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Centennial Medalists 2015 full citations


From left: Robert Richardson, Gordon Wood, Louise Ryan, and Wade Davis

From left: Robert Richardson, Gordon Wood, Louise Ryan, and Wade Davis

Photograph by Tony Rinaldo

GSAS Centennial Medalist Citations

Wade Davis, A.B. ’75, Ph.D. ’86, Organismic and Evolutionary Biology

It is a rare holder of a Ph.D. who can claim that his dissertation was the subject of a major motion picture. Fewer still whose dissertation concerned zombies. Wade Davis, whose book based on his dissertation research, The Serpent and the Rainbow, became a film of the same name, can claim both distinctions. But to say that Davis got a Ph.D. by studying zombies would be to miss the point. Through an interdisciplinary approach to Haitian vodoun that combined botanical expertise with ethnographic research, Davis was able to uncover what no one had before: how a select group of religious leaders drugged targeted individuals as a method of maintaining control of the population using a concoction never before identified. In the process, he shone a light on a culture’s religious practices that had been reported but overlooked by anthropologists. “This research,” he concluded in his 1986 dissertation, “has attempted to demystify one of the most exploited of folk beliefs, and one that has been used in explicitly racist ways to denigrate an entire people and their remarkable and quite legitimate religion.”

This concern for culture is a thread that runs through all of Davis’s work. Beginning at the age of 14, when he journeyed alone to South America to collect plant samples, and continuing to the present day, Davis has gone to the remotest corners of the globe to meet—and share with the world—peoples of cultures besieged by modernity. His travels and his advocacy have earned him praise from the environmentalist David Suzuki as “a rare combination of scientist, scholar, poet, and passionate defender of all of life’s diversity,” and appointment as a National Geographic Society Explorer for the Millennium.

In the beginning, Davis had an almost single-minded focus. “I am an ethnobotanist,” he said in an interview, “and there was a time when all I thought about was plants.” That focus led him to gather more than 35,000 botanical samples from all over the world, some of which are housed in Harvard’s Botanical Museum. But as he became a plant explorer, he spent more and more time with the indigenous groups who populated the areas he collected in, learning their lore, developing a deep respect for the diversity of cultures outside the Western world.

His Harvard mentor, Richard Evans Schultes, the founder of ethnobotany and the Edward C. Jeffrey Professor of Biology, bemoaned the lack of botanists and anthropologists who could travel the earth retrieving important and long-held knowledge from cultures on the brink of extinction. “It was my good fortune to have had Wade as my undergraduate and graduate student,” he once said. “By interest, academic training, field experience, breadth of outlook, and personality, Wade has the exceptional set of qualifications that this interdisciplinary field requires.”

Those qualifications took Davis on a journey that is still ongoing, which has taken him from a preoccupation with flora to a passion for preservation. Davis has become a global storyteller, venturing into the wild to understand the practices of peoples at once similar yet completely different from those of us in the Western world. On the way, he has advocated for the conservation of languages and pristine wilderness, and brought a greater understanding to what motivated previous explorers, including those whose experiences in the First World War drove them to attempt to conquer Everest.

By now, Davis has lived in the wild longer than in what we complacently call “civilization.” His indefatigability has its roots in an innate thirst for knowledge. In the late 1980s, about to finish his Ph.D., poised to launch an adventurous career, Davis gave an interview that provided a glimpse into what drives him. “I’m extremely curious,” he said. “And I love people and I love the way people live on the planet and I love the planet itself and I love the way the plants and animals grow on the planet. I want to continue to explore things and I want to see everything I possibly can.”


Wade Davis, for giving voice to those on the verge of extinction while seeking out and preserving the knowledge they possess, we are proud to award you the 2015 Centennial Medal.

Robert Richardson, A.B. ’56, Ph.D. ’61, English

The philosopher William James wrote of the difficulty of truly understanding another person without seeing the world from that person’s unique perspective. One imagines that James would have approved of Robert Richardson’s approach to biography. For Richardson, diving into the depths of what makes a person a person is the point. He discovers what books they read, what ideas influenced them, and then immerses himself in their world, surfacing with a greater awareness of what drove them to become whom they became.

Richardson began his career more focused on myth than the life of the mind. After earning his Ph.D., he taught English at Harvard before joining the faculty of the University of Denver. Early on, he collaborated with colleague Burton Feldman to write The Rise of Modern Mythology, 1680–1860, a highly-praised volume detailing the rise and development of interest in myth and its impact on 20th-century thought. “Such a source book on 18th- and 19th-century myth exegesis and historiography has not existed until now; one may be confident that it will not be equaled for a long period of time,” wrote Wendy Doniger, Ph.D. ’68, Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago Divinity School, in a 1972 introduction.

