Do YOU recognise these 7 vegans from history?

Posted by Elliot Hill on

Read time: Approx 5 minutes 

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There's lists and lists out there of famous vegan and vegetarian celebrities who are living in the here and now... but what of those that have been and gone throughout history?

Many influential people of antiquity who are held in great esteem followed a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle. Famous inventors, painters, philanthropists and prophets alike have all taken a vegan lifestyle, and I think you'll agree that it would have been much harder back then to get vegan produce than it is now!

Although exactly what it was that these inspirational vegans ate is likely lost to the annals of time (no ancient tofu recipes here I'm afraid!), their achievements and their dedication to a plant based lifestyle lives on. As no definition of veganism existed before the first person on our list came along, the following people are known strict vegetarians who were very likely what we term 'modern day vegans'.

Follow us through the ages as we explore 7 vegans who chose a low-impact lifestyle way ahead of the times! We only wish that they could have been here to see some of our vegan jewellery

See if you recognise them all...


1. Donald Watson - Visionary and Teacher

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1910 - 2005 AD (Yorkshire, England)

Although by no means the oldest vegan on our list in terms of historical placement, Donald Watson precedes others in this article because it was he, together with his Welsh-born wife Dot, who first coined the term 'Vegan' in November 1944.

As a child, Watson grew up on a farm in Yorkshire and expressed great concern for the animals who lived there, and eventually became a vegetarian aged just fourteen years old, despite his family and friends following an omnivorous diet.

Growing up in a mining and farming community, it must have taken enormous strength of will to stick to his way of life at this time in Britain. Watson went on to become a carpentry teacher and impart his knowledge to generations of pupils. 

In total, Donald Watson abstained from meat and fish for 78 years... big respect to the original vegan! 


2. Pythagoras of Samos - Philosopher and Mathematician 

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570 - 495 BC (Ionian Ancient Greece)

Chances are you've probably heard of Pythagoras. But did you know he followed a strict plant-based diet?

Born in Samos, in the Aegean sea, he is later thought to have settled in Italy after escaping from Greece because, according to some theories, he was 'overburdened' with public duties!

One of the first great philosophers, Pythagoras has been credited with many mathematical and scientific ideas, many of which were far ahead of his time. He was the first recorded scientist to theorise that the Earth was a sphere, and the first to separate it in to distinct climatic zones. 

However, Pythagoras also features pretty highly on this list because until the 1840's, when the term 'vegetarian' was coined, those who ate a plant based diet were called 'Pythagoreans'.... Why!? Well, Pythagoras believed in 'metempsychosis', that's an ancient Greek version of re-incarnation to you and I, and therefore he believed eating meat was a sin. What's most interesting and perhaps bizarre however, is that Pythagoras also extended this thinking to..... beans! Hmmm. No soya for Pythagoreans then! 

3. Leonardo da Vinci - Inventor, Painter, Engineer, etc, etc, etc....

vegan jewellery1452 – 1519 AD (Renaissance Italy)

It would be quicker for us to list the things that this incredible man didn't do in his time rather than what he did achieve: 

1: Leonardo da Vinci didn't eat meat. 

There, we're finished. But seriously, Leonardo da Vinci was a supremely curious bloke. He has been variously described as a figure of 'universal genius', 'unquenchable curiosity' and the archetypal renaissance man.

He is credited with inventing the prototype helicopter, painting the most recognisable portrait in the world, The Mona Lisa, and the most fantastic fresco the world had ever seen, The Last Supper of Jesus Christ. 

However a lesser known fact about our Leo' is that he followed the teachings of someone else on our list, Pythagoras, and abstained from eating meat. Perhaps even more admirable, was that Leonardo was well known for buying caged birds from street sellers, only to set them free. 

So passionate was Leonardo's love for animals that he remarked that his body would not become a 'tomb for the bodies of animals', and it was said that he would 'not eat anything that contained blood, nor permit injury to any living creature'. 

So whilst we cannot be sure Leonardo da Vinci was truly 'vegan' according to Donald Watson's sense of the word, we can be quite sure he was certified cruelty free! 

4. Asenath Hatch Nicholson - Philanthropist, Social Observer

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 1792 – 1855 AD (New York - USA)

You may not have heard of Asenath Nicholson, but she's well worth a mention on this list. A noted philanthropist who spent much of her life in New York, she traveled to Ireland to distribute food and clothing just prior to the great famine in the 1840's. Being a keen observer, she noted with concern that the Irish at the time were overly reliant on their potato crops.

