WASHINGTON (Feb. 9, 2011)—Two medals were presented to former National Geographic Society Chairman and President Gilbert M. Grosvenor at a ceremony at the Society’s Washington headquarters on Feb. 9. He received the Society’s top award, the Hubbard Medal, for distinction in exploration, discovery and research, and the Grosvenor Medal for exceptional service to geography by a Society officer or employee. He is the first person to receive two National Geographic medals simultaneously.
Grosvenor retired as chairman of the board of trustees on Dec. 31, 2010, after nearly six decades of work at the National Geographic Society, a career that began with shooting photographs and ended as chairman of the board.
A native of Washington, D.C., Grosvenor spent his entire professional career in service of the Society. After graduating from Yale University — and shooting some assignments for National Geographic magazine, including covering a three-continent trip by President Dwight D. Eisenhower — he joined the Society staff in 1954 as a picture editor.
He became editor in chief of National Geographic magazine in 1970 at the age of 39 and served until 1980, when he took the helm as the Society’s 14th president, the fifth generation of his family to serve in that capacity. He became a member of the board of trustees in 1966 and was elected chairman in 1987. Although Grosvenor says he treasures all of his work at the National Geographic Society, he still considers photographer to be “the best job in the house.”
An explorer of the world since childhood, Grosvenor took part in a trans-Atlantic sail at the age of 16. Later, he outdid his forebears at the top of the world. His grandfather, longtime National Geographic Editor Gilbert H. Grosvenor, and his father, Melville Bell Grosvenor, on separate occasions had flown over the North Pole, sending postcards back that boasted of tracing the steps of Robert Peary. Gil Grosvenor decided to turn that upside down. He donned scuba gear and walked underneath the North Pole ice, claiming later he had “walked beneath the footsteps of Robert Peary.”
Under Grosvenor’s leadership, National Geographic’s research and exploration activities greatly multiplied. From 1980 to 2010 the Society’s century-old Committee for Research and Exploration made more than 7,000 grants totaling some $128 million for field projects and greatly expanded the program’s international reach. During those years, several new research and exploration programs were launched, including the Expeditions Council, Conservation Trust, and Explorers Program, which encompasses the Society’s Explorers-in-Residence, Fellows and Emerging Explorers. A Young Explorers Grants program now sends young adults to the field on science, exploration and conservation projects worldwide.
Grosvenor pioneered the Society’s geography education efforts. Concerned about the lack of geographic knowledge among students, he created National Geographic World magazine (now known as National Geographic Kids) in 1975, and 10 years later launched an effort to improve geography education in the nation’s classrooms. To motivate and enable new generations of children to be geographically literate, National Geographic’s Education Programs division continues to provide programs to engage young people in issues such as conservation, offers online resources for students and teachers, provides national teacher training and supports a network of state teacher alliances. The National Geographic Education Foundation, started by Grosvenor at the Society’s 1988 centennial, has dispersed $73 million in grants for innovative educational programs to bring geography to life. Grosvenor remains chairman of the foundation as well as a member of the Society board.
Grosvenor also oversaw creation in 1989 of the annual National Geographic Bee, in which some 5 million students from nearly 15,000 schools take part, competing for college scholarships totaling $50,000. Every two years the Society also coordinates the National Geographic World Championship for teams of students around the globe who have excelled in their countries’ geography competitions.
In 2004 Grosvenor was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, by President George W. Bush.
The Hubbard Medal is named after the National Geographic Society’s first president, Gardiner Greene Hubbard, and has been presented 34 times, the first going to arctic explorer Robert E. Peary in 1906. Other recipients include polar explorers Roald Amundsen in 1907, Sir Ernest Shackleton in 1910 and Richard Byrd in 1926; aviators Charles Lindbergh in 1927 and Anne Morrow Lindbergh in 1934; anthropologists Louis and Mary Leakey in 1962; Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Edwin Aldrin and Michael Collins in 1970; anthropologist Richard Leakey in 1994; conservationist Jane Goodall in 1995; underwater explorer Robert Ballard in 1996; balloonists Bertrand Piccard and Brian Jones in 1999 and, posthumously in 2000, Matthew Henson, who co-led with Peary the 1909 expedition to the North Pole.
The Grosvenor Medal is named for longtime National Geographic magazine editor Gilbert H. Grosvenor. Previous recipients include John Oliver LaGorce (1955), Melville Bell Grosvenor (1974), Thomas McKnew (1980), Melvin Payne (1982), Owen Anderson (1991) and William Graves (1994).