After graduating from the University of Chicago School of Medicine in 1948, Janet Rowley got married, and gave birth to four sons, making medicine a hobby and making family her priority. It was not until she was almost 40 that she took up serious medical research, and not until almost a decade later that she discovered, hunched over her dining room table, examining small photos of chromosomes, that leukemia cells are notable for changes in their genetics — a discovery that showed cancer is genetic, and transformed how we fight the disease. All of us have been touched in some way by cancer, including my family — and so we can all be thankful that what began as a hobby became a life’s work for Janet.
Professor Stephen Hawking was a brilliant man and a mediocre student — (laughter) — when he lost his balance and tumbled down a flight of stairs. Diagnosed with a rare disease and told he had just a few years to live, he chose to live with new purpose. And happily, in the four decades since, he has become one of the world’s leading scientists. His work in theoretical physics — which I will not attempt to explain further here — (laughter) — has advanced our understanding of the universe. His popular books have advanced the cause of science itself. From his wheelchair, he’s led us on a journey to the farthest and strangest reaches of the cosmos. In so doing, he has stirred our imagination and shown us the power of the human spirit here on Earth.
These are the 2009 recipients of the Medal of Freedom. At a moment when cynicism and doubt too often prevail, when our obligations to one another are too often forgotten, when the road ahead can seem too long or hard to tread, these extraordinary men and women — these agents of change — remind us that excellence is not beyond our abilities, that hope lies around the corner, and that justice can still be won in the forgotten corners of this world. They remind us that we each have it within our powers to fulfill dreams, to advance the dreams of others, and to remake the world for our children.