During her time in New York, she and her husband owned and operated several vegan boarding houses for immigrant workers, which at the time must have seemed completely outlandish! Nevertheless, she adhered and promoted the vegan lifestyle for both it's health and ethical benefits. 

She later returned to Ireland during the height of the famine after becoming a widow, and arranged for grain barrels to be sent from America to relieve the Irish plight.

A staunch philanthropist and a vegan who promoted the diet to others at this time in history must have required a huge strength of will, and we're proud to feature her on this list. 

5. Lord Mahavira - Spiritual Teacher, Ascetic Jain 

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497 - 425 BC (Bihar, India)

Another who hails from the time before Christ on our list here, the Lord Mahavira was a strict follower of Jainism, who underwent deep asceticism for twelve and a half years before reaching spiritual awakening. It is often reported, although we expect perhaps highly exaggerated, that he stood 10 feet tall! He is often mistaken as the founder of Jainism, however there were 24 spiritual-leaders before him, but nevertheless he remains one of the most celebrated figures in Jain scripture. 

Jainism is one of the worlds most ancient religions, originating in India. It teaches a strict vegetarian way of life, and in modern times they are often referred to as vegans, as their teachings prohibit them from 'avoiding harm to all animals and their lifecycles'. These teachings extend so far as filtering water and returning microorganisms to rivers, and avoiding root vegetables because of the micro-biomes associated with the tubers! 

We can assume, then, that Lord Mahavira was pretty vegan by modern standards!

6.  Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy - Author, Theologian, Visionary

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1828 - 1910 AD (Russian Empire)

The world famous author of 'War and Peace', Leo Tolstoy, as he's more frequently referred to in the West, lived an incredible life. Born to a Russian Noble family of good repute, Tolstoy traced his ancestry back to Germanic members of the Roman Empire. 

He served in the military as a lieutenant during several bloody campaigns, an experience which would later influence his 'spiritual anarchism', which was one of peaceful living and a non-violent existence. So strong was his conviction to the pursuit of non-violence, he once wrote: 

“A man can live and be healthy without killing animals for food; therefore, if he eats meat, he participates in taking animal life merely for the sake of his appetite. And to act so is immoral.” - A pretty vegan sentiment we think! 

Interestingly, he also promoted an life of sexual abstinence and rejected the institution of marriage, despite having thirteen children with his wife Sonya, and allegedly having illegitimate children elsewhere! 

7. Voltaire - Author, Historian, Witty-Bloke, and Philosopher 

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1694 – 1778 AD (Paris, France)

Voltaire was an outspoken visionary of his time. His real name was François-Marie Arouet  Born in Paris, he had ideas of grandeur from a young age when he claimed he was the illegitimate son of a local nobleman, which is still not verified or disproved to date! Nicknamed Zozo by his family, he was well educated in his younger years and went on to learn Latin, English, Spanish and Italian fluently, in addition to his French native tongue. 

When it came to animals, Voltaire was as outspoken on this issue as he was about many others. He was a staunch supporter of animal rights, and remarked that the Hindus' ethical treatment of animals was a stark contrast and much preferred over the immorality of European imperialist culture at the time. 

We're not sure if he was a strict vegan, but we're pretty sure he deserves an honourable mention on this list. 

Plus, he's given his namesake to our favourite vegan restaurant in the world, Voltaire in Bangor, near to the Cortiça Boutique HQ!!!


So... that brings us to the end of our 7 famous vegans through history! Let us know in the comments section below if you enjoyed reading, or you think there's anyone we missed! Please share our article using the social links below to help spread the world that many brilliant minds chose a cruelty-free lifestyle in era's without tofu and vegan burgers, so we can too! :) 

Happy Easter Holidays, 

Love from Cortiça Boutique X

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  • Hi A. London Vegan, happy easter to you too, thanks for your comment and the review you recently left on one of our bags! Well, it’s not confirmed Ghandi was a vegan as such, though he was a strict vegetarian and promoted a non-violent lifestyle, and was a contemporary of Leo Tolstoy. Later in life he deemed it necessary for some of his followers to deviate from vegan/vegetarian lifestyles due to health reasons, which is obviously understandable given the times!

    We’re sorry we’re still working out how to implement a ‘reply’ function on our blogs, hope you read this!


    Cortica Boutique - Elliot on
  • Great list! Was Ghandi also vegan or just vegetarian? :) I’d never heard of Asenath Nicholson before, thanks for writing this! :) Happy easter xoxox

    A. London Vegan on

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