Anatomy of an Award

By Messier, Don | Science & Spirit, March-April 2006 | Go to article overview

Anatomy of an Award


Messier, Don, Science & Spirit


Nobel Prize

WHAT: Ten million Swedish kronor, or roughly 1.3 million dollars in 2005 prize money, recognizing achievements in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, and peace.

WHY: Because when chemist Alfred Nobel's brother Ludvig died in 1888, a French newspaper mistakenly published Alfred's obituary instead--and it was not kind. The obituary called the inventor of dynamite a "merchant of death," and, the story goes, in order to counteract what he saw as his inevitable legacy, the horrified scientist willed the bulk of his fortune to the establishment of what would become the Nobel Prizes (much to the chagrin of his relatives).

WHEN: Awarded annually since 1901, the prizes are announced in October and handed out at a lavish, white-tie-and-tails affair on December 10, the anniversary of Nobel's death.

WHERE: The peace prize is presented at Oslo City Hall in Norway; the other five prizes are given at Stockholm Concert Hall in Sweden.

WHO: Among the 776 past recipients are Albert Einstein (physics), Marie Curie (chemistry), James Watson and Francis Crick (physiology/medicine), T.S. Eliot (literature), and Martin Luther King Jr. (peace).

Pulitzer Prize

WHAT: Ten thousand dollars, recognizing distinguished work in either journalism or letters and drama.

WHY : Because when he wrote his will, newspaperman Joseph Pulitzer made arrangements to endow a set of prizes as an incentive for excellence in his chosen profession. The publisher of the New York World and St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and one of the first media professionals to call for the training of journalists at schools devoted solely to their craft, Pulitzer specified four awards in journalism and four in letters (an American novel, play, history book, or biography) and drama. An advisory board has the "power in its discretion to suspend or to change any subject or subjects" and to withhold any award when no one who meets its standard of excellence can be found. Foreseeing growth in journalism, Pulitzer also made provisions that allowed the prizes to grow significantly, and the board has since increased the number of awards to fourteen for journalism and seven for letters, drama, and music.

WHEN: Awarded since 1917, the prizes are usually announced each April and handed out in May.

WHERE: The prizes are presented at a modest luncheon in the Low Library of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York.

WHO: More than 1,000 writers have won, among them William Faulkner (twice for fiction), Robert Frost (four times for poetry), William Safire (for a New York Times commentary), and a few better known for something other than their literary skills, such as John F. Kennedy (for the biographical Profiles in Courage).

MacArthur Fellowship

WHAT: Grants of 500,000 dollars, distributed in quarterly installments over five years. The fellowship, known for the supersecretive nomination and selection process that envelops it, is given annually to a famously diverse group of honorees, typically between twenty and thirty "talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits, and a marked capacity for self-direction."

WHY: Because in the December 1976 issue of American Heart Journal, the great American doctor George Edward Burch wrote that there was "a need for granting agencies to seek out investigators who are genuinely interested in research and exploration of the unknown to advance knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Recipients should be left alone without the annoyances and distractions imposed by grant applications, reviewing committees, and pressure to publish." Moved by these words, William T. Kirby brought the article to the attention of the MacArthur Foundation's board of directors, of which he was a member, in 1978, shortly after the death of its founder, business magnate John D. …

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