^ "Home | Martinů Festtage". Retrieved 4 September 2014. 
  17. ^
  18. ^ Penn & Teller: Bullshit, Episode 3-06 "College", first aired 30 May 2005.
  19. ^ Keith Moon
  20. ^ UK Game Show Records,
  21. ^ Weber, Bruce (18 July 2008). "Robert Lewis Shayon, 95, Is Dead; Elevated Radio". The New York Times. 
  22. ^ "Cracked: The film career of David Bowie," Slate, 13 October 2010
  23. ^ "La guitarra de Hendrix continúa ardiendo" (in Spanish). 30 January 2009. Hendrix aprendió a tocar la guitarra de forma autodidacta. Memorizó los primeros acordes y trucos fijándose en humildes músicos del barrio. 
  24. ^ "Lyraka Interviews". Retrieved 4 September 2014. 
  25. ^ "Biografías del Jazz: Django Reinhardt" (in Spanish). Apolo y Baco. Django Reinhardt, (1910–1943), nació en Bélgica en el seno de una familia gitana y fue el primer músico de jazz europeo de aceptación universal, y también el más grande hasta ahora. Analfabeto, autodidacta, incapaz de escribir una sola nota o de leer una partitura, era también un hombre con poca disciplina para el estudio, jugador empedernido y juerguista a mas no poder. 
  26. ^ Kendall Hailey (8 January 1989). "The Everlasting Autodidact". The New York Times. 
  27. ^ Prof. Rayvon Fouché, "Liars and Thieves : Granville T. Woods and the Process of Invention", Black Inventors in the Age of Segregation : Granville T. Woods, Lewis H. Latimer, and Shelby J. Davidson (Baltimore, Maryland, USA : The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003) ISBN 0-8018-7319-3, pp. 28–31
  28. ^ Rev. William J. Simmons, DD, Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive and Rising (Cleveland, Ohio, USA : George M. Rewell & Co., 1887), pp. 107–108
  29. ^ Dennett, Daniel C. (2004). "What I Want to Be When I Grow Up". In Brockman, Daniel. Curious Minds: How a Child Becomes a Scientist. New York: Vintage Books. pp. 219–226. ISBN 1-4000-7686-2. 
  30. ^ Russell, Colin (2000). Michael Faraday: Physics and Faith. New York: Oxford University Press. 
  31. ^ "Ramanujan summary". Retrieved 4 September 2014. 
  32. ^ Lomb, Kató. Polyglot – How I Learn Languages (PDF). p. 8. ISBN 978-1-60643-706-3. 
  33. ^ Mullen, Rodney (2004). The Mutt: How to Skateboard and not Kill Yourself. Regan Books.
  34. ^ "Ralph Dumain: "The Autodidact Project": Frederick Douglass, Ottilie Assing, & Ludwig Feuerbach". Retrieved 4 September 2014. 
  35. ^ X, Malcolm, & Haley, Alex. (1965). Saved. The Autobiography of Malcolm X (pp.178–189) New York: Ballantine.
  36. ^ Khatchadourian, Raffi (2010) "No Secrets", The New Yorker, 7 June 2010.