Honoring Geneticist, Physician, and NIH Director Francis Collins
in a Ceremony Like No Other
The 670-seat Frank Kavli Auditorium at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C. was nearly empty on the night of September 24, but the audience for the awarding of the 50th Templeton Prize laureate was perhaps the largest it has ever been, with thousands of viewers registering to watch from across the country and around the world. The people on stage wore cloth face coverings and there were disclaimers — “all crew members were tested, masked and required to maintain social distancing” — at the beginning of the video segments. For honoree Dr. Francis Collins, the former leader of the Human Genome Project and current director of the National Institutes of Health, the safety measures were both a necessary precaution and an appropriate symbol of the extraordinary role he has been called on to play in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Templeton Prize is awarded on the basis of past achievement in harnessing the sciences to explore the deepest questions of the universe and humankind’s place within it. While Collins’ past achievements — in genetics, healthcare, and fostering dialogue between religious and scientific perspectives — stand on their own, Collins’ present role leading one of the the United States’ medical research agencies during a global pandemic may wind up being his life’s most important work, as the NIH marshalls its resources to aid development of vaccines and treatments for the novel coronavirus, with millions of lives potentially in the balance.
Harmony was the overarching theme of the ceremony. An opening biographical video, Harmony – Life at the Intersection of Science & Faith traced Collins’ life story, from a childhood in the Shenandoah valley through university, medical school and into a groundbreaking career. An abiding love of the beauty and mystery of science found its counterpart for Collins in the discovery, during his medical training, of religious faith, as he found Christian spirituality a counterpart to his work as a doctor and researcher. And after John Templeton Foundation president Heather Templeton Dill instructed him to place the Tree of Life medallion around his own neck — another concession to social distancing — Collins delivered his Templeton Prize address, entitled “In Praise of Harmony.”
“I first learned about that term as it applies to music,” Collins said, “But harmony applies in other realms as well.” Distinct voices, opinions and perspectives may sometimes clash, creating profound dissonance and disharmony, but the heart yearns for the resolution. Collins offered reflection on the work of harmony in his own life and work — navigating perceived dissonance between faith and science, between differing views of the best scientific and societal responses to the COVID-19 crisis, or addressing the need to take stock of and work to alleviate systemic racism in American society.
In his address Collins suggested three commitments that might help resolve such deep discords into a healing harmony: a renewed commitment to truth and reason, a clear-eyed assessment of the growing spiritual void that many in our society face, and a renewed commitment to loving one another: “Not just those who agree with us, but also our enemies.”
The surprising harmonies emerging from Collins’ own life story were abundantly evident in the suite of speakers who offered video messages of congratulations: Dr. Deborah Haarsma, a physicist and astronomer who now leads BioLogos, the organization founded by Collins and his wife Diane to encourage dialogue between faith and science; Dr. Jerome M. Adams, the current U.S. Surgeon General; former presidents George W. Bush (under whom Collins’ team successfully sequenced the first full human genome) and Barack Obama (who appointed Collins to his current role leading NIH); legendary primatologist Jane Goodall (who spoke in front of a bookshelf containing framed portraits of chimpanzees) and renowned New Testament theologian N.T. Wright.
Collectively the speakers praised Collins’ for both the quality of his work and for his character, but also for the warmth and delight he has brought to their friendship. Many mentioned cherished memories of music-making with Collins, who is an accomplished amateur singer and guitarist (Wright said that co-writing a few songs with Collins has been one of the highlights of their friendship).
The grammy-winning soprano Renée Fleming, who has worked with Collins on the Music and Mind and Sound Health initiatives, which focus on the science connecting music, health and the brain, sang the aria “O mio babbino caro” from Puccini’s opera Gianni Schicchi, a work that first premiered in 1918, the year of the last great global pandemic. After Collins’ address, the ceremony closed with a video of Collins and Fleming together, harmonizing Stephen Foster’s classic “Hard Times Come Again No More.” The song was written in 1854, another plague year, when cholera killed more than 10,000 in London and a physician named Dr. John Snow traced one outbreak to a contaminated urban well — one of the first great discoveries of modern epidemiology. Collins accompanied the duet on a custom guitar with a fingerboard inlaid in the pattern of a double helix.