Monday, May 23, 2005

New Yorker carton
“Here’s to the greatest foundation in the history of foundations- the MacArthur Foundation, or whatever the hell it’s called.”

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Sunday, May 01, 2005

How did the Genius Grants really begin?

How did it begin?

A good question dear reader, and one that has been asked countless times. However, it rarely has been answered correctly, as the person who brought the idea for the Fellows Program to the Macarthur Foundation is usually not credited.

A complex and creative man, William Kirby, not only brought the idea of this unique program to the original board members of the MacArthur Foundation, he was instrumental in shaping it.

William Kirby also introduced, and nurtured, many other programs that are often seen as hallmarks of the MacArthur Foundation; such as the program funding mental health research, the focus on community development, the focus on the world's environment and last, but not least, MacArthur's clear leadership in their first 15 years, in funding independent media such as early funding of NPR, the creation of P.O.V, the Civil War series, media arts centers across America, Bill Moyers' "The Power of Myth" and all of Moyers' subsequent programs, the Mac Neil Lehrer News Hour, and the creation of ITVS (Independent Television Service).

It's interesting that Kirby has rarely been given credit for these diverse and creative projects, ideas and approaches that are often seen as hallmarks of the MacArthur Foundation.

The history of this remarkable, or not so remarkable, Fellows program is found in the speech below.

Remarks by William T Kirby, at Fellows Dinner June 10, 1989

Let me give you a summary of the beginnings of the Fellows program. The idea germinated with Dr. George Burch of Tulane University. He was one of the world’s greatest internists and heart specialists and, fortunately for me, since about 1950 I had gone to him every two years for my physical examinations. On January 24, 1977, I was in New Orleans for my check up by Dr. Burch, and he told me his idea that this country ought to be smart enough to realize that the great breakthroughs were made by individuals, and that this country was wealthy enough to try to seek out individuals thought to have creative possibilities and give them financial freedom for several years to develop their creativity. He had spelled out the idea in a speech as President of the American Heart Association, and he gave me a copy of that speech. In his speech, he said a selected few should “be left alone without the annoyances and distractions imposed by grant applications, reviewing committees, and pressure to publish”.

Dr. Burch pointed out that in most instances of great discoveries, a grant application made by those who ultimately made the discoverery would, under our systems, have been turned down. He observed that “no one can write an application describing planned studies and results to be obtained for a great discovery or a major fundamental advancement in science or knowledge. Even the investigator fails to know in advance that he is to make a truly great new advancement in knowledge”.

Dr. Burch insisted risks should be taken” “there is a need to gamble….let us support individuals for years purely on the basis of the person and creative thinking…and leave them alone in peace, to think and observe, and studying without having to spend valuable time giving account of themselves and periodic reports, applications, lectures, and publications…the objective would be to let some of the great minds alone free to think…”
George Burch hoped his speech of 1976 would find support from some source in this country.

One possible source was the Hughes Medical Research Foundation—now the world’s largest foundation (ed note: speech was in 1989) since it sold Hughes Tool to General Motors for $5 billion, Howard Hughes appointed Dr. Burch head of that Foundation, but George soon resigned that post. If he had stayed, you might be called “Hughes Fellows” instead of “MacArthur Fellows”.

It came to the MacArthur Foundation through the link that I was John MacArthurÂ’s lawyer.

I did not go to John MacArthur in 1977 with Dr. Burch’s suggestion. John MacArthur took the attitude that he would do what he did best; he would make the money, and after his death the Board of his Foundation would have to learn how to spend it. He realized it would be an enormous learning task to establish precise programs for a foundation, and he was not about to change his way of like to take up that study. As he said to me once: “I am giving away all of my money to charity, so I am the most charitable person you know.”

Immediately after his death, our small Foundation Board discussed possible programs, and I told them of Dr. George BurchÂ’s idea. All board members showed an interest in his ideas. My secretary reproduced the speech and distributed copies. There followed in 1978 and 1979 a whole series of actions taken by the board to study and create what is now the Fellows Program.

From the very beginning, Rod MacArthur was enthusiastic about the idea and supported it vigorously.

No doubt about it, I am happy to testify, Rod MacArthur was the chief implementer of the details of the Fellows Program, and its strongest supporter throughout the remainder of his life. I donÂ’t mean the other Directors were not fully supportive, but the dynamism and dedication burned brightest in Rod. One can say, in all honesty, the MacArthur Fellows Program, as it stands today and as all of you have benefited from it, is a tribute to both George Burch and J. Roderick MacArthur.

Rod, as you know, died in 1984.

Dr. Burch was here on April 10, 1986, on an identical Fellows dinner, except it was for the first graduating class, not the fourth, and it was on a Thursday night, not Saturday night.

George, on Thursday, met many of the MacArthur Fellows, including some here tonight, He returned to New Orleans on Friday, and unexpectedly died in his sleep on Tuesday night.

When I expressed regret to his widow at having put George to the strain of the trip, she comforted me by saying: “He was the doctor, not you. He felt the trip was no strain.” Then she continued: “I have never seen George as pleased about any honor trip as he was at meeting the Fellows. ‘They were wonderful,’ he said, and as he told me about them, tears of joy filled his eyes.”

The major role from now on, and the key to the success of the program, no longer depends upon those of us who started planning the program 11 years ago. The validity of the program remains to be measured by the quantum and quality of what the present and future Fellows contribute to the betterment of our world.

The wisdom, or the folly, of our Foundation in creating a Fellows Program remains to be proven by you. I, for one, am content to leave the verdict in your hands.