Despite this early success, Richardson soon had an epiphany that would take his career in a direction equally academic, but broader in its appeal. He realized that while he might teach his students about tragic writers like Hawthorne and Melville, when he returned home at the end of the day, he turned to, as he called them, the optimists. “I would go home and read Emerson and Thoreau and Whitman and feel better about myself and about the world and about life,” he once said. An idea took shape, to write about these optimists, and not just for scholarly audiences.

He began with Thoreau, publishing Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind in 1986. In this reexamination of Thoreau’s life, work, and influences, Richardson peeled back the veil of time to allow readers to glimpse Concord’s famous philosopher-poet in his own era. It was a technique he would use, to great effect, in succeeding publications.

Soon after the book’s appearance, Richardson returned to Harvard to deliver a lecture, which was when James Engell, Gurney Professor of English Literature, met him. Engell was impressed by Richardson’s care for American culture, and his ability to communicate that care broadly. In Engell’s words, “Bob is a very open and generous intellectual who makes his work completely available to a wide audience.”

After A Life of the Mind, Richardson turned to Thoreau’s contemporary and friend Ralph Waldo Emerson for Emerson: The Mind on Fire. The book was hailed for its ability to bring Emerson to life for readers, as if they too strolled the streets of Concord or sat in Emerson’s study reading alongside him. The book won numerous accolades, including the New York Times Book Review notable book of 1995. A decade later, William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism would win the 2007 Bancroft Prize. “Bob represents success in the best sense of the word,” says Engell, “in the intellectual and literary sense of the word.”

Richardson’s next book would reflect on his own roots and greatest influence, the great Harvard literary historian Walter Jackson Bate, A.B. ’39, Ph.D. ’42. Splendor of Heart: Walter Jackson Bate and the Teaching of Literature provides an intimate portrait of a beloved teacher, highlighting the lessons Richardson learned and internalized. “Bob is an exemplary product of the ‘golden age’ of the Harvard English department,” says Michael Shinagel, Ph.D. ’64, former dean of continuing education and a classmate of Richardson’s when both were students and admirers of Bate.

Perhaps Richardson’s continued success can be best summed up in his own words: “Read what your subject read,” he advised. “This liberates you from your own education and assumptions.”


Robert Richardson, for bringing great American thinkers to life and for engaging readers with the ideas of the great optimists, we are proud to award you the 2015 Centennial Medal.

Louise Ryan, Ph.D. ’83, Statistics

Mention statistics and your listeners may be forgiven for thinking of spreadsheets with long columns of numbers. In fact, statistics is a powerful discipline with broad impact on a variety of fields, and the ability to influence public policy and save lives. Anyone who questions that doesn’t know Louise Ryan.

Since she earned her Ph.D. in 1981, Ryan has used her expertise to demonstrate, for example, the connection between environmental exposure and disease. Her results have helped shape policies that help real people. “Louise cares deeply about making the world a better place,” once said her Harvard Ph.D. advisor Stephen Lagakos.

Ryan began by pursuing actuarial studies at Macquarie University in her native Australia, but found its financial focus too limiting. After graduating with a degree in statistics, she set her sights on academic studies in the US, encouraged in part by her Macquarie advisor, Don McNeil, who earned his Ph.D. at Princeton. Seeing each other in Cambridge several years into her Ph.D. studies at Harvard’s Department of Statistics, McNeil suggested that she connect with Marvin Zelen of the Biostatistics Department at the Harvard School of Public Health, now the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health; Ryan blossomed in an environment that applied statistics to real-world problems. McNeil remembers that “after that, every time I saw Marvin he said ‘Thank you for sending me Louise!’”

Ryan remained at Harvard, joining the public health faculty as an assistant professor in 1985 and rising to become a tenured member of the faculty—eventually serving as Henry Pickering Walcott Professor, the chair Stephen Lagakos once held.

“Louise was a wonderful colleague, one of the best I have encountered in my career,” says David Harrington, professor of biostatistics. “She was that rare colleague to whom I could bring any idea or problem and be confident that I would receive invaluable advice.”

Making the world a better place went beyond research. Ryan firmly believed that a more diverse student body in biostatistics would broaden the kinds of research being done. She developed an exemplary summer program dedicated to inspiring minority and female students to pursue graduate study in biostatistics. Her efforts were acknowledged in 2006 by the American Statistical Association, when she received the Elizabeth L. Scott Award “for supervising numerous female Ph.D. students and postdoctoral scholars who now are in the position to influence the next generation of women in statistics.”

