Campus & Community

Two Harvard Scientists Win National Medal of Science

4 min read

The National Medal of Science, the highest scientific honor in the United States, has been awarded to George Whitesides, Mallinckrodt Professor of Chemistry, and William Julius Wilson, Lewis F. and Linda L. Geyser University Professor.

On Tuesday, President Clinton cited Whitesides, Wilson, and seven other honorees for “their creativity, resolve, and a restless spirit of innovation to ensure continued U.S. leadership across the frontiers of scientific knowledge.”

Rita Colwell, director of the National Science Foundation, noted that the Medal is the “U.S. equivalent of the Nobel Prize [and] our nation’s singular way of commending these ground-breaking researchers for their efforts.”

Whitesides won for a lifetime of discoveries in several fields of chemistry and for highly acclaimed advances in the assembly of ultra-small physical structures. He gave credit and congratulations to the people he works with.

“A good thing about being research director in a big experimental group,” Whitesides said, “is that there is never any possibility of having one’s head turned by awards: it is so clear that it is the group that collectively generates the ideas and does the work. It is equally clear that the group collectively gets the credit.”

Wilson was honored for studies of urban poverty and its causes.

“I was in a state of shock after I received the news,” said Wilson. “I never even contemplated getting the National Medal of Science.”

The other winners are Bruce Ames, University of California at Berkeley; Don Anderson, California Institute of Technology; John Bahcall, Princeton University; John Cahn, National Institute of Standards and Technology; Cathleen Morawetz, New York University; Janet Rowley, University of Chicago; and Eli Ruckenstein, State University of New York at Buffalo.

Also announced were five winners of the National Medal of Technology, awarded for technological breakthroughs that result in the creation of new or significantly improved products, processes, or services. These Medals went to heart transplant pioneer Denton Cooley and to inventive teams at Lucent Technologies, Monsanto, Biogen, and Bristol-Myers Squibb.

The Medal of Science was established by Congress in 1959. A 12-member independent committee reviews nominations and sends its recommendations to the President for final selection. The awards will be presented in January at a ceremony in Washington, D.C.

Whitesides, 59, developed new methods of producing chemical compounds that are now widely used in medicine and agriculture. More recently, he pioneered a variety of imaginative technologies for fabricating chemical and electronic structures millionths of an inch in size.

Whitesides received an A.B. degree from Harvard in 1960, and joined the Department of Chemistry in 1982 after spending 19 years on the faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A member of several honorary societies, including the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Whitesides is on the editorial board of 16 scientific journals. Other recent honors include the Arthur C. Cope Award of the American Chemical Society in 1995 and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency Award for Significant Technical Achievement in 1996.

Wilson, 62, revitalized the field of urban sociology by applying new methods of interdisciplinary research and by advancing the understanding of economic, social, cultural, and behavioral forces that cause and sustain inner-city poverty.

He received a Ph.D. in sociology/anthropology from Washington State University and taught at the University of Chicago for 24 years before coming to Harvard in 1996. That year, he was named Malcolm Wiener Professor of Policy at the Kennedy School of Government. Wilson also is a member of the Department of Afro-American Studies, on the advisory board of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Research, and affiliated with the Department of Sociology. He was a MacArthur Prize Fellow in 1987 and is the author or co-author of five books.