11 Seriously Accomplished Sets of Siblings
Whether you adore them or they drive you crazy, siblings play a major part in family dynamics. And while it’s noteworthy when one person in a family accomplishes great things, it’s doubly (or triply) remarkable when multiple siblings achieve greatness. To celebrate National Sibling Day, we’re taking a look at 11 sets of seriously accomplished siblings.
1. JACOB AND WILHELM GRIMM
Even if you know nothing about the Brothers Grimm, you’ve no doubt read versions of the fairy tales and folk stories they compiled. Born in modern-day Germany in 1785 and 1786, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were young boys when their father died. Their family struggled financially, but both brothers were able to study law at the University of Marburg. Jacob went to work as his professor’s library assistant, and he later became the royal librarian for the new King of Westphalia, Jerome-Napoleon Bonaparte (that Napoleon's younger brother). Wilhelm worked as his brother’s library assistant. Because Napoleon had recently conquered much of Germany, the two brothers wanted to help their fellow Germans preserve their culture’s stories. After gathering folk tales from books and committing oral stories to paper, the Brothers Grimm published collections of these stories, including Snow White, Hansel and Gretel, and Rumpelstiltskin. Besides working together, Jacob also lived with Wilhelm and his wife, and Wilhelm named his first son Jacob. Before they died, the Brothers Grimm gave lectures and began work on a comprehensive German dictionary.
2. LOUISA MAY AND ABIGAIL MAY ALCOTT
Louisa May Alcott is best known for her bestselling novel Little Women, which she based on her experience growing up with three sisters. But Louisa’s youngest sister—the inspiration for Amy March in Little Women—was an accomplished artist in her own right. Abigail (who went by May) had shown vast artistic promise as a child and young adult, even covering the walls and window frames in the family home with sketches of people and animals, and Louisa used a portion of her new-found fortune to further May's training. After studying art in Boston, London, Rome, and Paris, May lived in France and earned spots for her still life and oil paintings in the Paris Salon’s exhibitions. The two sisters were so close that May named her baby daughter Louisa (nicknamed "Lulu"), and just before May died in 1879 (a month after childbirth), she told her husband to send baby Lulu to Louisa in Massachusetts. Louisa raised her niece until her own death eight years later, at which point Lulu went back to Europe to live with her father.
3. WOLFGANG AND MARIA MOZART
We remember musical wunderkind Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart for his instantly recognizable symphonies and concertos, but his older sister paved the way for him to become one of history’s most famous Classical composers. Born in 1751, five years before her brother, Maria Anna Mozart (nicknamed Nannerl) played piano to audiences across Europe before she hit her teens. Her technical skills earned her a reputation as a prodigy and one of the best pianists in Europe. Nannerl and her younger brother also toured together, wowing audiences with their harpsichord performances. Nannerl wrote down (or possibly collaborated on) her brother’s first symphony, but her father made her stop performing once she turned 18. But Nannerl continued to compose music, and Mozart praised his sister’s work. Although some scholars dismiss Nannerl’s talent, others stress that her early interest (and success) in music deeply influenced and inspired her younger brother’s career.
4. THE BANU MUSA BROTHERS
In 9th century Baghdad, the Banu Musa brothers were rock star scholars. After their father died, the three brothers—Muhammad, Ahmad, and al-Hasan—were educated at the House of Wisdom, a hub of learning in Baghdad. Calling themselves the Banu Musa brothers, they jointly wrote over a dozen books on astronomy, geometry, and mechanical engineering. Putting their engineering knowledge to the test, they also worked in urban planning helping to construct canals, and are widely considered the first mathematicians to continue what the Ancient Greeks started.
5. EMILY AND AUSTIN DICKINSON
Emily Dickinson’s poetry, as well as her mysteriously reclusive later life, continues to enchant readers more than a century after her death. But most people aren’t as familiar with her brother, Austin. Born a year and a half before Emily, Austin graduated from Amherst College and Harvard Law School before working as an attorney. A prominent member of the Amherst community, Austin served as the treasurer of Amherst College, founded the town’s private cemetery, and held leadership roles in civic organizations. Austin and his wife lived next door to Emily and had a close relationship with the poet—who never had anything published under her own name in her lifetime. After Emily’s death, her sister Lavinia found the poems and was determined to get them published, ultimately enlisting Austin’s longtime mistress, Mabel Loomis Todd, who got her poetry shared with the world.
