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John Maddox Prize - Guest post by Emily Willingham

Emily Willingham, who was a John Maddox Prize winner in 2014, writes about the Prize.

I won’t forget the day I learned that I’d been awarded the Maddox Prize, and that’s not only because of the huge honor it confers. The morning I woke to the email that I’d been selected for the honor was also the day of my grandmother’s funeral. She had died a few days before, with all of her grandchildren around her, at the age of 95 after living for six-plus decades with multiple sclerosis.

That description of her probably calls to mind an image of a frail elderly woman who inched her way over the years toward a late death, but that image couldn’t be more inaccurate. Even as she died, through some ineffable force of will, she created around her the environment that she wanted. Somehow in her unconscious state, she still managed to repurpose a group of people who represented the faith spectrum from atheist to evangelist into a group of singing, Bible-reading celebrators, drinking wine as the evening drew on and attending her in the way she liked best as she literally drew her last breaths.

So the morning of her funeral, I woke in my sister’s house and, as always, reached for my phone to use email and social media messages as a pre-caffeine jolt into wakefulness. This tactic usually works because often the missives include a screed or accusatory comment from someone who disagrees with what I write. Indeed, one morning months earlier, I had reached for the phone and gotten the news of a threatened lawsuit that later formed the basis for my nominations for this prize.

That jolt was not nearly so pleasant or welcome, for obvious reasons, as the news that I was receiving this honor. Even on an average day, that email would have been a thrill. As it was, I didn’t even bother to change out of my nightgown — which sported a coffee-drinking moose in house slippers saying, “I don’t do mornings” (true) — before I rushed to my startled sister to tell her the news. It seemed most fitting given the loss we’d shared only a few days before that she’d be among the first to learn this good news.

My grandmother was like my third parent, someone who was part of almost every day of my childhood. Since her death, I’ve thought in the context of that loss about withstanding comments and attacks that are personal and abusive and sometimes threatening just because the commenter disagrees with me. I’ve figured out that the spirit that led my grandmother to teach for years and volunteer in churches and hospitals for decades while she was in a wheelchair, the spirit that led her to lobby relentlessly and successfully for gardens and amenities and services for everyone to enjoy in her assisted-living facilities, the spirit that made her strong-willed and difficult and able to power indomitably through six decades of a degenerative neurological illness—that spirit was a gift that she gave and left to me.   

I find it fitting that the day we laid that powerful spirit to rest, I received notice that the gift she imparted to me had led to this honor. I hope to continue to honor that spirit by maintaining, as best I can, the strength and backbone she showed throughout her life, and I conjure her in my mind when I need to remind myself of what strength really looks like. 

Nominations for the 2015 John Maddox Prize for standing up for science are now open and close on 20 August 2015.