Oh, My Stars!
Meet nine Badgers who shaped the world.
Evidently, you should know the name Brian Strom ’88.
Don’t take my word for it — take Kenneth Raffa’s. Raffa, a UW professor of entomology, lists Brian Strom in his personal, online Hall of Fame, which is devoted to his former undergraduate student workers. Of the roughly two hundred alumni who have labored in his lab and in forests around the country, some twenty have their names recorded there. The first of them is Strom.
What’s so special about him? According to Raffa, “Brian was an amazingly hard worker. We used to measure jobs in Brian-hours — in how long it would take him to do them.”
Raffa’s website does an important service, not just for Strom and his nineteen co- honorees, but for the rest of us, as well. Without it, I’d have had no idea what to make of the name Brian Strom, except that it’s an anagram for brainstorm. Raffa’s hall offers celebrity for his best students and edification for everyone else who finds it. It tells us what became of those undergrads — Strom, for example, eventually earned a PhD and is a researcher for the U.S. Forest Service.
Which makes me wonder: why should such blessings be limited to just those two hundred Badgers who worked for Raffa? Why doesn’t the UW have a similar shrine for its most accomplished former students? Where’s the All-Time, All-Alumni Pantheon?
It’s true that Raffa’s not the only person on campus with this idea. The athletic department has a hall of fame for great UW jocks, and the Wisconsin Meat Industry Hall of Fame is located here, too. But there should be some place of recognition for those alumni who are inclined neither to the gymnasium nor the abattoir and didn’t collect bugs or sample tree chemistry for Raffa.
This is where On Wisconsin can help. To celebrate the Wisconsin Alumni Association’s 150th anniversary, we’ve brianstromed a list of the most influential alumnus or alumna in a variety of fields. (Please note that we don’t say graduates — we considered anyone who enrolled in a degree program at one time or another to be fair game. Diploma not required.)
Now, we know that some of you won’t agree with the names we’ve selected — you’ll say we should have chosen another person or used different criteria. You’re wrong, of course. But feel free to send us some thoughts on whom you’d include. On Wisconsin would love to see your ideas.
Government: Robert La Follette 1879
One of the towering figures in Wisconsin’s political history, “Fighting Bob” La Follette left his mark on national and state institutions — not least of them UW–Madison itself.
Many UW alumni have played leading roles on the stage of global government: this campus has educated ten former Wisconsin governors, as well as current and former senators (Herb Kohl ’56, Russ Feingold ’75, Charles Robb ’61), diplomats (such as Tom Loftus MA’72, former ambassador to Norway and adviser to the director general of the World Health Organization), cabinet secretaries (Lawrence Eagleburger ’52, MS’57 of the state department; Tommy Thompson ’63, JD’66 of health and human services), and one vice president (Dick Cheney PhDx’68). Even foreign government leaders have passed up and down Bascom Hill: Iajuddin Ahmed MS’58, PhD’62 was president of Bangladesh from 2002–09, and Yeshey Zimba ’75, MA’76 was prime minister of Bhutan from 2001–02 and 2004–05.
Further, Carolyn Heinrich (director of the UW’s La Follette School of Public Affairs) reminds us that Badgers have their hands in the way we study government, as well. Her school was founded by UW professor emeritus Dennis Dresang ’64, an authority on state and local governments.
But none of these people created a major American political party, as La Follette did with the Progressive Party — which nominated him for president in 1924. (Like most third-party candidates, he came in third place, but he did take 17 percent of the popular vote nationwide.)
La Follette dominated Wisconsin as its governor from 1901–06, and his collaboration with then-UW president Charles Van Hise 1879, 1880, MS1882, PhD1892 helped to produce the Wisconsin Idea, the university’s core principle of public service. At the end of his time as governor, La Follette appointed himself to a U.S. Senate seat, where he served until his death in 1925. There, he was such a force that, thirty-four years later, a committee led by John F. Kennedy named him one of the chamber’s “famous five” most outstanding former members.
Education: Charles Anderson ’12, MPh’27
According to the Office of the Registrar, between its founding in 1849 and 2008 (the most recent year when records were posted), the UW awarded 335,760 bachelor’s degrees, 117,631 master’s degrees, 40,175 doctorates, 30,258 professional degrees, and 436 executive MBAs, for a total of 524,260 earned degrees. (Ninety-seven of them are mentioned in this article, which is exhausting but not exhaustive — it’s less than two hundredths of a percent of the total.)
