It was the death of a teenager in 1886 in his hometown of Dunfermline, Scotland, that prompted Andrew Carnegie to think about what constitutes heroism in a civilized society. Seventeen-year-old William Hunter had tried to save a boy from drowning in the "town loch" but lost his life in the attempt. Writing of the incident from his summer home in Cresson, Pennsylvania, three weeks later, Carnegie concluded, "The false heroes of barbarous man are those who can only boast of the destruction of their fellows. The true heroes of civilization are those alone who save or greatly serve them. Young Hunter was one of those and deserves an enduring monument."

The "enduring monument," for which Carnegie made a financial contribution, was erected (right) and still stands in Dunfermline Cemetery, and it bears his words on its base. The same words came back to Carnegie 18 years later in the wake of a coal-mine disaster near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: The 181 victims included men who lost their lives in rescue attempts. So greatly touched by their sacrifice was the Scottish-American industrialist-philanthropist that he established institutions in the United States and Western Europe to recognize those who heroically save or attempt to save the lives of others.

After more than a century, nine of Carnegie's "hero funds" continue to carry out the vision of their Founder. "I do not expect to stimulate or create heroism," Carnegie wrote in 1904, "knowing well that heroic action is impulsive." Carnegie knew also that heroes are selfless: "True heroes think not of reward," he wrote in his Autobiography. "They are inspired and think only of their fellows endangered."