First bestowed in 1824, the awards are among the nation's oldest honors in science and technology. Recipients include Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, and four of this year's Nobel Prize winners. The latest group of Franklin Institute laureates will come to Philadelphia for a week of seminars and ceremony in April.
The story of the highest-profile winner is well-known. He dropped out of Harvard in 1975 to create the now-omnipresent software giant, and currently devotes most of his time to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. With the motto "All Lives Have Equal Value," it is the world's largest philanthropic organization, funded initially with Gates' own money and now also with contributions from his investor friend Warren Buffett.
Scholars are only beginning to measure the foundation's impact on global health and education. Much of the cutting-edge research that it supports will not bear fruit for years. Perhaps inevitably, given the large sums in question, some critics quibble with how the money is being spent.
Yet it is hard to dispute that the foundation has made serious commitments to its goals:
$1.5 billion to the GAVI Alliance, a global health partnership whose vaccination program has prevented an estimated 3.4 million deaths since 2000.
$1.37 billion to the United Negro College Fund.
$456 million for a malaria vaccine initiative, in partnership with GlaxoSmithKline.
$264.5 million toward improving seeds and soil for African farmers.
Early on, some worried that the torrent of money for these causes would induce other donors to hold back. But the opposite has been true, said Joe Cohen, coinventor of Glaxo's malaria vaccine, which is in trials and has shown early promise.
"They are the main reason why in general, funding and interest in malaria has increased over the past few years," Cohen said of the Gates Foundation. "They have been vocal in getting the message out that we should strive to eliminate and perhaps even dream about eradication of malaria."
Some in the global-health community have argued that the foundation, like the world at large, pays a disproportionate amount of attention to the so-called big three - malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV. That criticism is off base, said Jeremy Shiffman, associate professor of public administration at Syracuse University.
"They were one of the first funders to start paying attention to the neglected diseases," Shiffman said, citing multimillion-dollar grants that the foundation has given to fight 18 tropical ailments.
And the foundation doesn't simply throw money around, said Peter J. Hotez, president of the Sabin Vaccine Institute and a professor at George Washington University.
He said the money was given strategically, often to nonprofit product-development partnerships - dubbed "Gatelets" - that work with industry or use industry practices to move new medicines into the hands of doctors.
The Sabin Institute itself houses one of these Gates-funded partnerships. It has been working on a vaccine for hookworm, now undergoing trials in Brazil. The Gates money enables the early-stage development of such medicines, which have historically attracted little interest from for-profit companies, Hotez said.
"Gates has really been a game-changer," he said.
Gates was unavailable for comment, but he is expected to speak when he comes to Philadelphia in April, as are the other recipients.
Among them is Peter C. Nowell, the University of Pennsylvania cancer researcher who, along with the late David Hungerford of Fox Chase Cancer Center, discovered the chromosome abnormality that causes chronic myelogenous leukemia.
Nowell made the finding by chance one day in 1960 when he was washing slides with tap water, causing cancer cells to swell so that the abnormal chromosome 22 became visible.
His discovery of the "Philadelphia chromosome" is famous in the scientific world. Yet he acknowledged that Gates is better known.
"I've heard of him," Nowell said drily of his fellow award recipient. "Doesn't he have some money?"
The 2010 Franklin Institute awards include two Bower awards and six Benjamin Franklin medals in specific disciplines. The winners are:
William Richard Peltier, University of Toronto, Bower Award for achievement in science, which comes with a $250,000 prize, for his study of the oceans and atmosphere and how they affect climate.
William H. Gates III, Microsoft Corp. and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Bower Award for business leadership, for his innovations in software and philanthropy.
JoAnne Stubbe, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Benjamin Franklin medal in chemistry, for her work with cancer treatments and eco-friendly plastics.
Shafrira Goldwasser, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, medal in computer and cognitive science, for her study of cryptography that has led to advancements in Internet security.
Gerhard M. Sessler, Darmstadt University of Technology in Germany, and James E. West, Johns Hopkins University, medal in electrical engineering, for inventing the electret microphone, the tiny device now widely used in phones and hearing aids.
Peter C. Nowell, University of Pennsylvania, medal in life science, for the discovery of a genetic cause of leukemia and research that led to successful therapy.
D. Brian Spalding, Concentration Heat & Momentum Ltd. in London, medal in mechanical engineering, for his computer modeling of the flow of fluids.
J. Ignacio Cirac, Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics in Germany; David J. Wineland, National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder, Colo.; and Peter Zoller, University of Innsbruck, Austria, medal in physics, for their advances in quantum computing.
Contact staff writer Tom Avril
at 215-854-2430 or firstname.lastname@example.org.