Nussbaum Honored with Harvard's Centennial Medal

The 2010 Centennial Medalists
Harvard Magazine
May 26, 2010

The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Centennial Medal, first awarded in 1989 on the occasion of the school’s hundredth anniversary, honors alumni who have made contributions to society that emerged from their graduate study at Harvard. This year’s honorands are Shakespeare scholar David Bevington ’52, Ph.D. ’59, a professor emeritus at the University of Chicago; Stephen Fischer-Galati ’46, Ph.D. ’49, a specialist in East European history and civilization and a professor emeritus at the University of Colorado; economist and 2007 Nobel laureate Eric Maskin ’72, Ph.D. ’76, of the Institute for Advanced Study; and classical philologist Martha Nussbaum, Ph.D. ’75, professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago.


Martha Nussbaum once told an interviewer that among the great comforts of her life were Mahler, Henry James, John Stuart Mill, the poetry of Louise Glück, and the Chicago White Sox. That is a clear signaling of her wide-ranging and vividly lived passions — though it is, of course, woefully incomplete.

One of this country’s most prominent public intellectuals, Nussbaum’s interests span the disciplines of philosophy, classics, law, religion, and political science. Her writings have explored ethics and shame, gender equality and animal rights, and education and democracy (to name some favorite topics).

Martha Nussbaum is the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, appointed in philosophy, the law school, and the divinity school. Her work, according to Harvard Law School Dean Martha Minow, focuses on three big questions: What is the best account of the human experience for purposes of moral philosophy, and how should that account inform law and public policy? How can a conception of human capabilities inform measurements of welfare and of what people can demand of their governments? And what does the study of the humanities afford legal studies, the academy, and society in general?

“In addressing these questions,” Minow says, “she challenges me and so many others to use our minds and hearts to pursue what most matters.”

Known for her strong advocacy of the ideas she believes in, she has often set the academic world abuzz, on all sides of an issue and its politics. Her two newly published books illustrate her bold thinking. From Disgust to Humanity: Sexual Orientation and Constitutional Law, published earlier this year, identifies a “politics of disgust” at the root of opposition to gay marriage. And her latest book, Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, is a powerful argument that threats to the humanities may have dire consequences not just to education, but to our way of life.

Nussbaum’s friend and colleague Diane Wood, a judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, describes the impact of such scholarship as broad and energizing. Nussbaum “has added a human dimension to the legal issues that judges like me face every day,” says Wood. “Her work informs a wide range of social and legal policies, including health care, education, and welfare, just to name a few.”

Martha Nussbaum
Diane P. Wood