In sum, there’s a whole lot of educatin’ going on here.
So when it comes to determining who among these many Badgers has had the greatest influence on teaching and learning, we asked the help of some experts — the good folks at the UW’s School of Education. There, Dean Julie Underwood and Nancy Nelson MS’72, director of alumni relations, gave some thought to the topic and suggested Charles Anderson, the school’s first dean.
“Andy” Anderson saw just about every level of Wisconsin’s public education system over the course of his career. He edited a series of elementary-school textbooks and was a high school principal in Galesville (where he oversaw the instruction of a young Conrad Elvehjem ’23, MS’24, PhD’27, who would be the UW’s president from 1958–62). He served as superintendent of schools in Stoughton, and president of the Wisconsin Education Association in 1925. In 1926, he joined the UW’s faculty, where he helped create the School of Education, serving as its first chair (1928–30) and dean (1930–47).
Technology: John Bardeen ’28, MS’29
The UW has produced many important scientists and engineers, but this selection was actually pretty easy. I was talking with Brian Mattmiller ’86, assistant dean in the College of Engineering, about who he thought was the UW’s leading technologist, and he offered up one name ahead of all others.
“You know about John Bardeen, right?” he said. “He’s got two Nobel Prizes. I don’t know if anyone else has ever done that.”
Actually, four people have done it, but Bardeen is the only Badger on the list.
His competition for most influential science Badger is stiff. The UW has produced eleven Nobel laureates, several astronauts (including Jim Lovell x’50 of the Apollo 13 mission and Laurel Clark ’83, MD’87, who died in the Columbia disaster); MRI-inventor Raymond Damadian ’56; digital computer inventor John Atanasoff PhD’30; Gene Amdahl MS’49, PhD’52, who formulated Amdahl’s law of parallel computing; Jack St. Clair Kilby MS’50, who helped invent the integrated circuit; Carl Djerassi PhD’45, who helped invent the birth control pill; Edward Schildhauer 1897, chief engineer on the Panama Canal dig; and loads of other scientific big shots.
But seriously: Two. Nobel. Prizes.
A native of Madison, Bardeen was the son of Charles Bardeen, the first dean of the UW’s medical school. He studied electrical engineering at the UW before receiving a doctorate in mathematical physics at Princeton.
Bardeen won the first of his Nobels in 1956 for work he did at Bell Labs with physicists William Shockley and Walter Brattain to invent a semiconductor device called a transfer resistor — or transistor. This little thingy is a key component in all modern electronics, as it’s essential to the design of integrated circuits.
Bardeen’s second Nobel came in 1972 after he, Leon Cooper, and John Robert Schrieffer developed the first theory of superconductivity, known as the BCS Theory (after their initials).
Bardeen also taught at the University of Illinois, where his first PhD student was Nick Holonyak, inventor of the light-emitting diode, or LED.
In anyone’s list of top technologists, that’s a tough record to beat.
Life Sciences: Karl Paul Link ’22, MS’23, PhD’25
As in the physical sciences, several UW alumni in the life sciences have achieved the status of Nobel laureate: Herbert Gasser 1910, for instance, picked up one of the Scandinavian medallions for his study of nerve threads; Edward Tatum MS’32, PhD’34 grabbed another for work on the metabolism of bacteria, yeasts, and molds; Erwin Neher MS’67 discovered how to study ion channels in cell membranes, and Günter Blobel PhD’67 discovered how proteins move into the correct places in cells.
Outside of the Nobel honorees, the UW was the center of study for one of the great dietary discoveries of the last century: vitamins. Conrad Elvehjem, for example, identified niacin (B3); Marguerite Davis ’26 helped discover vitamin D; and Harry Steenbock 1908, MS1910, PhD’16 and Hector DeLuca MS’53, PhD’55 advanced the means for vitamin D’s use. And Badger Lynn Margulis MS’60 shook up the study of evolution with her endosymbiotic theory, which is too complicated to explain here but netted her the Darwin-Wallace Medal.
That’s just what has already been done. UW alumni are also poised to lead many of the life-sciences developments of the future. Eric Green ’81 is the director of the National Institutes of Health’s Human Genome Research Institute, and William Gahl MD’76, PhD’81 is that program’s clinical director. Steve Landry PhD’88 is in charge of vaccine development for the Gates Foundation (a leader in working toward the eradication of diseases in poor regions of the globe).
