Congratulations to the Nicholas Murray Butler Medal Winners!

On May 19, 2022, during the Celebration for the Classes of 2020 and 2021, the Nicholas Murray Butler Gold Medal was awarded to 21 members of the President’s Advisory Task Force on COVID-19. The group was charged with ensuring the health and safety of our campus community, maintaining financial stability in unprecedented times, and providing facilities equipped to manage the threat of the COVID-19 virus. The honorees were Melanie Bernitz, Jane Booth, Mary Boyce, Rui Costa, Troy Eggers, Wafaa El-Sadr, Linda Fried, Susan Glancy, David Greenberg, Scott Hammer (posthumously), Ira Katznelson, Gillian Lester, Donna Lynne, Carrie Marlin, Shailagh Murray, Justin Pearlman, Gerry Rosberg, Steve Shea, Anne Sullivan, Ann Thornton, and Jeannette Wing. In offering our heart-felt congratulations to these deserving medal winners, we take this opportunity to share some of the history of this award.

Nicholas Murray Butler medal, recto and verso. Scans 5270 and 5271. Historical Photograph Collection, University Archives.

The Nicholas Murray Butler medal was created to recognize those individuals who had made a significant contribution to the “fields of intellectual work that have been the subject of [Butler’s] own study and teaching.” Nicholas Murray Butler CC 1882, PhD 1884, joined Columbia’s philosophy faculty in 1885, was appointed full professor in 1890, and served as the Dean of Faculty, all before becoming Columbia’s twelfth University President in 1902. In 1886 he became president of the Industrial Education Association, which he later transformed into Teachers College. Thus, the Nicholas Murray Butler gold medal was originally to be awarded by the Trustees for “the most distinguished contribution made during the preceding five year period anywhere in the world, to philosophy, or to educational theory, practice, or administration.” A medal in silver (or in bronze) could also be presented annually “to stimulate productivity among our own advanced students and graduates.”

The prize was made possible by an endowment from philanthropist Archer Huntington. He was responsible for the design of the medal, while Butler selected the Ciceronian quote that appears in the back (In Pisonem, or Against Piso, 71). In 1915, the first Nicholas Murray Butler Gold Medal was awarded to Bertrand Russell, then lecturer and fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge, for his contributions to logical theory. Back then, there was no official award presentation. Russell received the medal from the British Ambassador in Washington, DC. 

Ernest Nagel with his Nicholas Murray Butler Gold Medal, 1980. Scan 5273. Historical Photograph Collection, University Archives.

The 2022 winners are now part of a very select group. Other gold medal winners include: Benedetto Croce (1920), Edward Lee Thorndike (1925), Alfred North Whitehead (1930), John Dewey (1935), Henri Bergson (1940), George Santayana (1945), Clarence Irving Lewis (1950), George E. Moore (1955), Charlie Dunbar Broad (1960), Rudolph Carnap (1965), Willard van Orman Quine (1970) and Jean Paul Sartre (1975). In 1980, University Professor emeritus Ernest Nagel was presented the Nicholas Murray Butler Medal in Gold. Nagel holds the distinction of being the only person to have received the award twice: a silver medal in 1954 and a gold medal in 1980. The last Nicholas Murray Butler gold medal awarded before this year’s was to Paul Oskar Kristeller, who received his medal in 1995 during a 90th birthday celebration.