"Genius" is a term we tend to use all too liberally. But since 1981, this lofty club has had an unofficial gatekeeper: the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, whose MacArthur Fellowship is widely known as "the genius grant." (The foundation, which was created in 1978 and which annually distributes nearly $300 million in grants, avoids using the term, as it incorporates only "a singular characteristic of intellectual prowess" that doesn't reflect their recipients' assorted talents.)
On Sept. 23, the foundation minted 25 new Fellows, who were each awarded $500,000 grants doled out over five years, with no strings attached or reporting obligations. The recipients include stage lighting designer Jennifer Tipton, geriatrician Diane Meier and urban farmer Will Allen. This diversity is a hallmark of the program, which, according to the foundation's president, Jonathan Fanton, strives to bestow financial freedom and the considerable prestige that accompanies the award to creative individuals on the cusp of greatness. "These are people at the very edge of discovery, people who are redefining what's possible," says Fanton. "They are people pursuing a vision of a more just and humane world."
The grant was first awarded to 21 individuals in June 1981. But the idea had been germinating since 1978, when a MacArthur board member, William Kirby, brought to his cohorts' attention an article from the American Heart Journal in which a doctor named George Burch argued a fund should be set up to support individuals whose contributions to society would multiply if they were unshackled from financial constraints. With the encouragement of John D. MacArthur's son, Roderick, the Fellows Program was formed.
You can't apply to be a MacArthur Fellow. Since the program's inception, its selection process has gone largely unchanged: an anonymous, unpaid nominating squad offers a list of candidates (now numbering as many as 800), which the foundation's staff whittles down to 100 or so nominees. A selection committee a dozen or so anonymous individuals, who generally serve three-year terms then spends "the better part of a year" devouring the nominees' work, before submitting a list of suggested recipients to the foundation's board.
The formula seems to be working. Nearly 800 fellows as young as 18 and as old as 82 have been christened since 1981. Among their feats: slowing the speed of light (optical physicist Lene Hau, 2001), mapping the human genome (geneticist Eric Lander, 1987), penning acclaimed novels (Cormac McCarthy, 1981; the recently deceased David Foster Wallace, 1997), scheming to save our threatened fisheries (lobsterman Ted Ames, 2005) and solving Fermat's Last Theorem (mathematician Andrew Wiles, 1997). Seven have nabbed the Nobel Prize, including geneticist Barbara McClintock (1981) and former U.S. poet laureate Joseph Brodsky (1981). Others have won Pulitzers, Fields Medals the math world's top honor and National Book Awards. The chosen few are informed by an "out-of-the-blue" phone call, which can prompt shrieks, stunned silence, and, in the case of one recipient about three years ago, an apparent fainting epidemic. One stubborn recipient put up a protracted fight before Fanton convinced him to step away from his work to take the call, and then brusquely got off the phone.
If there is a trait linking the members of this brainy pantheon, it may be optimism. "I don't think I've ever met a fellow who's cynical," Fanton says. "I'm struck by what good, humble people they are." He notes that some fellows (like physician Paul Farmer, 1993) have donated their winnings, while others have shared it with colleagues. History is littered with intellectual giants think Nietzsche or Van Gogh whose minds buckled under the weight of their thoughts. But Fanton says the vast majority of MacArthur Fellows are sunny and energetic, propelled by the belief that they can make the world a "better, more interesting, more beautiful" place.