History of the Arthur S. Flemming Awards

November 7, 2023

Written by Peter Williams, president of the Arthur S. Flemming Award Commission

One evening early in 1948, Arthur Sherwood Flemming was the guest speaker at a meeting of the Downtown Jaycees in Washington, D.C. His theme was recognition of excellence in the federal service but he lamented the fact that, at that time, there was no recognition given to the younger employee who was doing sterling work but the public limelight was never turned onto his or her performance. Dr. Flemming challenged the Jaycees that night to come up with a way to address this state of affairs.

Several weeks later, the Jaycees gave Dr. Flemming a proposal for an awards program, geared specifically to recognizing the efforts of younger federal government employees, with an upper age limit of 40. 

The Jaycees also proposed that the award be named for Dr. Flemming himself. He approved the plans for the awards program and he said that if they wanted to take the chance of naming the award for a living individual, it would be their risk alone! And so the Arthur S. Flemming Award was born. It had three goals: 

  • to recognize outstanding service;
  • to attract and recruit outstanding talent to the public service; and
  • to retain the “best of the best” in government service, for the benefit of the nation at large.

About Arthur Flemming

It was quite appropriate that the award should bear his name. Arthur Flemming was the quintessential civil servant. He served more presidents in an official capacity than any other person, before or since. In 1939 President Franklin Roosevelt appointed him to the US Civil Service Commission. At 34, Flemming was the youngest person ever to have been appointed to such an office. His career was non-partisan – presidents of both parties retained his services – and he served in a significant capacity under every president from Roosevelt to Clinton, except for Reagan, who dismissed him from his chairmanship of the US Commission for Civil Rights for being too outspoken in his views.

He was Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare in the second Eisenhower administration 1958-61. President Clinton awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994. He was still working at the age of 91, as a member of the Commission on Aging and as co-chair of the S.O.S. (Save Our Security) Coalition, when he died in September 1996.

Expansion of the Program

For 1948, six awards were given and, for the years 1949-1952, the annual number was reduced to four. After nine awards were given for 1953, it was established that a maximum of ten individuals would be honored each year and this continued until the 1997 awards year, when the number was increased to 12.

In the first five years, when government was smaller, no distinction was made between the various types of work which the award would recognize. In 1953, when it became difficult to compare the work of widely different professions - such as a National Bureau of Standards research scientist and a lawyer at the Securities and Exchange Commission – two distinct categories were introduced: Administrative and Scientific. 

These categories served well until the arrival of computer technology and the increase in applied science as opposed to scientific research, which made it sometimes difficult to place a nomination in either of the two established categories. This led to the creation in 1997 of a third category, originally named Applied Science and Information Technology. During the past two decades the specific definitions and parameters of the categories have been reviewed and refined and in 2013 the Commission created additional categories so that the award now has Leadership and/or Management; Legal Achievement; Social Science, Clinical Trials, and Translational Research; Applied Science and Engineering; and Basic Science. Up to 12 Awards are made each year, although on three occasions the total has been 13 – the judges were unable to limit their selection to 12 for 2010, 2013 and 2019.

Flemming Awards Find a Home at GW

In 1996 the Jaycees had found that they no longer had sufficient resources to run the awards program and the Arthur S. Flemming Awards Commission was fortunate to find a new home for the program at The George Washington University. After a one-year hiatus in 1996 out of respect for Dr. Flemming’s passing, the university assumed sponsorship and overall responsibility for the program in 1997. 

At this time the award underwent a significant change in its eligibility requirements. The age limit of 40 years had to be dropped in order to conform to the District of Columbia’s laws against age discrimination (somehow the Jaycees had never been challenged on this issue!) Instead the requirements of a minimum three years and a maximum 15 years of service were introduced.

The Arthur S. Flemming Award stands out among the more than 40 awards associated with government service. It has always been run entirely by the private sector, with financial support from major corporations. Apart from nominating candidates for the award, government agencies have no involvement whatsoever. The Award brings no financial consideration. Its prestige is considered to be reward enough in and of itself.

Among the 707 winners of the Flemming Award, so far, are Najeeb Halaby, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, John Volcker, John Chancellor, Neil Armstrong, Sen. Harrison Schmitt, Robert Gates, Dr. William Phillips (1997 Nobel Laureate), Drs. Francis Collins and Anthony Fauci, both of the National Institutes of Health, and Gene Dodaro, current Comptroller-General of the United States. 

In its first 24 years, the Flemming Award honorees were all men. In 1971, the glass ceiling was shattered by two women: Mary Elizabeth Hanford and Dr. Jacqueline Jia-Kang Whang-Peng. Hanford went on to marry Sen. Robert Dole of Kansas and was later Secretary of Transportation and of Labor in the Bush I and Reagan administrations. Dr. Whang-Peng has been recognized for her work in cytogenetics by investigators all over the world, instructing a number of senior professionals in this field and serving as associate editor of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. Twenty years later, in 1991, six of the then honorees were women. Women continue to garner a significant number of Flemming Awards; 7 of the 13 awards for 2019 were women.