But Karl Paul Link holds a unique spot, due to the role his discovery played in university — and possibly world — history. A biochemist, he was on the UW’s faculty from 1927 until his death in 1978, and he specialized in studying plant carbohydrates and disease resistance. Big deal, you say, and you may be right, but in 1940, Wisconsin farmer Ed Carson brought Link the carcass of a cow that had bled to death after eating spoiled sweet clover. Link and his students examined the clover, and he isolated a chemical called dicumarol, which prevents blood from clotting.
Dicumarol turned out to be both useful and profitable. The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation patented it under the name warfarin and marketed it as a rat poison. In the 1950s, warfarin was approved for therapeutic purposes — by preventing blood clots, it helped prevent strokes.
Through warfarin, Link played a role with two prominent leaders of the Cold War. After U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower suffered a heart attack in 1955, his doctors prescribed warfarin, making him one of the first famous patients to use the drug. And in 1953, according to Vladimir Pavlovich Naumov and Jonathan Brent, Soviet leaders slipped a warfarin mickey to Joseph Stalin, thus assassinating the increasingly erratic dictator.
Arts: Margaret H’Doubler ’10, MA’24
Her name may seem as difficult to recall as it is to pronounce, but Margaret H’Doubler had an enormous effect on the way we look at dance today. As the creator of the world’s first dance major, she elevated the discipline of rug-cutting into a bona fide academic field.
Now, admittedly the arts are a broad area, and comparing artists in different fields isn’t so much apples and oranges as it is apples and Buicks. The UW can count among its grads leaders in the visual arts (glasswork legend Dale Chihuly MS’67 ), literature (Nobel laureate Saul Bellow MAx’37, playwright Lorraine Hansberry x’52, and novelist Joyce Carol Oates MA’61), architecture (Frank Lloyd Wright x1890), music (Butch Vig ’80, Steve Miller x’67, Ben Sidran ’67), and even arts administration (current National Endowment for the Arts chair Rocco Landesman ’69 and former National Endowment for the Humanities chair Lynne Cheney PhD’70).
But H’Doubler accomplished something none of the others did when she created that dance major: she made
modern dance respectable. She’d been a phys ed major, and drawing on the biological principles she’d learned in kinesiology classes, she brought an understanding of how the body works to the appreciation of human movement. Over the course of her UW teaching career, from 1917–54, she guided the careers of a generation of dancers.
Oh, and it’s pronounced DOUGH-blur.
Economy: Arthur Altmeyer ’14, MA’29, PhD’31
You may not recognize Arthur Altmeyer’s name, but he’s got his fingerprints on just about every paycheck you’ve ever received. From 1936–55, he headed the U.S. Social Security Administration, guiding that entity from an uncertain infancy to a dominant place in government.
For several years, the UW has been bragging about the number of its alumni who hold high places in the business world — Wisconsin boasts more grads who are CEOs of Fortune 500 companies than any other public university, topped only by Harvard, Columbia, and Penn. These include Yahoo! (Carol Bartz ’71), Halliburton (David Lesar ’75, MBA’78), and China International Capital (Levin Zhu Yunlai MS’87, PhD’93), not to mention the former heads of ExxonMobil (Lee Raymond ’60), Cisco Systems (John Morgridge ’55), Harley-Davidson (William Harley 1907), and Campbell’s Soup (William Beverly Murphy ’28 — who hired a young executive named Donald Goerke MBA’51, who invented SpaghettiOs: the neat, round spaghetti you can eat with a spoon).
But for all the reach that these business leaders have had, none has affected so many American companies and workers as much as Arthur Altmeyer did.
Altmeyer studied economics under UW professor John Commons, and then in the 1920s, he went to work for classmate Edwin Witte ’09, PhD’27 as chief statistician on Wisconsin’s state Labor Commission. During the Great Depression, he became an ardent New Dealer, and when President Franklin Roosevelt put together a committee to draft what became the Social Security Act, he chose Altmeyer as the group’s technical director (with Witte as executive director).
In 1937, two years after the act’s passage, Altmeyer became chairman of the Social Security Board, a post he held (though his title changed to commissioner in 1946) until 1953. His position was then eliminated early in Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency, and Altmeyer lost his job — ironically, just twenty-seven days before he would have been eligible to retire with full benefits.
Media: A.C. Nielsen ’18
Probably no medium has had more effect on mass communication in the last century than television, and few people, if any, have had more effect on television than Arthur Nielsen, the man who gave us the Nielsen rating. More than that, Nielsen also gave us Arthur Nielsen, Jr. ’41, his successor heading the legendary Nielsen Company.
