The Presidential Medal of Freedom

The Presidential Medal of Freedom, the foremost U.S. civilian decoration, awarded to individuals who have made “an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.” On July 6, 1945, Pres. Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9586, establishing the Medal of Freedom to recognize  notable service by civilians during World War II.  

Pres. John F. Kennedy re-established the award as the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963 and expanded its scope to include cultural achievements. The first recipients, selected by Kennedy, received their medals from his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, on Dec. 6, 1963, at the White House. Kennedy, who had been assassinated the previous month, was added to the list and granted the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously.

“Mother Teresa is a heroine of our times. And to the many honors she has received, including the Nobel Peace Prize, we add, with deep affection and endless respect, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.” — Ronald Reagan, Remarks on Presenting the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Mother Teresa, 6/20/85

On April 18, 1970, the team was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Richard M. Nixon. They were awarded these because of their courage during their space mission to the moon.


The medal is suspended on a blue ribbon, and it incorporates the color scheme found on the presidential seal. Its most visible design element is a white star, upon which is centered a collection of 13 smaller gold stars arranged on a field of blue. A red pentagon is set behind the white star, and gold eagles bridge the distance between the points of the star. The recipient’s name is engraved on the reverse side of the medal.


Relatively few scientists win this medal, the highest civilian honor awarded in the U.S., particularly when the science is as removed from everyday life as the theoretical physics of black holes. (In a Q&A on his web site, when asked about the study of physics taking him “beyond physical limitations,” Hawking answered, “The human race is so puny compared to the universe that being disabled is not of much cosmic significance.”



Harper Lee is being awarded America’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, for her outstanding contribution to literature. Her only novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and is ranked by the Guinness Book of World Records as the top selling novel of all time. The novel has sold more than 30 million copies.