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Jan.23, 2008

Vol. 108, No. 7

Princeton's most influential alumni

A PAW panel makes its selections

By Mark F. Bernstein ’83
Published in the January23, 2008, issue

F. Scott Fitzgerald or Thornton Wilder?
Donald Rumsfeld or John Foster Dulles?
Meg Whitman or Jeff Bezos?
James Madison or Woodrow Wilson?

Over the last 261 years, these and approximately 120,000 other men and women have marched out into the world as graduates of the university now known as Princeton. They have become heads of state and congressional leaders; made careers as doctors, lawyers, and business executives; forged the nation and pushed back the veil of science and discovery; won prizes, honors, and awards.

So it might seem daring, daunting, fascinating, foolish — pick your adjective — to try to single out the 25 who have been the most influential. But where more circumspect souls might have feared to tread, PAW has rushed in. We assembled a panel of eight knowledgeable observers and asked them to pick and rank the 25 most influential Princetonians of all time. The list you see in this issue represents their conclusions.

The panelists: from left, Eddie S. Glaude Jr. *97, Todd Purdum ’82, David Spergel ’82, William Russel (standing), Sean Wilentz, Elizabeth Bogan, Emily Thompson *92, and Michael Wood.
Ricardo Barros
The panelists: from left, Eddie S. Glaude Jr. *97, Todd Purdum ’82, David Spergel ’82, William Russel (standing), Sean Wilentz, Elizabeth Bogan, Emily Thompson *92, and Michael Wood.

We tried to make sure that our panelists represented a range of interests and specialties so that all areas in which people might be influential were considered. Members of the panel (find more information about them here) were Elizabeth Bogan, senior lecturer in economics; Eddie S. Glaude Jr. *97, the William S. Tod Professor of Religion and African American Studies; Todd Purdum ’82, national editor at Vanity Fair magazine; William Russel, the Arthur W. Marks ’19 Professor of Chemical Engineering and dean of the Graduate School; David Spergel ’82, the Charles A. Young Professor of Astronomy on the Class of 1897 Foundation and chairman of the Department of Astrophysical Sciences; Emily Thompson *92, professor of history; Sean Wilentz, the Sidney and Ruth Lapidus Professor in the American Revolutionary Era; and Michael Wood, the Charles Barnwell Straut Class of 1923 Professor of English and Comparative Literature.

We set only a few ground rules: Virtually everyone who attended Princeton as an undergraduate or graduate student was eligible. Honorary-degree recipients were not. The object was not to select those who had the most influence on Princeton (see here for one writer’s views on that), but to explore alumni influence on the wider world. We asked our panelists to select their choices without regard to balance of any sort — not to seek, for example, a certain number of scientists or writers or minorities or graduate alumni or alumni from a particular century. The fun of the exercise, we thought, was in comparing people across disciplines and generations, then seeing where the chips fell.

To help our group get started, we prepared a list of approximately 250 Princeton graduates who have been recognized for their professional achievements. That list, available here, included the quick and the dead — philosophers and public servants, poets and scientists, anyone who had ever won a Nobel Prize, all past Madison medalists and Wilson award winners, and dozens of others who made their mark on society over the past two-and-a-half centuries. We included people who did not graduate but who attended Princeton long enough to be fairly considered Princetonians. (For example, John F. Kennedy, who left the Class of 1939 after five weeks on campus, did not qualify, but R.W. Apple ’57, the legendary New York Times reporter who was expelled twice for neglecting his studies and got his degree from Columbia, did.)

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CURRENT ISSUE: Jan.23, 2008
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