The competition in this field is heavily laden with awards. The UW is famous for its School of Journalism & Mass Communication, and universitywide, some twenty-eight alumni have collected thirty-two Pulitzer Prizes (beginning with historian Frederick Jackson Turner 1884, MA1888). Additionally, the Badger ranks include an Oscar winner for documentaries (Errol Morris ’69) and one of the most prolific situation-comedy producers in Hollywood (Thomas Miller ’62, whose Miller-Milkis, Miller-Milkis-Boyett, and Miller-Boyett production companies created such TV shows as Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, Mork & Mindy, Full House, Perfect Strangers, and Bosom Buddies).
But it was Nielsen, who had studied electrical engineering at the UW, who leveraged statistical analysis to develop the field of market research and find out how many people tune in to which programs — first with radio, and beginning in 1950, with television. In 1957, Nielsen Senior became chairman of his company, and Junior became president.
For more than half a century, while the American viewer’s tastes have shifted from The Texaco Star Theater to Bonanza to Seinfeld to American Idol, Nielsen has remained king.
Agriculture: Florence Chenoweth MA’70, PhD’86
Agriculture has been at the center of the UW’s mission since it was named a land-grant university in the 1860s, and many Badger grads have shaped farming and farm-related industries.
Some of their roles have been intellectual (such as Nobel laureate Theodore Schultz MS’28, PhD’30, who studied agricultural economics in developing nations), some are industrial (such as Robert Bush ’50, CEO of Schreiber Foods, the nation’s second-largest cheese supplier, or Jim Behnke ’66, MS’68, PhD’72, longtime VP of technology at Pillsbury), and some are scientific (such as bacteriologist Edwin Michael Foster PhD’40, who ran the UW’s Food Research Institute and who was a pioneer in food packaging safety). Like drinking milk without contracting brucellosis? Thank Alice Catherine Evans MS1910, who championed pasteurization.
But Florence Chenoweth’s influence stretches beyond a particular industry, crop, or chemical. She’s twice held the leading agricultural position for her homeland, Liberia — from 1977–79, she was minister of agriculture for that nation’s president, William Tolbert, and she’s held the same role under President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf since 2009.
In between (and after completing her UW doctorate), Chenoweth worked to improve agriculture policy across Africa through positions with the World Bank and as a director of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. She believes that agriculture is the best tool for the advancement of Africa.
“Hunger,” she has written, “is the cruelest and most visible sign of poverty … [and] agriculture is, and will remain for the foreseeable future, the main source of growth and poverty reduction in many African nations.”
Environment: John Muir x1863
When it comes to environmentalism, the choice for most influential alum is really a two-horse race, according to Gregg Mitman, director of the UW’s Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies: “John Muir and Gaylord Nelson [LLB’42] would be the two obvious choices,” he says.
The latter, governor of Wisconsin from 1959–63 and U.S. senator from 1963–81, is perhaps best remembered as the founder of Earth Day, celebrated since 1970. He was also a counselor for the Wilderness Society and is the namesake not only of the UW’s environmental institute, but also for a wilderness area in Wisconsin’s Apostle Islands and a state park north of Madison.
But Muir has perhaps had the greater influence on the environmental movement. As a UW student, he had a moment of clarity while standing under a locust tree outside of North Hall. (The tree, subsequently called the Muir Locust, was cut down in 1953. But the hill it stood on is now called Muir Knoll.) Classmate Milton Griswold 1863, MA1866 gave Muir an impromptu botany lesson, informing him that the locust tree was a member of the same plant family as the pea.
It blew Muir’s mind. “This fine lesson charmed me and sent me flying to the woods and meadows in wild enthusiasm,” he later wrote.
It also sent him flying from campus. Muir dropped out of school in 1864 and went to Canada (some say to avoid the draft, which would mean he was anticipating a UW tradition of a century later). He eventually went tramping off to California, where he wrote eloquently about the Yosemite Valley, conducted geological studies, and advocated for the creation of the National Park System.
Theodore Roosevelt wrote of Muir that he was “what few nature lovers are — a man able to influence contemporary thought and action on the subjects to which he had devoted his life.”
John Allen is senior editor of On Wisconsin, the most influential alumni magazine published by a university located on the southern shore of Lake Mendota.
Published in the Summer 2011 issue