6. ANN LANDERS AND ABIGAIL VAN BUREN
Born in Iowa in 1918, identical twin sisters Esther and Pauline Friedman grew up to write two of the most famous syndicated advice columns, "Ask Ann Landers" and "Dear Abby," respectively. In 1955, Esther won a contest to become the new "Ask Ann Landers" columnist for The Chicago Sun-Times, taking over for original writer Ruth Crowley. Although Pauline initially helped her sister with the column, she soon started her own advice column for The San Francisco Chronicle, using the pseudonym Abigail Van Buren. Both sisters gave readers clear-cut advice on everything from relationships to social etiquette. Their words of wisdom appeared in thousands of publications and reached millions of readers. Although the two sisters were once so close that they had a double wedding, their professional rivalry seeped into their personal lives, and they were estranged from each other on and off for years.
7. THE JACKSON SIBLINGS
From their home base in Gary, Indiana, Joe and Katherine Jackson raised nine children. In 1969, the five eldest brothers (Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, Marlon, and Michael) hit it big as the Jackson 5, delighting audiences with catchy hits such as "I Want You Back" and "ABC." Since then, the members of the Jackson family have continued to make music, both together and separately. Although Michael and youngest sister Janet achieved the most success with their music careers, each one of the couple’s seven other children—including sisters Rebbie and La Toya, and youngest brother Randy—achieved musical success in their own right. Amazingly, all nine Jackson siblings have released solo songs that charted on Billboard .charts. And today, with their musical group 3T, Tito’s three sons continue the Jackson sibling musical legacy.
8. WILLIAM AND CAROLINE HERSCHEL
Astronomer Sir William Herschel gets the credit for discovering, in March 1781, that Uranus was in fact a planet and not a star, as other astronomers had thought. Herschel also served as King George III’s official Court Astronomer, became president of the Royal Astronomical Society, and identified thousands of star clusters. But Herschel’s younger sister Caroline, born a dozen years after her brother, was also a seriously accomplished astronomer. As a young woman, she moved from her family’s home in Hanover to join her brother in England. The two siblings shared a love of music and science, and Caroline worked as her brother’s assistant, providing technical support for the telescopes he built. She also was the first woman to be credited as the discoverer a comet (it’s called Comet C/1786 P1) and, after King George III began paying her, the first female scientist to ever be paid for her work. Caroline was awarded a Gold Medal from London’s Royal Astronomical Society and a Gold Medal for Science from Prussia’s King Frederick William IV.
9. HANS AND SOPHIE SCHOLL
When Hans and Sophie Scholl were teenagers, they joined the Hitler Youth like many other German teens around them. Their father didn’t support Hitler, though, and the Scholl siblings quickly realized the enormous evil perpetrated by the Nazis. While they were studying at the University of Munich, Hans and Sophie discreetly found other students and professors who wanted to resist Hitler, and Hans cofounded a group called The White Rose that his sister would soon join. In 1942 and 1943, the Scholl siblings and their friends in The White Rose secretly wrote, printed, and distributed anonymous leaflets arguing that Germans needed to stand up against Hitler. They left the leaflets anonymously around campus, knowing that the Gestapo would try to stop any and all dissent. People who found the leaflets copied and distributed them, spreading them across Germany and Austria. In February of 1943, a custodian at the university tipped off the Gestapo that the Scholl siblings were distributing the pamphlets, and they were arrested, along with friend and fellow White Rose member Christoph Probst. Four days later, they were given a quick trial, sentenced to death, and executed via guillotine (all on the same day). Hans was just 24, and Sophie 21, but the siblings remained calm and brave in the face of death—Hans’ last words were reportedly "Long live freedom!"
10. THE WRIGHT SIBLINGS
We know that Wilbur and Orville Wright were the inventors of the first successful airplane. But Katharine, the Wright brothers’ youngest sibling, played a huge role in facilitating her brothers’ aviation success. After graduating from Oberlin, Katharine worked as a Latin teacher in Dayton, Ohio. Although she wasn’t an engineer, she frequently corresponded with her brothers when they were in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina testing airplane prototypes. The brothers bounced ideas off of her, and she gave them emotional support and encouragement when they worried that flight simply wasn’t possible. Katharine also helped run her brothers’ bicycle company, which provided the funds that the brothers used to finance their airplane experiments. Additionally, Katharine played an integral role in publicizing the Wright Brothers’ success, encouraging them to give speeches and do public flight demonstrations. Katharine even learned French so she could hobnob with European royalty and aristocracy, spreading the word of her brothers’ aeronautical achievement.
11. HARRIET AND CATHARINE BEECHER
Harriet Beecher Stowe is famous for writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a novel that changed people’s views of slavery and helped the abolitionist cause gain traction. Harriet had 12 siblings, many of whom worked tirelessly for abolitionism and women’s suffrage. Her oldest sibling, Catharine, devoted her life to increasing educational opportunities for girls, and she opened the Hartford Female Seminary in 1824. With help from her sister Mary and brother Edward, Catharine wrote her own textbooks and taught girls everything from logic to philosophy to algebra. She also argued that girls needed education just as much as boys did, and she opened schools in Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Illinois.