George Rathmann, founder of the NSTMF, recognized the gap between the significance of the National Medals being awarded by the White House, and the seemingly lackluster accompanying celebration. Unlike other awards of similar stature –– such as the Nobel Prize –– there is no anticipatory schedule to follow, and no monetary award associated with these accolades –– although current NSTMF Chairman James Rathmann (George Rathmann’s son) says he hopes to make that happen in the future. For the first several decades of the awards’ existence, the festivities ended once the president placed the medal around each laureate’s neck.
“It just seemed like these people deserved more than that,” James Rathmann says of his father’s decision to form the NSTMF. “It’s hard to ignore the impact of the contributions of these people to both economics and the quality of life. What we do, how we live every day, the various things people have done, it’s just profound.”
Not long after the NSTMF was established in 1991, it began hosting a gala for the laureates each year, which has now grown into a black tie affair where family, friends, and colleagues of the laureates can celebrate their work, and be scientific celebrities in the nation’s capital for a night.
During the gala, each of the laureates is recognized by name, and is featured in a short video that explains the significance of their contributions. The laureates this year were also recognized by France Córdova, director of the National Science Foundation; Michelle Lee, Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and Director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office; and Jo Handelsman, Associate Director of Science in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
The Honorable Jo Handelsman addressing the guests of the NSTMF’s National Medals Gala
But another goal of the foundation, according to James Rathmann, has also been to move beyond just hosting a party each year. And in the last five years particularly, Rathmann says the foundation has been able to commemorate the laureates’ work in perpetuity, through a “national museum” –– its website.
“That’s really not done, and it certainly has never been done with this collection of people who have done staggering amounts for our country, from saving soldiers’ lives with the invention of kevlar, to keeping glass from shattering when you pour hot water on it with the invention of Pyrex,” he says. “It’s those things that you now can capture and deliver them to people’s homes.”
But the website is more than just a testament to the work that the laureates have done over the last several decades, according to Andy Rathmann-Noonan, executive director of the NSTMF.
Dr. Richmond being celebrated at the National Medals Gala on May 19th, 2016
“We believe as a foundation that the laureates have even more to offer than just their contributions,” he says. “There’s something to be said for the laureates’ lives, narratives that can give them an entirely new dimension, that makes them far more approachable, and far more understandable. If we can make a strong personal connection between members of the general public and these laureates, we’re actually providing an environment where younger generations can be inspired by the work they’ve done.”
Geraldine Richmond, a recipient of the National Medal of Science, says the increasingly public nature of the event makes the award a higher honor not just for the laureates, but for the community of friends, family, and colleagues who supported them along the way.