One of those women is Kaumudi Joshipura, S.M. ’89, S.D ’95, now professor of epidemiology at the University of Puerto Rico School of Dentistry. Ryan was Joshipura’s advisor as she studied for a master’s degree in clinical biostatistics, and the two worked closely together on minority student development. Joshipura echoes the sentiments expressed by the Scott Award. “The students were taught, mentored, and encouraged to achieve a great deal,” she says. “I was amazed to see how much was accomplished in a short time among students that came in with very little, if any, research experience.”

That passion for diversity ultimately paid the dividends Ryan had hoped for. “Louise was a powerful force for change,” Harrington remembers. “Several of the students who participated in that program are now faculty members or statistical scientists at notable institutions.”

After nearly 30 years, Ryan returned to Australia, driven by the chance to use her expertise to, as she put it, guide “quantitative research that has real impact for Australia’s future.” Now, as the head of the maths and information-sciences division for the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, she intends to put her talents to work, as she always has, for the betterment of society and the mentoring of the next generation of biostatisticians, securing her legacy as someone who indeed made the world a better place. Her undergraduate mentor Don McNeil is pleased she has returned. “There’s no doubt that Louise is a brilliant scholar,” he says. “She deserves every honor that is likely to be bestowed on her.”


Louise Ryan, for making the world a better place by advancing statistical research that helps people lead healthier lives, and for encouraging a generation of women and underrepresented minorities to make their own contributions to the field, we are proud to award you the 2015 Centennial Medal.

Gordon Wood, Ph.D. ’64, History

“Gordon S. Wood is more than an American historian,” Brandeis professor David Hackett Fischer wrote in a New York Times book review. “He is almost an American institution.” He has been cited as an expert on the American Revolution by no less an authority than Matt Damon [’92] in the film Good Will Hunting. That recognition is a sign of the popularity that transcends partisanship, appealing equally to scholars and non-scholars, to those on the left, right, and center.

Perhaps Wood has achieved this popularity because he did not merely study the scholarship of those who came before him; he went back to the beginning and immersed himself in the time, in how people spoke and what they believed. “Only by analyzing these ideas, these configurations of thought, these contemporary explanations of events,” he wrote in his Ph.D. dissertation in 1964, “can the historian, it seems, hope to grasp the entirety of what happened.”

Wood lived the period and then proceeded to communicate what he had learned: that his study of constitution-making in the revolutionary years had revealed a distinctively American system of politics, peculiarly the product of a democratic society. This view provided him with a lifetime of research and led to the publication of multiple—and award-winning—books and articles. That he would be successful seemed clear to his thesis advisor, Bernard Bailyn, Ph.D. ’53, Adams University Professor, Emeritus. “When I read the first chapter of his dissertation, I knew at once that he was a truly gifted scholar and would make major contributions to our understanding of our national history,” Bailyn says. “And he has.”

Those major contributions led to a series of awards: the Bancroft Prize, a Pulitzer Prize in 1993 and a Pulitzer finalist in 2010, the American History Book Prize by the New York Historical Society, and, ultimately, the National Humanities Medal. “As a brilliant scholar and gifted teacher,” then Brown University President Ruth J. Simmons, Ph.D. ’73, said in the Medal announcement, “Gordon Wood has made unique contributions to scholarship, enriching our understanding of American history.” She continued, “This well-deserved tribute acknowledges the importance of his contributions to the nation.”

Born in Concord, Massachusetts, Wood grew up in the place where the history he explored was made. He joined the United States Air Force soon after graduating from Tufts University, and during his service in Japan, began the studies that would draw him back home—and to Harvard, where, inspired by a young professor named Bernard Bailyn, he determined to dedicate his life to the study of history. Teaching positions at the College of William and Mary, Harvard, and the University of Michigan led to an appointment at Brown University, where he rose to become the Alva O. Way University Professor.

Wood’s extensive research produced volumes that engaged readers with the founders of this country and what inspired them: The Creation of the American Republic, 1776–1787; The Radicalism of the American Revolution; Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789–1815. “His exuberant panorama of a dynamic nation in the midst of dramatic change is informed by his immense scholarship and deep insights,” wrote Susan Dunn, PhD ’73, the Preston S. Parish ’41 Third Century Professor in the Arts and Humanities at Williams College, “not only into the meaning of the American Revolution but also into American character, values, myths, leadership, and institutions.”

Wood once quoted Samuel Eliot Morison, the 20th century Harvard historian who himself was a bestselling author. Academic historians, Morison said, “have forgotten that there is an art of writing history.” Wood has not forgotten. Indeed, he views history as the ultimate humanistic discipline. “We don’t teach history because we want to have history teachers or history professors,” he wrote. “We’re teaching history because it enriches lives.”


Gordon Wood, for immersing yourself in the past to understand more deeply how this country came to be, and for teaching history because it enriches lives, we are proud to award you the 2015 Centennial Medal.